Summary of "Conflict Assessment"

Summary of

Conflict Assessment

By Joyce Hocker and William Wilmo

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff


Hocker, Joyce, and William Wilmot. "Conflict Assessment", Chapter Six in Interpersonal Conflict, 2nd ed. rev. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985), pp. 129-156.


Chapter Six describes ways of assessing conflict and identifying conflict patterns. Conflicts can seem very complex and confusing. Additionally, "most of us are notoriously inaccurate at describing our own behavior in a conflict."(p. 129) System theory offers an organizing scheme for conflict assessment. A full assessment will describe the workings of the overall conflict system, identify recurring patterns within the conflict, and identify individuals' contributions to the conflict system.

Systems theory analyzes conflicts in terms of roles, processes, and patterns. It seeks to discover the rules that govern the system's behavior, and the function that the conflict serves within the system. The systems theory approach starts with some basic principles. The first is that "systems operate as an interdependent unit with no villains, heroes, good and bad people, healthy or unhealthy members."(p. 131) Systems analysis focuses on the patterns of interaction between people. Such patterns of interaction show circular causality: each element of the system is affected by all the others, and affects all the others in turn. A second principles is that people in a system are assigned specific roles, and the system works to keep people in their assigned roles.

Systems, including conflicts, are sustained by the cooperation of their members. As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. Fortunately, this means "the cycle can be changed be any one person changing his or her behavior."(p. 132) Another principle is that systems with intense relationships tend to produce triangles, as low power members form alliances. Triangles behave in predictable, and sometimes toxic, ways over time. The authors note that "systems develop rules for conflict that, no matter how dysfunctional, are followed as long as the basic structure of the system does not change."(p. 132) Finally, conflict serves some function within the larger system. Resolving the apparent conflict may create a vacuum when member can no longer address the function that conflict served.

There are various approaches to identifying conflict patterns. Metaphoric/dramatic approaches seek to uncover how the parties' understand their conflict by investigating the metaphors and imagery that they use. This approach is especially helpful at revealing relational themes. Parties may create a shared metaphor. Brainstorming in terms of the shared metaphor can help parties find effective ways to manage their conflict.

Multiparty conflicts can be analyzed using conflict triangle diagrams, which map the three-party dynamics of the conflict. Draw triangles mapping all the possible three-person relationships among the conflict parties. In each triangle, mark the conflicting dyads, and the members' relative power. Note which triangles produce the most conflict. Also note people who are involved as allies in many triangles, and people who are in few or no triangles. Changing these peoples' roles may improve the conflict situation.

"Sculpting, or choreographing, is a nonverbal method of demonstrating the structure of a conflict by having each member of the conflict arrange other members in a tableau that physically symbolizes their emotional relationships with each other."(p. 139) As with the metaphoric/dramatic approach, parties may then manipulate that tableau to explore their conflict, and discover ways to better manage it.

Another systems approach is to uncover and discuss the underlying rule structure of a conflict. "One of the characteristics of important rules in a system is that usually some implicit message against knowing or stating the rules directly is present."(p. 141) It is the implicit rules that often cause difficulties in conflict situations. Ask the parties to list all the rules they can think of that either demand or prohibit behavior. Sometimes it is easier to identify rules by considering situations in which they were violated. Identify who made the rule, who perpetuates it, who enforces it, who typically breaks it, and what function it serves.

Analysis of microevents can also give insight into the pattern of repeated conflicts. Microevents are "clusters of behaviors organized into structurally repetitive episodes."(p. 142) For instance, a couple may have the same conflict over where to vacation each year. Microevents often reveal the larger underlying conflict structure. To understand a microevent ask who initiates and how, who responds and how, who is present but not a participant, and who represents someone else? What would be missing in the relationship if the microevent conflict did not occur? Does having this conflict prevent some other conflict?

The authors conclude by offering two comprehensive, step-by-step guides to conflict assessment. The Wehr Conflict Mapping Guide calls for a one page summary description of the conflict; an account of the conflict history; a separate account of the current conflict context; and a description of the conflict parties that distinguishes between primary participants, secondary stakeholders, and interested third parties. The Wehr map should include a description of the dispute's issues, and whether they are fact-based, value-based, interest-based, or something else. The map should describe the conflict dynamics, including the precipitating events, how issues have changed over the course of the conflict, and any polarization, stereotyping, mirror-images or spirals that have occurred. It should offer a list of alternative solutions, and should identify resources for limiting the conflict, including internal and external factors, third parties, and relevant conflict management techniques.

The Hocker-Wilmot Conflict Assessment Guide begins by describing the nature of the conflict, including its history, precipitating events, the parties' assumptions about conflict in general, the conflict elements, and past or potential transformations of those elements. The next step is to assess the parties' conflict styles, their perceptions of the other side's style, and the style of the system as a whole. Next, the guide assesses the role of power in the conflict, describing the parties' attitudes toward power, their areas of dependency and sources of power, their view of the balance of power, any unrecognized sources of power, and whether destructive forms of power balancing are occurring. The assessment should describe the parties' goals, their perceptions of the other's goals, the parties' content and relationship goals, and how the goals have changed during the conflict. It should identify how the parties strategize about their choices, what tactics are being used, how each side's tactics affect the other side, and how those tactics are affecting the course and direction of the conflict. This comprehensive assessment should also identify which of the specific assessment techniques described above might be most useful in this conflict. How might the parties change their own behavior to better mange the conflict? Finally, the Hocker-Wilmot assessment examines previous attempted solutions to the conflict, asking what solutions have been tried, whether past "solutions" have become part of the problem, and identifying potential solutions that have not yet been attempted.

Any of these assessment guides or tools can be used to good effect by parties in conflict, or as third party interventions.