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How Collaboration Makes a Difference in Dispute Resolution
Sep 1, 2013

Parties in a dispute can resolve their differences in various ways. Oftentimes, at least one party feels a need to compromise in order to reach a resolution. As a result, the compromising party may suffer, or feel unfairly treated. When the dispute involves matters of life and death, reaching a fair resolution is even more crucial. In a world where the “other” is constantly being dehumanized, how is it possible to negotiate in a way that respects the dignity of both parties, and allows them to constructively resolve their differences? Must there always be both winners and losers at the end of a dispute, or can all the parties be winners?

Imagine two children fighting over an orange. Not knowing what the other one is interested in, one of them aspires to eat the orange, and the other desires to make a cake with the orange peel (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 1981). There are several different scenarios that they may end up with when they finally stop quarrelling over who found the orange first, and decide to end the dispute. In the first scenario, they simply split the orange into two equal halves. The first child peels the orange and eats the fruit and throws away the peel, while the second one throws away the fruit and uses the peel to make the cake. Both parties compromise; however, effectively half of the orange gets wasted, and both parties actually lose something. In the second scenario, one of the children forcefully takes the whole orange with threats and physical force, while the other capitulates. The dispute ends with one party winning, and the other losing. The forceful one may seem to be victorious at first sight, but loses his friend’s trust, damaging a valuable relationship in the long term. In the third scenario, the children decide to calm down and listen to each other, and understand why each one wants the orange, and resolve the dispute in a way that fulfills both their needs. One of them gets the whole orange peel, which is enough to make the cake, and the other gets the whole fruit to eat. Nothing is wasted, and everyone gets the best they could. Both parties win.

Looking at the orange sharing example, are there lessons here that we can learn and apply to the broader world? For starters, I think it’s clear that dialogue naturally leads to collaboration, and collaboration helps to attain the optimal resolution, whereas other approaches to dispute resolution are likely to produce sub-optimal results for both parties. Parties who collaborate gain power with others. Just as in the case of the last orange sharing scenario, parties work together to attain maximum gains for all. In contrast, when one party declares victory by exerting power over the other, similar to the episode where the child grasps the orange by force, this leaves behind a legacy of injustice and mistrust, for one party has deprived the other of his share. In the long term, future dealings will be very difficult. When the parties in a dispute use tactics of coercion, threat, or deception in a way that exacerbates their power differences, not only is the trust between the parties damaged, but they also become suspicious and hostile of one another (Deutsch, et al., 2006). Even if the disputing parties can reach a settlement in the end, often the underlying interests of neither party can be truly addressed, or one party is at a serious disadvantage. Overall, since the root causes remain unaddressed, the dispute can manifest itself again sooner or later, in some other shape or form. Moreover, the competitive nature of the process brings material losses and dissatisfaction, worsening relationships, and exacerbating negative psychological effects (Deutsch, 2006), as there are losers in this process. The true winners are the ones who choose the way of dialogue and collaboration.

The story of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and his creative idea for settling a dispute that occurred during the rebuilding of the Ka‘ba in Mecca (before his prophethood) brilliantly exemplifies a collaborative agreement: when the sacred Black Stone was to be put in place, the leaders of several tribes quarreled about who should have the honor to place it. They could not resolve the dispute by themselves and decided to pick the first person who entered Ka‘ba as an arbitrator. Acting as the neutral third party to the dispute, the Prophet’s idea was to place the stone on a cloak and the heads of each tribe would take a side of the cloak and together carry it in; hence each could have the honor of putting the stone in place (Satha-Anand, 1998; Saritoprak, 2010; Abu-Nimer, 2000; Coleman & Deutsch, 2006). This innovative resolution, where all the parties got what they wanted, produced no losers. Everybody won as the resolution was compatible with their underlying interests. The historical episode not only highlights the importance of creativity, and the important role of a wise and neutral third party in dispute resolution, but also demonstrates that even difficult disputes can be overcome through collaborative problem solving. When parties in a dispute can identify and frame the issue at hand as a mutual problem to be solved, they can work together to achieve a common goal. They separate emotions from the problem. They are attentive to each others’ needs, listen to each other to understand each others’ underlying interests, and they creatively brainstorm on alternative solutions to address those interests (Bolton, 1986; Deutsch, Coleman & Marcus, 2006).

As the Prophet’s peace building skills were well-known, the leaders of the city of Medina invited him and his followers to their city to build peace among rival tribes after his prophet hood (Saritoprak, 2010; Abu-Nimer, 2000). The tribes of Medina had been fighting for centuries. As a visionary, he was able to implement a collaborative treaty (the Charter of Medina is the first constitution created by the Prophet) that ensured the rights of all inhabitants of Medina, which consisted of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagans. The Charter of Medina can also be highlighted as an example of interfaith dialogue in action. The Prophet often reminded his followers about the significance of solidarity and unity between Muslims and non-Muslims (Abu-Nimer, 2000). A peaceful society was successfully established in Medina and existed as a single inclusive community. The same peaceful model was later extended to Mecca.

The civilization that flourished in Medina was built on two main principles. These are namely “the mutual cooperation” and “the loving interrelatedness of the creation” that puts forward “collaborative action” and “solidarity” (Saritoprak, 2010). The mutual cooperation of creatures on earth can be observed in all the physical events around us. For example, the elements cooperate with each other to form the matter. The red and white corpuscles in the blood work together in protecting and feeding the body. The cells in the body function in cooperation. Rain helps plants to grow, plants help animals to grow, and they both help human beings to grow. The loving interrelatedness of the creation emphasizes that all members of creation are brothers and sisters, and rejects all forms of bias, such as racism and nationalism, and prioritizes communal solidarity that includes both Muslims and non-Muslims.

As the Charter of Medina illustrates, for a collaborative resolution, the parties in a dispute must team up and empower each other in order to find the most creative solution that best satisfies all parties. They work on implementing a plan that identifies the roles of each party and commits to positive outcomes for all. Due to the cooperative nature of the process, the parties have more resources, more diversity in ideas, and more social support for the problem solving work involved (Coleman & Deutsch, 2006). Furthermore, cooperation brings greater group productivity, more favorable interpersonal relations, better psychological health, and higher self-esteem (Deutsch, 2006). There are no losers in this process, and everybody wins.

You may question the applicability of collaborative dispute resolution and win-win results. They may sound too idealistic, and because we live in an increasingly materialistic, self-centered, and egoistic culture, not realistic for our current world. People tend to be under the control of their carnal selves, ignore the needs of the others, or even take it to the point of dehumanizing the other, especially during stressful situations. Emotions such as anger and humiliation may take over common sense, and may make it very difficult to be constructive. Therefore, contention may seem inevitable.

However, as human beings, we have the gift of conscience that can help us defeat our carnal selves and attain win-win results, regardless of the extent of the conflict. The voice of our conscience would encourage us to listen with empathy, and to respect the basic human needs of the other party, regardless of who we are dealing with. It would encourage us to be patient, tolerant, and loving. Our conscience, in a sense, can act as the “inner” neutral third party that can remind us of the basic tenets of humanity (Ury, 1999, cited in Moix, 2006). All major faiths share the virtues of compassion, love, tolerance, respect for human dignity, and value the sacredness of human life; all these things also relate to the development of our conscience. These common values have contributed to the international human rights standards, ethical norms, and humanitarian laws, as well as the philosophy and practice of peacemaking (Moix, 2006). Emphasizing such spiritual teachings for the good of mankind in general, regardless of religion or ethnicity, is crucial when aspirations consume people, and drive them to commit atrocities. In this respect, interfaith dialogue can help strengthen the possibility of constructive resolutions. If disputes grow and turn into conflicts involving atrocities, faith leaders can act as the “outer” neutral third parties to mediate and remind people to draw on their faiths rather than their emotions. Especially, if the leaders engage in a strong interfaith dialogue network that they can mobilize; many disputes involving people of multiple faiths can be eliminated before they can grow, whether these disputes are at the interpersonal or intergroup level. Examples of successful peace building through interfaith dialogue exist around the conflict regions of the world. Consider the collective action and advocacy in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Israel – Palestine (Abu-Nimer, 2008), as well as in Turkey, through the efforts of Journalists and Writers Foundation.

Essentially, if the parties in a dispute can use the power of collaborative problem solving to produce beneficial alternatives for all, they can attain the creative atmosphere to expand the range of alternatives for positive change and growth (Coleman & Deutsch, 2006).With authenticity, respect, and love, the parties can easily attain constructive resolution, and there is chance to reach the optimal solution where positive outcomes – such as strengthening relationships, and improving psychological health and productivity – are prevalent, as opposed to feelings of distress, resentment, and alienation resulting from other alternatives (Bolton, 1986).

In sum, if the parties in a dispute can approach the resolution process with positive intentions, they are more likely to achieve collaborative problem solving which will produce beneficial alternatives for all. In parallel with the philosophy of Yunus Emre (the 13th century Sufi master) who once said, “We love the Created because of the Creator,” the key is to start with love and tolerance by prioritizing human well-being. If we can use the power of our “inner” neutral third parties, difficult problems and disputes are likely to resolve naturally.

Alptekin Kavi is an electrical engineer and designs computer chips at a high-technology company. He lives in Superior, Colorado.


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