The Power of Peacemaking

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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May 2003

Despite the fact that the vast majority of conflicts I am called upon to work with resolve within the peacemaking process, I am still in awe of the power of the process.  A recent conflict illustrates my point.

The dispute was based upon an estate. Grandfather died leaving three surviving children. His fourth child was killed in action during the Vietnam War, but left children of his own--two daughters and a son. They were the grandchildren of Grandfather and the nieces and nephews of the surviving children.

Grandfather’s will was not a model of clarity. In the introduction, the will stated:

“I have one deceased child who died leaving no children.”
This statement was clearly wrong in fact.

The ending clause in the will stated:

“If any of my children survive me, the residue of my estate shall be divided into as many shares of equal market value as are necessary to create one share for each of my surviving children and one share for each of my deceased children who die leaving children.  I give each share created for a surviving child outright to that child, and I give each share created for a deceased child with children outright to those children.”
Thus, the clause contemplated that the grandchildren of a deceased child would inherit a share equally with the other children.

The lawsuit framed the issue very clearly as a win-lose proposition.  The surviving children claimed that because of the introduction, Grandfather did not intend to make a gift to the grandchildren. Thus, the children were entitled each to 1/3rd of the estate.

The grandchildren claimed that the ending clause clearly granted them a ¼ interest in Grandfather’s estate that would be shared equally among them.  If the matter proceeded to trial, one side would clearly win and the other side would clearly lose.  The problem was predicting who the winner would be.  The parties had scheduled the mediation for a full day, and I estimated it might take all of a day plus some to come to resolution.

After listening to each side’s perspectives, including the personal perspectives of the children and grandchildren, the legal perspectives offered by their very competent attorneys, and the business perspective offered by the executor of the estate, I concluded that this matter could not be resolved by traditional negotiation and compromise. Consequently, I engaged the parties and their attorneys in an interest-based process.

As everyone articulated their interests, some interesting information surfaced.  No one was really interested in the money. Everyone wanted to respect Grandfather’s wishes.  The grandchildren wanted to be respected and accepted as members of the family.  (Their mother had remarried and had apparently not maintained a close relationship with Grandfather.)  The grandchildren also wanted their father to be respected and his memory to be treated fairly. The executor, who was one of Grandfather’s sons, was concerned about the welfare of his sister and brother.  They were getting older and needed financial security.  All of a sudden, the discussion turned away from winning and losing to problem-solving.  How could these interests all be satisfied?

Other than for a brief private meeting, the parties never went into separate caucuses or meetings. All of the discussions were face-to-face and actually became amicable.  The hostility and anger of the first hour had transformed to a cooperative, collaborative atmosphere.  Three hours after starting and to everyone’s surprise, we had an agreement.

This conflict typifies a common situation:  Parties tend to look at their disputes from a competitive, “I have to win; you have to lose” perspective.  This is often an illusion masking the underlying interests. They will never agree on who’s interpretation of the will is correct.  If they cannot get past that win-lose perception, trial will be inevitable.  Of course, the trial outcome will destroy relationships, be costly, and leave a winner and a loser. 

The peacemaking process ignores the superficial characterization of the conflict as a competition to be won or lost.  Peacemaking focuses on the interests and injustices of the parties and invites a collaborative conversation about how to satisfy all interests with minimal compromise and, as much as possible, to make right all injustices.  Even though I have seen the power of peacemaking work in the most intractable disputes, I am still amazed by its power.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2003, Douglas E. Noll