When I read the title of a new documentary called Every War Has Two Losers, I was struck by how applicable this concept is to unresolved personal and professional conflicts as well.
Win/Lose vs. Win/Win
Traditionally, U.S. process looks at conflicts as win/lose; only one possible winner and the rest losers. Mediators and negotiators have evolved a new win-win tradition of conflict resolution with both parties getting at least some of what they want.
But, in many ill handled and persistent conflicts, everyone loses.
What is it people on both sides lose in a conflict? They often lose their peace of mind for one, especially if they can’t find an exit from resentment and bitterness. A lot of their energy can remain tied up in the conflict, to the detriment of everything else in their lives.
I see this very poignantly as a mediator for small claims court in Sonoma County, California. The court can only award money, and has little or no way to enforce payment. But often, what parties want has very little to do with money. They want the judge to affirm that they are right and the other is wrong. They want the other person to be punished, or to make an admission of guilt or to offer a heartfelt apology for violating their trust. They have expectations that courts of law can’t usually meet.
I talk to the parties just before they go in front of the judge, and I encourage them to craft their own agreement rather than letting the judge decide. Often, whether they can resolve the issue depends on both sides’ willingness and ability to set aside their bitterness and unresolved past accusations, and focus on what they can do now. Two cases I mediated recently provide contrasting examples.
Case 1, Win/Win:
A husband and wife bought a used car with problems they weren’t aware of. The mechanic agreed to pick up and fix the car, but his arrangements fell through and he didn’t show. The couple decided he was untrustworthy and took the car to someone else’s garage, where it sat incurring storage charges.
As I listened to the parties, it became clear the mechanic was still willing to fix the car, but not to pay for someone else to fix it. The couple wanted another mechanic because they mistrusted him after he failed to pick up the car when scheduled.
After I listened sympathetically to the wife’s feelings of betrayal and mistrust, the couple was able to set that aside and look again at what was being offered. They reached their own agreement. The couple was happy to have a clear plan for fixing the car, and the mechanic was very grateful, because they hadn’t been willing to talk to him directly. This resolution would not have happened if the couple had held on to their resentment.
Case 2, Lose/Lose:
A former tenant was suing a landlord to get her security deposit back. The landlord countersued for additional damages. Most of their arrangements were only oral, and it was one’s word against the other’s as to what the agreements were and whether they had been met or broken. Communication and trust had broken down, and they refused to negotiate with each other. So, they went before the judge, who made a judgment against both of them. Although the tenant got some money back and the landlord got some damages, it was very much a pyrrhic victory with negative implications for both of their credit ratings.
So why do people act against their own best interests? Often they are too hurt, angry, or self-righteous to make a rational assessment of their case. After telling their stories many times to sympathetic spouses and friends, they are often convinced they are blameless and will win, though their perceptions may bear little resemblance to reality. Even if they win financially, they often walk out unhappy because their deeper desire for resolution, not merely settlement, hasn’t been satisfied. If they can somehow find willingness to detach from this cycle of resentment, they can maximize their chances of finding solutions that work for everyone.