Split the difference

Here’s a question. Two people want the same orange. How are you
going to resolve this problem? You could cut it in half, toss a
coin, hold it behind your back and get them to pick a hand. You
could even refuse to give it to either.

In fact, the key is to ask them why they want it. If you are the
person who wants the orange, all of the options above will be
unacceptable to you in some way because part of an orange, or the
possibility of no orange at all, is not what you want. If someone
asks you why you want the orange, solutions immediately become

You might want the orange because you are hungry, because you want
to draw a round shape, because you want some vitamin C. The other
person might want an orange because they are thirsty, because they
want to make a cake or because their child needs one for a school
project. Asking why opens up a range of possible solutions so that
negotiation becomes possible.

Knowing the difference between interests and positions is the
simple concept at the heart of conflict resolution. Whenever there
is a conflict people take up a position – they know what they want
and try to persuade the other party that their position is the only
reasonable one, and that the other party’s position is unreasonable
and wrong. If the conflict persists positions become entrenched and
the possibility of backing down becomes more remote.

Why do people take up positions? Usually because of a strongly held
belief or core value about the sort of people they are and what
life should be like. Many of us share core values, such as
believing we are reasonable, that we know how to treat others, are
good parents, that hurting people is wrong. Members of different
groups may have more specific core values.

Social work as a profession has a whole set of core values about
respect for others, being non-judgemental, valuing diversity. So
when someone implies that we are not acting according to these core
values, we feel hurt or angry and deny such an accusation by taking
up a position and defending it. But what we are really defending
are our interests.

At the heart of most conflicts, from a war in the Middle East to a
fight over a parking space, is a defence of a core value. Most of
us feel uncomfortable or angry if our core values are challenged.
We especially might not like it in some sort of public or
semi-public arena, in a supermarket car park, at a case conference,
a ward round or even a family conference in our home.

Depending on our level of verbal skill, we may respond by swearing,
shouting, being sarcastic, being patronising, being excessively
formal, even by using jargon. Sometimes, even as we are doing it,
we know how futile and childish we sound and go away to lick our
wounds in private, wondering how we handled a situation so

Here’s an example. A complaint is received about care worker A, who
never arrives on time for meetings at the home of service user B. A
conflict arises.

A’s core values: “I am a caring and sensitive person so I have
chosen a profession in which I can do this. My profession teaches
respect and sensitivity towards the feelings of others. But a
complaint is made which indicates that I am acting in an
insensitive way.”

A’s position: “I am doing my best with a huge caseload. I can’t
possibly know exactly when I’m going to arrive at B’s house. It’s
completely unreasonable for him to expect this of me.”

A’s interests: “I’m exhausted, I’m worried that I will not be able
to do my job properly, my manager’s been hassling me to get the
care plan done on time. I feel angry and hurt that a complaint has
been made and frightened about what this might mean for me.”

B’s core values: “I try to treat others as I would wish to be
treated. People should show respect towards others. Just because I
am disabled doesn’t mean I can’t contribute something important to
society through my work. I believe in equality of opportunity for

B’s position: “Hasn’t she heard of mobile phones? Does she think I
have nothing better to do with my time than sit around waiting for
her. I am a busy person with an important job. This is
discriminatory and therefore unacceptable behaviour.”

B’s interests: “The work I do is important to me. I have skills
which are valued and respected. If I am late I may lose respect
and, ultimately, my job. I feel angry that my time is out of my
control, and worried that if I am late for work my manager will
think that disabled people are unreliable.”

Anyone seeking to resolve a conflict where positions may seem to be
entrenched (“I cannot always arrive on time, it’s not fair to
expect me to.” “You must arrive on time, it’s not fair to expect me
to wait in for you.”) needs to respond to the interests and not the

Worker A cannot predict accurately when she will arrive (position)
and is worried about being overloaded with work (interest). Service
user B needs to be in his office at a certain time (position) and
is worried about losing his job if he isn’t reliable

If, as a mediator, you try to respond to people’s positions only,
you will get nowhere fast. Most people in any conflict situation
will be quite upfront with their positions and why these are
non-negotiable. A skilled mediator will uncover the interests
behind the positions and help each side to understand these in
order to generate possible solutions. The mediator needs to help B
understand why A feels stressed because she cannot always arrive on
time and to help A understand why keeping his job is so important
to B.

Once the interests behind the positions have been acknowledged and
explored, the solutions can begin to flow:

  • Could B allow a larger “window” of time for the visit, say
    between 10 and 11am?
  • Could A call to say whether she’ll be late?
  • Could B bring work home so that if A is really late, B can
    still get on with his work?
  • Could B write up his part of the care plan by next Wednesday,
    so that A can agree the final plan with her manager on Friday?
  • Could A visit B in the early evening sometimes so that he
    doesn’t always have to take time off work?
  • Could B visit A in her office sometimes so that she doesn’t
    have to drive so much?
  • Could A send some of the forms to B in advance so that a
    shorter meeting is needed?
  • Would either side be prepared to acknowledge that the other has
    a valid point of view and has feelings which are important to

Many conflicts which end up in a social services department’s
complaints procedures will never reach that stage if some time and
trouble is taken early on to apply some of these basic

In Gloucestershire, we are trying to develop mediation as an
approach both within social services and the wider county council
in recognition that conflict is costly both in terms of workplace
stress and management time. Training is now being offered to
council staff so that new skills can be learned and new approaches
tried to see whether more effective solutions to age-old problems
can be found.
Think of the last conflict you were involved in, at home, at work,
in the supermarket car park or wherever… could you have handled
it better? 

Judy Bavin is customer relations officer, Gloucestershire
social services department.


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