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Picturesque Landscape

The Danger of Depending on Past Agreements


Someone recently said that the definition of a “good agreement” was one where everyone went home dissatisfied. (Loud groan.) As he was an attorney who needed to settle a dispute and I was the mediator who was there to help, his version of the outcome was not one I wanted to dominate. Why spend your energy creating a disagreeable agreement? Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time at work doing just that. 


How many times have you addressed what appeared to be a relatively common dispute in a very reasonable “this is how we generally address issues like this” approach only to find that this time, suddenly, that approach won’t work? It’s a surprise, and one most of us don’t like. What went wrong?


A few months ago I mentioned that there are two levels to settling a dispute: agreements and resolutions. An agreement refers to a behavioral arrangement for the future; you will do this and I will do that. It is frequently quantitative in nature dealing with money or resources. A resolution refers to the emotional satisfaction of a settlement and is more qualitative, addressing the underlying needs and feelings of the parties.  


Agreements and resolutions don’t always come together as a package. It is perfectly possible to agree on how to behave in the future but never to feel emotionally satisfied or recognized by that behavior. You may agree to pay a financial settlement but not to apologize, and I will never feel the situation has been resolved without that apology. Agreement, but no resolution.


The emotional level of the dispute, the “underlying issue,” has to be addressed for the dispute to be fully resolved or it will pop up again in the future.


So what does this have to do with work? 


The reasonable approach I mentioned earlier, the one that is no longer successful, is a clear indication that the underlying issues are different this time, and that they may even have been different those other times. Not only are the issues different this time, but maybe they were different those other times, too, and the settlements were not as satisfactory as you thought. People never said anything about them because they may have felt intimidated or powerless, so the parties agreed to something they didn’t want, and you never noticed. 


Next time, take a new look from a new perspective at an old dispute and see whether you need a new approach to settling it as well. Circumstances change; people change; underlying issues change as a result. Maybe this isn’t the same old dispute that can be solved in the same old way. Looking at each dispute as if it were brand new means you won’t be misled by your assumptions and past experiences, and can find those underlying issues unique to each dispute. 


This approach takes more time and work, but it is more successful. What have you got to lose.

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