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Attention World: Frustration Does Not Equal Dispute!

Recently one of my mediation students gave me a powerful insight about disputes and what they are not! The example of this student’s belief made me aware of a dynamic that is too often revealed in every level of modern life. It is based on our assumptions about the meaning of our needs and how the world should respond to them.

A homework assignment asked the student to describe a personal dispute in which they were currently involved and apply a dispute analysis to the scenario. looking at positions, interests, costs if dispute not resolved, and effect of the dispute on others. This student picked a situation where she had rented a movie from a rental store only to find that the video was not at all what she expected. She knew the store had a “bad movie” policy which refunded the rental fee or gave free rental in exchange. She took the video back to the store and obtained a refund. However, the student continued to treat the situation as a dispute, trying to make the facts fit through the dispute analysis. The fit was a poor one and her grade reflected it!

What happened? A need of the student was frustrated. But she assumed that her being frustrated automatically meant there was a dispute. Someone had to be at blame for her disappointment. This attitude colored her thinking and how she was going to approach the rental store. She was loaded for bear!

Persons like Abraham Maslow helped us organize our thinking about needs and how they work. These insights point us to an understanding of how needs interact and can collide for both the individual and in relationship. What Maslow described was how nature works when left to its own devices.

It is also recognized that we have the freedom to choose a different course than the subconscious mechanisms that help us survive as a specie. This freedom has elevated the specie to the heights of its development. It has been our ability to choose that has given us the opportunity to be gracious, charitable, and noble. It is our failure to use this freedom that draws us down, and lets nature take its course, at any cost.

Using these insights, I define a dispute as a “collision of needs”, that is, two parties perceive that they are unable to satisfactorily meet their own individual needs because the other party’s individual’s actions interfere with that goal. This is what leads to disagreement and the atmosphere of a dispute. Recurring disputes between the same parties typically produce conflict as a condition of their relationship and the stakes are substantially raised and the whole tenor of the situation qualitatively changes and becomes all encompassing.

However, in this student’s scenario there was no collision of needs, there was no disagreement! Her expectation that someone had to be responsible for her disappointment was a faulty assumption all too often assumed in today’s world. This view of life tends to operate on the unspoken principle that the world is here to serve the individual and frustration is the failure of someone or something to fulfill that principle. Hence, fault needs to be assigned and this ego-centric approach to life is primed for seeing disputes where they do not exist, as in this student’s scenario.

The assumption that a frustration equals a dispute is a costly approach to life. It effects the way in which the frustrated person

  • views situations,
  • approaches their coping skill development,
  • assigns meaning to life experience,
  • adopts a character of quality,
  • uses their personal resources,
  • interacts with others, and
  • creates costs for others.

The use of blame as a method to meet life’s needs fosters a distortion that

  • robs the individual of opportunities to develop their capacity for inner strength,
  • separates them from potential quality relationships,
  • fosters a persistent state of unhealthy vulnerability, and
  • cripples the use of talents for problem solving.

The result is the application of a rational process that says that when things do not go well, there has to be opposition. There is no room in this way of thinking for naivete, inaccurate assumption, real time limits, misapplication of effort, seemly random circumstances – Stuff doesn’t happen: someone is responsible!

This student’s homework was a microcosm of a prevalent modern attitude. We can see the same dynamic revealed in homes, schools, work places, board rooms, even in the halls of justice and government. Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture, speaks of this rational dynamic in terms of how it is acted out in the media: for every view there is a counter view. Such a view of life and the world is predisposed to see demons at every opportunity. It is no wonder that persons today believe that for every frustration there has to be a dispute. However, the last time that was probably absolutely true for me, I needed my diaper changed!


Evan Ash

Evan Ash has been a domestic mediator in Kansas’s Tenth Judicial District since 1995, and serves as the supervisor for its clinical mediation programs. His mediating experience began informally as a chaplain, and later with the Wichita Neighborhood Justice Center. He has taught mediation courses at Johnson County Community College… MORE >

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