Episode 18: Authority, Rights, Interests
In this episode, we consider three major approaches to resolving conflict — exercising our power or authority, invoking our rights, or satisfying our interests through collaboration.
When a conflict arises, someone with authority may simply make a decision. They may use their power or authority to put an end to the dispute. This is very efficient. It takes very little time. However, it may generate resentment or it may be met with non-compliance.
A second approach is turning to the law to determine our rights. The law sets boundaries we must honor. As a result, we may engage in adversarial litigation in order to establish our rights, impose our rights on another, or defend our rights against the claims of others.
The third approach involves working together to satisfy our interests. In this approach, we explore our interests, our needs, and our motivations as we seek creative solutions that will bring satisfaction to all parties.
In the Church setting these approach might be represented by a bishop using his authority and making a decision, a tribunal rendering a verdict based on canon law, or parties mediating and seeking a shared solution.
Scripture suggests how we should begin. In Matthew 18:15 we read: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” This passage advises us to take a conciliatory approach. We work with our brother to find a common solution to our dispute.
Matthew 18:16 reads: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Make sure the one or two you take with you are neutral. Any perceived bias may only escalate the conflict. For this reason, a mediator makes a perfect choice for someone to go with you to meet your brother.
In the next verse, Matthew 18:17, we read: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Here we turn to a legal option or authority. We seek a verdict or a decision.
Reflect on scripture. Which process will you use as you begin conflict resolution? How might you design a process that begins with a conciliatory gesture and leads to collaboration? In what situations might you need to switch processes? When might you need to switch from interests to rights or interests to authority? For example, if you are unable to reach a settlement agreement with another might you appeal to an authority for a decision?
The important point to remember is these steps are flexible. Jesus taught us to go to our brother with a gesture of conciliation and, then, depending on how we are able to work with our brother, or not, we may move through the other steps.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, we usually get this backward. We appeal to an authority to intercede on our behalf. If we fail in that step we may go to court and attempt to enforce our rights. We may try to get a judge or jury to find on our behalf. And then, perhaps while we are in court, someone suggests that we mediate and we begin to talk to one another and work on a collaborative approach to solving the dispute. So typically we get it backward.
Jesus gave us the structure. He gave us the sequence of events. So now we just have to build our conflict resolution processes to fit with that structure. We start with a conciliatory gesture. If that fails and only if that fails do we seek to impose our rights. And if that fails, we seek for the judge or some other authority or power to intervene and lay down the law, to make a decision, to give forth an edict, to render a verdict in our favor.
These processes can also be mixed. For example, you may have filed a lawsuit but now realize that it’s better to mediate. So while you are waiting for the court date you can meet with the other party and see if there isn’t a way you can collaborate on getting the greatest mutual benefit for both of you.
So, the next time you find a conflict looming on the horizon consider how Jesus would have approached the situation. Start with a conciliatory approach. Make a warm gesture. Lead with your heart. And only if you experience an impasse should you seek to impose your rights or appeal to an authority to find on your behalf.
God bless you and bring you peace.