“Once upon a time there was a mother who had two children. One day, the kids came to the mother fighting. There was one orange left in the house and they both wanted it. What is a parent to do?”
This is the start of a fairly well-known story, especially among trained mediators. It’s a story attributed to Lee Jay Berman (1996) and it discusses how to view conflict from a different perspective in order to help each side come to a resolution. It may not be the perfect resolution; it may only be temporary while a better plan is being forged. Yet, it is a step in the right direction. What if we are able to truly listen to the needs of each side and help them reconcile their dispute? What if we could do this for disputes that seem insurmountable, like those currently in the headlines; the ones filled with stories of civil unrest and calls for serious structural reform?
Let’s take one small example from the current events and examine how we might view it differently. First, I acknowledge this is a simplistic example of the systemic and deep-rooted issues that are being discussed in the public right now. I do not pretend that we can solve all the societal ills by learning the story of the orange. Yet, I do promise that if each of us has the courage to listen to another person’s story, we might learn far more than we thought possible.
When listening to conversations between different factions of protestors during these emotionally charged times, it can all seem overwhelming. There are some who are calling for the defunding of the police and others are calling for more law and order. One side takes their position and states the reasons they are correct in the assertion that police departments across the nation must be defunded. Now the other side does the same, claiming that they need more resources for better training. These are polar opposite views and there is no way we can get them to hear or understand each other. Or can we? What if, instead of focusing on the positions that each side holds, we ask, “what are your interests?” or “what do you see as the long-term benefits of defunding the police?” or “what would it look like if we were able to provide more training to the police departments- what type of trainings do you have in mind?” Perhaps we would hear one side say that they need to know the police in their neighborhood are keeping the community safe from crime. And maybe we would hear that the interest of the other side is to provide the highest quality protection while ensuring the safety of the officers. These interests are not mutually exclusive- they can both exist. I truly believe, if we focus and pull on the skills of the Collaborative model, we can accomplish these goals.
Let’s compare this conflict with the one of the two children arguing over who gets that orange. One child really wants that orange to him or herself. Yet, the other wants it equally as much. So we would need to listen and determine what the interests are of each child. Why do you want this orange? Is there a way we can satisfy both of you by sharing in the orange? How can we get to the bottom of this dilemma? I am here to tell you that if you can truly listen to the children you might learn that the first child is making a cake and needs the rind of one large orange. Then you discover from the other child that it is the juice that this child wants. How were we able to get this information from them? We took a step back from the yelling and the finger pointing and we asked, “what are your interests and how can we help you get there?”
Listening and understanding is not always easy but it is possible. And the Collaborative model of conflict resolution makes it possible to really listen to others and resolve conflicts- on a personal level and perhaps, if we are brave enough to try, on a societal level too.
Written by Liz Vaz, Esq.