“Oh you two,” said the third, the youngest of the three,
“you’re always carrying on this way. Can’t we just move on?
It can always be repainted. We never have a way to resolve
these issues anyway.”
With the help of the Triangle, the group unpacked this inter-
change. Substantive interests were the color of the wall: the
original blue, the new red, or a third color. Procedural interests
were, on the one hand, the need to be consulted and, on the
other hand, the need to get a decision made. Emotional inter-
ests included distress at being ignored, disrespect for initiative,
a feeling of weakness, repetition of unpleasant childhood pat-
terns, and – for the third sibling – dislike of squabbling and
avoidance of conflict.
The family was then able to sort out the different strands
and turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” The discussion soon focused on procedural issues: any major changes
in the house would be discussed in advance, with enough
time to consider various choices, but with time limits understood. In addition, this seemingly small issue had triggered
large problems, exposing the need for a structure for consultation and decision making in order to serve the basic desire
for mutual respect and family peace. They began to learn how
to manage their conflict. The Triangle helped identify issues
and point toward a short-range solution as a prelude to much
larger governance discussions and choices, recognizing the
connections among substantive, procedural and emotional
Perhaps it’s the lawyer in me, but I often find that dealing
with the procedural issues is a useful first step, opening up
new ways to deal with substantive disagreements while identifying and respecting entrenched emotions. Understanding
and making changes on the procedural side of the Triangle
can then be used to reframe the substantive and emotional
The same kind of unpacking can apply to major issues
encountered in environmental and public policy issues. Frequently the government agency considering a project brings
forward a preferred option that it may have analyzed for years.
The project has major impacts on people who live or work in
the area, but the public hearing and formal environmental
comment process seems to them like window-dressing for
a predetermined outcome. As a result the unhappy parties
summon their allies in reviewing and permitting agencies
and in the broader political arena: and litigation is threatened
and sometimes initiated. Missing is a commitment up front,
long before the public hearing, to create an advisory process
in which conflicting agencies, groups and individuals can sit
around a table and take time to attempt to understand the
substantive, procedural and emotional issues involved.
A consensus-building approach, of course, does not mean
that everyone will necessarily agree. But they will have had an
opportunity to be heard, make contributions and feel respected.
Just as a family enterprise board of directors or CEO has the
responsibility to make business decisions, so an agency leader
has the responsibility to make public or organizational policy
decisions. Those decisions are likely to be better, more fully
informed and more widely accepted if the options have been
fully and openly explored with the stakeholders, taking into
account the three sides of the Triangle.
4. THE VALUE OF IMPROVISATION
Or course, using these three seemingly simple formulations – “ 14 Points,” “Sources of Conflict,” and “Triangle of
Interests” – doesn’t automatically lead to a simple, straightforward and sequential process. My experience in many
disputes – large and small, covering many subject areas,
and stretching over four decades – demonstrates that the
process that unfolds is likely to have many unexpected twists
and turns. Midway in a process, long after major options have
been created and evaluated, someone is likely to think of a
new and creative way to move ahead. But when I’m in the
midst of helping parties deal with what seems to them – and
often to me – like a muddle of overwhelming complexity, I
call on these simplifying graphics, and the concepts behind
them, to pull the pieces apart before helping the parties put
them back together.
We mediators parachute into conflict, where we often
discover deep distrust or preparations for battle, and try to
help the parties figure out a better way. There is no cookie-cutter approach to that better way, no automatic process
that will enable everyone suddenly to be in a constructive and
productive mode. We need to create each process anew to
reflect the changing mix of people, issues, values, and context.
We improvise, always engaging the participants in the creation
of something that works for them. Often, though, using some
basic and easily remembered process tools can make the
improvisation focused and effective.
We’re always learning. There’s always something new to
create – new process concepts, even new graphics! There are
surprises around every corner. That’s what makes our work
challenging, satisfying – and fun.
Dealing with the procedural issues is a useful first
step, opening up new ways to deal with substantive
disagreements while identifying and respecting