Identifying Interests for effective dispute resolution
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By Lizzy-Ann Kwagbedzi

Conflicts are bound to occur in the interactions of interdependent people who encounter or perceive incompatible goals or a different position on matters that pertain to their welfare or relationship. The positions of parties in conflict are normally based on underlying interest which when identified and properly addressed, can lead to an understanding and solution of the problem.

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Therefore, the main role of a mediator is to guide disputing parties to come to a resolution of their differences, and this cannot be achieved without first helping parties identify their interest in the matter. The interest basically answers the “why” question of the conflict. “Why a party takes a particular position”, “Why a party wants what he/she is asking for”, and identifying those interests will help to uncover why a particular solution will be preferred and give reasons that can influence disputing parties to move towards a particular direction in finding a solution.

Focusing on interests can help parties to uncover hidden problems and allow them to identify which issues are of most concern to them. In “Getting Disputes Resolved”, William Ury, Jeanne Brett, and Stephen Goldberg maintain that focusing on interests can resolve the problems underlying a dispute more effectively than focusing on rights or power. This is because reconciling interests tends to generate a higher level of mutual satisfaction, better relationships, and lower transaction costs than resorting to rights or power contests.

Identifying the interests of parties in a dispute allow for a variety of possible solutions. Knowing the other parties interests allow for a solution that may not involve compromise, help parties evaluate a possible solution and provide increased understanding between people in conflict.

But when people define their dispute in terms of positions, they often appear to be highly intractable, since one side wants something that the other completely opposes. Therefore, rather than describing a dispute in terms of parties’ positions about what they want, it is often helpful for a mediator to redefine the situation in terms of the reasons that underlie these positions. Focusing on interests enables the parties to identify win-win solutions to problems that might not have been evident when the issues were described in terms of positions.

When parties are telling their stories in mediation, they can get angry and upset and may have trouble getting their story out in a way that makes sense to the mediator or the other party. Hence the need for more information in order for the situation to be better understood and mutually resolved. Carefully phrased neutral questions and statements by the mediator can help get more information in identifying the interest of parties and bring a greater understanding of the conflict.

How Do Mediators Help The Parties Identify Their Interests?

Here is a guide to how mediators can help parties identify their interest:

  • Ask about what is important to them.
  • Ask what bothers them most about the situation.
  • Ask how the issue affects them.
  • Ask them to help you understand why they feel so strongly.
  • Try to understand why they see their solution as the most attractive possibility.
  • Help parties to acknowledge the validity of the other’s interests.
  • Help the parties identify shared interests.
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