Summary of "Removing Roadblocks"

Summary of

Removing Roadblocks

by Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium "Removing Roadblocks," chapt. in Managing Public Disputes, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988), pp. 258-277.

The authors discuss a number of problems which can arise in negotiations, and which have the potential to destroy the negotiation project. They suggest ways of dealing with these problems and allowing negotiations to continue.

Disagreements Over Data

Many of the obstacles to negotiation progress center on disagreements over data. A party may charge that the data is flawed, biased, out of date, or incomplete. A party may make selective use of data to support their own positions. Parties may agree on the statistical data but disagree over the interpretation of those statistics, especially when those interpretations reflect differing basic values. And parties may find it difficult to distinguish between facts and deeply held assumptions. Parties who insist that negotiations proceed using their own data create an immediate obstacle to progress, since the other parties are likely to refuse. Similarly, parties who refuse to share proprietary data also create an obstacle to progress. Parties may also be reluctant to expose their data to the other participants, out of fear of having errors revealed or having their conclusions undermined. When parties have a lot of time or money invested in a study, they are usually reluctant to question its findings.

Carpenter and Kennedy suggest methods for managing such problems. The conflict manager may redirect the parties' attention toward the problem and their original interest in solving the problem. This serves to detach the parties from their positions on the data, and allows them to discuss what data would be needed to resolve their common problem. When parties challenge the accuracy, completeness, bias, or timeliness of some information, the solution is to have the whole group examine the calculations, methodology, and raw data on which the information is based. Task groups and experts may also be used to review studies. However, each party must have or develop the resources needed to analyze disputed information to their own satisfaction.

When the parties cannot agree on a specific number, they may still be able to proceed by agreeing on a range of figures. Third party experts may be used to handle sensitive or proprietary information. Bound by confidentiality agreements and their own neutrality, the third party can assemble the sensitive data, draw the needed conclusions, and present the conclusions to the parties without revealing the sensitive data behind them. The authors caution that data disputes are a common part of negotiations. Data disputes should be handled in an open and routine manner in order to reduce suspicion of purposeful wrong-doing among the parties.


Deadlocks in negotiation must de dealt with promptly. Allowing the deadlock to continue or taking a recess from negotiations is likely stop the program's forward momentum, and risks having the negotiations unravel completely.

When the deadlock is the result of the poor behavior of one participant, the manager should remind that person of the ground rules for acceptable behavior. If such reminders do not result in improved behavior the offending party may be asked to leave the negotiations. Sometimes deadlocks occur because the wrong people are at the negotiating table. There may be too many people for productive discussion, or they may lack authority or technical knowledge. In these cases it may be necessary to change the mix of participants. Interested groups may be asked to provide different representatives.

Some deadlocks arise from parties' negative stereotypes, which often creates self-fulfilling expectations about the other side's behavior. The conflict manager must break the parties out of their old ways of interacting. The manger may use facilitated small groups to give the parties a chance to vent their concerns and feelings in a very closely managed and fair context. This serves to emphasize the unique new way of interacting, which is possible within the conflict management process. Parties can then be encouraged to agree to try one more meeting. Each meeting reinforces new attitudes and ways of interacting. The manger may also help the parties to understand how the past events continue to shape the parties' present interactions.

Even when the parties are working well together, negotiations can deadlock over substantive issues; perhaps the parties simply cannot find a mutually acceptable solution. One way to address this is to break a complex problem into smaller pieces. It may be easier to understand and resolve particular issues within the overall problem. Progress on these simpler elements then encourages the parties to tackle the more difficult issues. Another method for breaking substantive deadlocks is to have the parties brainstorm for new options.

Sometimes what appears to be a substantive deadlock actually has its roots in other concerns. It is always helpful to explore the reasons behind an apparent deadlock. When the real issue is identified and addressed, the deadlock may be dissolved. For example, sometimes a change of procedure allows participants to approach the problem in a new, more productive way. When one person's position is creating the problem, the group may ask that person to come up with an acceptable alternative, thus placing the responsibility for resolving the deadlock on the dissenter. Or the dissenter may be asked to stand aside and allow the remaining parties to reach consensus. Offering to record the dissenter's objections in the consensus statement may encourage them to step aside. When it is clear that the dissenter is not negotiating in good faith, but is simply trying to block consensus to promote their own interests, then the rest of the group may decide to over-rule that dissenter.

Generally, the conflict manager should return participants' attention to their interests. This makes sure that the parties don't get stuck in their positions, and it reassures all the parties that their interests are being considered. It is usually easier for parties to agree to more specific, detailed proposals than to agree to broad or vague proposals which may subject to later misunderstandings. Consensus is rarely reached on the first try. Managers must keep testing for areas of agreement and looking for alternative approaches. When a deadlock becomes bitter it may help to use a mediator.