Legal Commentary by Monte Vines

Survey Results: Do People Think They Want to Resolve Their Disputes Fairly?

Justice statue at old courthouse close up
Lady Justice at Old Sedgwick County Courthouse

People in a dispute sometimes believe that their adversary has no concern for finding a resolution that would be fair but is instead determined to get a resolution they know would be unfair. Having an adversary like that could suggest taking a strongly adversarial or “warfare” approach to resolving the dispute. On the other hand, if both parties would like to find a fair resolution but they have very different ideas of what would be fair, then that could suggest the wisdom of taking a much different approach—a problem-solving approach.

Over the years, I’ve observed many different people in their efforts to get resolutions of their legal disputes—and how often a party tries to get a resolution they know would be unfair.

To test my own experience on that, I asked in my last blog post for readers to take a confidential one-question survey about what kind of resolution they would try to get in their own dispute.

Here is the question again.

In a dispute, I would try to get a resolution that is:

  • Fair to both parties
  • Unfair, and to my advantage
  • Unfair, and to the other party’s advantage
  • Other

I defined a “fair” resolution to be one that gives the parties what they deserve or what would be right in light of the facts of the dispute and the law that governs their actions.

I asked readers to answer with what they really thought or felt, and not in a way they thought they “should” answer or how someone might expect them to answer. I explained that the survey was confidential, so no one would be able to see who gave what responses and they could be free to answer honestly.

The Survey Results

Over 90% answered that they would try to get a resolution that is fair to both parties. A few responded that they would try to get a resolution that was unfair and to their advantage. Two said they would try to get a resolution that is unfair but to the other party’s advantage. There were a few miscellaneous “others.”

People had the opportunity to give a short explanation of their answer and many did. Here are some of the explanations:

  • It would be great to have both parties get a fair resolution!
  • Lasting agreements need to be fair. The parties may need to do business again.
  • Try to make it a win-win. My emotions can get the best of me, but I try to put myself in their place and in their position too.
  • Because that is the right thing to do, pure and simple. In business, if you do the right thing everything else falls into place.
  • God loves me and the other party. “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” 1 John 4:20
  • While fairness would be my goal, my experience tells me the other party usually wants a resolution that is more to their advantage than I see as fair.

Do these responses surprise you? Were you expecting many more people to say they would try to get a resolution that is unfair and to their advantage? I’ll be the first to admit that this was not a scientific survey. There are reasons these responses might be more in favor of “fairness to both parties” than an accurate gauge of society as a whole.

First, this survey was not sent out to a representative sample of society. They are mostly business and professional people. So their disputes are more likely to be with someone they may expect to do business with again. Many readers are members of a Rotary Club, like me, and are encouraged to live by Rotary’s “Four-Way Test” which includes whether their actions are “fair to all concerned.” Second, participation was voluntary. Even though the survey was confidential, answering that they would try to get an unfair resolution might feel uncomfortable to some people, even if that would be an honest answer. So those people might have decided not to respond at all. Third, if someone would try to get an unfair resolution, would they necessarily give an honest answer to this question?

Nevertheless, these responses are generally consistent with what I’ve observed in my career of helping clients resolve their legal disputes—observing my clients as well as their adversaries. In my experience, most people consider themselves to be fair-minded. Of course, that observation does not by itself solve any legal disputes, for adversaries who consider themselves to be fair-minded often have different views of what a fair resolution of their dispute would be—sometimes very different views. But if both adversaries consider themselves to be fair-minded, then that often provides a solid basis for using a problem-solving approach to working through the differences as opposed to fighting it out through a “warfare” approach.

I plan to write more about how fairness works in resolving disputes in later posts—including why so many people said they would try to get a resolution that is fair to both parties when that may not match your own experience of dealing with adversaries.

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