Resolving Disputes Through Interests, Rights, and Power Part One


A dispute evolves when a person or entity makes a demand on another who denies it. In their book, Getting Disputes Resolved, Ury, Brett and Goldberg (see below), use the analogy of a miner in a coal mine who finds his boots missing when he returns from his shift.

The miner makes a demand to his shift boss for replacement boots. The shift boss denies his request, citing mine regulations, so the miner convinces a few friends to walk out on the shift with him. Then because they are all members of a union it calls a general strike.

The mine superintendent later admitted that he had replaced
stolen boots before and loaned boots during the interim
before they could be replaced. It was his belief that such action
would have avoided the strike. Can you identify which result
was dictated by power? By rights? By interests?

The miner made a rights based demand to the company which the shift boss denied citing company regulations - a rights based response. The miner then instigated a strike - the power option. The superintendent would have provided for replacement boots which most likely would have satisfied the underlying interest and avoided the strike. Which response was the most satisfying and least expensive in your view?

Interests, rights and power are the basic elements in any dispute. In order to resolve a dispute the parties must focus on one or more of these. They can determine who is more powerful and thus try to coerce a response, or they can determine who is right through reference to relevant guideposts or reconcile their underlying interests - the why you want it that triggers the demand.

Teamwork meshing gears

Reconciling Interests

Interests are the things you care about or want - needs, desires, fears, concerns, hopes. They are usually intangible and underlie the tangible items people ask for like a new pair of boots. Picture a husband and wife are trying to decide on which new car to buy. They appear to be arguing over cost, but really the wife's wants fuel efficiency and a basic mode of transportation, while the husband is more concerned with impressing his friends and novelty. Those are their interests. You have to search for them.

Unlike tangible positions the "I wants", people aren't always aware of what their interests are. Once they are articulated you can begin reconciling them by inventing creative solutions and making trade-offs and concessions. The most common method for reconciling interest-based conflict is negotiation, or assisted negotiation which is mediation. When done this way, the negotiations are referred to as interest-based negotiations.

Negotiations can also center on who is right which occurs when people hire lawyers who rely on statutes and case law to determine whose case has greater merit. Yet other negotiations focus on who is more powerful usually through threats and counter threats. Sometimes negotiations contain a little of each. It is important to be able to distinguish which rejoinders are based on which in order to formulate an effective response.

Sometimes disputants can only successfully start to reconcile interests after each has had an opportunity to give vent to their emotions. It is the rare dispute that does not generate emotions. Expressing them can be beneficial in achieving resolution.

For example, if someone is feeling aggrieved, and, the blamer has the opportunity to vent his or her frustration, anger, or hostility to the blamee, and the blamee acknowledges the legitimacy of the blamer's feelings or goes further and apologizes,then those feelings are likely to diminish. Freed of the burden of unexpressed emotions the blamer can then begin the process of negotiation in a more resourceful way.

Golden gavel

Determining Who is Right

Resolutions based on some independent standard with perceived legitimacy or fairness are rights based outcomes. The rights can be formalized by law or contract, or can be socially accepted standards of behavior such as seniority, equality, or reciprocity.

Rights are not often clear, usually there are different - and sometimes opposing- standards that seem to apply. Relying on rights - where the outcome determines who gets what usually requires that a third party, e.g. a judge, make the call. This can be useful in cases such as Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which laid the groundwork for the elimination of discrimination based on race in the U.S.

The same result - that an African American child could then attend a previously all white school - could likely have been achieved through interest based negotiation, but the impact would not have been as great. So when it is important to establish a legal precedent, a rights based resolution is the better alternative.

For the rest of this article, please go to:

Interests, Rights, and Power, Part Two

Interests, Rights, and Power, Part Three

To learn more, you might want to read,

For more information about Alternative Dispute Resolution, click on any of the links below.

To learn more about other conflict resolution topics, click on any of the links below.


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