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The Preferred Path Steps

Whether your goal is to enhance communication, build consensus on a specific topic, or resolve conflict involving individuals and/or groups, the Preferred Path steps offer a road map for achieving more satisfying, less costly, and more durable outcomes.

The steps can be applied unilaterally, with no cooperation from “the other side”. Or you can use this site with other individuals and groups as a common guide and point of reference.

The steps on the Preferred Path can be group into beginningmiddle, and last resort phases.

  • Steps 1 and 2 are for preparation, reviewing what you already know, planning to collect new information, and honoring civility as you get underway.
  • Steps 3 and 4 are the engagement steps: listening and speaking directly with another person or group, with the option of facilitation or mediation by mutually agreeable third party if that is needed.
  • Steps 5 and 6 are for decisions by higher authorities, and as back up, a range of other actions that may be taken if the matter is not resolved through the first five steps.

While you can “loop forward” at any time, experience suggests it’s best to follow the steps in order.]

Step 1 - Prepare

“Begin with the end in mind” captures the essence of Step 1. If you are entering a communication or dialogue event, what do you hope to learn? If this is a conflict, what sort of outcome to you seek? An apology? Restitution or punishment? Corrective action?

In each of these circumstances you can help your cause if you take a few moments to note what you believe you already know about the situation, and what information you hope to gather along the way.

    • Pause to review the challenge before you
    • Consider what you know and don’t know about parties, interests, and other facts.
    • Review the steps ahead for reaching solutions.

Step 2 - Follow the Golden Rule

Found in many cultures, the Golden Rule reminds us to “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” and “Don’t do to others things you would not like to have done to you.”

We feature it in Step 2 to help you increase the likelihood that you will achieve your goals as you move through the remaining steps on the Preferred Path.

    • What actions can you take to improve the situation?
    • Commit to “do to others as you would have them do to you” on the topic before you.

Step 3 - Talk and Listen Collaboratively

Step 3 is the main event on the Preferred Path.  Here you will communicate your thoughts and concerns, listen to the views of others, and work to create a solution acceptable to all. Does this sound like too tall an order to fill? It may be, in which case you can ask a mediator or facilitator to help (Step 4).

    • Speak with the other person about the issue.
    • Listen to achieve understanding.
    • Seek a mutually agreeable solution.

Step 4 - Request Facilitation of Mediation

If Step 3 conversations fail, or if you are afraid of even being in the room with an adversary, then help from a facilitator or mediator might be the treatment of choice. But how can a facilitator (informal help) or mediator (formal help) make a difference, especially if the parties have already tried to reach agreement and have failed?

The answer from the front lines is two-fold. First, in confidential private meetings (sometimes called caucuses) parties often reveal key interests, facts and matters of the heart to mediators that they are reluctant to reveal to opponents or adversaries. Due to this feature alone, mediators often have a richer data set from which to help fashion a solution that the parties themselves do.

Second, a mediator can serve as a buffer as he/she creates a fair and civil process for discussion and negotiation. Remember, the mediator will not make a decision for the parties, but may offer creative ideas, and help re-frame the discussion away from positional bargaining toward creative problem solving or resolution.

    • A facilitator or professional mediator can help both parties.
    • This can be informal facilitation or service from a professional.

Step 5 - Refer to Higher Authority

The defining characteristic of Step 5 higher authority is that the parties give control of the decision to another group (e.g., a vote where the majority prevails) or another person (e.g., a judge or boss).  The plus in this approach is that it results in a final decision. The minus is that the minority may not be willing to accept the outcome, which is why the Preferred Path positions Step 5 Higher Authority in a backup position, after the collaborative options (Steps 3 and 4), which are give the parties more control over the outcome.

    • Supervisors and others in the chain of command have authority to make decisions on internal matters regarding employment and operations.
    • External agencies, arbitrators and the courts are backup resources.

Step 6 - Take Other Action

If the collaborative methods (Step 3: Negotiation and Step 4: Mediation) and higher authority (Step 5) fail, each party still has other options for dealing with the conflict.

  • Unilateral exercise of power to force a solution (for example strikes, nonviolent actions, just war).
  • Individual action, including leaving the scene where the conflict exists (called “take this job and shove it” by country singer, Johnny Paycheck).
  • Focus on cultivating acceptance in the face of circumstances that you cannot change, perhaps waiting for another day to try again.


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