Dealing with Disputes
In business, as in life, sometimes the proverbial $hit hits the fan. Every time it happens all our logic and reasoning fly out the window and we want to crush whoever’s screwed us over. I know, I know. We all do it – we’re only human (me included).
So, what’s my point? Well, my Dad has this saying he dishes out every time I did something naughty as a child (or as a grown woman, whatever): “I don’t get mad, I just get even.” I’m going to suggest something radical, and say next time someone does the dodgy, you do just that.
Get into the right frame of mind
The first step to resolving a dispute quickly, cheaply and as stress-free as possible, is to take the emotion out of it.
“Easier said than done”, I hear you say. I get it.
To convince you it’s worth the effort, I’m going to give you an example. The other day, a co-working colleague of mine was fuming over an unpaid invoice. The guy seemed to be jerking her around – ignoring emails, sending snarky messages, and so on. She was asking me for advice on the latest email reply when I suggested she pick up the phone. I instantly saw the beads of sweat forming.
As women, we’re fairly confrontation-averse (OK, so I’m making a massive generalisation, but stay with me for a minute). We’re trained from a young age to “get along”. We’re nurturers, not fighters. We provide for our families by forming relationships. If our pre-historic ancestors screamed bloody murder every time their cave-husband came home later than expected, the human race possibly wouldn’t have made it this far. Like it or not, we’re genetically wired to avoid confrontation, so when you’re faced with the prospect of confronting someone face-to-face (or the closest technology-enabled modern equivalent, phone-to-phone), it’s natural and normal to feel nervous.
There a couple of tips and tricks to turn the situation on its head, and get you thinking clearly. Try these:
- Deep breathing: this one’s a classic and I dare anyone to say it doesn’t work. In my view, deep breathing exercises are a cure for just about everything. When you first get hit with a stressful situation (an angry, shouty all-caps email, let’s say), your blood pressure spikes, your temperature rises and your breathing either speeds right up or stops. Stepping away for a moment, finding a quiet place and practising deep breathing (in for 6, hold for 6, out for 6, repeat – or try breathing in deeply and saying to yourself “relax” as you breathe all the way out, slowly) is a great way to bring your system back to normal so you can think clearly. Stress releases cortisol and adrenaline into our system, which helped us survive in caveman days, but when it comes to business, this hormone release makes us stupid. You need to clear your system as quickly as possible, so you can start making smart decisions about how you’re going to deal with your situation.
- Ask yourself: is it worth it? Apart from the time, energy and stress that go into fighting someone on something, you also need to think about the opportunity cost. While you’re busy arguing, you’re losing time and money you could be spending on finding new and better customers, innovating in your business or inspiring your team. In many cases, instead of wasting that time and money worrying about the past, you can invest it into making money that replaces it (sometimes several times over).
- White light: the white light trick is one that I used successfully and in combination with the other techniques here in the most stressful situation of my life (think: sitting through a meeting with your ex-boss while she lobs abuse at you for a full 30 minutes, until she’ll finally hand over the paperwork you need to get the hell out of there). Here’s how you do it: breathe in, envision yourself breathing in a bright, white light, breathe out, breathe in again and envision the light filling you and expanding out from you – keep going until you’ve got a circle of glowing white light radiating out from you. Practice this before and even during a stressful confrontation. The white light will help you feel safe and protected from your adversary, which brings me to my next point.
- Take yourself out of the picture: you know how when a friend is telling you about a problem they’re having, and you can see really clearly what they should do to fix it, but they just can’t seem to grasp it? They just keep going on and on, even though the solution is staring them in the face, they just can’t see it (or don’t want to). It’s about perspective and their lack of it. And when you’re in the midst of a crisis, neither do you. Work on getting some by “reading back” your situation, as if it were someone else in your situation. Pretend it’s happening to a colleague or friend. Work on being objective. Think about the advice you’d give them. By taking yourself out of the position, you can get that little bit of space you need to identify solutions.
Taking things into your own hands
Aside from preventing disputes entirely, the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to deal with disputes is usually to handle it yourself. How? Well, many seemingly huge disputes are simple misunderstandings solved by a phone call (not another passive-aggressive email). At the end of the day, we’re all humans – we all make mistakes and we’re all looking for connection – jump on the phone and see if you can sort out the issue.
If it’s not a misunderstanding, it’s time to move on to the next step, which is finding some common ground and searching for a solution that suits everyone. You might not be able to tie it up completely in one phone conversation, but it’s certainly where you should start. People often want to put everything in writing, so they have a record in writing, but this can unnecessarily delay and escalate things. Don’t let misunderstandings and poor word choice get in the way of a resolution and end up in court prematurely because you refused to get on the phone.
Finding mutual ground can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The biggest obstacle that brings most dispute resolution negotiations to an end? Neither party will “give” at all. If you’re planning on trying to bully the other side into seeing your side of things and paying up (or doing whatever it is you want them to do), you’re going nowhere fast. Negotiating involves both sides giving a little, in the interest of resolving the issue and (hopefully) salvaging the relationship or, at the very least, moving on with as little damage as possible.
Get the right advice
If you’ve given the DIY dispute resolution a go and you’re still not getting anywhere, it might be time to get some professional advice. It may be that your lawyer will tell you your case is a loser, that you should have settled on the last offer they made and then ask for thousands up front before they’ll even send a letter. The other possibility is that he/she will look at the situation and tell you that you’re in the right, that your prospects of a successful lawsuit are high and offer to file that day. Whoa, Nelly! Slow it down.
Once you’ve got a professional opinion on where you stand, it’s often worthwhile making one last-ditch effort to resolve it on your own before you get the lawyers involved (after all, if you spend thousands on a lawyer and end up no better off, who’s the real winner? Hint: starts with L, ends in R, has 6 letters.
The next logical step is to trot off to mediation. Now, if it’s a contract claim at the heart of the dispute, your contract might require you to go to mediation before you do anything else. This is a good thing – it’s cheaper, less formal and faster than court. If you’re not obliged to go to mediation, my advice is to do it anyway (and fast, before the other side files a lawsuit) – courts are sending lots of people to mediation before hearing now anyway, so you’ll probably end up here at some point.
Mediation isn’t court. It’s an assisted dispute resolution procedure. You get together with your adversary (and your lawyers, if you want) and a mediator – an independent person (usually an ex-lawyer or judge) who can help each side understand the other’s point of view.
The mediator can’t give advice, but they will help you try to reach an agreement. There’ll be breaks out during the session, where you go off to discuss your position with your lawyer/partner/husband. The idea is to give you some space to consider what’s been said and see if you can come up with a solution. This back-and-forth can go on all day. If you reach an agreement, you sign the paperwork and you’re on your way. Hooray! If not, everything that’s been said is kept confidential and you take the next step…
Interested in reading more about alternative dispute resolution? Read our article on finding the right technique to resolve your dispute here.
To be honest, I don’t know anyone who wants to end up here (except lawyers, obviously). If you’ve reached this point, you’ve either got a fantastically intractable, complicated dispute or you’re a “Principle Person” (full disclosure: these are a litigation lawyer’s dream – they’ll push on past the point of commercial sense, paying lawyers even if they’ve got little chance of success because “it’s the principle of the matter.”)
If you’re the latter, the only advice I can give you is to cut your losses and move on. If you fall into the former camp, however, you’re in the right place. Court is never fun, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Focus on hiring the right lawyer for you (someone you feel comfortable with, who listens to you, respects you and has experience and expertise in the right areas), giving them everything they need (above all, honesty) and taking their advice.
Most importantly, don’t throw good money after bad – if the case takes a turn and your chances of success are slim, don’t be afraid to cut and run. Ignore this advice at your peril – you’re staring down the chamber of being a “Principle Person”.
If you’re able to resolve your issue at negotiation stage, and there’s not too much at stake, you might choose to document your agreement simply. Say, in an email.
If there’s a lot at stake, or if you’ve put a lot of time/money/energy into a formal resolution process, you’re probably going to want a settlement agreement.
This is an agreement that documents what each party has agreed to do to resolve the dispute and puts an end to it. If one of the parties tries to sue on the dispute, the agreement can be produced, and the court action shut down swiftly.
On the other hand, if the agreement is breached, it can sometimes contain an admissions clause, which can help bring the action together in more time at all.
If you settle at mediation or once Court proceedings are on foot (and you always want to be trying to settle, as you go along), your lawyer will put together a formal settlement agreement for you.
The True Cost of a Dispute
At the end of the day, disputes are one of the biggest business time, money and energy-sucks around. The cost of a dispute usually far outweighs the potential upside (i.e. a win). Even in cases where you do come out victorious, the question is – at what cost? Protracted court battles have been known to end marriages, bring on bankruptcy and lead to mental health issues. Aim to prevent disputes at all costs or, if they’re unavoidable, resolve that as quickly as possible. The key? Good communication and good advice.