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<xTITLE>Conflict: It's Relational and That Ain't Situational</xTITLE>

Conflict: It's Relational and That Ain't Situational

by Dan Simon
December 2013

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

Dan Simon

Many mediators say they adjust their approach according to the situation. This makes sense on one level. If a mediator remains responsive to the parties, the interventions will necessarily vary according to the parties, and will even vary with the same parties as their interaction changes. But many mediators mean something different when they say they adjust their approach. They mean sometimes they get more directive or more evaluative. They do so because they believe those tactics will make a settlement more likely; and they do so in an attempt to contain the interaction. And they suggest that sometimes the interaction matters and other times the terms of the settlement matter. Sometimes they say that certain types of disputes lend themselves to a focus on interaction; and others lend themselves to a focus on the terms of settlement. But it turns out all conflict is at its core, a crisis in interaction.
Many divorcing couples, with or without children, and with big or small marital estates, manage to sort out the terms of their divorce efficiently. Others litigate for years. The difference between the two groups is not what’s at stake, but what the state of their interaction is.

When an injured party seeks compensation from someone they believe is responsible, the amount of compensation can be negotiated without a lawsuit. If the negotiation degenerates into a lawsuit, the costs of the lawsuit mean that one or both sides end up with less of the money that is supposed to be so important. There must be something else going on: an interactional crisis.

When big companies sue each other for tens of millions, there’s more happening than pure, rational concern for their bottom line. The issues being litigated could also be negotiated, but they’re not. All sides of these lawsuits are spending significant amounts of money on the fight – that money is hurting one or all sides’ bottom lines – something other than money must be driving those fights. If the negotiations have degenerated to a wasteful lawsuit, there must be interactional challenges at play. Problematic confusion, distrust, demonization, and defensiveness must be present.

The US invaded Iraq at a time when US citizens were still traumatized by 9/11. On top of that, many in the US felt hatred of Saddam Hussein (and many were confused and thought he was involved in 9/11). And a large majority of Americans had no close relationship with anyone in Iraq. And on the other side, as it turned out, Saddam had good reason to feel threatened by the US. So both sides felt threatened by the other, and a lack of trust of the other. The war that started between the two countries was only possible when mutual distrust was intense. While oil, power, and ideology were also at play, only the crisis in the interaction between the countries could have led to the war.

This is not to say that war and litigation are necessarily always a mistake, but they’re always a mistake for at least one side, in terms of the outcome. If disputing parties have high quality conversations, in which clarity about themselves and each other increase, the need for war and litigation decrease greatly.

So for conflict intervention to be helpful, improved interaction should be its focus.


Dan Simon writes the blog for the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation. He is a national leader in the field of transformative mediation.  He practices and teaches it in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He's trained mediators throughout the country for the U.S. Postal Service, the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, and as an Adjunct Professor at the Hofstra University School of Law. He serves on the Minnesota Supreme Court's ADR Ethics Board, is the Immediate Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's ADR Section; and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation. He has been the director of Twin Cities Mediation since he founded it in 1998. He helps with divorces, parenting differences, real estate issues, employment cases, business disputes, and neighbor to neighbor conflicts.

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