Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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I posted something earlier this week on the power of negative thinking, on my political blog, inspired by a New York Times article describing how customers’ negative comments on the internet actually helped a business find new customers by boosting its search engine ranking.  That led me to think about how our instinct to attack, rather than to engage in dialogue with people who we believe have wronged us, can often be counter-productive.   In the case of the business described in the article, its dissatisfied customers would no doubt be frustrated to learn that the more they complained, the more they were helping the business succeed.  Indeed, the owner actually found these complaints so helpful that he was inspired to mistreat his customers even more egregiously, thus completing the vicious cycle.

When we fight back, we seek to vindicate our own position, and we want to obtain redress from the wrongdoer, but we don’t really expect to get the other side to agree with us.  Perhaps we recognize how difficult it is to change our adversary’s mind, so we don’t even try.  Or we don’t think about what it might take to change the other side’s thinking.  In the case of the customers complaining about the business described above, those customers were probably only trying to warn other customers to stay away, or they were trying to find an outlet for their rage; they might have been trying to punish the business, but they weren’t trying to change his mind.  I’m sure they didn’t expect to end up helping him, but their methods could only succeed in aggravating themselves and antagonizing him, and perhaps scaring away some potential customers who took the trouble to read reviews.  Attacking an opponent usually causes him to become defensive.  Therefore, we really can’t expect vindication unless we can enlist a neutral party (like a judge) to punish the wrongdoer.  Hence, the need for the entire justice system, which is one step more civilized than the ancient cycle of revenge and blood feuds.

People sometimes carry similar instincts and expectations into a mediation (which should represent a third, even more enlightened stage of dispute resolution).  They don’t always recognize mediation’s advances over litigation, sometimes seeing mediation as a forum–a quasi-courtroom–to demonstrate the correctness of their position, and the wrongness of their adversary’s.   Parties who approach mediation in that manner are sometimes frustrated when the mediator does not “decide” the dispute for them, or when their adversary does not simply collapse into submission.  That is because they have not even begun to employ the techniques of persuasion; relying only on the techniques of argument.  Arguments are designed to persuade a third party; they are less effective in persuading the opposition.

Even in the context of trial practice, an over-emphasis on the adversarial tools of argument can reduce one’s effectiveness.  Judges and juries don’t always respond to logic, and sometimes sympathize with your adversary when your cross-examination sounds too aggressive or your closing argument too strident.  A good trial lawyer also seeks to create sympathy for one’s client, ingratiate himself with the trier of fact, and treat his adversary professionally.

As my own practice has encompassed more mediation and negotiation, I have reduced my reliance on some of the more aggressive techniques of litigation even further.  Especially in the negotiation setting, we need a whole new set of tools, such as empathy, consistency, likeability, and  a whole bunch of other skills they don’t teach in law school.  Studied and proven methods of persuasion can be learned (see, for example, Robert Cialdini’s book Influence), and they generally don’t include bludgeoning your adversary into submission.  Parties who no longer even want to speak to each other, can find a way to open a dialogue when the mediator helps create a conducive atmosphere, and when they make some effort to use the methods of persuasion.

(illustration from Sophrosyne Radical blog)

UPDATE: Google claims it has already fixed the problem mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, so that businesses can no longer rely on negative reviews to boost their search engine rankings.