Problem-Solving 101

    Conflict Resolution in a Litigious Society

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    When I was fourteen years old, our neighbor’s cat started doing something that really got under my dad’s skin. Nightly, the crafty little fellow would sneak up on my dad’s beloved Saab convertible to sharpen his claws on one section of the car cover my dad so diligently used. And nightly, the cat would leave evidence of his activities in fresh scratches to the Saab’s paint. To put it lightly, my dad was irked.

    A small sting operation later, the cat had been identified as belonging to our next-door neighbor, a family of four with whom we shared little except a fence in common. But my dad marched on over past that fence and rang the doorbell to talk out a solution to the problem. He acted reasonably, the neighbors responded reasonably, and the problem was resolved.Being decent won the game. Go figure.

    In today’s litigious world of insular living, we often communicate passive aggressively online (my degenerate neighbor’s degenerate cat ruined the paint job on my car ) or just flat-out aggressively (Plaintiff: me, Defendant: neighbor ), but there’s another way. And it’s really, really simple.

    Step One: Be reasonable. Or put another way, act as a thinking, caring human being. Problem solve without trash-talking or attacking. Have reasonable expectations, and try to see the situation from another viewpoint. For instance, if you have a neighbor who throws loud parties that go into the wee morning hours, try talking to that neighbor and finding a mutually agreeable solution.You may be surprised at the outcome.

    Of course, human nature does not always lend itself to the ability of individuals to work things out themselves. People can be belligerent, unreasonable jerks and reasonable complaints go unheeded. So, if you’ve given it the ol’ college try and found the results wanting, consider another approach before declaring an attack.

    Step Two: Enlist the help of an advocate. In an academic setting, this could be a school counselor. They are trained specifically in the art of mediation and problem-solving. In a neighborhood, it could be the homeowner’s association board. Remember that loud party that lasted until two in the morning? It’s probably a violation of the association rules, and the board could help you enforce them.

    And believe it or not, with that troublesome neighbor or a company that has not responded appropriately to an issue, an attorney could also be an advocate.

    Case in point. Another attorney and I helped resolve an issue that some local parents had with the operator of an amusement ride. According to the parents, their child with special needs was physically yanked off a ride by her hair, a situation they found completely unacceptable (as did the other attorney and I). The parents tried to express their complaints but were dissatisfied with the response. They weren’t after money or any other compensation for the trauma they and their daughter experienced.They just wanted an apology and a commitment from the parent company to more fully train their ride operators in how to effectively serve patrons with special needs.

    When the parents came to me, I suggested a letter to the president of the company asking for a simple statement: “I’m sorry, and here’s what we are going to do to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future.” We wrote the letter, and it achieved the desired response. The company issued an apology and instituted a new training program for its employees.

    Of course, it’s not always that simple, but sometimes the pull of an advocate – attorney or not – can help achieve results that were previously denied. It is An unfortunate truth that certain people tend to listen more fully when another individual or an attorney becomes involved. But gaining the attention of the powers that be (or the pesky neighbor) doesn’t have to be combative.An advocate can also urge mediation, coming together, and, ultimately, compromise and resolution. In fact, a skilled advocate should often consider this kind of problem-solving approach first. And if that’s what you want, voice that desire to your advocate.

    Step Three: Know when to walk away. If reason, willingness to compromise, and open dialogue cannot settle the issue, consider the possibility of letting it go. Understandably, some issues need to be resolved and may require more drastic action, but take heed: Taking someone on, especially in the world of social media, may result in the unwanted effect of having your dirty laundry aired as well. And if court is a possibility, consider the costs of litigation. A courtroom battle is costly, in time, money, and emotions.

    There are many roads to closure – just remember that one of them is walking away when the effort outweighs the reward.

    So, use your brain. And your heart. Stand up for your rights and the rights of others, and enlist others to do so as well. And remember to be a decent human being through it all. You may just find that it comes back to you if you have a cat that enjoys sharpening her nails on expensive car covers.

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    Kelly Hall
    Kelly Hall, Esq., is a full-time mom and part-time attorney. She practices law in Richmond.