I doubt there is anyone reading this who hasn’t experienced interpersonal conflict, first-hand. Don’t worry, it’s quite normal for conflict to arise within different types of relationships. We experience it with our friends and loved ones, in our place of work and within our communities.
Conflict is like fire. If wielded properly, it can power the continual growth and prosperity of your business. However, if treated with reckless abandon, it can burn everything to the ground.
As a mediator for several years, I noticed that most disputes eventually boiled-down into interpersonal issues, or ‘people problems.’
This was especially true when the two parties were previously engaged in a business relationship. As an objective intermediary, I marveled at how people could allow petty differences to escalate to a point that necessitated legal action.
In our current legal landscape, it is only natural that disputes escalate quickly to the ‘point of no return.’ Our court system, by and large, condones an ‘all-or-nothing’ framework where you either go ‘all-in’ to litigate or walk away completely. This heightened threshold for legal recourse prompts many ‘would-be’ litigants to intensify their claims in an effort to maximize their potential gains within a slow, expensive and painstaking legal process.
Enter mediation. Unlike traditional litigation, mediation shifts the onus of control over the outcome back to the parties themselves. It also redirects the focus of the parties away from hostile aggression and toward repairing damaged relationships.
When parties decide to mediate, they enter into a collaborative process that requires both negotiation and compromise to effectively resolve the dispute. This serves as a huge step in the direction of repairing the underlying relationship, an objective that is all but non-existent within most legal channels.
For those not familiar with mediation, it is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that is gaining popularity both inside and outside of the justice system. Today, practically every case that goes through family law or probate court now requires mediation. However, it still has yet to penetrate into other areas of law, where I believe it could make a similar or even greater positive impact.
Mediation requires both parties to consult with a trained mediator, or neutral 3rd party, who has but one clear objective: TO SETTLE YOUR CASE.
While different styles of mediation exist, there are a few basic ground rules that every mediator must follow:
- It is voluntary — parties must agree to mediate and can walk away from the process at anytime.
- It is confidential — anything communicated during the mediation process is strictly confidential and cannot be used later during trial.
- It is a neutral process — mediators must act as neutrals and cannot bestow favor to either party.
I first fell in love with mediation during law school. On a whim, I enrolled in USC Law’s Mediation Clinic (admittedly, I heard it was an easy A) and within a few short months, I had my first taste mediating actual cases in small claims court.
Since that inflection point of my life years ago, I've mediated over one hundred cases that spanned various practice areas, including:
- breach of contract
- personal injury
- IP protection
- class-action suits against local government
- equal protection
- insurance claims
- probate issues (i.e. trusts, wills and estates)
What I loved most about mediation was being able to use practical problem-solving skills to help others in a meaningful way. Mediators need to be creatively adaptive, since settlements can consist of practically anything that can be agreed upon in writing. Case in point, I once settled a heated dispute on the verge of trial over a handshake and heartfelt written apology.
Remember when a close friend provided great relationship advice or feedback that you hadn’t before considered? Similarly, mediators have an ‘outsiders advantage,’ where they have the ability to evaluate complex situations with greater clarity and objectivity than the participants themselves.
As previously mentioned, I firmly believe that most types of conflict can be boiled down into ‘people problems.’
Here are some of the most common drivers of conflict I’ve encountered:
- defending perceived notions of fairness & justice
- needing to be heard, acknowledged and validated as a legitimate victim
- seeking reprisal for perceived disrespectful or discriminatory actions
- defending one’s ego or sense of self-worth
What surprised me the most was how often the transgressions at issue were actually the result of prior misunderstandings. I witnessed, first-hand, how easy it was to fall into the trap of jumping to conclusions whenever a breakdown in communication occurred. This fallacy often became self-fulfilling, especially once legal action commenced which, by its nature, is adversarial and antagonistic.
Think of a recent dispute you had where, after reaching out to the other side, you realized it was all just one big misunderstanding.
If most conflicts are the result of misunderstandings, and misunderstandings are caused by poor communication, then the path of least resistance to preempt future conflict must be to improve communication.
@ The Resolution Co, our main goal is to help founding teams of startups improve their communication and transparency with one another. However, we believe there are a few simple steps that anyone can take to prevent unhealthy conflict within their existing relationships.
- Work on establishing healthy relationships as early as possible, where you are comfortable being transparent and open with each other.
- Make an effort to truly understand the interests and motivations of others. Do not habitually make assumptions about how a person actually thinks or feels.
- Make time to check-in regularly with each other to share important thoughts and feelings that touch upon the basis of your relationship.
- Make it a habit to push back whenever prudent or necessary. Holding in grievances related to perceived transgressions will likely lead to more serious conflict down the road.
If you are an entrepreneur who is suffering from unhealthy conflict within your startup (or know someone who is), know that this is not uncommon and there are people out there willing and eager to help! It takes courage to admit to having a serious problem, but once you take that initial first step, you will be far better off for it!
Wishing you the best!
Christopher Chen, Esq.