In order to resolve a dispute, how much do you compete with the other party, treating him or her as an adversary? And, how much do you collaborate and work with him or her for your mutual benefit? Collaboration versus competition is a central quandary in dispute resolution.
Collaboration entails being respectful and supportive of the other party. You build trust that allows you to share the important information required to generate an optimal solution. You also foster a cooperative engagement that recruits collective creativity and imagination to bear on the joint problem presented by the conflict.
In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury write that one should support the other party in equal measure to attacking the problem and they advise one to try and satisfy the other party’s interests as well as one’s own interests. This sounds like a useful guide to being collaborative, but should we really try to fully actualize it?
In Western societies we embrace different understandings of competition. Being competitive can be associated with being mean or aggressive. On the other hand, it is acceptable to compete and win an employment position, or to win an election. More significantly, competition can bring out the best in people, for example in athletics and in fostering the development of better products in the market place. In conflict too, debate and argument have a role to play in constructive engagement. Competing over different views of reality or different options can sometimes yield a better outcome for both parties.
We may miss the benefits that adversarial competitive engagement has to offer if we constantly strive to be collaborative.
Psychology has demonstrated that we have cognitive biases. These are unconscious processes that distort how we evaluate situations. Unconscious means we are not aware of them, and that it may not be possible to be aware of them.
One cognitive bias is that our standards of fairness reflect self-interest. In a Harvard Business School study described in Chapter 2 of the book Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton & Heen), subjects randomly assigned to evaluate a business as a prospective seller or buyer varied their estimates, depending on what role they were playing, by 60 percent when asked to come up with a fair market value.
It is difficult not to compete for what your experience tells you is fair. People are not usually trying to be unfair. The problem is that what seems fair to each party has self-interest unconsciously factored into it.
To value the interest of the other party in an equivalent manner to your own interest may just not be possible.
In summary, being collaborative may not always be beneficial, and it may not even be possible. I promote collaboration; however, I think we are kidding ourselves if we think we can be fully collaborative. Elements of competition leak in.
Rather than thinking we can be fully collaborative, it may be wiser to consider what aspects of both collaboration and competition are wise to embrace in order to engage effectively in a dispute resolution process for a particular conflict.