Recently I noticed an online request on a network’s posting system seeking lawyers with experience working on disputes within community non-profit or religious organizations. The situation described involved potentially inappropriate behavior by a member of the organization that may have adversely impacted another member. Besides these two people, the entire organization is also a stakeholder, as the incident raised the issue of what is and what is not acceptable behavior within its culture.
The initial responses to the request recommended lawyers who were familiar with this area of practice. Another early response raised a question of whether or not a state agency had to become involved. And the matter was off to the races. The likely next developments could be sides being drawn, allegations made, complaint filed, an inquiry into blame, a finding of fault, a determination as to damages to the victim and a punitive response to the wrongdoer.
This has become the typical approach and response of our society today: Something is believed to be wrong so we look to blame someone, line up people on each side, go to battle in the sometimes blind pursuit of “justice” without giving the proper amount of thought to the direct and indirect collateral damage of this approach.
There’s something missing in this reaction that jumps right to bringing in lawyers. It seems premature. Is our goal to fixate on the past event(s), establish blame and make someone pay, with little thought of the future or of curing the situation that led to the conflict? Or do we first focus on solving the problem so that the future situation better when we are finished addressing the issue than when it first surfaced? Are we treating the symptoms or are we curing the ill? Are there larger concerns – organizational or even public interests here – beyond determining who wins and who loses?
In our haste, we may be skipping two vital initial inquiries:
- What are the goals, interests and needs (“GIN”) of all those involved?
- What is the best approach for achieving these goals, interests and needs?
A good friend of mine who is a marketing expert often suggests to her clients this starting point: In order to achieve your goal, you have to have one. That advice always stuck with me, so much so that it is one of the first questions I ask a potential client: What are your GINs (goals, interests and needs)?
As for the approach question, Stephen Covey referred to this inquiry as seeking the Third Alternative and finding the synergy shared by the parties involved. Buddhist thought would describe it as the search for the Third Way, a better way.
In today’s American society, when a difference of opinion, a dispute or conflict arises, we are programmed to immediately draw lines of division, “lawyer up”, and declare war on “the other side”. We are quick to divide, separate and convert a problem into an adversarial contest, often on the basis of little more than a Tweet or a sound bite, before we have taken the time to think about it, dig a little deeper into the facts and put the single conclusory sentence into the bigger context from which the sentence of taken. If you are not one of “us”, you have to be one of “them”. One of the unfortunate by-products of the #MeToo era is the rush to judgment and the feeling of being compelled to take sides, sometimes on the basis of nothing more than a single stray remark, a set of incomplete facts or a picture from the past and no knowledge of when, why, how, where or for what purpose that picture was taken or the remark was made.
When something goes wrong, I think we can all agree that we want to fix it. If there’s a problem, let’s work to solve it. If we discover an illness, let’s work to cure it. If there are ways to prevent these disputes, conflicts and mistakes from happening in the future, let’s take the proactive steps to prevent them from repeating. All of us want the restoration of what is good where we see things have gone awry. We share some common ground here.
But let’s do this work of restoring things to the good by working together at it, not against each other. Let’s join our efforts in collaborations that tap into our collective talents, experience, intelligence and resourcefulness rather than pitting ourselves against each other. If we call in the professionals to help, let’s first reach out to those trained in helping people work together to solve problems – facilitators with the mindset of connecting, not dividing. When we chose the adversarial approach and fight against each other, our real GINs are replaced by the goal of beating the other side. We become “a house divided against itself [which] will not stand”.
Let’s start by agreeing on this: We are better, stronger, smarter, faster and more creative when we work together and pool our resources to satisfy our GINs in the best way possible.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore