Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Resolving Community Disputes

January 27, 2003

How do we resolve issues that involve the community or the public at large? More and more people are feeling disengaged from the political process. Governing is left up to people with positions of power and authority.

Too many people take a passive role. Other than voting, they don't get involved in the political process. In the climate of partisan politics and special interest groups, much of what happens is behind closed doors. True participation in community life seems to be a thing of the past.

One difficulty is that people are unfamiliar about how to resolve controversial issues in a problem-solving way. People are afraid. They wonder about retribution for giving strong opinions. Or they worry about what others will think of them.

Avoiding conflict as a way of getting along. Personal relationships benefit when people minimize conflict and are accepting of one another. Of course there are always issues that need good communication and negotiating skills. Overlooking inconsequential differences and maintaining good will enhances relationships. Personal relationships hinge on values of belonging, harmony and unconditional love.

In their families, friendships and close relationships, people are drawn together through common goals and values. They are loyal to each other. The process for solving problems in the private arena is based on principles that foster bonding and consensus. Differences are overlooked or are not addressed.

In community life, the metaphor of the "family" and family relationships is often used as a model for how relationships should be handled. In many cases, it may be the wrong model to use when trying to solve public problems where people have strongly differing viewpoints and concerns.

Conflict in family business is similar to community conflict. Families who are in business together make important distinctions between the business and private relationships by conducting family business meetings where conflict is necessary to keep the business sharp and profitable. Here they have an arena for dealing with conflict and solving problems. After the meeting is over, their differences in business ideas are put aside and they get on with being family again.

If family business meetings aren't held, important problems and differences don't get resolved. By the same token, if there isn't enough interaction and public dialogue about important community issues, problems fester and important issues aren't addressed.

People who are well practiced in political arts can distinguish between what are private and public issues. They can shift to a different style of problem-solving.

Political skills. What can a community do to effectively resolve political differences?

- Include all concerned parties. Get everyone involved who needs to be involved. The trick with good politics is to widen the base to include the diverse interests of all the major players. Challengers and even enemies who have a stake in the problem are personally invited to be a part of the process. This way community solutions will be better and more lasting than if the political process is left in the hands of those who share common views.

- Figure out your goals. Identify your own self-interest, motives and concerns for being involved with the issue. Encourage others to state briefly their involvement with the issue, their concerns, and what needs to be done. This process will sensitize everyone to diverse viewpoints that are legitimate and need to be considered.

- Provide safety for participants. Create a safe environment. Set up ground rules for discussion and debate. The moderator should not be wedded to the issues being discussed. Having an outside moderator come in and fill this role will equalize power between elected officials and the public. This encourages interaction with the public. The skill and diplomacy of the moderator determines to a large extent feelings of fairness for the way the process is handled.

The ground rules should include: no personal attacks, strict time limits to be set for all speakers and responses, discussion to be limited to the issue at hand, participants are expected to control their anger, and there will be no private retribution for comments made in a public setting. The process of the meeting needs to be fair and respectful of everyone’s dignity.

- Understanding each other’s issues is the key. With all of the major players present, spend time defining the problem from different perspectives and to everyone's satisfaction. Problem solving will go better when conflicting opinions are brought out and understood. If people feel listened to, understood and feel their concerns have been addressed, then their willingness to accept and support solutions improves dramatically.

- Explore alternative ways of solving the problem. The art of negotiating is understanding and appreciating the other’s interests and finding solutions that meet their needs as well as your own. A classic book on negotiations is, "Getting to Yes," by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

- Decide and unite. Select a course of action and get an agreement on a common strategy for solving the problem. Clarify everyone's roles and responsibilities for carrying out actions adopted by the group. The coalition of diverse interests should demonstrate a shared commitment to solving the problem.

- Follow through. Hold people accountable for doing what they say they are going to do. Actions should reflect commitments made in the meeting.