Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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The city of Detroit emerged from bankruptcy yesterday, a process that was successful because of something the participants labeled the “Grand Bargain.” The Grand Bargain is a complicated plan, but its key feature involves the transfer of the city’s extremely valuable art collection to a charitable trust, in exchange for about $800 million in new financing provided by the state and private parties. It sounds like a clever solution to a difficult problem. What jumped out at me from this morning’s LA Times article, was this comment from bankruptcy professor Laura Bartell describing how the parties managed to hammer out the deal: “When everyone realized the situation, there wasn’t a lot to argue about.” Really? Nothing to argue about? From what I […]

Last night I had a chance to assist at an improvisation class, playing the role of mediator to actors working out various conflict situations. The class arose out of some discussions with the teacher, Rob Watzke, about the similarities between the techniques used in improvisation and mediation. In both situations, careful listening is imperative. You must be sensitive to the content as well as the emotional underpinnings of statements made by other participants in order to advance the process. In both situations, it is also important to stay positive. Whatever new bit of material is offered to you by a fellow improviser, you must use it. You cannot reject it, or the scene dies. Similarly, in mediation, it is better […]

I spent the day Sunday watching and judging high school debate, a great opportunity to observe what works and what does not work in argument. In one of the debates, on the proposition that convicted drunk drivers should be required to display special license plates, the opposing team argued that breathalyzer-interlock devices are more effective than drunk driver license plates. In response the proposition team made the mistake of trying to shoot down the interlock idea: interlock devices are too expensive, they do not alert the police and other drivers to possibly dangerous drivers, etc. They fell into the trap of thinking that because they had to prove that their idea is good, it follows that they had to prove […]

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 […]

Reading the comments to a post on negotiation on Ken Adams’s drafting blog (one of which made the point that lawyers are trained to argue, not to negotiate), got me thinking about the differences between argument and negotiation.  It is quite true that lawyers often confuse the two.  I have to admit that I sometimes have trouble letting go of an argument myself, and sometimes forget that arguments that are not carefully attuned to their audience have a tendency to annoy rather than persuade.  I was pegged as an attorney from my childhood because I love to argue, and I still enjoy getting into a heated political debate, or hammering home a point in a brief or in front of […]