What is ADR? It stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution. Other terms for the field include "Conflict Management," "Appropriate Dispute Resolution," and "Dispute Resolution." All of these terms refer to ways of helping people manage their conflicts.

It can be helpful to imagine the range of dispute resolution mechanisms on a spectrum, ranging from the most binding, time-consuming, and expensive to the most informal, inexpensive, and easy. Here's a range of choices you can make if you want to resolve a dispute:

  • Adjudication: Filing suit in court is costly, slow, and someone else makes a decision for you. Depending on the size of the dispute, parties can represent themselves or hire lawyers to speak for them in court. Either way, parties rarely have an opportunity to share their full perspective or ask the other side to share theirs. The process of adjudication is rigid; the rules have been decided in advance, and both sides must adhere to them.
  • Arbitration is like hiring a private judge. It might be a cheaper and faster process than the court system, and an arbitrator may have specialized knowledge that applies to your dispute, but someone else is still making the decision for you. Arbitrators have more discretion and receive less oversight than judges. Often parties have agreed in advance to use arbitration as a means for settling their disputes; for example, many credit card agreements include mandatory arbitration clauses. 
  • Mediation refers to a voluntary process in which a neutral third party helps to facilitate your negotiation. You and the other party retain the decision-making control, and you can decide to quit the process at any point. You can come to mediation to learn more about how to handle future conflicts or just to address an individual dispute. Mediation offers both parties a chance to share their perspectives and ask each other questions, although some parties choose to have their lawyers or representatives do the talking.
  • Negotiation: Any attempt to persuade another person or people. Negotiation can be a formal process with advocates -- lawyers, brokers, or other experts -- or an informal process with two people sitting down to discuss their differences. We all negotiate every day, whether we're trying to influence our bosses to give us a raise, our spouse to clean the kitchen, our friends to choose a particular restaurant, or our clients to hire us. Some people choose to take a workshop or hire a coach to prepare them for a particularly difficult negotiation or to improve their overall negotiation skills.