Cooking with conflict

Written by Abby Goldstein, FairWay’s Marketing and Design Advisor

Last weekend as I was scurrying around the supermarket checking off ingredients, I came across a lemon cheesecake flavoured milk that made me stop and think- how on earth can you combine lemons and milk without making the final product curdle? (Preservatives, additives and flavouring instead of using actual lemons didn’t cross my mind at the time).

That thought led me down a path to thinking about the conflicting ingredients in terms of dispute resolution, an area in which I focus most of my attention for the better part of the week. Resolution and lemon cheesecake milk have a surprising amount in common.

One: A ratio-based solution

An important aspect of getting a recipe right is ratios, or balance of the ingredients. For example, a balsamic vinaigrette is created by using 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and ½ a cup of olive oil - if you were to use 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and just a tiny splash of olive oil the end result would be sour, bitter, and barely edible.

Balance is a crucial element in the effectiveness of mediation; one party can’t have a significant amount of power without disenfranchising the other and diminishing the purpose of holding the mediation in the first place. Resolution is about creating a balance between everything each party brings to the table to see where the sweet spot is for them. In practice, balance isn’t about giving up anything (at least in an interest-based process) it’s about finding the right way for seemingly disparate things to work together in harmony. 

For example, if two people both need an orange for something they are cooking and only one orange exists, what should they do? They should figure out what each person needs the orange for and may realise they can both have the complete aspect of the orange that they need. One might need the juice; the other could need the zest. The ingredients, or conflicting parties, have the opportunity to use both of their individual contributions to find a delicious solution or risk having an incomplete or curdled final product – the relationship between them.

Two: Tasting as you go

All you need to do is watch one episode of any cooking competition to know that the best chefs taste their creations as they go. The judges will always ask at least one contestant on any given episode “did you taste your dish before you presented it for judging”? The contestant who goes home at the end of the round usually answers “no” to this question.

People stick to positions and forget that just a splash of perspective or asking the core question, “Why might this be causing an issue?” can save a dish or a relationship. Tasting a dish or regularly checking in on where the other party stands is a good method for avoiding an outcome nobody wants. 

Three: Timings

The final element to creating a recipe successfully is timing. There are two kinds of timing to consider. The first is time during the action stage of conflict or when you are cooking the dish. The second is allowing enough time to prepare to address conflict properly which aligns with allowing enough prep time to prepare a big meal. You don’t want to start cooking for 10 people only 15 minutes before they arrive.

Cooking and conflict resolution are both strongly influenced by timing. Just as you need balancing powers for ingredients and you need the right ratios of ingredients, you also need right ratio of time (beat cream too long, and it becomes butter – if you weren’t trying to create butter, that could be a problem) and the right ratio of “hard and soft” moments.  Everyone needs little breaks. For example, a custard will split if you add the eggs in too early and the mixture is too hot.

Equally, if you leave something on the heat too long, it burns or if you don’t give something enough time to prepare, you could risk the parties’ well-being and you may sacrifice an opportunity to create something wonderful. In other words, leaving conflict unaddressed for too long may burn a relationship that might have been salvageable. Another timing issue can be prematurely going on the attack without allowing the other party to have the chance to prepare their piece. You risk having the ingredients emerge raw and most likely inedible for both parties.

Mediation, like cooking, is about creating a space for the ingredients to communicate and work together to produce a final dish that wouldn’t be complete without both parts. That’s why the best way to approach mediation is not with a “winning or losing” mindset, but instead with the mindset of a chef, “how do we make these ingredients work together”?

In conclusion, a successful mediation is lemon cheesecake milk. So, let’s take those clashing ingredients and get cooking with conflict!

About FairWay

FairWay is New Zealand’s largest specialist conflict management and dispute resolution organisation. Our purpose is to lead the prevention and resolution of disputes.

For more information visit or phone 0800 77 44 22.