If Only They Had Had a Couple of More Conversations …

Issue November/December 2022 November 2022 By Michael Zeytoonian
Dispute Resolution Section Review
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Michael Zeytoonian

Unless you live a solitary life without meaningful relationships, conflicts are a part of life. You probably don’t have to go too far back into this past week to recall a dispute of some kind at some level. Having thoughts and opinions that are different from those we interact with may lead to conflict. The freedom to think and live as we do, coupled with the fact that humanity is filled with all varieties of people, belief systems and truths, often puts us at odds with others. 

We can try to avoid conflict, staying away from anything that has the potential of leading to a dispute and deciding not to commit to deeper and more meaningful relationships. Think about how plain and boring life would be without the rich tapestry of different perspectives and diversity.  

I am a lawyer and a mediator by profession and vocation. Working with people to resolve disputes in a non-adversarial way is the culmination of a wonderful, 35-year legal career that began prosecuting child abuse cases, and included years of litigating and trials. When I ponder the challenges and the beauty of mediating and collaborating as a lawyer, I am reminded of excerpts from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, explaining his mission: “I have not come to abolish the Law (or the Prophets) but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17) and advising about handling disputes: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still on the way.” (Matt. 5:26). For me, mediating with people to reach a good resolution of their disputes is, in a way, the fulfillment of the law in a society that lives by the rule of law. To work at the intersection where the law, the facts, reason, logic, emotions, pragmatism, and a focus on the interests and needs of the people in the dispute all come together is both incredibly challenging and fulfilling. 

So often, as a neutral mediator objectively considers the facts that led to the dispute, the same thought comes to mind: 

If only they had had one or two more productive conversations, if only they had listened to each other’s needs a little more carefully, we would not be here in this dispute today. 

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when we are not actively engaged in the relationship that led to the dispute. But this common thread runs through so many disputes, whether they are arguments between drivers on the road, political differences, family quarrels, sports debates, or disputes arising out of discrimination. If only those involved had kept communicating and worked a little more to understand each other better, they could have worked their way to a good outcome. 

In our training and experience as dispute resolution (DR) professionals, we focus on three vital elements and try to internalize these into our efforts. We would also do well to model these in our work and hope that the disputants pick up on that example: 

  1. Getting beyond the stated positions of those in the dispute to the underlying interests. Behind the “I’m right so you must be wrong” stated position or the “I should get paid this much money,” or “I want the house,” there are the real core issues, the answers to what this dispute is really about, the unsatisfied interests and the unfulfilled needs. These are answer to questions like: “What does this money represent to you?” or “Why is the house important to you?” or “What would a good solution here really look like to you?” 

  2. Actively listening. In other words, doing nothing else but listening to try to really understand the other person. Not listening while multitasking, or listening with a focus of formulating your response, or listening politely, tolerating, until you get your turn to talk. The point of listening is to understand the person better, to pick up on something that you have missed before, to try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and to recognize the underlying interests that need to be met. 

  3. Feeling and showing empathy. To try to get a sense of what it is like to feel the way the other person feels is a helpful exercise. I can never really know what it is like to be an African American or a woman or an autistic person or a Muslim, because I have not lived it. But I can try to imagine it and to feel it. As an Armenian Christian, I can share in the common backstory of a people who suffered torture, total loss, deportation, mass annihilation, and attempted Genocide — ours by the Ottoman Turkish government — because of a different national origin and religious belief. But I don’t know what it is like to walk down a street on my way home, all the way worried that a policeman might pull over and arrest me or worse for no other reason than the color of my skin. And even though I did single parent for eight years, I can’t really know the feeling of being passed over for a promotion time and time again only because I am a woman and mother of small children. President Joe Biden put it well in his inaugural address, referring to his mother’s teaching about the importance of standing in the other person’s shoes. The first steps toward resolution often come when we are willing to step into the other person’s shoes, see life through his/her lens and understand each other better. President Abraham Lincoln put it more simply: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
All these efforts are a part of just keeping the conversation going, drilling down a little deeper before we walk away, file a lawsuit or declare war. We are not talking about ignoring the problem and sweeping it under the rug, or just avoiding the situations that often lead to a disagreement or suggesting that people just give the other side what he/she wants and move on. Those are temporary fight or flight responses to the symptoms, bandages placed over the cut, but leave the underlying wound to fester. They may settle the dispute, but they are not resolutions that cure the illness, or transform the situation into a better environment, a better workplace, neighborhood, family or organization. 

More often than we think, real and lasting solutions are just a few more conversations away, achieved by a willingness to really listen, to step into the other person’s shoes and to dig beneath the positions to find the unmet needs. Let’s keep at it, not declare war too soon, not walk away too early, but work through it together. May we be inspired in this problem-solving quest as peacemakers, recalling the words of a trial lawyer named Abraham Lincoln: “As peacemakers, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.” Some excerpts from the wonderful poem, The Hill We Climb, offered by Amanda Gorman on Inauguration Day 2021, urge us onward: 

We are striving to form a union with a purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
We must first put our differences aside.
When the day comes that we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid
The new day blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it. 

Michael Zeytoonian is a lawyer and mediator in Boston whose work is focused on employment law and specifically discrimination and harassment matters.