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Equality, equity and need: Answering the $10 question

The perception of fairness is a critical issue in any human conflict. People compare what they have or do not have with what others have and make judgments about the differences. When the judgment is that I am entitled to more or she is entitled to less, a perception of unfairness develops.

In conflict terms, fairness involves relationship and identity goals. In relationships, fairness implies that people are being treated equally, or they are being treated in accordance with their contribution or effort, or they are being treated according to need.

When equality, equity, and need are out of balance in a relationship, people perceive unfairness. For example, two partners may develop a conflict if one partner is producing more than the other, but their compensation remains equal. The big producer will sense unfairness because she is contributing more and therefore should receive more (equity), while the lesser producer will sense unfairness because they are equal partners and should be treated the same (equality). Both partners hold perceptions of unfairness, although their perceptions are based on different comparisons.

Fairness relates to identity as people create self-esteem by measuring their self-worth against others. If a person is treated unfairly, a challenge to that person's identity may occur. Essentially, being treated unfairly is perceived as a denial of a right to claim equal membership in a group. At a primal level, this means that the person perceiving unfairness feels like his claim on the survival resources of food, shelter and sex are diminished. We don't articulate unfairness as being so basic, but our brains are responding to it as such a rejection. At a certain level, unfairness is consequently perceived as a threat to survival. This is why the perception of unfairness can lead to a conflict escalation.

Judging for fairness is a very powerful, ingrained human attribute. To demonstrate this, I often use an interesting exercise in my workshops, seminars and lectures. I ask for two volunteers. I spread out 10 one dollar bills and tell them that they must come to a mutual agreement on how to divide the money. If they cannot agree, they get none of it. I also give a secret instruction to one of the parties. That instruction is that the party cannot settle the division for anything less than $6. That is, the person receiving the secret instruction cannot agree to any division that gives her less than $6.

The dilemma is clear. To the person without the secret instruction, the problem seems simple: divide the money 50/50 and call it a profitable 30 seconds. Imagine that person's surprise when the other party says No, can't do that. And then imagine the further surprise when the other party suggests a 60/40 split. Inevitably, the parties reach an impasse, and my $10 is safe. Even though each party could have been better off by taking the gains to be made from agreement, the perception of unfairness prevented resolution of the conflict.

This phenomenon occurs frequently in serious conflicts. Even though a solution to the conflict would give both sides more than they have right now or cut their losses, an impasse will occur if one side perceives that the other side is receiving more than what is thought to be fair.

Dealing with perceptions of unfairness cannot be accomplished through argument or explanation because the perception is usually not created by a rational process. Instead, comparisons are emotional and intuitive. A simple peacemaking technique is to face the perception squarely by asking: "Could you share how you have experienced your injustices in this conflict?"

By empowering people to talk about their experiences and perceptions, what has been hidden is now open for inspection and reflection. When that has occurred, simply ask: How can we make things right? This invites a discussion about restoring fairness between the parties and inevitably leads to collaborative problem-solving. Ignoring or devaluing the perception of unfairness will, however, lead to either impasse or escalation.

Noll is a lawyer trained as a peacemaker. His practice is devoted to working with conflicts when litigation is not an option. He may be reached at doug.noll@sddt.com.

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