Several years ago, at an advanced Harvard Program on Negotiation training in conflict resolution, my professor shared a very simple story that I have found to be useful in explaining a methodology that I frequently use in my mediation process: “Interest-based Negotiation.” The story, paraphrased, goes something like this:
A mom witnessed her two children fighting over an orange. They were pushing and shoving each other and trying to wrestle the orange out of the other’s hands. In heated tones, they were saying:
“You can’t have it!”
“I want it!”
“I saw it first!”
What did mom do? She took the orange from the children, cut it in half, and gave one half of the orange to each child. Things calmed down. But as she watched the children go about their business, she noticed that one child peeled off the rind of the orange, threw the rind in the garbage and began to eat her snack. She noticed that the other child peeled off the rind, threw the fruit in the garbage and began to slice up the rind for a recipe she was creating. At that moment, mom realized that she had made an error. If she has only taken the time to help the children have a conversation about the orange, she could have created a better outcome.
This story teaches us a lot about conflict resolution. Let’s explore what really happened in the story:
Initially, the children were engaged in “Positional Bargaining.” This type of bargaining occurs when each person takes a position in an argument and tries to win at the expense of the other. In this example, when the children were fighting, one of two things was going to happen. Either one child was going to rip the orange away from the other or the orange was going to be obliterated as they tried to pull it from each other’s hands. Either one child would have walked away with nothing or both children would have walked away with nothing. Often times, this behavior is unconscious or automatic. Let’s face it. If your best friend quickly tried to pull something out of your hand, your initial reaction, before thinking, would be to pull back. This is a trait we exhibit in physical as well as emotional and intellectual conflicts.
What mom should have done was engaged the children in “Interest-based Negotiation,” where she could explore each child’s interests and goals and create a dialogue to help them find a mutually acceptable outcome. What might that have looked like? Mom would have taken the orange from the children, sat them down, provided some time for them to cool down and then she would have asked them one probing question:
”Why do you each want the orange?” This engages the prefrontal cortex to coax the children into having a safe, cerebral, discussion about their goals and desires rather than have a conflict-laden interaction driven by automatic, reflexive, win/lose behavior. If Mom had the foresight to ask this simple but important question, she could have created a “win-win” scenario where one child would have gotten a bigger snack and the other child would have gotten all of the ingredients for her recipe. Unfortunately, Mom’s strategy to resolve this conflict was based upon her faulty assumption that both children wanted the fruit for the same purpose. Although she resolved the conflict, the outcome was not optimal and each child’s needs were not adequately met.
This simple story speaks volumes about how conflict can be resolved quickly with superior outcomes. Using interest-based negotiation in the mediation process, I can ensure that both parties are using organized dialogue to create understanding, develop trust, explore their goals and interests and, finally, fashion optimal outcomes that satisfy both parties. The alternative? Rely on third parties, such as judges or arbitrators, to resolve the conflict for you and risk unfavorable outcomes.