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Focusing on future relationships

The past cannot be changed, so focusing on the future is more fruitful.

What challenges does it focus on?

Let parties talk about the future. Solutions are located in the future.

Short summary

Facilitators say that looking backwards is not useful. Things that went wrong cannot be changed. The past has happened, only the future is open. Solutions are about what happens in the future. A desirable future relationship is a more positive topic than the past where things went wrong. There are a number of ways you can bring the parties to focus on future relationships. Moving from what happened to wishes about what will happen in the future is one of them:

  • Moving to the future only works if the parties understand the past.
  • You can ask open questions about good/happy experiences in the past. In the marriage. When it worked between the neighbors.
  • Rights can be reframed in needs for protection ('need support to feed children', 'desire to live free from fear of violence')
  • Reframe complaints into wishes. "So you would like to be treated with respect in the future?"
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Develop visions about the future

  • Asking whether relationship will continue in some way. When do you encounter each other in daily life? For what will you need each other?
  • Ask about what they would like to see in the future. Ideally, how do you hope the relationship will be?
  • Ask parties to imagine that the dispute is not be solved. How will this affect them?
  • Ask parties to think about the positive actions that have already taken place. For example, what did the parties already do to solve the problem?

The following question lists may be useful in focusing on the future relationship: Asking about the Relationship, Asking about Emotions, Asking about Desired Outcomes

Research evidence

Evidence from practice

Let both parties first tell how they perceived the matter. If people are forced to look into the future without being able to talk about the past, the issues will pop up again and again and will prevent problem-solving.

Re-framing Issues: In Mali facilitators phrase issues not in terms of ‘my rights’ and ‘your rights’ but in terms of harmonious marital life, as a joint problem. Also in Egypt facilitators build understanding in this way to work on the relationship.

A shared vision for the future: For Marital problems facilitators in Cambodia talk about a shared vision of a happy life to bring parties closer together. Parties are asked to reflect on their wishes for the future. Praxis in Azerbaijan helps parties to look back at the 'good times' in their relationship and draw attention to them. They also highlight common interests and their importance in their lives.

Explanation of reasons: Lawyers for Praxis in Azerbaijan are careful to explain the reasons for various sanctions. For example they explain that alimony payments are for the support of the children, not a payment to the mother.

Building trust by making apologies: When a party makes an apalogy facilitators worldwide know that a solution is possible.

Evidence from literature

Seperate the problem from the people and make the problem into a shared challenge. It can be good to sit on the same side on the table to express that it is a shared activity.

Promote apologies; For the offender to re-establish perceptions of his/her benevolent intent, the offender should quickly and voluntarily offer a thorough and sincere apology which conveys remorse for harm inflicted, an explanation of the details surrounding the betrayal, and a promise of future cooperation.

Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. "Trust and Trust Building." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Tips to support parties to settle a dispute:

  • Information management to avoid miscommunication
  • Avoid the coercive imposition of solutions
  • Strive to achieve a common definition of the disputed matter
  • Beware of allocating blame
  • Bargaining tactics in construction disputes
  • Add 'noise' to the conversation to make statements of parties less painful or direct.

Mediation, arbitration and negotiation, Maria Goltsman, Johannes Hörner, Gregory Pavlov, Francesco Squintani 2009

Best practices