In the New York Times “Wealth Matters” column on September 5, 2009, Paul Sullivan wrote about a dispute between neighbors in “Somebody’s Watching … And Ready to Sue.” He described the case of Westport, CT neighbors feuding over a stone wall that cost $170,000 to install in 2005. Since then, the couple that built the wall have spent $150,000 in legal expenses and $50,000 in modifications and inspections of the wall — easily surpassing the cost of the wall itself. The town of Westport also filed a complaint against the owners of the wall, over wetland and property line issues. So now two lawsuits are pending in Superior Court and no end is in sight.
As the author notes, one of the lessons here is to identify in these disputes, “What is the Goal?” Knowing how long you are willing to fight, when you begin, is important but rarely considered. Everyone begins convinced that they are right and they will be vindicated. Then the financial and emotional tolls mount, along with the distraction from all of the other important things in the disputants’ lives.
Knowing what you want to accomplish is important too. In the classic description of conflict resolution, know your “interests”, not just your “positions”. Here, the positions are clear: one side wants the wall just as it is and the other wants it torn down. If the parties explored their underlying interests in a non-confrontational manner, they might find a solution that both sides could live with and bring their conflict to an end.