Power, Rights, and Interests

 Douglas E. Noll

Home Page

 August, 1999

One useful way to look at conflict is in terms of power, rights, and interests. Framing the conflict as a power struggle, assertion of rights, or satisfaction of interests can dramatically affect the process and the outcome. If you are analyzing a conflict, identifying how the parties see the conflict in terms of power, rights, and interests can lead to transformative solutions not otherwise apparent.

 Power is the ability to have one's way against the wishes of another. A very simple example of power is the power of voting. Whether the votes are cast for political office or organizational positions, the voters have the power to choose. People do not like to be coerced by power. Consequently, resolving conflicts by imposition of will seldom leads to peace. However, there are many situations when resolving a conflict by power is appropriate. For example, I do not want a negotiation in the hospital emergency room when I'm suffering from a cardiac arrest. Similarly, in other emergency situations a clear command structure more likely assures safety and security.

 Rights enforcement is the ability to have a third party decide that one may act against the wishes of another. The threat of rights enforcement can be similar to power and used for negotiation purposes. Rights enforcement is commonly conducted through the judicial system, but other systems, such as arbitration or grievance procedures may also be utilized. Rights enforcement usually involves a process of naming, blaming and claiming. When a person's rights have been violated, the violator is usually identifiable. This is naming. Blaming occurs when a causal link is established between the violator and the injury. Claiming follows blaming, usually constituting a demand for redress. Rights enforcement is appropriate when one party to a conflict has systematically oppressed another party. Rights enforcement is also appropriate when one party refuses to acknowledge an injustice or injury. However, rights enforcement leads to more conflict when it is the conflict resolution method of choice. People conditioned to name, blame and claim are less likely to seek peaceful and cooperative resolution of conflict.

 Interests are the things that people wish to have satisfied. Interests are the foundations for positions in negotiations. For example, if in an automobile injury case the plaintiff demands $50,000.00, the plaintiff has stated a position. The interests underlying that position may include compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, medical expenses, and general aggravation from dealing with the accident. In addition, there may be nonmonetary injustices that must be acknowledged and reconciled. Identifying and acknowledging interests often leads to more creative solutions. Furthermore, when conflicts are defined in terms of interests rather than power or rights, people tend to cooperate rather than compete. Satisfying an interest is emotionally easier to accept than compelling action through power or seeking third-party assistance, such as litigation or arbitration.

 If you are analyzing a conflict as a manager, ask yourself if any of the parties are attempting to assert power over the others. Perhaps two people are in a power struggle against one another, seeking to determine who will be dominant in the relationship. Instead of defining the conflict in terms of power, ask the parties to identify the injustices each has suffered and the interests each wishes satisfied. Find out if the parties can work cooperatively to satisfy all of the interests between them. By reframing the conflict as interest based rather than power based, you can move the parties from competitive hostility to cooperative teamwork.

 Similarly, if you are facing an employee asserting rights against the company, see if the conflict can be reframed in terms of interests. Again, injustices may have to be acknowledged. Most employees will be surprised to learn that their rights are quite limited. By reframing the conflict in terms of interests, you can demonstrate to an employee that interest-based problem solving will actually give the employee more than he or she would receive from a rights-based process.

 Power, rights, and interests are ways of a looking at and resolving conflict. Whenever possible, seek interest based resolution, then rights enforcement, and finally, if all else fails, use power-based process. 

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

© 1999, Douglas E. Noll

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