Abraham Lincoln: Master of Conflict Resolution

Posted by Michael HillerFeb 12, 20180 Comments

Quotations from Abe Lincoln on Conflict Resolution

Beginning as a trial lawyer, Ol' Abe Lincoln recognized that trial work should be approached with the goal of settlement, rather than creating new conflicts. He figured out how to achieve that goal within the justice system.  We best know Abraham Lincoln as the president that lead us through the worst conflict in our nation's history.  But the real Lincoln was first and foremost a peacemaker.

The first quote is one often cited by lawyers and mediators in an effort to persuade clients to think beyond their immediate perceived interests.

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

Lawyers who have reached this stage of enlightenment are merely telling clients that they should consider the full range of costs and risks involved in litigation before taking a particular step. Litigation, going to court, involves financial costs, emotional costs, risks and uncertainty-there is no roadmap. Judges and juries sometimes make surprising and unexpected decisions.

How can lawyers best help clients avoid litigation?

Lincoln's second quote tries to answer this question.  Most cases are going to end by a negotiated agreement, and many of the things we do in litigation take us further from that goal. It seems paradoxical to suggest that in an adversarial system of justice, our goals can be better achieved by avoiding fighting, but it should be considered even more paradoxical to resolve conflict by fighting. So:

“Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.”

So easy to state the rule, yet so difficult to put into practice. Perhaps because it comes so naturally to most people, especially to those who chose trial advocacy as a profession, that we should fight to achieve our goals. It takes a while to realize that NEVER QUARRELING is usually a more successful strategy. Once we decide we're never going to quarrel, what are we going to do instead? We're going to agree to the extent can with whatever the other side is suggesting that doesn't harm our client's interests. We're going to propose solutions that serve both sides' interests. And we're going to attempt to persuade the other side that they would be better off at least considering what we are suggesting. We're going to listen more than we talk.

The third Lincoln quote about peacemaking is the shortest, most profound, and hardest to swallow:

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

An enduring peace can only be achieved by recognizing our shared humanity, recognizing that there is no “other” that must be destroyed in order to achieve peace.

In the conflict resolution field, this method is known as transformational mediation, because it requires parties to change something in themselves before they can solve the conflict. Using any other method still leaves you with enemies, or forces you to annihilate them (in trial). Trying to understand each side's concerns can eventually lead to a more genuine peace.

The civil war tested Abraham Lincoln's beliefs about managing conflict.  His second inaugural address, one of the greatest speeches on all time, reflected his desire to see that everyone was to be treated with the respect that they deserved as human beings.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, …