Negotiating With The Wolf

Prof. Joseph Allegretti wrote an interesting article ten years ago titled A Christian Perspective on Alternative Dispute Resolution, 28 Fordham Urb. L.J. 997 (2001).  In it he tells the tale of St. Francis of Assisi’s mediating a conflict between the residents of a town and a ravenous wolf that was terrorizing them, “devouring both animals and human beings.”

The story contains an interesting reminder of the Christian tradition of self-interested forgiveness, and also of the principle (espoused by all mediator trainers) that everybody has an underlying interest that informs their behavior — even (or especially) wolves.  

And it describes an unorthodox method of mediation in which the neutral starts off by telling each party that they’re schmucks.

It seems that Francis was visiting the town of Gubbio and took pity on the townspeople who had been so abused by the fierce wolf living outside. 

Francis went unarmed to find the wolf, and when they met Francis chastized him:  “Brother Wolf, you have done great harm in this region, and you have committed horrible crimes by destroying God’s creatures without any mercy.” 

But Francis also saw that the wolf was driven to kill because he was mad with hunger.  So he proposed as follows:  “Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and the people of the town, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you all your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you any more.”

Francis then proposed that, if the wolf agreed not to kill any more animals and people, the townspeople of Gubbio will feed it each day.  The wolf extended its paw in agreement, and followed Francis into town.


The wolf listened calmly at Francis’ side as the saint preached to the people, explaining to them that the wolf’s attacks were in response to their own sins of neglect of its needs.  They consented to Francis’ proposal that they attend better to their neighbors by looking to their needs.

From that day on, both parties lived up to their promises.  The townspeople fed the wolf, and the wolf became so peaceful that dogs would not even bark at it.  When the wolf died, the townspeople mourned its passing.

It’s interesting that Francis took the “hard approach” with each party.  That is, he did not tell the people that the wolf had been bad and he did not tell the wolf that the people had been bad — he told each one that they themselves had been bad!  He even suggested to the wolf that the final compromise would be subject to the willingness of the townspeople to forgive his vicious acts (though he seems not to have required it in the event).

The technique seems to be along the lines of (a) convince each party to see the situation from the other guy’s point of view and acknowledge their own responsibility for having created the problem; (b) urge each party to remove whatever obstacles to resolution are in their power to remove, in exchange for the other guy’s doing the same; and (c) convince both parties to undertake a permanent change in their behavior towards the other guy that in turn provokes a permanent change in the other guy’s behavior towards them.

Now, this ain’t me.  For one thing, I don’t talk to animals, even kittens.  For another, when I mediate I almost always sympathize with each party as they tell their story, hoping to gain their trust by allying myself with their problem.  I try to meet them where they are and explore possible avenues of resolution as their partner, not their rebbe. 

By contrast, Francis tried to convince them that their problem was, at least partly, of their own making, and they had to do a better job of living if they wanted to live a better life.

Applications to secular dispute management?  Yes?  Anyone?  Anyone?

1 Comment
  1. Saint Francis is right. I’ve yet to see a dispute that was a one way street. Meaning, both parties contributed at some level to the escalation of the dispute and the inability to resolve the dispute short of legal intervention.

    Before becoming a mediator, I was a trial attorney. My clients really did not want me to tell them that their behavior contributed to the problem. I was a traitor if I did that. As a mediator I can tread carefully into that territory. After I’ve fully heard a party, I often tell them that I am going to ask some difficult questions. I then ask them about the part they have played in the dispute. Some (a lot, actually) defend or minimize their actions. It is the ego at work. A couple can acknowledge that they have contributed to the disptue and would like to end it.

    I think that people would rather be right than happy. The story of Saint Francis depicts people would would rather be happy than right.

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