A Basic 3-Step Model to Help You Resolve a Business Dispute

“This is taking up way more time than its worth”. Those are words I often hear from people weighed down by a business dispute.


As a mediator of business disputes (and other non-criminal civil disputes), here is a basic 3-step framework model that I commonly use to help people move from dispute to resolution. You can use this model, too.

1. Seek to Understand  

Almost everyone finding themselves in a dispute initially see themselves as “right” and the other as “wrong”.

I’ve found the most valuable way to get people to move beyond their win/lose mentality is help them expand their understanding of the situation; including the other’s perspective.

This understanding expansion is typically achieved by:

  • having a way of talking together that is “safe”; inviting inclusive, open conversation
  • active listening; respectively listening, and being curious about them

A safe process, plus active listening, promotes storytelling, sharing of information, and realization of common ground. Note: Safe process aligns with respectful workplace.

2. Identify a Continuum of Options

Disputes often involve multiple issues; e.g., a construction dispute between a general contractor and a sub-contractor may involve contract wording, work quality, and interpersonal issues.

As the parties share more information, I find the issues become both clearer and fragmented. The dark before the dawn. One issue stands out, maybe. Big issues subdivide into smaller issues. As the dispute gets broken down into its component parts, each of those parts serves as opportunity; to identify related solution options.

Essentially, identifying a continuum of dispute resolution options involves:

  • deconstructing the dispute into sub-issues, component parts; i.e., chunking
  • identifying solution options for each of the component parts

A rule of thumb is the more complex the dispute, the greater the divergence, deconstruction, that is required.

3. Negotiate Mutual Agreement

Resolving a dispute involves negotiation. Once the component options (step 2) are identified, their assembly, a reconstruction, into a mutually-beneficial agreement can be negotiated.

Negotiating dispute resolution, like most of life, is part science, part art. The mechanics of the negotiation process; iterative offers, caucusing, solution assembly… still involves people; their intuitions and capacities – trust, creativity, persistence…

At the the end of the day, “good faith” negotiation can lead to a good faith agreement; one in which both parties sign on to; one in which both the specific terms of agreement and the specifics of enforcement (if things go off the rails) are clear.

When its all too much for you

Some people are great at stepping into the other’s shoes, working side-by-side, with their opponent, to reach agreement. Other people find this too much to ask/do. Bringing in a neutral 3rd-party, e.g., mediator, to facilitate the process, can help.

Either way, with or without 3rd-party assistance, when we can safely open up to the other, bring many solution ideas to the table, and negotiate a clear, good faith agreement, we have had a good day.

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