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A Peaceful Alternative

By Rev. Peter Soli

            A few years ago a group of angry church members showed up unannounced at the office of the new pastor. They were demanding to know why the locks on the church had been changed. They wanted to know why they could no longer have possession of their church key. While the key issue was central, other issues from the past started coming up. These church members were angry and conflicted.

The new pastor had the advantage of some basic training in conflict resolution and was able to contain his fears, stay calm, and set some ground rules for the meeting. The rules were simple. One person talks at a time. When someone said something you didn’t agree with, before making your point, you had to restate the other person’s view. And, the pastor insisted, “We will keep talking until we reach a win-win solution to our problem.”

The challenge before those church members is the same challenge before families, communities, and countries. How do we resolve our differences in a way that preserves our life together? Alternatives to a win-win solution are several. They are: lose-loses (nobody gets anything), win-lose (I win, you lose), lose-win (I lose, you win) or WIN (I win and I won’t even engage in competition with you.) None of these solutions are as satisfying as a win-win. This is a solution that preserves the relationship, strengthens the community, and sustains our life together. In every other solution there are casualties and relationships begin to crack apart.

I wonder why it is that people do not pursue win-win solutions to their conflicts with the same passion and persistence that people do to defeat the other person. I have come up with two primary reasons.

First of all, we have been taught that the ultimate solution to a conflict is victory over the other. This is the win-lose model. It is a model where domination is always present and it is assumed that there is no alternative. We all recognize this model: “Only the strong survive.” “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Failure is not an option.”  “Win at all costs.” Most of our society believes that the only way to effectively resolve differences is to be strong enough to defeat the opponent and win. As a result, a win-win solution is rarely pursed.

The second obstacle facing us is that while we have been taught how to compete with each other, we have not been taught how to communicate with each other. We simply lack skills to negotiate, share power, and achieve win-win solutions. Without adequate training, practice, or the ability we can’t be expected to work through disagreements constructively.

I believe that many of the problems we have in our community and country are related to our inability to see the value and importance of win-win solutions to our conflicts. I also believe that we can learn ways to better communicate, negotiate, and share power. I look forward to working with others in the area to start a Community Mediation Group that would provide practical help for people in the community. This group would help mediate mutually agreeable solutions and to offer a constructive way to work through disagreements.

I dream of living in a community and a country where one is not rendered powerless because of the power of another or a group. I dream of having decision making processes that are designed to include the voices of all people. I dream of community that pursues with patience and persistence solutions that fairly negotiated, share power, and are win-win.

By the way, the church members in conflict over the locks decided to provide 24 hour access to the building by placing a key in an always accessible breezeway of a member’s house across the street. The problem was resolved and everybody was satisfied.

Peter Soli is pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Alden, MN and a member of Paths to Peace in Freeborn County.  Soli has completed training in conflict transformation and conflict mediation and serves as a resource for congregations in transition or conflict.