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13 Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving
Chapter 13 Check-in:
- Identify Conflict Causes and Effects
- Explore Conflict Approaches Solutions
- Basic Problem Solving Strategy PDCA
Like all communication, good conflict management and resolution requires your time: listen, reflect, and consider all elements of a situation and the people involved. It is not a simple process and there are some steps to help you navigate the process. In the end, it is about the relationship.
Frequently considered a negative, conflict can actually be an opportunity for growth in relationship or work. Your attitude towards the situation and person plays a role in any outcome. Adam Grant, Professor of Psychology at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management, notes that “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy. If you are in a group where people never disagree, the only way that could ever really happen is if the people don’t care enough to speak their minds.” (Grant, February 2021).
However, it is easy to feel at a loss in an immediate conflict situation. Here are some brief points to consider when faced with more than just a disagreement.
Conflict is emotional: it is much greater than a difference of opinions. It is usually an expression of not being heard, seen, valued or respected. It is based on a deeply person need and emotional response, based on perceptions which have identified a threat in any form. If conflict is ignored, it can fester and result in such entrenched opinions and sides that resolution appears impossible (Segal et al, 2020).
The first step is to determine what the actual problem is as perceived by all parties. The Conflict Tree analogy is especially useful if you respond well to visuals (O’Connor, 2020). It is an excellent activity for a group or individual to clarify the effects (branches), core problems (trunk), and even causes of the issue (roots).
Once the actual problem is identified, you can move on to tackling a resolution together.
Approaches to Conflict
There are generally five styles for approaching conflict (Benoliel, 2017) and understanding what they are and what style you lean towards, identifies how you will move through the process. These categories are determined by whether the focus is on the relationship or the end goal of a task/project. While these may be more specific to workplace conflicts, they certainly identify personal conflict responses as well.
Collaboration is marked by a balanced focus on the relationship with others and meeting long-term objectives. A Competition style is marked by individuals who are assertive and probably uncooperative who demonstrate that their priority is the outcome of the project more than the relationships. Although few people enjoy conflict, the Avoidance style focuses on the the immediate unpleasantness and therefore avoids the issues. This traditionally marks individuals who are unassertive and uncooperative largely because they assume it is safer to ignore than face an issue. Sometimes there are individuals who will do anything to please others: this Accommodation approach results in self-sacrifice and is usually the route taken by those who care more about the relationship than the outcome. Unfortunately, they are frequently taken advantage of in their efforts to please others. Lastly, there are those who prefer the Compromise strategy. This may seem expedient in the attempt to resolve the problem by aiming for mutually acceptable terms and concessions, it does frequently leaves no one side satisfied even though it allows most to maintain an assertive and cooperative stance.
Strategies for Solutions
Sometimes those involved in conflict turn to an third person for assistance to resolve a conflict. A mediator can listen to the perspectives of those in the dispute and focuses on helping each side hear the concerns and priorities of the other. Working with the individuals in conflict, a mediator aims to help them create a solution acceptable to both sides. Sometimes the third party is an Arbitrator whose role is to hear each side and provide a decision to resolve the dispute. In some cases the conflict results in the even more formal process of a trial.
There are four key skills you need to approach conflict resolution with or without a third party involved (Segal et al, 2020; Fighting Fair, n.d.).
Conflict can be a very stressful experience and your Stress Management is an essential first step. When we are stressed, we can’t think clearly, we can’t understand someone else’s thoughts or feelings, and it makes communication very difficult. Use whatever method works best for you to manage your stress.
Once your stress is managed, it is easier to exert Control over your Emotions. Recognize the emotions you are experiencing to assist in your processing the experience without having a purely emotional response.
With your stress and emotions recognized and managed, it makes it easier to recognize and pay attention to the feelings you and the other people express and you can Identify Non-Verbal Communication. Much is said without words and body language is a good indication of how the other person feels towards the situation.
Respect each other is standard for every communication situation and essential to remember if you are in a position of conflict. Personal attacks, or drawing on personal knowledge, has no productive part in conflict resolution.
Many resources may explain the benefits of humour, but caution should be used. Sometimes an emotional situation is not the best time for humour as you can unintentionally be seen to diminish the importance another person places on the experience.
Work together to identify the problem by taking the time to see it from multiple perspectives. Be clear about the desired results and end goal. Think about the relationships and long term impacts that any course of action may have on all parties. It takes commitment to resolve a conflict.
We covered Reflection and Feedback in Chapter 12 and these are essential steps for effective conflict resolution and problem solving. Even the Trial and Error process of problem solving relies on evaluating the success of an action before moving on to another attempt.
Many different approaches to problem solving exist though the basic core approach can be seen across geographic and language borders. The PDCA approach – Plan, Do, Check, Act – provides the basic four steps process that can be expanded to suit any profession or experience (Plan, Do, Check, Act, 2021).
Problem solving starts with a clear identification of problem. Then you need to clarify the desired end result. The development of a plan can be as short or as long as necessary. Once you have a plan, you have to implement it: Do. Check is your opportunity to evaluate the success of your plan and make any amendments necessary. Finally, Act: put your strategy into practice. An important point to remember is that the reflection and evaluation should be an ongoing part of the solution you implement.
Chapter 13 Check-out:
- Explore Conflict Approaches and Solutions
Remember your last conflict with another person. How was it resolved? How would you like it to have been resolved? What could you have done to implement that change in result?
How do you usually approach problem solving? How successful has it been for you?
What, if anything, would you like to change about how you’ve problem solved in the past?
Resources and References
Benoliel, B. (2017). Five styles of conflict resolution. Walden University. [Online] https://www.waldenu.edu/news-and-events/walden-news/2017/0530-whats-your-conflict-management-style
Fighting Fair to Resolve Conflict. (n.d.). Counselling and Mental Health Centre. University of Texas at Austin. [Online] https://cmhc.utexas.edu/fightingfair.html
Goleman, D. (April 2012). Daniel Goleman Introduces Emotional Intelligence . Big Think. [Online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7m9eNoB3NU
Grant, A., (February 2021). The Easiest Person to Fool . The Hidden Brain. NPR Podcast. [Online] https://hidden-brain.simplecast.com/episodes/the-easiest-person-to-fool-f1hbMrGr
Grant, A., (April 2021). The Science of Productive Conflict . TED Podcast. [Online] https://www.ted.com/podcasts/worklife/the-science-of-productive-conflict-transcript
O’Connor, T., (October 2020). 3 Simple Conflict Analysis Tools That Anyone Can Use. [Online] https://medium.com/p/c30689757a0d
Plan Do Check Act: A Simple Problem Solving Methodology. (2021). Educational-Business-Articles.com [Online] https://www.educational-business-articles.com/plan-do-check-act/
Segal, J., Robinson, L., and Smith, M. (2020). Conflict Resolution Skills. Helpguide.org. [Online] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/conflict-resolution-skills.htm
- Brain Ponder © Luc Grenier
Copyright © by Wendy Ward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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Applying a Problem‑Solving Approach to Conflict Cornell Course
When most of us face conflict, we often either avoid dealing with it, or we jump in and try to force a solution. These responses may be driven by a lack of comfort with or even a fear of conflict. Unfortunately, neither response is always correct, and neither approach should be the first step. Professors Klingel and Nobles will share how to overcome these instincts and successfully apply a problem-solving approach to conflict.
The first course in this series, “Diagnosing Workplace Conflict,” focused on fully diagnosing a conflict without jumping into problem solving. In this course, you'll look at how to best handle a fully diagnosed conflict using a problem-solving approach. A common issue we'll address is jumping to solutions before understanding the scope of the conflict and the needs that will have to be addressed to resolve it. Thus, you'll begin by determining the scope. Depending on the scope you may move forward with the problem-solving approach, or, you may decide to let it go. The problem-solving approach, which consists of eight steps that can be broken down into three key elements, is the framework through which this course is taught. In the course project, you'll practice applying this approach to a conflict of your choosing. The approach is intended to be used when solving conflict you are directly involved in. Despite this, we'll offer practical advice on how you could adapt this for other use cases.
You are required to have completed the following course or have equivalent experience before taking this course:
- Diagnosing Workplace Conflict
Key Course Takeaways
- Move from conflict diagnosis to problem solving
- Determine the scope of the conflict and how to proceed
- Determine the problem, interests, and criteria for successful resolution
- Generate options and agree on a solution
- Implement and monitor a measurable solution
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How it works, course authors.
- Certificates Authored
Katrina Nobles is the Director of Conflict Programs for the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at the Cornell University ILR School, focusing on educating the next generation of neutrals and practitioners on campus and in the workplace. Professor Nobles designs curriculum, instructs professional programs, and facilitates discussions for organizational workplace conflicts. She also teaches the Campus Mediation Practicum, an on-campus credit course that applies mediation skills to the campus judicial system, allowing students to work as peer mediators.
Professor Nobles has presented at national conflict resolution conferences on facilitating collaborative problem solving, cross-cultural communication, and conflict diagnosis. She has practiced mediation for over 15 years, and prior to her employment at Cornell, Professor Nobles was the Cortland County Coordinator for New Justice Mediation Services. During that time, she mediated hundreds of community, child custody/visitation, child support, and family disputes. Professor Nobles holds a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Engagement from Antioch University Midwest.
- Conflict Resolution
Sally Klingel is the director of Labor-Management Relations programming for the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She specializes in the design and implementation of conflict and negotiation systems, labor-management partnerships, collective bargaining strategies, strategic planning, and leadership development. Her work with Cornell over the past 20 years has included training, consulting, and research with organizations in a variety of industries, local, state and federal government agencies, union internationals and locals, public schools and universities, and worker owned companies.
Sally Klingel holds a M.S. in Organizational Behavior from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and a B.A. from the University of Michigan. She has authored articles, monographs and book chapters on innovations in labor-management relations and conflict methods.
- Labor Relations
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Article • 9 min read
8 ways to resolve conflict in the workplace.
By the Mind Tools Content Team
Where there are people, there is conflict. We each have our values, needs and habits, so it's easy to misunderstand or irritate one another – or worse, to fall into conflict.
Left unchecked, conflict can lead to bad decisions and outright disputes, bullying or harassment. Teamwork breaks down, morale drops, and projects grind to a halt. Organizations feel the hit with wasted talent, high absenteeism, and increased staff turnover.
But conflict can be resolved. What's more, it can bring issues to light, strengthen relationships, and spark innovation – so long as you don't try to ignore it!
In this article, we'll explore different types of conflict, what causes conflict, and how to reach a positive outcome when you find yourself in conflict with a co-worker. (To identify the signs of conflict occurring between other people and to help them overcome their conflict with one another, we recommend our follow-on article, Resolving Team Conflict .)
Conflict Resolution Definition
Generally, workplace conflicts fall into two categories:
- Personality conflict or disagreements between individuals. These clashes are driven and perpetuated by emotions such as anger, stress and frustration.
- Substantive conflict is tangible and task-related, like the decisions leaders make, the performance of a team member, or your company's direction.
If unaddressed, both can spiral into wider conflict between teams, departments or businesses. Conflict resolution can be defined as the process of identifying, addressing, and resolving disagreements or disputes among employees in a professional setting, thereby fostering a positive and productive work environment.
What Causes Conflict at Work?
Some of the most common causes of workplace conflict are:
- Unclear responsibilities . Some team members may feel they do more work than others, or resent those who seem to have fewer responsibilities. Blame and frustration can build due to duplicated work or unfinished tasks.
- Competition for resources . Time, money, materials, equipment, and skillsets are finite resources. Competition for them can lead to conflict.
- Different interests . People may focus on personal or departmental goals over organizational ones. Or be held up and frustrated by others who they rely on to do their jobs effectively.
Read our article on Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict for more sources of – and solutions to – disputes.
Five Conflict Resolution Strategies
When you find yourself in a conflict situation, these five strategies will help you to resolve disagreements quickly and effectively:
1. Raise the Issue Early
Keeping quiet only lets resentment fester. Equally, speaking with other people first can fuel rumor and misunderstanding.
So, whether you're battling over the thermostat or feel that you're being micromanaged, be direct and talk with the other party. However, if you're afraid of making that approach, or worry that it may make the problem worse, speak with your manager first, or your HR department if the other party is your manager.
Either way, be assertive (not aggressive) and speak openly. This will encourage others to do the same – and you can get to the root cause of a problem before it escalates.
2. Manage Your Emotions
Choose your timing when you talk to someone about the conflict. If you're angry, you may say something you'll regret and inflame the situation. Be careful to avoid playing the blame game .
So stay calm, collect yourself, and ask, "What is it I want to achieve here?", "What are the issues I'm having?" and "What is it that I would like to see?"
See our article Managing Your Emotions at Work for more insight and tips.
3. Show Empathy
When you talk to someone about a conflict, it's natural to want to state your own case, rather than hear out the other side. But when two people do this, the conversation goes in circles.
Instead, invite the other party to describe their position, ask how they think they might resolve the issue, and listen with empathy .
Putting yourself in the other person's shoes is an essential part of negotiation. This helps you to build mutual respect and understanding – and to achieve an outcome that satisfies both parties.
4. Practice Active Listening
To identify the source of the conflict you have to really listen. To listen actively:
- Paraphrase the other party's points to show you're listening and really understand them.
- Look out for non-verbal signals that contradict what they are saying, such as a hesitant tone behind positive words. Bring these out into the open sensitively to address them together.
- Use appropriate body language , such as nodding your head, to show interest and to make it clear that you're following them.
Go further with Empathic Listening or Mindful Listening .
5. Acknowledge Criticism
Some of the things the other person tells you may be difficult to hear. But remember that criticism or constructive feedback is about job behaviors and not you as a person.
So, keep an open mind and use criticism to help you to identify areas to improve, perform better next time, and grow.
Glasers' Three-Step Strategy for Conflict Resolution
Conflict management consultants Peter and Susan Glaser recommend a three-step strategy for resolving conflict, and it draws on many of the skills we've looked at above. You can hear the Glasers talking about their model in our exclusive interview with them. 
The steps for these conflict resolution skills are:
- Prove that you understand their side.
- Acknowledge that you are part of the problem.
- Try again if the conversation didn't go well.
Let's try a training exercise and apply each step to a fictional conflict resolution scenario.
Conflict Resolution Training Example
Imagine that the heads of two departments are in conflict. Product Manager Sayid changed the price of a product without letting Marketing Manager Gayanne know. As a result, the marketing team sent out an email to customers with incorrect prices. They had to send out a follow-up email apologizing for the error, and make good on the price some customers paid for the product.
1. Prove That You Understand Their Side
Instead of blaming Sayid, Gayanne asks him how he came to make the decision. She uses her questioning and listening skills to get the information she needs and to show that she's truly hearing Sayid's response.
She discovers that Sayid was pressured by a major client to drop the price or risk losing a contract. She empathizes , saying, "Yes, I've had difficulties with that client before, too."
As Susan Glaser says, "Only when you believe that I understand you, will you be willing to try to understand my perspective." 
2. Acknowledge That You Are Part of the Problem
If you're in conflict with someone, it's unlikely you're free of all blame. So admit your part in it. This leads to mutual trust, a better understanding of one another, and makes it easier to find a solution.
In our scenario, Gayanne could say to Sayid, "I should have shared our marketing strategy and email send dates with you. I'll do that right away."
3. Try Again if the Conversation Doesn't Go Well
Despite the progress they've made, relations between the two managers remain frosty, so Sayid calls Gayanne the following week. He says, "I was thinking about our conversation, and I'd like to try again because I'm not happy with how it went. I've had time to take your points on board, and I'd like to talk about how we can work together better going forward."
Remember that you get more than one shot at resolving a conflict. Susan Glaser says, "There's a myth that if we have a bad conversation with someone it's over. In fact, 'do overs' are powerful." 
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is conflict resolution important in the workplace?
Unresolved conflicts can hinder productivity and damage team dynamics. Effective conflict resolution helps maintain a positive work environment, promotes collaboration, and ensures issues are addressed before they escalate.
What are some common sources of workplace conflicts?
Workplace conflicts can arise from differences in communication styles, conflicting goals, personality clashes, misunderstandings, resource allocation, or competing priorities. Recognizing these sources is crucial for timely intervention.
How can a team manager effectively address conflicts among team members?
A team manager should act as a mediator and facilitator. Begin by listening to both sides, understanding perspectives, and acknowledging emotions. Encourage open dialogue, find common ground, and work together to find a solution that is fair and beneficial for all parties.
What strategies can managers employ to prevent conflicts from escalating?
Managers can implement proactive measures such as fostering a transparent communication culture, setting clear expectations, defining roles and responsibilities, and promoting team-building activities. By addressing potential sources of conflict early on, managers can prevent minor issues from turning into major disputes.
How does effective conflict resolution contribute to team productivity?
Resolving conflicts promptly maintains a harmonious working environment where team members feel valued and understood. This leads to improved morale, increased focus on tasks, and a more efficient workflow, ultimately enhancing overall team productivity.
When is it appropriate to involve higher management in conflict resolution?
Involving higher management should be considered when conflicts cannot be resolved at the team level or when the conflicts involve larger organizational issues. Higher management can provide a neutral perspective and additional resources to facilitate resolution.
Conflict is common in the workplace. The biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing. Unresolved tensions can affect the health and performance of people and organizations.
So, hone these five conflict resolution skills to pre-empt, manage and fix conflicts with your co-workers:
- Raise the issue early.
- Manage your emotions.
- Show empathy.
- Practice active listening.
- Acknowledge criticism.
Then try the Glasers' three-step conflict resolution strategy to resolve issues together:
- Try again if the conversation doesn't go well.
In the process, you may even discover positives such as improved processes, strengthened relationships, and innovation!
   Mind Tools interview with Peter A. Glaser, Ph.D. and Susan R. Glaser. Available here .
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14 Conflict Resolution Strategies for the Workplace
One lesson common to humanity is how to negotiate conflict skillfully.
In a keynote speech to graduate students in conflict analysis, international mediator Kenneth Cloke (2011) made a profound statement that has stayed with me to this day: “Conflict is the arrow pointing to what we need to learn the most.”
Interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution extend beyond social circles, affecting the workplace and illuminating lessons yet to be learned.
American businesses lose $359 billion yearly due to unresolved conflict and low productivity (Kauth, 2020). The physical, emotional, psychological, and interpersonal tolls are incalculable.
Can we seek a better understanding of conflict and transform its devastating effects?
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free . These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify opportunities for professional growth and create a more meaningful career.
This Article Contains:
What is conflict resolution & why is it important, 5 psychological benefits of conflict resolution, 7 examples of conflict resolution skills, how to do conflict resolution: 2 approaches, 6 methods and approaches to apply in the office, 6 strategies and techniques for the workplace, best activities, games, workbooks, and online tools, helpful books for managers and organizations, resources from positivepsychology.com, a take-home message.
Pruitt and Kim (2004, pp. 7–8) describe conflict as “perceived divergence of interest, a belief that the parties’ current aspirations are incompatible.”
Conflict resolution is an agreement reached when all or most of the issues of contention are cleared up (Pruitt & Kim, 2004).
Further, conflict management is a product of successful problem-solving in which the parties have worked out ways to de-escalate conflict and avoid future escalations.
Conflict can be disruptive and, at worst, destructive. Once it erupts, it’s hard to control (Bolton, 1986). Emotions run high during conflict, blocking the path to rational solutions.
Conflict resolution is important because “when people experience conflicts, much of their energy goes into emotions related to those conflicts” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011, p. 2).
Some emotions commonly associated with conflict include fear, anger, distrust, rejection, defensiveness, hopelessness, resentment, and stress (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011; Bolton, 1986).
Another reason conflict resolution is important is because people involved in heavily contentious conflict are likely to experience “a wide range of psychological and physical health problems including weakened immune system, depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, pp. 11–12).
Clearly, languishing in this state of emotional upheaval and chaos is harmful emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
Conflict resolution: A theoretical framework
Realistic conflict theory assumes “conflict can always be explained by some tangible (like territory, money, prizes) or intangible (like power, prestige, honor) resource that is desired by both groups and is in short supply” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, pp. 28–29).
This theory attempts to explain why conflict occurs as humans perpetually strive to acquire perceived needs.
Cortisol released because of ongoing stress soaks the brain’s nerve cells, causing memories to shrink (Leaf, 2008).
This affects the ability to think creatively, a helpful component for resolution.
In addition, the stress response increases blood sugar levels, speeding up our heart rate to pump blood to our arms, legs, and brain in preparation to escape (Leaf, 2008). This physiological fight-or-flight reaction saps precious energy.
Dealing with emotions first will help reduce emotional arousal and stress. Once the body returns to normal, rational problem-solving skills can resume. Typically, people get into trouble when they address conflict at the peak of emotional arousal.
For this reason, acknowledge that the issue needs to be addressed but wait until emotions subside before engaging in a discussion. This ensures the issue is not ignored. In other words, conflict can be scheduled .
Some psychological benefits of conflict resolution include (Arslan, Hamarta, & Usla, 2010; Sexton & Orchard, 2016; Bolton, 1986):
- Stress reduction
- Improved self-esteem
- Better relationships
Let’s take a quick look at two of the most common benefits.
Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their capability to complete a specific task successfully (Lunenburg, 2011). Learning and practicing skills such as effective communication and conflict resolution are essential building blocks for self-efficacy. Successful conflict resolution skills in the workplace increase confidence, promoting the likelihood of future successes (Lunenburg, 2011).
Increased self-efficacy “influences the tasks employees choose to learn and the goals they set for themselves” (Lunenburg, 2011, p. 1). It also influences employees’ efforts and perseverance when taking on and learning new tasks (Lunenburg, 2011).
Sometimes you have to expend energy to gain energy. Conflict robs individuals and organizations of precious energy. Mastering conflict resolution skills takes energy initially but can save energy in the long run through reduced stress and improved relationships and productivity.
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Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.
To reap the benefits of resolving conflict, certain helpful skills must be applied, and there are many conflict resolution skills that are effective for the workplace.
Below are skills believed to be crucial for resolving conflict.
Self-awareness is described by Goleman (1995, p. 43) as “recognizing a feeling as it happens.” Goleman states that people with high self-awareness have moment-to-moment awareness and navigate life adeptly.
Self-control is the ability to manage unruly impulses and emotions effectively. Because emotions play a central role in conflict, the ability to stay composed despite heightened emotions is essential to constructive resolution.
3. Assertive communication
Bolton (1986) describes assertive communication as a dynamic communication style in which the speaker maintains self-respect, expresses personal needs, and defends their own rights without abusing or dominating others.
While an aggressive communication style may shut down a conversation, assertiveness encourages dialogue. This skill takes practice and courage. Bolton (1986) asserts that less than 5% of the population communicates assertively.
According to Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2009), the goal of collaboration is to consider all the important needs of the primary parties and develop a solution that meets these needs.
Problem-solving in relation to conflict resolution is a strategy that pursues alternative solutions that satisfy the needs and goals of the parties involved (Pruitt & Kim, 2004).
According to Sorensen (2017), empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions and feelings of others. Our understanding of another person’s perspective can increase the likelihood of emotional connection and collaboration.
Active listening is one of the most underrated and underutilized conflict resolution skills. Listening during conflict achieves key goals, primarily putting an end to cyclical arguing and opening the door to empathy and understanding.
The conflict resolution method
This simple, three-step formula for conflict resolution works well for conflicts involving values and intense emotions.
Step 1: Engage with the other respectfully
Respect is an attitude shown through specific behaviors, such as how you look at the other person, how you listen, your tone of voice, and word choices.
Step 2: Listen fully until you experience their side
The goal of listening in this manner is to understand the content of the other person’s ideas or contributions, what it means for them, and their feelings about it.
Step 3: Verbalize your feelings, views, and needs
Assertive communication works well in this stage. Some caveats accompany this stage of conflict resolution:
- This step is not always necessary.
- Make your statement brief.
- Avoid loaded words.
- Be truthful and concise.
- Disclose your feelings.
Bolton (1986) provides a six-step outline for collaboration when the issue is more about needs than emotions.
- Define the primary needs surrounding the conflict.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Choose solutions that meet the needs of both parties.
- Create an agenda delineating who will assume each task.
- Implement the plan.
- Evaluate the solutions and reevaluate if needed.
The conflict resolution method and collaborative problem-solving are generalized approaches to conflict resolution when two or more parties are willing to work together on an issue.
Lipsky, Seeber, and Fincher (2003) provide approaches to work through issues that erupt in work settings.
1. The open door policy
This generalized philosophy is intended to show that management supports open dialogue and encourages staff to discuss differences that arise in the workplace. It is considered an initial step toward conflict resolution.
These are neutral or impartial managers who provide informal and confidential assistance to staff and management in order to resolve work-related disputes. Ombudspersons may wear a variety of hats, including mediator, fact-finder, consultant, and change agent.
3. Internal peer mediation
Some organizations call on designated employees as mediators to help resolve conflict. This method often addresses issues of a non-statutory nature, such as unfairness.
The success of this method rests on the careful selection of peer mediators based on their exemplary communication skills and abilities.
4. Professional mediators
Professional mediators are not connected with the organization in any way and function as independent, impartial, third parties who assist the primary parties through a formal mediation process.
Mediation is a viable option for creating structure to conflict resolution in an unbiased manner.
5. Peer review and employee appeals
This process is sometimes used by manufacturing organizations in an effort to avoid a union process. The underlying belief is that if at all possible, employee disputes should be resolved internally.
6. Executive panels
This method provides an opportunity for employees to present their claims to a panel of the organization’s senior executives, assuming they will be objective and sympathetic.
Using tools such as questionnaires, activities, and assessments can help employees work through conflict by adding insight and skills to the equation. Let’s look at some such tools.
2 Tools for groups
Often, people haven’t been taught the skills to discuss issues calmly and productively. The following worksheets can be used to provide structure to conflict.
Reviewing these worksheets before conflict erupts is a great opportunity to open a conversation and agree upon a conflict resolution process before matters spiral out of control.
The Remaining Calm During Conflict – I worksheet helps clients walk through conflict, providing tips on how to perceive conflict and deal with emotional reactions.
The Remaining Calm During Conflict – II worksheet encourages clients to journal about times when they did and did not remain calm during a workplace conflict.
2 Effective questionnaires
This self-assessment provided by CINERGY™ can be used to broaden the scope of awareness of ourselves and others, particularly during conflict. The assessment measures an individual’s current level of conflict intelligence.
This Conflict Management Styles Assessment , made available by the Blake Group, allows clients to uncover their primary conflict style and includes a description of the five conflict management styles.
A look at meditation for conflict resolution
This video provides an insightful awareness of our own habitual patterns and how these manifest in us and others during conflict.
Here is another recommended video that helps visualize how to prepare for conflict and build boundaries with others in a calm manner.
The Two Dollar Game
The Two Dollar Game was developed to help employees learn basic conflict styles and the art of negotiation in a fun, thoughtful way.
Conflict Description Template
This conflict management template created by the University of Iowa is intended to deal with conflict in a university setting but can easily apply to other teams or departments and used as an intuitive conflict mapping guide.
Coping With Stress in the Workplace Workbook by Ester Leutenberg and John Liptak
This workbook by Leutenberg and Liptak contains activities, assessments, journaling prompts, and educational handouts that can be photocopied and used to address conflict in the workplace.
Chapters contain resources about how to deal with workplace stress , different personalities, work habits, and relationships.
Online tools and resources for conflict resolution
The website Online Master of Legal Studies includes a wealth of Free Tools and Resources for Conflict Resolution . Some resources have been incorporated into this blog.
The wide variety of resources include a Cost of Conflict Calculator and tools to enhance cross-cultural communication.
In this Assertive Message Role-Play , participants are presented with various workplace scenarios and encouraged to formulate assertive messages to initiate a discussion about the problem at hand.
1. People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts – Robert Bolton
Some books are classics.
This one has been used for years to help guide individuals through the communication and conflict resolution process.
It’s a great resource for anyone interested in building robust interpersonal skills.
Find the book on Amazon .
2. The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games: Quick, Effective Activities to Improve Communication, Trust and Collaboration – Mary Scannell
This is a useful resource for incorporating activities and games to help employees listen to each other, engage productively, and create a culture of respect.
Topics include conflict, communication, diversity, trust, perspectives, emotional intelligence, and collaboration.
3. Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict – David Lipsky, Ronald Seeber, and Richard Fincher
The authors walk readers through the emergence of conflict in the workplace by creating dispute resolution systems for integration in a corporate setting.
This is a helpful resource for managers and corporate leaders interested in reducing the corporate costs of conflict.
4. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
Crucial Conversations is a New York Times bestseller that provides tools to traverse difficult and important conversations.
Ideas discussed in this book can help transform your career, organization, and community.
Readers learn how to listen and speak in ways that create safety and inclusion.
- Assertive Communication This worksheet helps clients learn the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication. Assertive communication is essential for expressing our needs and opinions, and defending our rights in a direct and respectful manner.
- Active Listening Reflection Worksheet Use this worksheet to help clients sharpen listening skills essential for conflict resolution.
The worksheet reviews eight essential skills for active listening and includes a reflection exercise to evaluate which skills we use effectively and which can be strengthened.
- Blindfold Guiding Exercise This exercise can be used as an icebreaker or as part of a team-building exercise when members are struggling with trust issues.
Trust is a crucial element of team stability and is essential when conflict erupts. In this exercise, one person leads a blindfolded partner using simple statements. As trust builds, the duo can be instructed to speed up, slow down, or attempt to lead with silence.
- Generating Alternative Solutions and Better Decision-Making This worksheet provides a map to work through problem-solving by considering three solutions to a specific issue accompanied by a discussion on the efficacy, do-ability, and effectiveness of the identified solution.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners . Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
Conflict divides. The effects of poorly handled conflict range from disruptive to destructive. It robs individuals and organizations of precious resources, such as energy, productivity, peace, and harmony.
Regardless of our station in life, we all still have lessons to learn.
Will we ever be free of conflict? Perhaps we can look at it another way. As we gain skills and experience successes resolving conflict, we can anticipate the next conflict and the next lesson, mindful of the potential wisdom and strengths we’ll gain in the process.
Are you facing an unresolved conflict at work or in your personal life? Try not to be discouraged; instead, think of it as your next life lesson waiting to be discovered.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free .
- Arslan, C., Hamarta, E., & Usla, M. (2010). The relationship between conflict communication, self-esteem and life satisfaction in university students. Educational Research and Reviews , 5 (1), 31–34.
- Bolton, R. (1986). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflict . Touchstone.
- Cloke, K. (2011). Untitled [Keynote Speaker]. In 24th Residential Institute – Winter 2011 . Nova Southeastern University.
- Folger, J. P., Poole, M. S., & Stutman, R. K. (2009). Working through conflict: Strategies for relationships, groups, and organizations . Pearson Education.
- Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ . Bantam Books.
- Kauth, K. (2020, January). Cost of workplace conflict . Mediate.com. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.mediate.com/articles/kauth-cost-workplace.cfm
- Leaf, C. (2008). Who switched off my brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions . Thomas Nelson.
- Leutenberg, E. R. A., & Liptak, J. J. (2014). Coping with stress in the workplace workbook. Whole Person Associates.
- Lipsky, D. B., Seeber, R. L., & Fincher, R. D. (2003). Emerging systems for managing workplace conflict . Jossey-Bass.
- Lunenburg, F. C. (2011). Self-efficacy in the workplace: Implications for motivation and performance. International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration , 14 (1), 1–6.
- Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.
- Pruitt, D. G., & Kim, S. H. (2004). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and settlement (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill.
- Scannell, M. (2010). The big book of conflict resolution games: Quick, effective activities to improve communication, trust and collaboration. McGraw Hill.
- Sexton, M., & Orchard, C. (2016). Understanding healthcare professionals’ self-efficacy to resolve interprofessional conflict. Journal of Interprofessional Care , 30 (3), 316–323.
- Sorensen, M. S. (2017). I hear you: The surprisingly simple skill behind extraordinary relationships . Autumn Creek Press.
- Wilmot, W., & Hocker, J. (2011). Interpersonal conflict (8th ed.). McGraw Hill.
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What is conflict?
Causes of conflict in a relationship, how do you respond to conflict, conflict resolution, stress, and emotions, core skill 1: quick stress relief, core skill 2: emotional awareness, nonverbal communication and conflict resolution, more tips for managing and resolving conflict, conflict resolution skills.
Whatever the cause of disagreements and disputes at home or work, these skills can help you resolve conflict in a constructive way and keep your relationships strong and growing.
Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. After all, two people can’t be expected to agree on everything, all the time. The key is not to fear or try to avoid conflict but to learn how to resolve it in a healthy way.
When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people. Whether you’re experiencing conflict at home, work, or school, learning these skills can help you resolve differences in a healthy way and build stronger, more rewarding relationships.
- A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is a situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether or not the threat is real).
- Conflicts continue to fester when ignored. Because conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them.
- We respond to conflicts based on our perceptions of the situation, not necessarily to an objective review of the facts. Our perceptions are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and beliefs.
- Conflicts trigger strong emotions. If you aren't comfortable with your emotions or able to manage them in times of stress, you won't be able to resolve conflict successfully.
- Conflicts are an opportunity for growth. When you're able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds trust. You can feel secure knowing your relationship can survive challenges and disagreements.
Conflict arises from differences, both large and small. It occurs whenever people disagree over their values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Sometimes these differences appear trivial, but when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem. These needs can range from the need to feel safe and secure or respected and valued, to the need for greater closeness and intimacy.
Think about the opposing needs of a toddler and a parent. The child’s need is to explore, so venturing to the street or the cliff edge meets that need. But the parent's need is to protect the child’s safety, a need that can only be met by limiting the toddler’s exploration. Since these needs are at odds, conflict arises.
The needs of each party play an important role in the long-term success of a relationship. Each deserves respect and consideration. In personal relationships, a lack of understanding about differing needs can result in distance, arguments, and break-ups. In the workplace, differing needs can result in broken deals, decreased profits, and lost jobs.
[Read: Tips for Building a Healthy Relationship]
When you can recognize conflicting needs and are willing to examine them with compassion and understanding, it can lead to creative problem solving, team building, and stronger relationships.
Do you fear conflict or avoid it at all costs? If your perception of conflict comes from painful memories from early childhood or previous unhealthy relationships, you may expect all disagreements to end badly. You may view conflict as demoralizing, humiliating, or something to fear. If your early life experiences left you feeling powerless or out of control, conflict may even be traumatizing for you.
If you're afraid of conflict, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you enter a conflict situation already feeling threatened, it's tough to deal with the problem at hand in a healthy way. Instead, you're more likely to either shut down or blow up in anger.
Conflict triggers strong emotions and can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and discomfort. When handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable rifts, resentments, and break-ups. But when conflict is resolved in a healthy way, it increases your understanding of the other person, builds trust, and strengthens your relationships.
If you are out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can only pay attention to a limited number of emotions, you won't be able to understand your own needs. This will make it hard to communicate with others and establish what's really troubling you. For example, couples often argue about petty differences—the way she hangs the towels, the way he slurps his soup—rather than what is really bothering them.
The ability to successfully resolve conflict depends on your ability to:
- Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm. By staying calm, you can accurately read and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Control your emotions and behavior. When you're in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without threatening, intimidating, or punishing others.
- Pay attention to the feelings being expressed as well as the spoken words of others.
- Be aware of and respect differences. By avoiding disrespectful words and actions, you can almost always resolve a problem faster.
To successfully resolve a conflict, you need to learn and practice two core skills:
- Quick stress relief: the ability to quickly relieve stress in the moment.
- Emotional awareness: the ability to remain comfortable enough with your emotions to react in constructive ways, even in the midst of a perceived attack.
Being able to manage and relieve stress in the moment is the key to staying balanced, focused, and in control, no matter what challenges you face. If you don't know how to stay centered and in control of yourself, you will become overwhelmed in conflict situations and unable to respond in healthy ways.
Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they're overwhelmed by stress:
Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response. You're heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can't do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you're extremely agitated.
How stress affects conflict resolution
Stress interferes with the ability to resolve conflict by limiting your ability to:
- Accurately read another person's body language .
- Hear what someone is really saying.
- Be aware of your own feelings.
- Be in touch with your own, deep-rooted needs.
- Communicate your needs clearly.
Is stress a problem for you?
You may be so used to feeling stressed that you're not even aware you are stressed. Stress may pose a problem in your life if you identify with the following:
- You often feel tense or tight somewhere in your body.
- You're not aware of movement in your chest or stomach when you breathe.
- Conflict absorbs your time and attention.
Learn how to manage stress in the moment
One of the most reliable ways to rapidly reduce stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch—or through movement. You could squeeze a stress ball, smell a relaxing scent, taste a soothing cup of tea, or look at a treasured photograph. We all tend to respond differently to sensory input, often depending on how we respond to stress, so take some time to find things that are soothing to you. Read: Quick Stress Relief .
Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others. If you don't know how or why you feel a certain way, you won't be able to communicate effectively or resolve disagreements.
[Read: Improving Emotional Intelligence]
Although knowing your own feelings may sound simple, many people ignore or try to sedate strong emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. Your ability to handle conflict, however, depends on being connected to these feelings. If you're afraid of strong emotions or if you insist on finding solutions that are strictly rational, your ability to face and resolve differences will be limited.
Why emotional awareness is a key factor in resolving conflict
Emotional awareness—the consciousness of your moment-to-moment emotional experience—and the ability to manage all of your feelings appropriately, is the basis of a communication process that can resolve conflict.
Emotional awareness helps you to:
- Understand what is really troubling other people
- Understand yourself, including what is really troubling you
- Stay motivated until the conflict is resolved
- Communicate clearly and effectively
- Interest and influence others
Assessing your level of emotional awareness
The following quiz helps you assess your level of emotional awareness. Answer the following questions with: almost never, occasionally, often, very often, or almost always . There are no right or wrong responses, only the opportunity to become better acquainted with your emotional responses.
What kind of relationship do you have with your emotions?
- Do you experience feelings that flow, encountering one emotion after another as your experiences change from moment to moment?
- Are your emotions accompanied by physical sensations that you experience in places like your stomach or chest?
- Do you experience distinct feelings and emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, and joy, which are evident in different facial expressions?
- Can you experience intense feelings that are strong enough to capture both your own attention and that of others?
- Do you pay attention to your emotions? Do they factor into your decision-making?
If any of these experiences are unfamiliar, your emotions may be “turned” down or even off. In either case, you may need help developing your emotional awareness. You can do this by using Helpguide's free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.
When people are in the middle of a conflict, the words they use rarely convey the issues at the heart of the problem. But by paying close attention to the other person's nonverbal signals or “body language,” such as facial expressions, posture, gestures, and tone of voice, you can better understand what the person is really saying. This will allow you to respond in a way that builds trust, and gets to the root of the problem.
[Read: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language]
Your ability to accurately read another person depends on your own emotional awareness. The more aware you are of your own emotions, the easier it will be for you to pick up on the wordless clues that reveal what others are feeling. Think about what you are transmitting to others during conflict, and if what you say matches your body language. If you say “I'm fine,” but you clench your teeth and look away, then your body is clearly signaling you are anything but “fine.” A calm tone of voice, a reassuring touch, or an interested facial expression can go a long way toward relaxing a tense exchange.
You can ensure that the process of managing and resolving conflict is as positive as possible by sticking to the following guidelines:
Listen for what is felt as well as said. When you really listen, you connect more deeply to your own needs and emotions, and to those of other people. Listening also strengthens, informs, and makes it easier for others to hear you when it's your turn to speak.
Make conflict resolution the priority rather than winning or “being right.” Maintaining and strengthening the relationship, rather than “winning” the argument, should always be your first priority. Be respectful of the other person and their viewpoint.
Focus on the present. If you're holding on to grudges based on past conflicts, your ability to see the reality of the current situation will be impaired. Rather than looking to the past and assigning blame, focus on what you can do in the here-and-now to solve the problem.
Pick your battles. Conflicts can be draining, so it's important to consider whether the issue is really worth your time and energy. Maybe you don't want to surrender a parking space if you've been circling for 15 minutes, but if there are dozens of empty spots, arguing over a single space isn't worth it.
Be willing to forgive. Resolving conflict is impossible if you're unwilling or unable to forgive others. Resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can serve only to deplete and drain your life.
Know when to let something go. If you can't come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.
Using humor in conflict resolution
You can avoid many confrontations and resolve arguments and disagreements by communicating in a humorous way . Humor can help you say things that might otherwise be difficult to express without offending someone. However, it's important that you laugh with the other person, not at them. When humor and play are used to reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put the situation into perspective, the conflict can actually become an opportunity for greater connection and intimacy.
- CR Kit - Covers causes of conflict, different conflict styles, and fair fighting guidelines to help you positively resolve disagreements. (Conflict Resolution Network)
- 12 Skills Summary - A 12-step conflict resolution training kit. (Conflict Resolution Network)
- Effective Communication - The art of listening in conflict resolution. (University of Maryland)
- 10.3 Causes and Outcomes of Conflict – Organizational Behavior . (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from Link
- Başoğul, C., & Özgür, G. (2016). Role of Emotional Intelligence in Conflict Management Strategies of Nurses. Asian Nursing Research , 10(3), 228–233. Link
- Corcoran, Kathleen O’Connell, and Brent Mallinckrodt. “Adult Attachment, Self-Efficacy, Perspective Taking, and Conflict Resolution.” Journal of Counseling & Development 78, no. 4 (2000): 473–83. Link
- Yarnell, Lisa M., and Kristin D. Neff. “Self-Compassion, Interpersonal Conflict Resolutions, and Well-Being.” Self and Identity 12, no. 2 (March 1, 2013): 146–59. Link
- Tucker, Corinna Jenkins, Susan M. Mchale, and Ann C. Crouter. “Conflict Resolution: Links with Adolescents’ Family Relationships and Individual Well-Being.” Journal of Family Issues 24, no. 6 (September 1, 2003): 715–36. Link
More in Communication
Using laughter and play to resolve disagreements
Boost your emotional intelligence to help you be happy and successful
Tips and techniques for getting anger under control
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Turning Off the Gas on Your Gaslighter
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16 Conflict Analysis and Resolution
Ronald J. Fisher is Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University, Washington, DC, USA. His primary interest is interactive conflict resolution, which involves informal third party interventions in protracted and violent ethnopolitical conflict. His publications include a number of books at the interface of social psychology and conflict resolution as well as numerous articles in interdisciplinary journals including Political Psychology.
Herbert C. Kelman is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, at Harvard University. A pioneer in the development of interactive problem solving, he has been engaged for some forty years in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His publications include INTERNATIONAL BEHAVIOR: A SOCIAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS (editor and co-author, 1965) and CRIMES OF OBEDIENCE: TOWARD A SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF AUTHORITY AND RESPONSIBILITY (with V. Lee Hamilton, 1989). He is past president of the International Studies Association, the International Society of Political Psychology, and several other professional organizations.
Susan Allen Nan is Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and Director of the Center for Peacemaking Practice at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Her main focus is on reflective practice and research that emerges from practice contexts. She has substantial expertise in intermediary roles and coordination amongst intermediaries, evaluation of conflict resolution initiatives, and theories of change and indicators of change in conflict resolution practice. She has engaged long-term in conflict resolution in the Caucasus, as well as contributing to a variety of conflict resolution initiatives in the United States, Eastern Europe, Eurasia, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa.
- Published: 16 December 2013
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The social-psychological approach to the nature and resolution of international conflict places emphasis on the perceptual and normative processes that contribute to conflict escalation and perpetuation, and is grounded in propositions about international conflict that go beyond the assertions of traditional analyses, particularly realism. This analysis has clear implications for the efficacy of methods for addressing international conflict, and supports the utility of interactive conflict resolution, as exemplified by the problem-solving workshop, for analyzing and resolving existential conflicts between identity groups that have an ethnopolitical or ideological character. A description of the assumptions and procedures of the problem-solving workshop is illustrated through three case applications on which the authors have worked. The conclusion acknowledges the potential of the method, while identifying a number of challenges confronting scholar-practitioners in the field of conflict analysis and resolution with particular reference to interactive conflict resolution.
This chapter presents a social-psychological approach to the analysis and resolution of international and intercommunal conflicts. At the level of practice, its central focus is on interactive conflict resolution (cf. Fisher, 1997 ), a family of models for intervening in deep-rooted, protracted conflicts between identity groups, which is anchored in psychological principles At the level of analysis, the social-psychological approach gained increasing favor in the 1960s and is now more or less an accepted part of the multidiscipline of international relations and the interdisciplinary field of political psychology ( Kelman, 1965 ; Jervis, 1976 ; Levy, 2003 ; Rosati, 2000 ; Stein, 2001 ). Given that political psychology involves the application of human psychology to the study of politics, the social-psychological perspective has relevance to many of the areas of political psychology, including the study of images, threat perception, decision-making, foreign policy, political communication, intergroup relations, and political mobilization. The social-psychological approach assumes that (1) subjective elements are central in determining perceptions of reality and responses to that reality; (2) perceptual and cognitive processes need to be understood in the context of group dynamics and intergroup relations; (3) interaction between the parties is fundamental in understanding the course and outcomes of conflict; and (4) a multilevel systems analysis is necessary to understand the phenomenon ( Fisher, 1990 ; Fisher & Kelman, 2011 ).
The chapter begins with a presentation of a social-psychological perspective on the nature of international conflict and a discussion of the perceptual and normative processes that contribute to its escalation and perpetuation. The analysis has clear implications for the outcomes that accrue and for the practice of interactive conflict resolution. To illustrate the family of approaches subsumed under this rubric, we proceed to a more detailed description of the assumptions and procedures of its primary prototype, the problem-solving workshop, and describe applications of the method to three different ethnopolitical conflicts on which the authors have worked. The chapter concludes with an identification of some of the challenges confronting scholar-practitioners in the field of conflict analysis and resolution with particular reference to interactive conflict resolution.
1. The Nature of International Conflict
A social-psychological perspective can expand on the view of international conflict provided by the realist and neorealist schools of international relations or other, more traditional approaches focusing on structural or strategic factors ( Kelman, 2007 ). Social-psychological approaches enrich the analysis in a variety of ways: by exploring the subjective factors that set constraints on rationality; by opening the black box of the state as unitary actor and analyzing processes within and between the societies that underlie state action; by broadening the range of influence processes (and, indeed, of definitions of power) that play a role in international politics; and by conceiving international conflict as a dynamic process, shaped by changing realities, interests, and relations between the conflicting parties.
Social-psychological analysis suggests four propositions about the nature of international conflict that are particularly relevant to existential conflicts between identity groups—conflicts in which the collective identities of the parties are engaged and in which the continued existence of the group is seen to be at stake. Thus, the propositions apply most directly to ethnopolitical or ideological conflicts, but they also apply to more mundane interstate conflicts insofar as issues of national identity and existence come into play—as they often do.
First, international conflict is a process driven by collective needs and fears , rather than entirely a product of rational calculation of objective national interests on the part of political decision-makers. Human needs are often articulated and fulfilled through important collectivities, such as the ethnic group, the national group, and the state. Conflict arises when a group is faced with nonfulfillment or threat to the fulfillment of basic needs: not only such obvious material needs as food, shelter, physical safety, and physical well-being, but also, and very centrally, such psychological needs as identity, security, recognition, autonomy, self-esteem, and a sense of justice ( Burton, 1990 ). Moreover, needs for identity and security and similarly powerful collective needs, and the fears and concerns about survival associated with them, contribute heavily to the escalation and perpetuation of conflict. Even when the conflicting parties have come to the conclusion that it is in their best interest to put an end to the conflict, they resist going to the negotiating table or making the accommodations necessary for the negotiations to move forward, for fear that they will be propelled into concessions that in the end will leave their very existence compromised. The fears that drive existential conflicts lie at the heart of the relationship between the conflicting parties, going beyond the cycle of fears resulting from the dynamics of the security dilemma ( Jervis, 1976 ).
Collective fears and needs combine with objective factors—for example, a state’s resources, the ethnic composition of its population, or its access to the sea—in determining how different segments of a society perceive state interests, and what ultimately becomes the national interest as defined by the dominant elites. Similarly, all conflicts represent a combination of rational and irrational factors, and in each type of conflict the mix may vary from case to case. Furthermore, in all international conflicts, the needs and fears of populations are mobilized and often manipulated by the leadership, with varying degrees of demagoguery and cynicism. Even when manipulated, collective needs and fears represent authentic reactions within the population and become the focus of societal action. They may be linked to individual needs and fears. For example, in highly violent ethnic conflicts, the fear of annihilation of one’s group is often (and for good reason) tied to a fear of personal annihilation.
The conception of conflict as a process driven by collective needs and fears implies, first and foremost, that conflict resolution—if it is to lead to a stable and just peace and to a new relationship that enhances the welfare of the two societies—must address the fundamental needs and deepest fears of the populations. From a normative point of view, such a solution can be viewed as the operationalization of justice within a problem-solving approach to conflict resolution ( Kelman, 1996 ). Another implication of a human-needs orientation is that the psychological needs on which it focuses—security, identity, recognition—are not inherently zero-sum ( Burton, 1990 ), although they are usually seen as such in deep-rooted conflicts. Thus, it may well be possible to shape an integrative solution that satisfies both sets of needs, which may then make it easier to settle issues like territory or resources through distributive bargaining. Finally, the view of conflict as a process driven by collective needs and fears suggests that conflict resolution must, at some stage, provide for interactions that take place at the level of individuals, such as taking the other’s perspective (or realistic empathy) ( White, 1984 ), creative problem solving, insight, and learning.
Second, international conflict is an intersocietal process , not merely an intergovernmental or interstate phenomenon. The conflict, particularly in the case of protracted ethnopolitical struggles, becomes an inescapable part of daily life for each society and its component elements. (See also Bar-Tal & Halperin’s discussion of intractable conflicts in chapter 28 of this volume.) Thus, analysis of conflict requires attention, not only to its strategic, military, and diplomatic dimensions, but also to its economic, psychological, cultural, and social-structural dimensions. Interactions along these dimensions, both within and between the conflicting societies, shape the political environment in which governments function and define the political constraints under which they operate.
An intersocietal view of conflict alerts us to the role of internal divisions within each society, which often play a major part in exacerbating or even creating conflicts between the societies. They impose constraints on political leaders pursuing a policy of accommodation, in the form of accusations by opposition elements that they are jeopardizing national existence, and of anxieties and doubts within the general population that are both fostered and exploited by the opposition elements. The internal divisions, however, may also provide potential levers for change in the direction of conflict resolution, by challenging the monolithic image of the enemy that parties in conflict tend to hold and enabling them to deal with each other in a more differentiated way. They point to the presence on the other side of potential partners for negotiation and thus provide the opportunity for forming pro-negotiation coalitions across the conflict lines ( Kelman, 1993 ). To contribute to conflict resolution, any such coalition must of necessity remain an “uneasy coalition,” lest its members lose their credibility and political effectiveness within their respective communities.
Another implication of an intersocietal view of conflict is that negotiations and third-party efforts should ideally be directed not merely to a political settlement of the conflict, but to its resolution . A political agreement may be adequate for terminating relatively specific, containable interstate disputes, but conflicts that engage the collective identities and existential concerns of the adversaries require a process conducive to structural and attitude change, to reconciliation, and to the transformation of the relationship between the two societies. Finally, an intersocietal analysis of conflict suggests a view of diplomacy as a complex mix of official and unofficial efforts with complementary contributions.
Third, international conflict is a multifaceted process of mutual influence , not only a contest in the exercise of coercive power. Each party seeks to protect and promote its own interests by shaping the behavior of the other. Conflict occurs when these interests clash: when attainment of one party’s interests (and fulfillment of the needs that underlie them) threatens, or is perceived to threaten, the interests (and needs) of the other. In pursuing the conflict, therefore, the parties engage in mutual influence, designed to advance their own positions and to block the adversary. Similarly, in conflict management, the parties exercise influence to induce the adversary to come to the table, to make concessions, to accept an agreement that meets their interests and needs, and to live up to that agreement. Third parties also exercise influence in conflict situations, by backing one or the other party, by mediating between them, or by maneuvering to protect their own interests.
Influence in international conflict typically relies on a mixture of threats and inducements, with the balance often on the side of force and the threat of force. Thus, the US-Soviet relationship in the Cold War was predominantly framed in terms of an elaborate theory of deterrence—a form of influence designed to keep the other side from doing what you do not want it to do ( George & Smoke, 1974 ; Jervis, Lebow, & Stein, 1985 ; Schelling, 1960 ). In other conflict relationships, the emphasis may be on compellence—a form of influence designed to make the other side do what you want it to do, or to stop doing something, or to undo what it has already done. Such coercive strategies entail serious costs and risks, and their effects may be severely limited. For example, they are likely to be reciprocated by the other side and thus lead to escalation of the conflict, and they are unlikely to change behavior to which the other is committed. Thus, the effective exercise of influence in international conflict requires a broadening of the repertoire of influence strategies, at least to the extent of combining “carrots and sticks”—of supplementing the negative incentives that typically dominate international conflict relationships with positive incentives (cf. Baldwin, 1971 ; Kriesberg, 1982 ), such as economic benefits, international approval, or a general reduction in the level of tension. An example of an approach based on the systematic use of positive incentives is Osgood’s (1962) GRIT (Graduated and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension Reduction) strategy.
Effective use of positive incentives requires more than offering the other whatever rewards, promises, or confidence-building measures seem most readily available. It requires actions that address the fundamental needs and fears of the other party. Thus, the key to an effective influence strategy based on the exchange of positive incentives is responsiveness to the other’s concerns. The advantage of a strategy of responsiveness is that it allows each party to exert influence on the other through positive steps (not threats) that are within its own capacity to take. The process is greatly facilitated by communication between the parties in order to identify actions that are politically feasible for each party and yet likely to have an impact on the other.
A key element in an influence strategy based on responsiveness is mutual reassurance . The negotiation literature suggests that parties are often driven to the table by a mutually hurting stalemate, which makes negotiations more attractive than continuing the conflict ( Zartman & Berman, 1982 ; Touval & Zartman, 1985 , p. 16). But parties in existential conflicts are afraid of negotiations, even when the status quo has become increasingly painful and they recognize that a negotiated agreement is in their interest. To advance the negotiating process under such circumstances, it is at least as important to reduce the parties’ fears as it is to increase their pain.
Mutual reassurance can take the form of acknowledgments, symbolic gestures, or confidence-building measures. To be maximally effective, such steps need to address the other’s central needs and fears as directly as possible. When Egyptian president Sadat spoke to the Israeli Knesset during his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, he clearly acknowledged Egypt’s past hostility toward Israel and thus validated Israelis’ own experiences. In so doing, he greatly enhanced the credibility of the change in course that he was announcing. At the opening of this visit, Sadat’s symbolic gesture of engaging in a round of cordial handshakes with the Israeli officials who had come to greet him broke a longstanding taboo. By signaling the beginning of a new relationship, it had an electrifying effect on the Israeli public. In deep-rooted conflicts, acknowledgment of what was heretofore denied—in the form of recognition of the other’s humanity, nationhood, rights, grievances, and interpretation of history—is an important source of reassurance that the other may indeed be ready to negotiate an agreement that addressees your fundamental concerns. By signaling acceptance of the other’s legitimacy, each party reassures the other that negotiations and concessions no longer constitute mortal threats to its security and national existence. By confirming the other’s narrative, each reassures the other that a compromise does not represent an abandonment of its identity.
An influence strategy based on responsiveness to each other’s needs and fears and the resulting search for ways of reassuring and benefiting each other has important advantages from a long-term point of view. It does not merely elicit specific desired behaviors from the other party, but can contribute to a creative redefinition of the conflict, joint discovery of mutually satisfactory solutions, and transformation of the relationship between the parties.
Fourth, international conflict is an interactive process with an escalatory, self-perpetuating dynamic , not merely a sequence of action and reaction by stable actors In intense conflict relationships, the natural course of interaction between the parties tends to reinforce and deepen the conflict, and is governed by a set of norms and guided by a set of images that create an escalatory, self-perpetuating dynamic. This dynamic can be reversed through skillful diplomacy, imaginative leadership, third-party intervention, and institutionalized mechanisms for managing and resolving conflict.
The needs and fears of parties engaged in intense conflict impose perceptual and cognitive constraints on their processing of new information, with the resulting tendency to underestimate the occurrence and the possibility of change. The ability to take the role of the other is severely impaired. Dehumanization of the enemy makes it even more difficult to acknowledge and access the perspective of the other. Conflicting parties display particularly strong tendencies to find evidence that confirms their negative images of each other and to resist evidence that would seem to disconfirm these images. Thus, interaction not only fails to contribute to a revision of the enemy image, but actually helps to reinforce and perpetuate it. Interaction guided by mirror images of a demonic enemy and a virtuous self (cf. Bronfenbrenner, 1961 ; White, 1965 ) creates self-fulfilling prophecies by inducing the parties to engage in the hostile actions they expect from one another.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are also generated by the conflict norms that typically govern the interaction between parties engaged in an intense conflict. Expressions of hostility and distrust toward the enemy are not just spontaneous manifestations of the conflict, but are normatively prescribed behaviors. Political leaders’ assumption that the public’s evaluation of them depends on their adherence to these norms influences their tactical and strategic decisions, their approach to negotiations, their public pronouncements, and, ultimately, the way they educate their own publics. For the publics, in turn, adherence to these norms is often taken as an indicator of group loyalty. Thus, the discourse in deep-rooted conflicts is marked by mutual delegitimization and dehumanization. Interaction governed by this set of norms—at the micro and macro levels—contributes to escalation and perpetuation of the conflict. Parties that systematically treat each other with hostility and distrust are likely to become increasingly hostile and untrustworthy.
The dynamics of conflict interaction create a high probability that opportunities for conflict resolution will be missed. Conflict resolution efforts, therefore, require promotion of a different kind of interaction, capable of reversing the escalatory and self-perpetuating dynamics of conflict: an interaction conducive to sharing perspectives, differentiating the enemy image, and developing a language of mutual reassurance and a new discourse based on the norms of responsiveness and reciprocity.
2. Contributions to Conflict Analysis
The social-psychological perspective can be particularly helpful in explaining why and how, once a conflict has started, perceptual and normative processes are set into motion that promote conflict escalation and perpetuation, and create or intensify barriers to conflict resolution. By the same token, social-psychological analysis, in helping to identify and understand these barriers, can also suggest ways of overcoming them.
2.1. Perceptual Processes
Perceptual and cognitive processes—the ways in which we interpret and organize conflict-related information—play a major role in the escalation and perpetuation of conflict and create impediments to redefining and resolving the conflict despite changing realities and interests. Since the 1950s, social psychology in North America has concentrated on the study of social cognition and has typically focused on individual-level processes with little reference to their social context. In contrast, we explore the ways social perception and cognition operate in the social and relational environment. The concept of stereotype provides a good example, in that it goes beyond the individual-level process of categorization to find meaning in the context of group identities and intergroup relations.
The concept of stereotype has a considerable history in social psychology (Kinder, chapter 25 , this volume), and has typically been defined as a set of simplified beliefs about the attributes of an out-group. Stereotypes build on the social categorization effect of perceived out-group similarity, but also incorporate the out-group derogation side of ethnocentrism, in that the simplistic beliefs typically have negative connotations. Stereotypes abound in the world of intergroup relations at low levels of conflict escalation and can be relatively innocuous misperceptions of group reality. However, at higher levels of escalation, stereotypes can drive more insidious processes, such as self-fulfilling prophecies, and can provide part of the justification for destructive behaviors such as discrimination, dehumanization, and ultimately genocide.
The concept of image builds on that of stereotype and has gained greater currency in the study of international relations than the concept of attitude, even though the two can be similarly defined as consisting of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components ( Scott, 1965 ; Herrmann, chapter 11 , this volume). One important application of the concept is the proposition that parties in conflict often hold mirror images of each other, seeing themselves in a similarly stereotypical positive light and the enemy in a similarly negative light. A classic study of American and Russian images of each other during the Cold War demonstrated that the Americans’ distorted view of Russia was surprisingly similar to the Russians’ image of America; for example, each saw the other as the aggressor who could not be trusted ( Bronfenbrenner, 1961 ). Similar mirror images have been documented in a variety of intergroup and international conflicts in different parts of the world, and their significance lies in the effects they have on driving increasingly escalatory behavior by the parties. Thus, a number of commentators have stressed the value of images in the study of international relations and foreign policy and have called for a more differentiated view of images as they affect foreign-policy making (e.g., Herrmann & Fischerkeller, 1995 ).
Once established, typically through in-group socialization, stereotypes and images serve as cognitive structures that drive selective and distorted perception . Unfortunately, in the intergroup context, the effects of social categorization and ethnocentrism appear to increase as the distinguishing characteristics of groups—for example, in language, manner of dress, or skin color—are clearer and more marked. Thus, stronger stereotypes between such groups become filters through which information consonant with the stereotype is perceived and assimilated while contrary information is ignored or discounted ( Hamilton, 1979 ; Schneider, 2004 ). (See also the discussions of motivated reasoning by Stein, chapter 12 , this volume; and by Taber & Young, chapter 17 , this volume.) The pressures of conflict escalation, with its attendant perception of threat, distrust, and hostility, tend to enhance these distortions.
The positive, in-group side of ethnocentrism also involves perceptual selectivity and distortion, which now operate in the direction of elevating and glorifying the in-group. According to social identity theory (see below), the self-serving biases that operate here are due to the need for enhanced self-esteem that comes from heightened in-group distinctiveness and out-group derogation through invidious comparisons. Simply put, individuals tend to perceive positive behaviors more on the part of in-group members and negative behaviors more on the part of out-group members, and even evaluate the same behaviors differently when they are associated with in-group versus out-group members ( Pruitt & Kim, 2004 ).
Causal attribution plays an increasingly important role as intergroup conflict escalates over time. It refers to the judgments individuals make about the reasons for their own and other people’s behavior, and the inferences they draw about the characteristics of the actor. Attributions are significant in human interaction, because they tend to affect responses (both emotional and behavioral) to other people’s actions. A key distinction in the attribution of the causes of behavior is between attribution to internal or dispositional characteristics of the person versus external or situational factors. A common cognitive bias in attribution appears to be the tendency to attribute one’s own behavior to situational causes, but the behavior of others to dispositional factors ( Jones & Nisbett, 1971 ). Ross (1977) described the latter tendency as the fundamental attribution error . At the level of intergroup relations, a more insidious bias enters in—the so-called ultimate attribution error ( Pettigrew, 1979 ). Assuming social categorization and a degree of ethnocentrism, a prejudiced individual will tend to attribute undesirable actions by an out-group member to dispositional (i.e., group) characteristics, whereas desirable actions will be attributed to situational circumstances. Concurrently, undesirable behavior by an in-group member will be attributed to situational determinants, while desirable actions will be attributed to dispositional (i.e., in-group) characteristics. According to Pettigrew, the effect of this cognitive bias will be stronger when there are highly negative stereotypes and intense conflict between the groups. What is happening in this process is that prejudiced individuals are able to confirm their negative expectations and discount information that runs counter to their out-group stereotypes.
As conflict escalates, a series of transformations occur in the orientations and behavior of each party and thereby in their interaction ( Pruitt & Kim, 2004 ). One of these changes relates to the motivation of the parties, which shifts from doing well in achieving their goals, to winning over the other party, and finally to hurting the other party. At a middle level of escalation, a competitive and increasingly hostile interaction induces the parties toward further perceptual and cognitive biases. Essentially, this is where negative expectations become increasingly confirmed, mirror images develop, and cognitive dissonance influences parties toward consistent systems of thinking and behaving.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a type of expectancy effect in which a person’s stereotypes regarding an out-group member lead that person to behave in ways that confirm the stereotype. In intergroup conflict, the stereotyped expectancies that one group holds of another group—for example, as untrustworthy—are communicated through behavior, such as cautiousness and skepticism. These behaviors may then be reciprocated by the target group members—for example, through unwillingness to trust and cooperate—thus confirming the initial views of the first group. In this way, stereotypes are not only confirmed, but strengthened for the next round of interactions. The pervasive effects of stereotypes on intergroup relations are among the enduring potential contributions of social psychology to the understanding of intergroup and international conflict ( Fiske, 2002 ).
Many of the perceptual biases and cognitive distortions that afflict parties in conflict can be partly explained through the effects of cognitive dissonance , an unpleasant state of tension that is hypothesized to exist whenever any two cognitive elements (e.g., beliefs, perceptions of behavior) are incongruent ( Festinger, 1957 ). Individuals are predisposed to reduce cognitive dissonance through a variety of possible changes, such as modifying one of the elements, adding new elements, or changing their behavior. Related conceptualizations, including Heider’s balance theory, also identify the need for cognitive consistency as a prime motivator in supporting biases and distortions ( Heider, 1958 ). The initial application of these concepts to international conflict in a comprehensive manner was undertaken by Robert Jervis, whose analysis and case examples emphasized how policymakers assimilated new information into preexisting beliefs and categories in ways that rendered the information cognitively consistent ( Jervis, 1976 ).
At higher levels of escalation, all of the aforementioned misperceptions and biases find their expression in more extreme forms. Each perceptual and cognitive distortion becomes more pronounced and thus has a larger effect on interaction and escalation. Mirror images, based on an ethnocentric perspective, produce a spiraling effect in which each party’s interpretation of the other’s difficult or hostile behavior reinforces attributions of aggressive intent and untrustworthiness ( Fisher & Kelman, 2011 ). Mirror images develop beyond the moderately good-bad distinction toward more exaggerated and variegated forms, identified by White as including the diabolical enemy image , the virile self-image , and the moral self-image ( White, 1970 ).
The diabolical enemy image finds its expression in the demonization of the enemy, which White determined to be not only the most common, but also an almost universal misperception, in his 40 years of studying the most serious conflicts of the past 100 years ( White, 2004 ). Demonization is also linked to the process of dehumanization , in which members of the enemy group are seen as less than human, thus justifying or rationalizing aggressive behavior toward them. Dehumanization, in turn, is linked to the phenomenon of deindividuation , in which group members experience a loss of personal identity and become submerged in the group’s cognitive reality ( Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952 ). As a consequence, members of one’s own group or other groups are seen less as individual persons than as members of a social category ( Pruitt & Kim, 2004 ). In intergroup conflict, this process appears to reduce constraints within groups on aggressive behavior by reducing individual responsibility, and at the same time reduce the perception of out-group members as individual human beings deserving of morally acceptable treatment. The accumulation of all of these processes allows for more severe aggressive responses toward members of the enemy group, which in turn, escalates the intensity of the conflict. The mutual victimization characteristic of highly destructive intergroup conflicts is in part due to the enabling effects of extreme images and the cognitive biases that go with them.
Also at higher levels of escalation, an insidious cognitive process known as entrapment becomes a driver in the intractable nature of the conflict. Entrapment is a cognitive process in which the parties become increasingly committed to costly and destructive courses of action that would not be prescribed by rational analysis ( Brockner & Rubin, 1985 ). Thus, each party in an escalated conflict pursues its goals by expending more resources than would seem to be justifiable by objective or external standards ( Pruitt & Kim, 2004 ). In a related vein, Deutsch (1983) has identified the cognitive error of unwitting commitment in his largely cognitive analysis of the escalatory dynamics of what he terms the malignant social process , that is, one that is increasingly costly and dangerous and from which the parties see no way of extricating themselves without unacceptable losses. The dynamics behind unwitting commitment are seen to include a more general phenomenon identified as postdecision dissonance reduction: Once an alternative has been chosen, it becomes evaluated more positively in order to increase cognitive consistency ( Brehm, 1956 ). A connection can also be made between entrapment and some of the hypothesized effects of prospect theory, especially loss aversion, which might help explain why parties persist in failing policies much longer than a rational, cost-benefit analysis would prescribe ( Levy, 1996 ; and chapter 10 , this volume).
2.2. Group and Normative Processes
Adding to the complexity and intractability of escalated and destructive conflict induced by perceptual processes is another set of insidious dynamics at the group and societal levels. The evolving course of the conflict is governed by a powerful set of norms that encourage attitudes, actions, and decision-making processes that are conducive to the generation, escalation, and perpetuation of conflict between distinct identity groups. Furthermore, these same factors inhibit the perception and occurrence of change in the direction of tension reduction and conflict resolution ( Kelman, 2007 ).
Social identity theory (SIT) provides important linkages between the individual and group levels, and thereby a context for the operation of individual cognitive and emotional processes ( Tajfel, 1982 ; Tajfel & Turner, 1986 ; Huddy, chapter 23 , this volume). SIT is a complement to realistic group conflict theory (RCT), which posits that real differences in interests are necessary for the causation of intergroup conflict ( Brown & Capozza, 2000 ; LeVine & Campbell, 1972 ). According to RCT, conflicts of interests based on incompatible goals and competition for scarce resources (especially in situations of relative deprivation) result in the perception of threat, which then increases ethnocentrism and drives invidious group comparisons. RCT also posits that threat causes awareness of in-group identity and solidarity, while at the same time causing hostility to the source of the threat.
Theorizing on SIT was stimulated by the finding that mere cognitive categorization tends to produce an exaggeration of both intraclass similarities and interclass diff erences. The theory was extended by the minimal group experiments, which showed that even the most trivial and arbitrary group assignments created intergroup discrimination favoring the in-group in the absence of a conflict of interests ( Tajfel, 1970 ). A series of propositions was then developed to link social categorization and social identity to individual self-esteem and positive identity through the mechanism of self-serving social comparisons with other groups. The motivating force for intergroup discrimination was thus found in the concept of self-esteem, in that a positive social identity created by group formation and enhanced by positive in-group evaluations and negative out-group comparisons enhances the in-group member’s self-concept. SIT thus links individual-level cognitive variables (categorization effects), motivational variables (need for self-esteem), and emotional variables (attachment to the in-group) to the social levels of group functioning and intergroup relations. The central point here is that when individuals or groups interact in the context of their respective memberships in social categories, their functioning can only be understood at the levels of group and intergroup behavior ( Tajfel & Turner, 1986 ). At the same time, research on SIT provides stronger support for in-group positiveness and favoritism than for out-group denigration and discrimination ( Brewer, 1979 ). It appears that competition or conflict between groups (as posited by RCT) is necessary to produce the full effects of ethnocentrism ( Brewer, 2007 ).
The important role of social identity processes in the causation and maintenance of protracted intercommunal and international conflict is now generally accepted in the field ( Stein, 2001 ). Particularly in situations of intractable conflict, threats to identity are seen as playing a pivotal role in the escalation and persistence of the conflict, to the point that the parties unwittingly collude in maintaining the conflict, because it has become part of their identities ( Northrup, 1989 ). Kelman (2001) explores the role of national identity in exacerbating intercommunal or international conflict, with particular reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although national identity is part of the social identity of individual members of the group, it can be conceptualized as a collective phenomenon—as a property of the group: “Insofar as a group of people have come to see themselves as constituting a unique, identifiable entity, with a claim to continuity over time, to unity across geographical distance, and to the right to various forms of self-expression, we can say that they have acquired a sense of national identity. National identity is the group’s definition of itself as a group—its conception of its enduring characteristics and basic values; its strengths and weaknesses; its hopes and fears; its reputation and conditions of existence; its institutions and traditions; and its past history, current purposes, and future prospects” ( Kelman, 1997b , p. 171).
Kelman (2001) asserts that the threat to collective identities posed by existential conflict between peoples is a core issue, in that identity is not only a source of distinctiveness and belongingness, but also constitutes the justification for each group’s claim to territory and other resources and is bolstered by each group’s national narrative. Thus, the national identity of the out-group becomes a threat to the in-group, leading to a zero-sum struggle over not only territory, but also identity, in that acknowledging the out-group’s identity becomes tantamount to jeopardizing or denying one’s own. The mutual denial of identity therefore creates serious obstacles to conflict resolution, in that all issues are rendered existential ones—matters of life and death—and as such are nonnegotiable.
At the societal level, public support is an essential resource for political leaders engaged in a conflict, both in ensuring the public’s readiness to accept the costs that their policies may entail and in enhancing the credibility of their threats and promises to the other side. The primary means of gaining public support is the mobilization of group loyalties . Arousal of nationalist and patriotic sentiments, particularly in a context of national security and survival, is a powerful tool in mobilizing public support. The nation generates such powerful identifications and loyalties because it brings together two central psychological dispositions: the needs for self-protection and self-transcendence ( Kelman, 1969 ; 1997b ).
Group loyalties can potentially be mobilized in support of conciliatory policies. Political leaders may promote painful compromises and concessions to the adversary on the grounds that the security, well-being, integrity, and survival of the nation require such actions. Indeed, leaders with impeccable nationalist credentials—such as Charles de Gaulle, Yitzhak Rabin, or F. W. de Klerk—are often most effective in leading their populations toward peaceful resolution of conflicts, once they have decided that this approach best serves the national interest. In general, however, group loyalties are more readily available to mobilize support for aggressive policies than for conciliatory ones.
Processes of group loyalty create barriers to change in a conflict relationship. Group loyalty requires adherence to the group’s norms—which, in an intense conflict, call for a militant, unyielding, and suspicious attitude toward the enemy. Hence, particularly in situations of perceived national crisis, the militants exercise disproportionate power and often a veto over official actions and policies. They impose severe constraints on the ability of leaders to explore peaceful options. Dissent from the dominant conflict norms becomes defined as an act of disloyalty and is suppressed.
Another insidious process supporting conflict norms is the formation of collective moods (Stein, chapter 12 , this volume). With periodic shifts in collective mood, public opinion can act as both a resource and a constraint for political leaders in the foreign policy process. In principle, it can provide support for either aggressive or conciliatory policies, but under the prevailing norms in an intense, protracted conflict, leaders are more likely to expect—and to mobilize—public support for the former than for the latter. Apart from transitory moods, certain pervasive states of consciousness underlie public opinion in a society engulfed in a deep-rooted conflict, reflecting the existential concerns and the central national narratives widely shared within the population. In many cases—such as Serbia, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East—historical traumas serve as the points of reference for current events. These memories are part of the people’s consciousness available for manipulation. The effect of such collective moods is to bring to the fore powerful social norms that support escalatory actions and inhibit moves toward compromise and accommodation. When fundamental concerns about identity and survival are tapped, national leaders, with full expectation of public support, are far more ready to risk war than to take risks for peace—again in line with the proposition derived from prospect theory that people are more reluctant to take risks to achieve gains than to avoid losses ( Levy, 1992 ). Any change in the established view of the enemy and of the imperatives of national defense comes to be seen as a threat to the nation’s very existence.
Decision-making processes (see the chapters in this volume by Redlawsk & Lau, chapter 5 ; Levy, chapter 10 ; and Dyson & ‘t Hart, chapter 13 ) in a conflict situation tend to inhibit the search for alternatives and the exploration of new possibilities, particularly when decision-makers are operating in an atmosphere of crisis. These tendencies are by no means inevitable, and there are historical instances—such as the Cuban Missile Crisis—of creative decision-making in dangerous crisis situations ( Allison, 1971 ; Lebow, 1981 ). Conflict norms do, however, impose serious burdens on the decision-making process.
A major source of reluctance to explore new options is the domestic constraints under which decision-makers labor. In an intense conflict situation, adherence to the conflict norms tends to be seen as the safest course of action. The search for alternatives in response to changing realities is also inhibited by institutionalized rigidities in the decision-making apparatus. Decision-makers and their bureaucracies operate within a framework of assumptions about available choices, effective strategies, and constituency expectations, shaped by the conflict norms, which may make them unaware of the occurrence and possibility of change. Furthermore, they often rely on established procedures and technologies, which are more likely to be geared toward pursuing the conflict—by military and other means—than toward resolving it.
The microprocesses of action and interaction in crisis decision-making further inhibit the exploration of new options. At the level of individual decision-makers, the stress they experience in situations of crisis—when consequential decisions have to be made under severe time pressures—limits the number of alternatives they consider and impels them to settle quickly on the dominant response, which, in intense conflicts, is likely to be aggressive and escalatory ( Holsti, 1972 ; Lebow, 1987 ).
At the level of decision-making groups, crisis decision-making often leads to “groupthink” ( Janis, 1972 ; 1982 ; Dyson & ‘t Hart, chapter 13 , this volume), a concurrence-seeking tendency designed to maintain the cohesiveness of the group. Janis (1972) defined groupthink as a process by which a cohesive and insulated elite decision-making group develops concurrence seeking to the extent that it overrides a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action, thus producing suboptimal outcomes. He identified three symptoms of the groupthink syndrome: (1) the overestimation of the group, including an illusion of invulnerability and a belief in the group’s inherent morality, (2) closedmindedness, including stereotypes of out-groups and collective rationalization, and (3) pressures toward uniformity, including self-censorship, an illusion of unanimity, group pressure on dissenters, and the use of self-appointed “mindguards” to enforce conformity with the leader’s initial direction. Groupthink results in a poor information search, a selective bias in information processing, an incomplete survey of alternatives, the failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice, a failure to work out contingency plans, and other shortcomings that produce a low probability of success ( Janis, 1982 ). Decision-making under these circumstances is much more likely to produce policies and actions that perpetuate and escalate the conflict in line with group norms than innovative ideas for conflict resolution.
The norms governing negotiation and bargaining processes between parties involved in longstanding conflict strongly encourage zero-sum thinking, which equates the enemy’s loss with one’s own gain. Negotiation—even distributive bargaining in its narrowest form—is possible only when both parties define the situation, at least at some level, as a mixed-motive game, in which they have both competitive and cooperative goals. While pursuing its own interests, each party must actively seek out ways in which the adversary can also win and appear to be winning. But this is precisely the kind of effort that is discouraged by the conflict norms.
At the micro level, negotiators in an intense conflict tend to evaluate their performance by the forcefulness with which they present their own case and by their effectiveness in resisting compromise. To listen to what the other side needs and help the other side achieve its goals would violate the conflict norms and might subject the negotiators to criticism from their own constituencies and particularly from their hard-line domestic opposition. At the macro level, the parties—even when they recognize their common interest in negotiating certain specific issues—tend to pursue an overall outcome that strengthens their own strategic position and weakens the adversary’s. Such a strategy reduces the other’s incentive for concluding an agreement and ability to mobilize public support for whatever agreement is negotiated. Zero-sum thinking at both levels undermines the negotiating process, causing delays, setbacks, and repeated failures.
Finally, conflict creates certain structural and psychological commitments , which then take on a life of their own (see Pruitt & Gahagan, 1974 ; Pruitt, & Kim, 2004 ). Most obviously, in a conflict of long standing, various individuals, groups, and organizations—military, political, industrial, scholarly—develop a vested interest in maintaining the conflict as a source of profit, power, status, or raison d’être. Others, though not benefiting from the conflict as such, may have a strong interest in forestalling a compromise solution, because it would not address their particular grievances or fulfill their particular aspirations. Vested interests do not necessarily manifest themselves in deliberate attempts to undermine efforts at conflict resolution. They may take indirect and subtle forms, such as interpreting ambiguous realities and choosing between uncertain policy alternatives in ways that favor continuation of the conflict.
Vested interests and similar structural commitments to the conflict are bolstered by psychological commitments. People involved in a longstanding and deep-rooted conflict tend to develop a worldview that is built around the conflict and would be threatened by an end to the conflict. Resistance to change is likely to be more pronounced, the more elaborate the cognitive structure or ideology in which the view of the conflict is embedded, since changing this view would have wider ramifications. In an intense conflict, the image of the enemy is often a particularly important part of people’s worldview, with implications for their national identity, view of their own society, and interpretation of history.
Despite all the reasons why conflict images and conflict norms are resistant to change, they are not immutable. Social-psychological evidence suggests that they can change, and historical evidence shows that they do change (Chong, chapter 4 , this volume; Stein, chapter 12 , this volume). The challenge for scholars and practitioners of international conflict resolution is to devise the means to overcome these resistances to change. Interactive conflict resolution is specifically designed to address these kinds of resistances, along with the other social-psychological processes that contribute to the escalation and perpetuation of intergroup and international conflict.
3. Interactive Conflict Resolution
The practice of interactive conflict resolution and the rationale behind it are anchored in a social-psychological perspective. John Burton, whose first degree was in psychology, is credited not only with challenging the dominant paradigm of realism in international relations, but also with the creation of an alternative problem-solving approach to international conflict analysis and resolution, which he initially termed controlled communication ( Burton, 1969 ). Following Burton’s method, high-level representatives of parties in destructive conflict are brought together in unofficial discussions under the guidance of a third-party panel of social scientists, who work to build an open and supportive climate in which the antagonists can analyze their situation, examine their perceptions and evaluations, and create mutually acceptable options for conflict resolution. Herbert Kelman was a panel member in one of Burton’s early workshops on the Cyprus conflict, and went on to develop his own method of interactive problem solving , which he has applied over many years to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A variety of interventions and studies applying these types of methods to intergroup and international conflict are reviewed by Fisher (1972 ; 1983 ), who also developed a generic model of third-party consultation to represent the essential components of the approach.
Fisher (1997 , p. 8) has captured the work of Burton, Kelman, and others under the rubric of interactive conflict resolution , which is defined in a focused manner as “small group, problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of identity groups or states engaged in destructive conflict that are facilitated by an impartial third party of social scientist-practitioners.” Given the proliferation of interactive methods over the past decade, Fisher (1997) also provides a broader view of interactive conflict resolution as involving facilitated, face-to-face activities in communication, training, education, or consultation that promote collaborative conflict analysis and problem solving among antagonists. In either case, the method is based in social-psychological assumptions about intergroup and international conflict, which see the importance of subjective factors (attitudes, perceptions, emotions) alongside objective elements, and which propose that a different form of meaningful interaction among conflicting parties is necessary to de-escalate the conflict. In addition, the method takes a system perspective, knowing that any changes in individuals that take place in problem-solving workshops or other interactive forums must be transferred successfully to the level of political discourse and policymaking for conflict resolution to occur. Interactive methods are also becoming increasingly important in postconflict peace-building, to help implement settlements and rebuild war-torn relationships, so that re-escalating cycles of violence are prevented.
There are a variety of different forms of interactive conflict resolution in addition to the classic problem-solving workshop model articulated by Burton (1987) , Mitchell (1981) , Kelman (1986) , Azar (1990) , Fisher (1983) , and others. Vamik Volkan and his colleagues have developed a psychodynamic approach to both understanding and ameliorating ethnopolitical conflict among contesting communal groups. Volkan (1991) contends that deeper psychological processes, such as projection and victimization, need to be addressed along with political and economic issues, and he has developed a workshop methodology for bringing together influential members of conflicting groups to establish workable relationships and develop mutually acceptable options. The approach has been successfully applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict ( Julius, 1991 ) and to conflicts in the post-Soviet Baltic republics between majority populations and Russian minorities ( Volkan & Harris, 1993 ). Although the psychodynamic underpinnings of Volkan’s method are different from those of the social-psychological model, the design of the workshops and role of the third-party facilitators are remarkably similar.
Another form of interactive conflict resolution has been developed by Harold Saunders, a former US diplomat and policymaker, who has worked as a member of the third-party team in workshops organized by both Volkan and Kelman. For many years, Saunders was involved in the Dartmouth conference, bringing together Soviet (now Russian) and American influentials to engage in citizen-to-citizen dialogue. He served as the American cochair of the regional conflict task force, which examined superpower interaction in Cold War hot spots as a means of understanding the relationship between the two countries. Based on this experience, Chufrin and Saunders (1993) articulated a public peace process involving five stages of unofficial dialogue between conflicting groups. Following the end of the Cold War, Saunders and Randa Slim worked with American and Russian colleagues to apply the dialogue model with considerable success to the civil war in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan ( Saunders, 1995 ). Based on this and other experiences, including a dialogue on race relations in the United States, Saunders (1999) has articulated a broadly applicable model of facilitating sustained dialogue between members of conflicting groups.
3.1. Problem-Solving Workshops
The focused definition of interactive conflict resolution is essentially coterminous with the method of the problem-solving workshop, which brings together unofficial yet influential representatives of parties engaged in destructive and protracted conflict for informal small-group discussions facilitated by an impartial (or multipartial) third-party team of skilled and knowledgeable scholar-practitioners, often based in academia. The objectives are to develop a shared analysis of the conflict and to create options or directions that might help lead the parties out of their impasse. The nature and characteristics of the problem-solving workshop have been articulated by a number of authors, and the description here will follow most closely the approach associated with interactive problem solving , as articulated by Kelman and his colleagues. The following passage is a recent attempt to capture the essence of the problem-solving workshop succinctly ( Fisher, 2004 ):
Regardless of the label applied, the workshop method evidences a number of essential characteristics ( Kelman, 1972 ; Kelman & Cohen, 1976 ; 1986 ). A small group of individuals (usually three to six from each side) are invited by a third party team (usually three to five) to engage in low risk, noncommittal, off-the-record discussions over a period of three to five days in a neutral and secluded setting conducive to a relaxed atmosphere and devoid of intrusions. While the meetings are not secret, they are quiet, that is, held out of the public and media view with clear assurances of confidentiality stressing the non-attribution of comments made in the workshop. The participants are typically influential individuals in their communities who are not in official policy-making roles, but have access to the political leadership. Some variations involve officials, but in a private, unofficial capacity. The role of the third party is to facilitate the discussions in an impartial manner and to suggest conceptual tools that might be useful to the participants in analyzing their conflict. The objective is to create an informal atmosphere in which participants can freely express their views, while respecting those of the other side, and can move from adversarial debate to a joint analysis of the conflict and the creation of problem solutions that might help address it. Following agreement on ground rules, the third party provides a rough agenda for the sessions, starting with an initial exchange of perceptions, to an analysis of the attributions, interests and needs underlying incompatible positions and escalatory interactions, to the application and development of insights and models of understanding, to the creation of ideas for peacebuilding and resolution, and finally to considering the constraints and resistances to these options. (p. 387)
It is evident that much of the potential power of the problem-solving workshop to influence the course of a conflict lies in its social-psychological assumptions and principles . Some of these assumptions relate to the nature of human social conflict in general ( Fisher, 1990 ), others relate more specifically to the nature of the international system and conflicts within it ( Kelman, 2007 ), and yet others underlie the structure, process, and content of workshops ( Kelman, 1992 ; Kelman & Cohen, 1986 ). The focus here is on how conflict perceptions, interactions, and systems can be influenced through such workshops to help bring about changes that lead to conflict resolution.
It is assumed that all conflicts are a mix of objective and subjective factors, and that both of these sets must be addressed for resolution to occur. Therefore, workshops focus on a range of perceptual, motivational, and interactional factors such as misperceptions, misattributions, self-serving biases, unwitting commitments, mistrust, miscommunication, adversarial interactions, self-fulfilling prophecies, and unmet human needs for security, identity, and distributive justice, all of which play important roles in causing and escalating the conflict. It is also assumed that authentic and constructive face-toface interaction is necessary to confront and overcome these distorted and invalid cognitive elements and to change the adversarial orientations and patterns of interaction that characterize destructive conflict. As Kelman (1992) writes:
Workshops are designed to promote a special kind of interaction or discourse that can contribute to the desired political outcome….the setting, ground rules, and procedures of problem-solving workshops encourage (and permit) interaction marked by the following elements: an emphasis on addressing each other (rather than one’s constituencies, or third parties, or the record) and on listening to each other; analytical discussion; adherence to a ‘no-fault’ principle; and a problem-solving mode of interaction. This kind of interaction allows the parties to explore each other’s concerns, penetrate each other’s perspectives, and take cognizance of each other’s constraints. As a result they are able to offer each other the needed reassurances to engage in negotiation and to come up with solutions responsive to both sides’ needs and fears. (p. 85)
To promote this kind of interaction, the facilitative and diagnostic role of an impartial and skilled third party is essential. The third party helps to elicit and maintain problem-solving motivation, to support constructive and respectful interaction, to encourage a joint analysis that transcends biased narratives, and to create directions and options for de-escalating and resolving the conflict ( Fisher, 1972 ).
To have an effect on the larger conflict system, the changes in individuals’ perceptions and attitudes that occur as a result of participation in a workshop must be transferred to their respective societies. Individual participants can influence public opinion and policymaking in their societies in many ways through the various roles they enact—for example, as advisers to decision-makers, political activists, journalists, or academic analysts.
It must be emphasized that problem-solving workshops and related activities are not negotiating sessions. Negotiations can be carried out only by officials authorized to conclude binding agreements, and workshops—by definition—are completely nonbinding. Their nonbinding character, in fact, represents their special strength and is the source of their unique contribution to the larger process: They provide a context for sharing perspectives, exploring options, and engaging in joint thinking.
Even though workshops must be clearly distinguished from official negotiations, they can be viewed as an integral part of the larger negotiating process, relevant at all stages of that process. At the prenegotiation stage, they can help the parties move toward the negotiating table by contributing to the creation of a political environment conducive to negotiation. At the negotiation stage itself they can perform useful para-negotiation functions: They can contribute to overcoming obstacles to the negotiations, to creating momentum and reviving the sense of possibility, and to identifying options and reframing issues so that they can be negotiated more effectively once they get to the table. Finally, at the postnegotiation stage, workshops can contribute to resolving problems in the implementation of negotiated agreements, as well as to the process of peace-building and reconciliation in the aftermath of an agreement and to the transformation of the relationship between the former enemies.
Workshops have a dual purpose . They are designed, first, to produce change—new learning, in the form of new understandings, new insights, and new ideas for resolving the conflict—in the particular individuals who participate in the workshop; and, second, to transfer these changes into the political debate and the decision-making process in the two societies. An important theoretical and practical consequence of the dual purpose of workshops is that the two purposes may create contradictory requirements. The best example of these dialectics is provided by the selection of participants. Transfer into the political process would be maximized by officials who are close to the decision-making apparatus and thus in a position to apply immediately what they have learned. Change , however, would be maximized by participants who are removed from the decision-making process and therefore less constrained in their interactions and freer to play with ideas and explore hypothetical scenarios. To balance these contradictory requirements, selection has focused on participants who are not officials, but who are politically influential. They are thus relatively free to engage in the process, but, at the same time, any new ideas they develop in the course of a workshop can have an impact on the thinking of decision-makers and the society at large.
As noted above, problem-solving workshops follow a set of ground rules, which are presented to the participants in detail. The central ground rule, privacy and confidentiality , is important for the protection of the participants in the face of political, legal, and even physical risks, but it is equally important for protection of the process that workshops seek to promote. This process is captured by the next three ground rules: Participants are asked to focus on each other , rather than on their constituencies, third parties, an audience, or the record; to enter into an analytic (nonpolemical) discussion , seeking to explore each other’s perspective and gain insight into the causes and dynamics of the conflict; and to move to a problem-solving (nonadversarial) mode of interaction , sidestepping the usual attempt to allocate blame and, instead, taking the conflict as a shared problem that requires joint effort to find a mutually satisfactory solution.
An additional ground rule, equality of the two parties within the workshop setting, assures that each party has the same right to serious consideration of its needs, fears, and concerns. Regardless of asymmetric power or moral standing, each side has the right to be heard in the workshop, and each side’s needs and fears must be given equal attention in the search for a mutually satisfactory solution. Finally, the ground rules specify a facilitative role of the third party . The third party does not take part in the substantive discussion, give advice, or offer its own proposals, nor does it take sides, evaluate the ideas presented, or arbitrate between different interpretations of historical facts or international law. Its task is to create the conditions that allow ideas for resolving the conflict to emerge out of the interaction between the parties themselves. The third party sets the ground rules and monitors adherence to them; it helps to keep the discussion moving in constructive directions, tries to stimulate movement, and intervenes as relevant with questions, observations, and even challenges, relating both to the content and to the process of the interaction. It also serves as a repository of trust for parties who, by definition, do not trust each other.
In the typical one-time, freestanding workshop, the workshop agenda is relatively open and unstructured with respect to the substantive issues under discussion. The way in which these issues are approached, however, and the order of discussion are structured so as to facilitate the kind of discourse that the ground rules are designed to encourage. A similar structure, with some necessary modifications, characterizes the agenda within and across the meetings of a continuing workshop.
Workshops usually begin with an exchange of reports about recent developments , which provides a shared base of information and sets a precedent for the two sides to deal with each other as mutual resources, rather than solely as combatants. The agenda then typically turns to a needs analysis , in which members on each side discuss their central concerns in the conflict—the fundamental needs that would have to be addressed and the existential fears that would have to be allayed if a solution is to be satisfactory to them. The purpose is for each side to gain an adequate understanding of the other’s needs, fears, and concerns, from the perspective of the other. The next phase of the agenda, joint thinking about possible solutions , seeks to develop ideas about the overall shape of a solution for the conflict as a whole or, perhaps, a particular issue in the conflict that would address the needs and fears of both sides. As participants develop common ground in this process of joint thinking, they turn to discussion of the political and psychological constraints within the two societies that would create barriers to carrying out the ideas for solution that they have developed. Finally, depending on how much progress has been made and how much time is left, the parties are asked to engage in another round of joint thinking—this time about ways of overcoming the constraints that have been presented. (For further details about the workshop agenda, as well as about the ground rules, see Kelman, 2010 ).
3.2. Israeli-Palestinian Case Illustration
Kelman’s and his colleagues’ Israeli-Palestinian work has sought to contribute to all three of the stages of the negotiating process over the course of the years. All of the workshops in the 1970s and 1980s took place, of course, in the prenegotiation stage and were designed to explore the possibilities for movement toward the negotiating table. A variety of workshops were carried out during that period—in different contexts and with different types of participants. All of the participants, however, were members (or soon-to-be members) of the political elite. Moreover, all of the workshops during this period were “one-time” events: The particular group of Israelis and Palestinians who took part in a given workshop convened only for this one occasion— usually over an extended weekend. Some of the individuals participated in more than one such workshop, and the one-time workshops held over the years had a cumulative effect within the two societies and helped to inject new ideas into the two political cultures.
In 1990, for the first time in this program, Kelman and Nadim Rouhana organized a continuing workshop: a group of highly influential Israelis and Palestinians—six on each side—who agreed to participate in a series of three meetings over the course of a year, and in the end continued to meet (with some changes in personnel) until August 1993 ( Rouhana & Kelman, 1994 ). As it happened, with the onset of official negotiations in 1991, first in Madrid and then in Washington, this continuing workshop also provided the organizers’ first experience with interactive problem solving as a para-negotiation process. The political relevance of this work was enhanced by the appointment, in 1991, of four of the six initial Palestinian participants in the group to key positions in the official negotiating teams, and, in 1992, of several Israeli participants to ambassadorial and cabinet positions in the new Rabin government.
These efforts from the 1970s to the early 1990s, along with other unofficial efforts, helped to lay the groundwork for the Oslo agreement of September 1993 ( Kelman, 1995 ; 1997a ). They contributed by developing cadres prepared to carry out productive negotiations; by sharing information and formulating new ideas that provided substantive inputs into the negotiations; and by fostering a political atmosphere that made the parties open to a new relationship.
After the Oslo agreement, Kelman and Rouhana initiated a Joint Working Group on Israeli-Palestinian Relations, which met regularly between 1994 and 1999. For the first time in this program, the group set itself the goal of producing written documents: joint concept papers on the issues in the final-status negotiations, viewed in the context of what would be required to establish a long-term peaceful and mutually enhancing relationship between the two societies. The group thus intended to contribute both to the negotiations themselves and to the postnegotiation process of peace-building and reconciliation. Three papers were published ( Joint Working Group, 1998 ; 1999 ; Alpher, Shikaki, et al., 1998 ) and translated into Arabic and Hebrew.
With the failure of the Camp David summit and the onset of the Second Intifada in 2000, Kelman’s work entered a new phase, marked by the breakdown of once-promising negotiations. The main thrust of the work since then has been a new joint working group, co-facilitated by Shibley Telhami, focusing on the theme of rebuilding trust within the two communities in the availability of a credible negotiating partner and of a mutually acceptable framework for a two-state solution. The group (with some changes in membership) continues to meet and is now working on a proposal for a new framework to restart negotiations toward a two-state solution.
3.3. Cyprus Case Illustration
The frozen ethnopolitical conflict in Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish communities has long been a focus of both official and unofficial conflict resolution efforts, with more of the latter since 1990 ( Broome, 2005 ; Fisher, 2001 ; Hadjipavlou and Kanol, 2008 ). An early problem-solving workshop (PSW) organized by John Burton was followed by a long hiatus, until the now defunct Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security sponsored a series of PSWs in the early 1990s, organized by Ronald Fisher ( Fisher, 1997 ). An initial workshop in 1990 brought together Greek and Turkish Cypriot community leaders living in Canada at the Institute to focus on the creation of ideas for de-escalation and resolution, and to establish the credibility of the third-party initiative. A second workshop, held near London in 1991, brought together influentials from the two communities on the island, including informal advisers to the two leaders as well as academics, journalists, and businesspersons. The participants achieved consensus on the nature of the desired future relationship between the two communities, and a number of peace-building projects resulted from the workshop. Two further workshops followed in 1993, with a focus on the role of education in maintaining the conflict and its potential role in helping to de-escalate and resolve the conflict. Following the two meetings, participants were brought together to form joint teams to address particular issues and develop specific proposals, including cross-line visits by teachers, the development of common teaching materials on the conflict, and the revision of existing history and social studies textbooks. The workshops thus planted some seeds that continue to find expression in later projects on education (see Hadjipavlou and Kanol, 2008 ).
In the mid-1990s, no PSWs were held, but an American-sponsored training project in conflict resolution led by Louise Diamond and Diana Chigas brought together hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to learn concepts and skills that they could use to address conflicts within and between their communities, with no intention of influencing the official peace process ( Broome, 2005 ; Chigas, 2007 ; Hadjipavlou and Kanol, 2008 ). However, during 1999 to 2003, the training project morphed into a series of five PSWs augmented with the technique of facilitated brainstorming to develop options relevant to the negotiation process. The so-called “Harvard Study Group” was organized by Robert Rotberg, along with Diamond and Chigas, and brought together influential participants, many of whom were graduates of the training program and some of whom were very well connected politically to the current administrations on the island ( Chigas, 2007 ; in press). The sessions produced a comprehensive document for a “United States of Cyprus,” and some of these ideas found their way into the “Annan Plan.” However, the effects of the intervention were muted as participants better represented the Greek Cypriot leadership at the time as opposed to the governing coalition that came to power in 2003, and the intervention and its outcome were also attacked in the Greek Cypriot media.
Following the referendum defeat of the Annan Plan in the Greek Cypriot community in 2004, the peace-building community on the island was demoralized and in disarray, and few bicommunal projects were initiated. A small symposium organized by Ronald Fisher and Tamra Pearson d’Estree in 2007 at the University of Denver brought together a collection of Cypriot and American peace-builders to discuss the current environment and propose possible strategies for reinvigorating conflict resolution work. This resulted in the organization of two PSWs, the first in 2009, which engaged longtime Cypriot peace-builders from the two communities to assess the current state of the renewed peace process and to develop ideas for how civil society could support the negotiations. One conclusion emerging from the workshop was the importance of the two motherlands in supporting the two leaderships in developing and promoting a mutually beneficial settlement in their communities. This led to a second PSW in 2011, which first brought together some of the same Cypriot peace-builders for two days followed by the inclusion of Greek and Turkish influentials (policy advisers, journalists) for three days. Although many strategies were identified for positively influencing the peace process by both Cypriot civil society and by the Greek and Turkish leaderships, these were seen as contingent upon positive developments in the negotiations themselves, an outcome that continues to be elusive.
3.4. Georgian-South Ossetian Case Illustration
Just after the August 2008 war between Georgians, South Ossetians, and Russians, official negotiations ended with “procedural difficulties” ( Higgins, 2008 ). Experienced Georgian and South Ossetian conflict-resolvers remembered the strong positive impact of a series of workshops in the late 1990s that had contributed to stability, freedom of movement, and trade across the conflict divide ( Nan, 2005 ). They lamented the lack of workshops in the increasingly tense years preceding the renewed fighting.
As no contact across the ceasefire line was possible locally, Susan Allen Nan, Paula Garb, Ekaterina Romanova, and colleagues convened Georgians and South Ossetians at Point of View, George Mason University’s conflict resolution retreat center. The goal was to explore what peace-builders on each side could do to rebuild confidence in the aftermath of the war. That workshop launched a three-year series of 13 problem-solving workshops that was dubbed the Point of View process. Rather than aiming at an immediate political agreement, the conflict analysis within the workshops suggested a focus on confidence-building measures as being more realistic for the immediate postwar phase. The experienced local conflict resolvers provided substantive input to the facilitation team, resulting in several variations on the classic problem-solving workshop design.
One variation the participants suggested was a simple press release after each meeting. These few paragraphs provided participants with general descriptions of the workshops that allowed them to acknowledge their participation and the topics discussed, without breaking confidentiality. These press releases then led to a simple project web-site, where individual participants posted their personal reflections on the process.
At the second and subsequent workshops in Istanbul, officials coming in their personal capacities from both sides and individuals from villages most affected by the war participated alongside a core group of the unofficial peace-builders. The villagers focused discussion on basic human needs, particularly the needs of individuals living very close to the ceasefire line. The officials (some directly involved in the official negotiations) spoke in their personal capacity, but brought clarity on the stumbling blocks preventing cooperation and a political settlement.
The workshop focus on analyzing prospects for particular confidence-building measures allowed the workshops to take on a catalytic function. Workshop discussions allowed planning on particularly promising confidence-building measures. Following the workshops, pairs of participants jointly led confidence-building measures such as cross-conflict women’s dialogues, visiting prisoners, encouraging prisoner releases, and a visit across the ceasefire line by two of the Georgian workshop participants.
In addition, the workshops analyzed particular sticking points in the official talks and developed innovative ways to allow unofficial exploration on specialized areas of potential confidence building. Special groups met on occasion to address technical issues such as water and gas flow across the ceasefire line, inviting appropriate engineers to engage in problem solving. Core participants from the ongoing workshop series facilitated these special technical meetings. Another workshop within the larger problem-solving workshop series included four health experts (two from each side) who engaged with the workshop team to identify confidence-building measures within the health sector. In sum, these workshops diverged from the classic problem-solving workshop process by including some officials (in their personal capacities), catalyzing confidence-building measures directly, engaging villagers from close to the ceasefire line, and focusing on a particular sector (such as health or water) as that sector became relevant to confidence building.
4. Challenges Facing the Field
Conflict analysis and resolution from a social-scientific base with a professional practice orientation is a relatively new field of endeavor, which in addition to the fundamental complexity and intractability of the phenomenon that it addresses, must also confront and overcome many difficult issues. This brief section will only be able to identify a number of the most important of these.
4.1. Culture and Gender
Scholars and practitioners of conflict resolution need to take the questions of cultural and gender influences seriously ( Avruch, 1998 ; Taylor & Miller, 1994 ). It is not appropriate to assume the universality of concepts and methods, given that each society has its “culture of conflict,” which incorporates the beliefs, practices, and institutions relevant to managing differences and which affects what is defined as conflict and how it is addressed ( Ross, 1993a ). A first step is to carry out a cultural analysis of the situation, so that the effects of cultural differences on the etiology and expression of the conflict are clearly understood ( Avruch & Black, 1993 ). Similar points can be made about gender differences as they are expressed in conflict, especially given the patriarchal and hierarchical nature of most societies, which incorporates significant differences in status and power. Unfortunately, the conflict resolution literature is largely silent on gender differences in the enactment of third-party roles, particularly at the international level. This may be due to the near-total absence of women in peace processes at the elite level, probably because of a combination of sexism and structural exclusion ( Anderlini, 2007 ). In an analysis of Israeli-Palestinian problem-solving workshops, d’Estrée and Babbitt (1998) conclude that women tend to engage in deeper self-disclosure, leading to empathy for the enemy and a reciprocal acknowledgment of concerns, coupled with an orientation to build relationships and a capacity to bring to the surface emotional as well as strategic issues. This implies that women may be better equipped to build relationships in the prenegotiation phase and to craft more integrative and hence sustainable agreements. Continuing attention to both gender and cultural issues is thus warranted.
4.2. Professionalization and Training
Many individuals who come to the work of conflict analysis and resolution are professionals from a related field, such as international relations, law, psychology, human relations, diplomacy, or psychiatry, which enables them to analyze social problems and provide some form of service. Only recently have a number of interdisciplinary graduate programs been established to train scholar-practitioners in the many intricacies of conflict and its resolution, and few of these are at the doctoral level. Such training is a daunting task that involves the application of a variety of concepts and models from social science, and the acquisition of a range of strategies and skills from various domains of social practice. Many practitioners thus begin their practice with only a modicum of the analytical tools and social skills they need, and must learn through experience from more seasoned professionals. There is a challenge, therefore, to develop professional training programs, both at the graduate and midcareer levels, that will provide practitioners with the knowledge and capacities they require to engage successfully as negotiators, mediators, third-party consultants, dialogue facilitators, or trainers in conflict resolution. There is also a need to provide opportunities in continuing professional development for scholar-practitioners to broaden their conceptual knowledge and to enhance their strategic and tactical repertoire. Such offerings now exist, but there is little assessment of their quality or depth, or how some collection of them might coalesce toward an adequate level of professional competence. Thus, it would be valuable to initiate activities that would assist in the professionalization of the field at the international level, so that knowledge bases and best practices could be shared toward the improvement of human welfare.
One of the key challenges confronting the field of interactive conflict resolution is evaluation of the effectiveness of its efforts in achieving the goals it sets out to achieve. As a field that proposes to introduce innovative, academically based forms of intervention in conflict into the larger diplomatic process, interactive conflict resolution has a special obligation to demonstrate its utility and success by way of systematic, empirical evidence consistent with scholarly standards. Writers in the field have increasingly moved to respond to this challenge (e.g., Chataway, 2004 ; d’Estrée, Fast, Weiss, & Jacobsen, 2001 ; Kelman, 2008 ; Ross & Rothman, 1999 ; Rouhana, 2000 ; Saunders, 2000 ). The ultimate goal of interactive conflict resolution is to contribute to the achievement of a negotiated agreement that is mutually satisfactory and lasting and that transforms the relationship between the conflicting parties. Since interactive problem solving—which is not in the business of negotiating agreements—cannot produce such an outcome, but only contribute to it, the most relevant criteria for evaluating it refer to its success in achieving its intermediate goals, rather than its ultimate goal. The intermediate goals constitute changes in the political cultures of the conflicting parties that would make them more receptive to negotiation with each other ( Kelman, 2008 ). Standard models of evaluation—such as the experimental field test—are not applicable to this problem. Furthermore, the use of obtrusive observations and experimental manipulations is often ethically or methodologically unacceptable in research on ongoing interventions. The challenge, therefore, is to develop evaluation models and research methods that are appropriate to the nature and purpose of the enterprise.
4.4. Complementarity of Interventions
One of the challenges to the field is to understand how different third-party roles contribute to negotiation success and sustainable conflict resolution. The early proponents of interactive conflict resolution were clear about its potential as a useful prenegotiation activity (e.g., Burton, 1969 ; Kelman & Cohen, 1976 ), in line with a rationale more fully articulated by Fisher (1989) . However, it is now evident that it can make contributions at all stages of negotiation ( Kelman, 1992 ; 1998 ). Given that conflict, especially ethnopolitical conflict between identity groups, is a potent mix of objective and subjective factors, interventions are required to address the subjective factors—the misperceptions, misattributions, hostile images, mistrust, and vengeance—that fuel escalation and intractability. In fact, it is difficult to see how identity-based conflicts can be addressed without methods that focus on the human and psychological side of the equation ( Rothman, 1997 ; Ross, 1993b ). The question is how these methods can be related to and sequenced with the more traditional forms of conflict management.
Fisher and Keashly (1991) developed a contingency approach to third-party intervention, proposing that different methods be matched to the stage of conflict escalation for maximum utility. They also propose that methods need to be sequenced in a complementary fashion, so that a lead intervention gives way to others designed to de-escalate and resolve the conflict. There are two points of complementarity between interactive conflict resolution (represented by third-party consultation) and mediation, in both its pure and power forms. (Pure mediation involves the third party facilitating an agreement on substantive issues through reasoning, persuasion, the control of information and the suggestion of alternatives. Power mediation incorporates these elements, but goes beyond to apply leverage in the form of promised rewards or threatened punishments and often involves the third party as a guarantor.) At the first point of complementarity, consultation can serve as a premediation activity that improves understanding and builds trust in the relationship so that pure mediation can deal more effectively with objective issues. Second, consultation can follow power mediation, after it has achieved a ceasefire or initial settlement on substantive issues, in order to rebuild the torn relationship toward a comprehensive agreement and a sustainable peace. While a limited amount of experimental and empirical research supports the contingency approach ( Fisher, 2007 ; Keashly & Fisher, 1996 ), it remains a skeletal representation of a complex set of relationships that may not play out as diagramed in the complexity of real-world dynamics. Nonetheless, the contingency model and similar attempts (e.g., Kriesberg, 1996 ) challenge theorists and practitioners to think more seriously about the coordination and complementarity of interventions that may well be required to adequately address intractable ethnopolitical conflicts.
An intersocietal view of conflict, as we have proposed, calls for a complex mix of official and unofficial processes, complementing each other in the achievement of the overall diplomatic goal. The challenge is to make effective use of the potential contributions of interactive conflict resolution and other unofficial tracks in the official diplomatic process. Ideally, problem-solving workshops and related activities can be used for exploring possibilities, formulating options, and framing issues in ways that can advance negotiations at its various stages. This has indeed happened on occasion, but it needs to be done systematically, while making sure that track two efforts maintain their integrity and independence and do not become—or come to be seen as—merely another component of the track one process. Official negotiations can also benefit from adopting some of the exploratory, analytical, and problem-solving methods of interactive conflict resolution in their own proceedings, insofar as they can be accommodated within the constraints of the official process ( Kelman, 1996 ).
At the level of a particular conflict, it might be useful to institutionalize interactive conflict resolution as part of the peace-building process that must accompany and follow the negotiation of a peace agreement. At the global level, the persistence and proliferation of deadly conflicts between identity groups around the world suggest the urgent need for a large, well-endowed, mostly nongovernmental organization devoted to monitoring such conflicts as they evolve and ready to intervene with efforts to help prevent and resolve them (cf. Burton, 1983 ). The purpose would be to supplement the work of existing governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations devoted to peacemaking, peacekeeping, and postconflict humanitarian aid by bringing together politically influential representatives of the opposing sides in an active or impending conflict for joint exploration, within a problem-solving framework, of steps toward preventing, de-escalating, or resolving the conflict. The institution might include a permanent staff to monitor conflict regions and provide the infrastructure for workshops as the need arises; a cadre of regional and conflict resolution specialists available to organize and lead workshops; and a cadre of local representatives to recommend appropriate actions or evaluate proposals from the staff and to assist by organizing and participating in workshops as needed ( Kelman, 2006 ). If the resources needed for a large-scale effort of this kind can be generated, there is at least the hope that it can begin to tackle the problem of intercommunal violence that has been plaguing the international scene for centuries.
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What is Conflict Resolution, and How Does It Work?
How to manage conflict at work through conflict resolution.
By Katie Shonk — on July 31st, 2023 / Conflict Resolution
If you work with others, sooner or later you will almost inevitably face the need for conflict resolution. You may need to mediate a dispute between two members of your department. Or you may find yourself angered by something a colleague reportedly said about you in a meeting. Or you may need to engage in conflict resolution with a client over a missed deadline. In organizations, conflict is inevitable, and good conflict management tools are essential.
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What is conflict resolution, and how can you use it to settle disputes in your workplace?
Conflict resolution can be defined as the informal or formal process that two or more parties use to find a peaceful solution to their dispute.
A number of common cognitive and emotional traps, many of them unconscious, can exacerbate conflict and contribute to the need for conflict resolution:
• Self-serving fairness interpretations. Rather than deciding what’s fair from a position of neutrality, we interpret what would be most fair to us, then justify this preference on the bases of fairness. For example, department heads are likely to each think they deserve the lion’s share of the annual budget. Disagreements about what’s fairlead to clashes.
• Overconfidence. We tend to be overconfident in our judgments, a tendency that leads us to unrealistic expectations. Disputants are likely to be overconfident about their odds of winning a lawsuit, for instance, an error that can lead them to shun a negotiated settlement that would save them time and money.
• Escalation of commitment. Whether negotiators are dealing with a labor strike, a merger, or an argument with a colleague, they are likely to irrationally escalate their commitment to their chosen course of action, long after it has proven useful. We desperately try to recoup our past investments in a dispute (such as money spent on legal fees), failing to recognize that such “sunk costs” should play no role in our decisions about the future.
• Conflict avoidance. Because negative emotions cause us discomfort and distress, we may try to tamp them down, hoping that our feelings will dissipate with time. In fact, conflict tends to become more entrenched, and parties have a greater need for conflict resolution when they avoid dealing with their strong emotions.
Given these and other pitfalls, how can you set up a constructive conflict resolution process when dealing with conflict at work and other realms? Conflicts can be resolved in a variety of ways, including negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation.
• Negotiation. In conflict resolution, you can and should draw on the same principles of collaborative negotiation that you use in dealmaking. For example, you should aim to explore the interests underlying parties’ positions, such as a desire to resolve a dispute without attracting negative publicity or to repair a damaged business relationship. In addition, determine your best alternative to a negotiated agreement , or BATNA —what you will do if you fail to reach an agreement, such as finding a new partner or filing a lawsuit. By brainstorming options and looking for tradeoffs across issues, you may be able to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to your dispute without the aid of outside parties.
• Mediation. In mediation, disputants enlist a trained, neutral third party to help them come to a consensus. Rather than imposing a solution, a professional mediator encourages disputants to explore the interests underlying their positions. Working with parties both together and separately, mediators seek to help them discover a resolution that is sustainable, voluntary, and nonbinding.
• Arbitration. In arbitration, which can resemble a court trial, a neutral third party serves as a judge who makes decisions to end the dispute. The arbitrator listens to the arguments and evidence presented by each side, then renders a binding and often confidential decision. Although disputants typically cannot appeal an arbitrator’s decision, they can negotiate most aspects of the arbitration process, including whether lawyers will be present and which standards of evidence will be used.
• Litigation. In civil litigation, a defendant and a plaintiff face off before either a judge or a judge and jury, who weigh the evidence and make a ruling. Information presented in hearings and trials usually enters the public record. Lawyers typically dominate litigation, which often ends in a negotiated settlement during the pretrial period.
In general, it makes sense to start off less-expensive, less-formal conflict resolution procedures, such as negotiation and mediation, before making the larger commitments of money and time that arbitration and litigation often demand. Conflict-resolution training can further enhance your ability to negotiate satisfactory resolutions to your disputes.
What conflict resolution methods have you tried before? Leave us a comment.
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No Responses to “What is Conflict Resolution, and How Does It Work?”
4 responses to “what is conflict resolution, and how does it work”.
Conflict resolution is way of settling misundestanding between two or more bodies on a matter through dialog.
Conflict Resolution can also be defined as a strong will and determination to create solution to a misunderstanding between two or more parties
Wondful work keep up pls.
Conflict resolution arise due to dispute between two parties involved in any trade , it can be solved with fair negotiation or through Mediator or through arbitrator or through litigation.
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Conflict: Readings in Management and Resolution pp 199–215 Cite as
Interactive Problem-Solving: a Social-psychological Approach to Conflict Resolution
- Herbert C. Kelman
Part of the The Conflict Series book series (CONFLICT)
Throughout my professional career, one of my main areas of interest has been the social psychology of international relations. This interest has led, in recent years, to intensive involvement in an action research program on the resolution of international conflicts. My primary and nearly all-consuming emphasis has been on the Arab-Israeli conflict, although I have also done some work on other international and intercommunal conflicts, particularly the Cyprus conflict.
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From W. Klassen (ed.), Dialogue Toward Inter-Faith Understanding (Tantur/ Jerusalem: Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, 1985).
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Notes and References
Stephen P. Cohen, Herbert C. Kelman, Frederick D. Miller and Bruce L. Smith, “Evolving Intergroup Techniques for Conflict Resolution: an Israeli-Palestinian Pilot Workshop,” Journal of Social Issues , 33(1): 165–89.
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Kelman, H.C. (1990). Interactive Problem-Solving: a Social-psychological Approach to Conflict Resolution. In: Burton, J., Dukes, F. (eds) Conflict: Readings in Management and Resolution. The Conflict Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-21003-9_11
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12 Best Conflict Resolution Techniques for Effectively Resolving Disputes
There are several conflict resolution techniques that can be used to resolve conflicts between involved parties in a constructive way. Conflict exists wherever you find humans. However, this reality doesn’t need to be a cause for despair, skepticism, or cynicism . Conflict resolution is a genre that should be looked at with optimism. While difficult, resolving conflict is actually an important part of moving forward within relationships and the business world. Conflict management is especially crucial for companies, organizations, and enterprises because it can greatly reduce disputes, arguments, and litigation when handled properly. What’s more, early conflict intervention can often reduce the “pain points” of a dispute.
Conflict Resolution Skills
Conflict resolution skills are critical in both personal and professional environments. In any relationship, disagreements and misunderstandings are bound to arise, and having the ability to resolve conflicts effectively can prevent them from escalating into bigger issues. In the workplace, conflict resolution skills are crucial for maintaining a positive work environment, improving productivity, and fostering healthy relationships between colleagues.
Some reasons why you need conflict resolution skills include:
To improve communication: Conflict resolution involves active listening, empathy, and effective communication. By developing these skills, you can better understand others’ perspectives and express your own thoughts and feelings clearly.
To reduce stress: Unresolved conflicts can cause stress and tension in relationships. By addressing and resolve conflict early on and finding mutually agreeable solutions, you can reduce stress levels for everyone involved.
To build stronger relationships: Conflict resolution involves finding common ground and working together towards a solution. By doing so, you can build stronger relationships based on trust, respect, and understanding.
Take a look at the 12 best techniques for effective conflict resolution that allow for cooler heads to prevail.
1. Focus on Calmness
It’s so easy for humans to become ruffled. That’s one of the reasons why de-escalation is such an important factor in early conflict resolution. Unfortunately, people engaged in a dispute often take things personally or grow angry instead of listening to what is being said once tense exchanges begin. As a result, we put on our ears to argue back instead of listening. This creates an impossible scenario for good communication.
How does one stay calm when tensions are flaring? This is where calmness is supported by taking the long view. The biggest thing to remember is that every conflict is eventually resolved in some form or another. The goal “in the moment” is to take steps to reduce the boiling point to a slower simmer for the sake of avoiding saying something that can’t be taken back. This is where self-awareness becomes critical. Each person should be willing to ask what they are bringing to the table that is stoking conflict. They should also have the empathy needed to explore the idea that the person they are butting heads with may be responding out of anger and frustration stemming from unrelated situations.
2. Listen to Understand Instead of Listening to Argue
Have you ever stopped to think about how much of an argument with another person is just an argument with oneself? Generally, a person engaged in an argument is spending more time formulating their next point or accusation than they are really hearing what is being said to them. As a result, most arguments are ineffective because they really represent two people “giving presentations” instead of collaborating on a shared resolution. This is when it’s a good time to look at how the formal mediation process allows people to push past this very limiting habit.
In mediation, the approach of “taking turns” is critical for ensuring that everyone is heard. Freedom to talk also gives a person freedom to divulge what they really want after letting their frustration out. Anger and argumentativeness are defense mechanisms used to cover up hurts, fears, and embarrassments. Most people don’t have the communication skills to get past this armor to get to the root of the issue. Skilled communication facilitators know that allowing a person to vent is actually the key to diffusing anger. Ultimately, getting to a place where resolution is possible often means “waiting for a person out” using active listening until they have decompressed enough to come to the table to really talk without shields.
3. Accentuate the Positive
When a conflict occurs it has a very strong negative connotation. However, conflict resolution is positive by nature. To successfully manage conflict a theme of focusing on commonalities is crucial. In addition, empathizing is a powerful aspect of bringing two people together.
4. Make Points Tactfully
Persuasion and argumentativeness could not be further apart. However, many people confuse the two when making a case for something. Good conversations happen when people are able to share their perspectives without stirring defensiveness in others.
The following pointers can be helpful for creating a more direct path to results:
- Apologize for your faults or shortcomings using specific details about where you went wrong. This will make the other person more receptive to listening and reciprocating.
- Avoid stating differences and differences of opinion as fact.
- Defend yourself wisely and productively by inviting room for the “benefit of the doubt” when you believe the other person is incorrect. This means stating the information you are working with to reveal any inconsistencies in information instead of just assigning blame.
- Be willing to investigate where the mistake was made.
- Communicate that you’re interested in creating an actionable fix instead of just figuring out who is to blame.
Talking in vague terms isn’t always a great pathway to connection when resolving a conflict where two people have different vantage points. Using “I” statements helps to create a stronger, more direct connection. It also signals that you’re in a mode to take personal responsibility.
5. Focus on Tackling the Problem Instead of the Person
Good negotiation all comes down to getting the other person out of defensive mode. This is why it’s important to depersonalize comments as a way of moving away from “accusations” toward “problem-solving.” It’s as simple as remembering to keep the focus on tackling the problem instead of tackling people. Creating a “shared concern” is really the best way to create a collaborative mindset.
6. Leave Blame Out of It
The temptation to place blame may be the biggest obstacle to collaboration across the board. That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for blame. There is value in getting to the root of who is responsible for specific mistakes or shortcomings. However, it’s important to be prepared for the fact that most people will not be receptive if they feel that they are being targeted for blame. This is why assigning blame to yourself first can be an effective strategy. Blame for the sake of blame is never effective. It only has a role in relation to finding fixes.
7. Look Ahead Instead of Being Stuck in the Past
This is where the balance between figuring out the problem and coming up with a solution becomes delicate. It’s hard to correct a problem if you can’t figure out where things went wrong. However, spending too much time looking in the rearview mirror is a recipe for stagnation. It’s so important to try to mine for solutions while dwelling on the present and future because these are the only two realms you can still control. When viewing the past, only focus on it from an analysis perspective instead of trying to replay the script in your head.
8. Be Willing to Ask the Right Questions
A problem solver is really an adept investigator once you really get down to the roots. Asking the right questions is so important for discovering “what went wrong” in a situation. In addition, knowing how to ask the right questions can determine whether or not you get the information you’re looking for. You have to put the person being asked in the right mindset for wanting to communicate instead of shutting down in reaction to what feels like an “interrogation.” Here’s a rundown of the wrong and right ways to ask the same question.
- Ineffective: “Why didn’t I receive the document that I asked for?”
- Effective: “Since I don’t have the document in front of me, maybe you can describe the details a bit to help me get a better idea.”
- Ineffective: “Why did that happen?”
- Effective: “I’m curious to get your perspective on what occurred.”
- Ineffective: “Why are you so angry?”
- Effective: “This sounds like a frustrating experience for you. I’d like to hear about what happened from the beginning to try to make sense of it with you.”
The “ineffective” questioning methods shared above almost universally invite defensiveness. As a result, you’re very likely to receive an “argument” in response instead of an “answer.” Pay attention to the “effective” questioning methods that make you appear interested in understanding and helping. These warm, open-ended questions actually invite the other person to divulge much more information than they might if you lead with very targeted, curt questions.
9. Become an Expert at Knowing When to Pick Your Battles
Knowing which hill isn’t the one to die on is an extraordinary talent. The instinct toward defensiveness can convince us that every battle is ours to fight. However, this is counterproductive because we can’t die on every hill if we want to move forward with communication and collaboration. This is where knowing how to properly gauge the “importance level” of a problem or offense is crucial.
One of the most important things you can do is to develop an internal measurement system for determining how much you really care about something. Typically, a scale of one to 10 will work for this. You can also pull out this measuring system to help the person you are in conflict with decide whether or not they’ve reached a hill worth dying on. A scale also allows you to have a measurable way to determine when to let the other person “win.” For instance, a matter that you see as a two may be a nine to the other person. You’d be wise to let the other person “win” this battle if it’s of so little importance to you.
10. Use Persuasive Combinations
It’s important to preface this next item with a reminder that negotiating should not be confused with manipulation. However, you can use one of the five conflict resolution strategies developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann to briefly finesse the situation. Yes, being a good negotiator is a bit like being a good salesperson. However, the only thing you’re really selling at the end of the day is conflict resolution that allows everyone to walk away feeling satisfied. What do “sales tactics” look like when properly used in negotiations? This often simply means giving people a choice between two options or scenarios. When approaching a negotiation, try to have two solutions that both work for you to some degree. You can then present those options for the consideration of the other person. This is better than thrusting a single option upon a person because it presents a choice.
11. Embrace Your Creativity Even When the Topic Doesn’t Feel “Creative”
The reality that conflict resolution process really is an art form is so often lost on people. If they only knew how many different pieces had to come together to create a portrait where so many different perspectives, tastes, opinions, and desires are reflected! Use the mindset that you are tapping into your creativity when negotiating. This often means thinking way outside the box to try to tie together the interests of varying parties. Here’s how to stay on a creative track:
- Decide that everything is negotiable!
- Embrace unconventional, far-fetched ideas.
- Do what it takes to show the other person that you’re capable of helping them get what they need.
- Decide that there is a win-win solution.
Yes, being bold enough to say that you’re willing to go as far as needed until a fix is found will pay off. You may even find that there are untapped benefits of conflict resolution waiting for you once you explore new angles. The bottom line is that it’s important to be creative enough to decide that you’re willing to meet the needs of the person across the table from you.
12. Approach Negotiations With Confidence
Many people fear confrontation more than anything. This puts them at a big disadvantage when resolving conflicts because they become too “frozen” to really be present. As a result, they miss opportunities to find common ground. The ironic thing is that being afraid of confrontation often leads to more conflict because poor communication results in misunderstandings and assumptions. The best thing to do is to forget about the “conflict” in conflict negotiation because what you’re really doing is managing previous miscommunications to build a new plan that works better for the parties involved.
There’s no need to keep a poker face at the negotiating table. You should feel free to express your excitement when positive developments are made. In fact, this can have an infectious effect that causes the person across from you to want to share in the celebration. As a result, the mood of the “room” is elevated. This opens the door for negotiation on the next topic on a more amicable and positive note.
Do take the time to congratulate the person you’re working with to resolve an issue whenever “success” is achieved. Let them know that you appreciate the effort that they’ve brought to the table. This is your chance to solidify a partnership by making every piece of the negotiation process a shared success.
The real goal of conflict resolution is to create an environment that allows the person on the other side of the issue to walk away feeling like they were heard, understood, and respected. They should feel like they’ve walked away with the “winning” end of the deal. However, part of your “craft” is to also make sure that you’re walking away with at least some of what you want. That win-win mentality truly is the driving force behind successful conflict resolution techniques.
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The problem solving style is one of the most commonly used mediation style in the U.S. because of its emphasis on individualistic needs. Using a problem solving style of mediation, the mediator facilitates the evaluation of the problem and maintains a focused structure to the mediation in order to reach a mutually acceptable agreement between parties. The mediator asserts their problem solving skills by first identifying the problem, separating from the individual parties and their emotions. The problem-solving model evaluates alternative solutions and available resources in order to consider and implement the most beneficial option. The process is open to evaluating the implementation of an agreed upon solution and modifying it.
The following exemplifies the most common characteristics of the problem-solving model of mediation.
- Result Oriented- A problem solving mediator focuses on the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement, instead of seeing where the process of mediation takes you.
- Willing to provide evaluation in some circumstances- In certain cases a problem solving mediator will provide an evaluation of one or both parties cases, could be done through reality checking or in a caucus.
- Mediator assists in reaching a settlement- By helping the parties understand their option a problem solving mediator will help the parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Sometimes problem solving mediators act as experts and suggest solutions they have seen before, or they help parties brain storm ideas of what they want the agreement to look like.
- Mediator guided process- In problem solving mediations the mediator is very directive. By asking open-ended questions and reframing/summarizing at the right times a mediator controls the substance of the conversation, focusing it on resolvable issues.
- Emphasis on mediators competence in helping the parties resolve dispute- Problem solving mediators are usually seen as experts in the types of mediations they conduct, therefore parties tend to rely on the mediator to resolve their conflict, instead of focusing on their own ability to resolve their conflict.
- Emotions seen as interfering with resolution- When emotions arise in a problem solving mediation the mediator redirects the conversation to focus on the problem the parties need resolved. This is because problem solving mediator feel that emotions hinder the resolution process by focusing on the past, and focusing on positions and not interests.
- Focus on the Future- Creating a “today is a new day” feeling in a problem solving mediation helps the parties feel like there is hope for the conflict to be resolved. (Discussed in greater detail in the next section)
- Focus on Solution- Since solution is the goal of a problem solving mediation, the mediator direct the conversation towards what people can agree on and helps the parties negotiate what they can not. Focusing on the future and taking the emotions out of the conflict are ways a mediator focuses on the solution.
- Conflict seen as a problem- Problem solving mediators view conflict as a problem, instead of an opportunity like other models of mediation. Viewing conflict as a problem explains the basis of the problem solving model. If there is a conflict it needs to be resolved because it is a problem.
- Goal: Conflict reduction/welfare maximization- The goal of a problem solving mediation is to reduce conflict by reaching a mutually acceptable agreement that maximizes the welfare and happiness of the parties involved.
- Individualistic worldview (most common in the U.S.)- Problem solving mediation is the most commonly used mediation model in the U.S. this is not surprising because it has a very individualistic worldview. Problem solving mediation takes what each person needs and creates a solution.
There are many mediation techniques that can be used in many different models of mediation. Sometimes techniques are used simultaneously or they have some overlap. Here are some techniques frequently used by problem-solving mediators.
- Future focus- In problem solving mediation, mediators would use a future focus to move parties from being situated in the past, to being situated in creating the kind of future they would like to see. Creating future focus helps mediators direct the parties away from the emotions that usually come from bring up the past. This is an important technique because in problem solving mediations when the parties dwell on the emotions in the past it hinders the process.
Example- “Today is a new day, let’s put all that behind us and work towards a brighter future.”
- Caucus- A caucus is a private meeting between one party and the mediator (or sometimes just for the mediator to gain their bearings). Everything in a caucus is confidential unless the party in the caucus gives the mediator permission to discuss what comes up with the other party or in joint session. Some of the reasons to call a caucus include but are not limited to: exploring settlement options, to separate parties when there is intense hostility, to confirm movement towards settlement while allowing the moving party to save face, and to reality check and evaluate the parties positions and cases. (Katz, 2009)
- Reality checking- This technique can be used at many different times in the mediation. In the problem solving model it would most commonly be used while in a caucus. Some of the purposes of reality checking include but are not limited to: getting a party to understand the weakness of their cases, issue or demand, discuss bargaining and negotiation in a confidential setting, to help one party save face if they have a break down. Most reality checking is done through questions, this allows the mediator to maintain neutrality while allowing the party to realize the problems within their own case. (Herta, 2004)
Example (based on a court case, in a private caucus)- “What evidence do you have for the judge if we do not reach settle in mediation?”
- Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)/ Worst Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (WATNA)- A BATNA or WATNA could be used as a reality check in a problem solving mediation. By figuring out and examining what the best and worst alternative to a mediated agree is for each party, the parties are more likely to work on a mutually acceptable agreement.
- Reframing- Is a very important technique in any mediation. Reframing is “the process of changing the way a thought is presented so that it maintains it’s fundamental meaning but it more likely to support resolution efforts.”(Spangler, 2003) The biggest part of reframing is neutralizing the language used by one party. For example:
Party: “She lying and on a total power trop, I do everything while she stand around on her phone.”
Mediator: “So you are worried about being treated fairly and honestly.”
By taking out the accusatory language a problem solving mediator gets straight to the problem at hand. In a problem solving mediation different types of reframing can be used, one type being:
- Summarizing- When one party talks for an extended period of time it is a good idea to summarize and reframe what the person said so the other party understands and isn’t lost. Summarizing can also be used to transition to a new topic, or focus the parties on the heart of the problem.
The best thing about reframing is that it is a very forgiving technique. If you reframe a statement correctly the party will likely agree with what you have just said. If you reframe a statement incorrectly the party will more than likely correct your misunderstanding. (Cohn, 2001; Spangler, 2003: Zaffan, 2008)
Applications of Problem Solving Mediation
The Problem Solving model can be applied to a wide variety of conflicts to help determine a solution. Some examples where the facilitative approach can be utilized include:
Adult Family Labor-Management
Civil (General) Landlord-Tenant
Commercial Marital Mediation
Cross Cultural Probate
Divorce (All Issues) Professional Fees
Education Public Policy
Elder Real Estate
Family Special Education
Workers Compensation Work Place
Facilitative Approach in Divorce Settlement:
The Problem Solving Model Relates to reaching agreements relating to:
- Child Support
- Retirement Accounts
- Joint Debts
- Ongoing Children Issues
- Tax Considerations
- Property Division
- Family Issues
- Post-Divorce Issues
The role of the mediator in this approach is to:
- Organize the parties to tasks required
- Help the couple identify and gather information
- Assist with communication
- Assist both parties in understanding issues
- Assist each person in negotiating a fair and equitable settlement
- Promote post-divorce cooperation
Facilitative Approach in Schools:
The Problem Solving Model Relates to reaching agreements relating to:
- Rumor and Gossip
- Relationship Difficulties/Harassment
- Racial and Cultural Confrontations
- Classroom or Extracurricular Disputes
- Cheating and Stealing
- Minor Assaults and Fighting
The role of the mediator in this approach is to:
- Summarize the facts and feelings of the disputant
- Ask parties if any solutions come to mind
- Lead a discussion of the solutions
- Solicit questions and clairifications
- Use listening and communications skills to help resolve conflict.
Cohn, L.P. (2001). Communication Skills in Mediation. Retrieved from
Hoffman, D.A. (1999). "Confessions of a Problem Solving Mediator."
Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolutions, 23, no. 3.
Huerta,L.A. (2004). Why Mediate? Retrieved from
Katz, E.I. (2009). Refreshers Guide to Mediators and Mediation. Retrieved from
Spangler, B. (2003). Problem-Solving Mediation. Retrieved from
Spangler, B. (2003). Reframing. Retrieved from
Zaffan, E. (2008). Context is King: A Practical Guide to Reframing in Mediation. Retrieved from
Adelman, Ross. (1996). Understanding The Reasons for a Facilitative Approach. Retrieved from
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12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution
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I’ve recently been involved with a couple of community groups experiencing conflict. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in an ongoing group that hasn’t had some conflict. A group without conflict is probably in danger of stagnation.
What’s important is how we respond to conflict.
I find a problem solving approach to conflict can be particularly useful when working with groups, families and communities. The following are 12 principles that can help in adopting a problem solving approach to conflict.
1. Conflict is seen as a normal part of life. People often try to avoid conflict and see it as being destructive, painful or unconstructive. Conflict, however, can be seen as a normal part of life that is neither positive nor negative. What is important is how we respond to conflict. Conflict can actually encourage change and growth. If we deal with conflict before it becomes a crisis, it can be easier to resolve — so avoidance might not always be the best way forward.
2. A problem solving approach requires cooperation rather than competition. In a problem solving approach, the emphasis is on working together to overcome a problem. Conflict is thus not seen as a competition or a contest, and the people involved are encouraged to be collaborators rather than opponents. Although not all conflicts can be resolved in ways which everybody is totally happy, at least we might be able to agree to a process that will allow us to move forward.
3. It is important to respect the interests and needs of both yourself and the other party(s). A cooperative approach is more likely to be successful if the people involved don’t just focus on what they want, but also consider what the other people want as well. A focus only on your own interests is less likely to lead to an outcome that everyone can accept.
4. The aim is to find an outcome that everybody involved can at least accept . In order to promote cooperation, the aim of a problem solving approach is to find an outcome everybody can accept; ideally a win/win. Although there are conflicts involving mutually exclusive needs, especially those involving limited resources, there are many situations where it is possible to find “win/win” solutions. Even if we might not be totally happy with the outcome, we might be able to accept it as fair or reasonable.
5. It can be helpful, particularly in the early stages, to focus on interests (or needs) rather than solutions (or positions). Conflict is more likely to be resolved if we start with a focus on interests or needs rather than solutions or positions. Whilst there are some deep-rooted human needs which cannot be compromised, by exploring the underlying needs and interests first, a number of solutions which satisfy everybody can often be found. Initial solutions or positions might be mutually exclusive, but once the underlying needs are explored, alternative solutions might be possible.
6. The role of communication in conflict is vital. A lot of conflict is the result of poor communication or miscommunication, and clear communication can assist in conflict resolution. Strategies such as I messages and active listening can help promote clear communication.
7. Analysis is an important part of conflict resolution. An analytical approach can allow conflict to be approached in a rational and logical manner. Being clear about things such as the characteristics of the parties involved, their prior relationship, the nature of the issues involved, and the consequences of the conflict can make a big difference.
8. Emotions are a vital part of conflict and need to be addressed. Even though a rational and logical approach helps, it is important to recognise that emotions also play a major role in conflict and cannot be ignored. Unless we address the emotional context of conflict, it may be very hard to proceed. For example, an apology often plays a very important role in moving forward.
9. Self-awareness helps one to respond effectively to conflict. If we are aware of things like how we react to conflict, how other people respond to us and our communication style, we are more likely to be able to respond positively to conflict. Self-awareness also help us to deal with hidden, underlying or unconscious aspects of conflict.
10. Conflict is not always easily resolved and we need to accept that not everybody uses a cooperative approach to conflict. This means it is important to explore ways of dealing with difficult situations and people. At time is may help to use a neutral third-party to help with mediation.
11. Despite problems or provocation, it helps to maintain a cooperative approach, to remain open to new possibilities and to seek a fair or just solution. Even when someone is acting in ways which makes it hard to resolve the conflict constructively, it can help if we remain caring and fair and see the other person as being worthy of care and justice. Sometimes a negative response can suggest that we need to pay more attention to the emotional context before moving on to try to address the other issues involved.
12. It helps to remain positive and optimistic. Even when things are going badly, we are more likely to be able to resolve the conflict successfully if we believe it can be done. By remaining positive and optimistic, possibilities can emerge that we might otherwise miss.
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