From Power and Rights to Interests... a Boy Can Dream

To significantly expand our global mediation capacity and move beyond “us versus them” conflicts, we need to recognize that there is no “them” anymore, there is only “us.” The “them” we create is only the flip side of our own fear, poor communications, primitive conflict resolution skills, failures of collaboration, accumulated pain and disappointment flowing from our reliance on militaristic power- and legalistic right-based interactions, leading to a loss of capacity for empathy and compassion, and a lack of commitment to strengthen interest-based conflict resolution capacity with our opponents.
— Kenneth Cloke, "Strengthening the United Nations: Toward a 'Conflict Revolution;'" Unpublished

The above quotation comes from an article that Ken shared with me recently and which I felt compelled to repeat here, because I feel like it captures the essence of what Fractal Friends the blog and the podcast are about: "There is no 'them' anymore, there is only 'us.'" 

I want to again express my gratitude for the role that Ken Cloke has played in the field of mediation and in my own life. His book Conflict Revolution: Mediating Evil, War, Injustice and Terrorism prompted some colleagues of mine at the Dispute Resolution Center of King County to start a book group, which is the true starting point of my journey as a conflict resolution professional. It prompted me to join Mediators Beyond Borders, and it has inspired me to begin to dream about how the humble practice of mediation can play a role in resolving the world's great conflicts. It sent me off tilting at windmills and it is that odyssey that eventually brought me to my fractal theory of conflict. So, thanks Ken.

Today, however, I want to touch upon a concept that is hidden in the above quotation that I believe to be fundamental to understanding the nature of conflict: Power, Rights and Interests.

These ideas describe the evolution of humanity's approaches to resolving conflict across history. As I understand it, this understanding of conflict was developed and popularized by Fisher, Ury and Patton in their seminal book on mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution: Getting to Yes. 

The concept is that humanity has evolved through three ways of managing conflict throughout its history. All three are still in play, but there is also a clear progression across time. I'll add that this progression seems to occur both at the level of the collective and within individuals. The earliest form of resolving conflicts is based on power. In a power-based approach to conflict, the most powerful group or individual wins. One can imagine fighting or warfare. Power can take on many forms ranging from hierarchical and social influence to capacity for physical and technical force. Using power to resolve conflicts always results in a winner and a loser, so it is not sustainable. The loser will usually try to find a way to get revenge and this can lead to long cycles of conflict.

Power is/was eventually replaced by systems based on rights. A rights-based system allows the possibility of everyone, regardless of demographic details to have equal access to justice. That's the idea at least. Under such a system, conflict is meant to be resolved by consulting a set of rules that are applied universally to everyone, regardless of their status. Laws are an amazing invention. I like to think of them as the guardrails of society. They help us avoid accidentally falling into the abyss. The challenge of a rights-based approach is multifaceted. To begin with, laws tend to be made by people with power. Furthermore, one set of rules for everyone doesn't match the nuance of the human experience, no matter how much we work to refine them. Finally, a rights-based approach also depends on the winner-loser binary.

The newest way for humans to resolve conflicts is based on interests. It was born out a desire to find an alternative to legal processes that damage relationships, and it incorporates ancient communication technologies, modern psychology and contemporary negotiation techniques. An interest-based approach to conflict focuses on finding solutions that are rooted in what is needed for specific people, in a specific context, at a specific time. This level of detail allows for the creation of solutions that are able to address the interests of those involved. Conflict tends to arise because there is a perception that our positions are mutually incompatible. When we dive down to discover the underlying interests and needs, however, we find that what we really need/desire is universal and recognizable. They become a basis for relating to those we are in conflict with and allow us to find creative solutions for resolving conflicts. Tapping into the underlying interests is the basis of modern mediation and conflict resolution. (Look here for a list of universal human needs as developed by those working in the field of Nonviolent Communication.)

In my opinion, taking an interest-based approach to resolving conflict has two main problems and one elegant and complex solution. First, it requires people to want to resolve their conflicts in a way that benefits everyone who is involved. Secondly, it is time and labor intensive, because it is case specific and it takes effort and skill to get people to discover their true needs, to communicate them to others and to explore creative and feasible solutions. Nonetheless, it works and is totally possible. The aforementioned solution is to change the culture of how we respond conflict. I believe that if we are to prosper as a species, we have one generation to integrate and institutionalize mediation and interest-based thinking into our global culture. This means that the mediation profession and the process of finding mutually agreeable solutions become part of our day-to-day lives and language. I know that changing mental models across culture may be the most difficult task around, but a boy can dream. Let's keep evolving please.