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Within limits: honoring the finite at the mediation table

Mediators and negotiators are familiar with the concept of the fixed pie versus the expanding one. In traditional negotiation, there is only one pie to be divided, and everyone wants to claim the largest piece. In principled negotiation, we talk of expanding the pie — of creating value so that everyone’s needs are met. In fact, many of us who practice principled negotiation promote the notion that the pie and possibilities are infinite and that the only limits are those our own imaginations set.

An essay that appeared in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine titled, “Faustian economics: hell hath no limits“, made me wonder whether we aren’t overselling that aspect of mediation and negotiation. In reality, in hard economic times, pies are indeed limited, as resources dwindle, grow more costly, or vanish altogether. Maybe, instead of raising false hopes of an infinitely expanding pie, perhaps we should inspire those in conflict or in negotiation to work creatively — even heroically — within the limits they face.

In this essay, author and critic Wendell Berry takes a long, merciless look at America’s consumerism and its enduring belief in the fable of unlimited economic growth. Condemning America’s “national faith” in “‘There’s always more’”, Berry writes,

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable — a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

He pinpoints the source for our mistaken belief and reveals what we miss when we focus on limitlessness and not limits:

If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe’s Faustus and Milton’s Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlowe and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake…

On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

Although Berry is talking about an entire way of life, what he says rings true for negotiation and mediation. Here he describes how limits can in fact produce works that astonish us with their beauty or power:

It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

As people struggle to obtain justice, create value, make meaning, save relationships, or reclaim dignity, here, then, is the mediator’s art: to draw upon the force that gives form to marble or color to canvas, to help them discover their own virtuosity.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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