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Simple Gifts

September 5, 2014

Last night I heard a fine performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring at the Hollywood Bowl.

Because Copland’s music has always impressed me as very complex yet simple in sound, I found irony in Copland’s use of the Shaker melody, with the given name “Simple Gifts,” in the piece.

Ironically, I also found myself musing over a recently conducted mediation that was very complex but became more manageable and therefore simpler as the day progressed.

The mediation became simpler for me by recalling for myself three cardinal rules I learned from Fisher and Ury’s seminal work, Getting to Yes, and by using them as a guide.

Those simple rules are: (1) Separate the people from the problem; (2) Focus on interests not positions; and (3) Insist on using objective criteria in negotiation. Fisher, Roger and Ury, William. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Peguin Books, 1991 (2nd ed., Bruce Patton, Editor.)

After ten years in mediation practice, these rules still help me to guide the participants in my mediations toward resolution.

In this recent mediation, two former business partners needed to finalize the dissolution of their ended partnership. The partners continued to be plagued by those enduring emotions of anger, regret, resentment, humiliation and disappointment over the prior business relationship. Yet they both really wanted to put the past behind them and to move on.

To “separate the people from the problem,” at one point in the session I named these natural emotions that the participants were experiencing. With empathy, we talked about them with the goal of getting past them at least to make way for a rational discussion of the issues they needed to negotiate.

To “focus on interests not positions,” we reviewed (among other private matters that will remain private) the likely financial and opportunity costs of not settling, the distraction and impact of pending litigation on business and family pursuits, and the desire for closure and a fresh start.

To deal with the “objective criteria” for the negotiation, we consulted jointly in the mediation with a forensic accountant that the parties together had wisely engaged.

Through this process, the partners were able to simplify their complex financial entanglements, to narrow their otherwise overbroad list of issues, and to find a solution that met their needs and interests.

As I write this now, the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” seem perhaps corny but relevant in this context, although I didn’t think of them at the time of the mediation:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.


Of course, at the end of the mediation it was not really the “valley of love and delight.” Mediators rarely get to see such imagery in their mediation sessions, and those are 1848 lyrics anyway.

Yet, as the next line of the song suggests, “simplicity was gained” and the parties did find an outcome they could live with.

For me as mediator, the work of Fisher and Ury continues to help me “keep it simple” and Getting to Yes continues as one of the “Simple Gifts” that guides my work.

I always recommend reading or rereading it.


David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California and a fan of Aaron Copland’s music. For more about Mr. Karp professionally, please go to his website at .


From → Mediation

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