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Is the Detail Getting in the Way of Achieving Resolution?

There’s a story that does the internet rounds every so often. It's about a professor, a jar, some pebbles and sand.

If you haven’t come across it before, here's my version of it.

A professor stood up before his class with a large, empty jar. He filled the jar to the top with some large rocks and, when asked if the jar was full, the students declared it was.

The professor then took out some small pebbles and placed those into the jar, shaking it to allow the smaller pebbles to settle into the gaps between the large rocks. He asked his students again whether the jar was full and they agreed it was.

The professor was not finished. He brought out a bag of sand and started to pour that into the jar. The sand dispersed between all the little gaps in the pebbles and rocks until there appeared to be no space left. When asked by the professor if the jar was now full, the students quickly agreed that it most certainly was.

Sometimes, the story also sees the professor pour water into the jar but you’re getting the idea.

The professor explained to the students that the jar represents everything that is in one’s life. The important projects and aspects of one’s life (eg family and loved ones) are represented by the rocks. Even without the pebbles and sand, one’s life is still full with those rocks in place. The pebbles are those things in life that matter but you could live without and still have a meaningful life (eg your job, your car, your hobbies). The sand represents the “fillers” in our life and material possessions. Think social media, tv, small tasks or errands.

The metaphor is that if you fill your life with sand, you won’t have room for the pebbles or meaningful rocks. The rocks are important to your well being so should be attended to first.

The story is also a useful metaphor to think of when problem solving with clients. I have two cases where we have found ourselves buried in the detail and needing to pull out clients back to the bigger picture. In discussing that strategy with a colleague in one of those cases, she reminded me of the story of the professor and his jar. In both that case and the other, our clients were starting to drown in the details of their various issues and were pulling us down with them.

In one, the parties had become bogged down in the detail of their budget. It had been intended to be a tool for informing their decision making but had become sand in their problem solving jar, leaving no room for resolving the three “rocks” my colleague and I identified with them were the key issues.

In the other case, the parties were at risk of getting caught up in multiple individual issues, wanting to tick them off one by one. That is a common approach I see people use when negotiating. However, as in this case, sometimes it means the parties risk becoming more positional. They entrench into a position on each individual issue, not wanting to relent or compromise, because they can’t see the bigger picture or outcome so compromise or agreement on an individual issue feels too risky.

Attention to detail is often lauded as a desirable attribute for lawyers. It can serve us well to ensure nothing is missed and when we reality check a potential solution to a dispute. However, a focus on the detail can be a huge block to creativity and resolution. In both cases, what worked was to bring the clients out of their “detail” (the sand and pebbles of their dispute) and back to the core issues (the rocks). The detail could be filled in once the rocks were dealt with! The detail can then come a lot more easily and with less friction as the parties are more comfortable, knowing they have agreed on the central issues and what the bigger picture looks like for them moving forward.

What do you think? I'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page. If this has been useful to you, pay it forward and send it to a colleague.

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