Country people can’t avoid one another. Whether it’s in business or social life, sooner or later they have to be civil with pretty much everyone in the district and beyond. When things go wrong – fires, floods, accidents and illnesses – they need to be able to depend on one another.
For country people, relationships and reputations are the foundations of functional communities. Some of those relationships will have to last for decades. Conflict wrecks relationships and reputations, wastes time and money. The longer a dispute drags on, the more people become locked into position. They forget that a win in this fight may be an expensive long-term loss.
Family disputes are usually caused by divorce and succession planning. In addition to the substantial intergenerational business assets at stake, emotions run high. If family dispute degenerates to the point of legal action, costs eat away at everyone’s assets, multiplying the damage by bringing new people into the dispute and eroding the integrity of the family unit.
Non-family business disputes may be lower-stakes emotionally, but the financial costs can be high and the reputational costs irreversible. Country businesses generally run on slim margins and few staff. The ones that prosper stay lean and are constantly looking for new ways to generate value. It makes no sense to spend time on disputes that aren’t generating value.
In both cases, the temptation is to resort to legal action to win the dispute, leaving the loser to wear the costs. Legal action is expensive, time consuming and has the potential to become public. Everyone loses control and embarrassing information can be revealed. Going to Court when it’s not absolutely necessary is just one example of how dispute and good decisions rarely go together.
People in dispute in country communities are really exposed because they have to live with the outcome of the dispute for a long time. Resolving disputes quickly and discreetly preserves reputations and relationships. Done well, nobody else need ever know that the people had ever disagreed.
To get a good long-term outcome, they need to define – early – what a win is for them. When money is involved, treating disputes like any other business activity gets brings people back to rationality. What is a resolution worth, financially and reputationally? How much time and money should be invested in ending the dispute? When is it time to cut your losses? Do you want to be right or happy?
Early in dispute, before people get fixed is position, is where mediation can really work to give country people good long term outcomes. Both parties can step back, assess the situation, discreetly make an agreement that works and move on.
Neither of them will get everything they want, but the Court alternative – an agreement imposed by someone else that may not work anyway – is rarely preferable.
Kath Logan is a mediator who specializes in working with country families and businesses who are in dispute. www.kathlogan.com.au