Interactive Conflict Resolution
By Ronald J. Fisher
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Ronald J. Fisher, "Interactive Conflict Resolution" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 239-272.
Fisher reviews previous uses of interactive conflict resolution (ICR), outlines its contributions to a theory of conflict resolution practice, assesses the current state of the field, and finally identifies challenges that ICR must meet if it is to reach its full potential.
"Interactive conflict resolution (ICR) involves problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of groups or states engaged in violent protracted conflict."(p. 239) It is primarily a social-psychological approach to conflict resolution. ICR emphasizes the need for direct communication between opposing parties, and for a skilled intermediary to facilitate that communication. "The ultimate goals are deep understanding, mutual recognition and respect, and jointly acceptable and sustainable solutions--in sum, an improved relationship between the parties."(p. 241)
Some ICR workshops focus on educating the parties about each other and the conflict process. Others focus on problem solving, and on transferring workshop gains to decision-making bodies. ICR discussions may be used as part of the prenegotiation phase of conflict resolution, to identify and address barriers to negotiation and to improve the parties' relationship. ICR discussions may be held concurrently with official negotiations, to analyze the official process, to identify shared principles, or to address issues beyond the scope of the official negotiations. ICR workshops may also contribute to peacebuilding, by promoting productive interactions between antagonists at various levels and sectors of society.
ICR workshops were first used by John Burton in the mid-1960s to address escalating conflicts between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. These workshops pave the way for the 1966 Manila Peace Agreement. Other early ICR workshops addressed conflicts in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and the Horn of Africa, with mixed success. Herbert Kelman has held over thirty ICR workshops to address Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. During the 1980s, Edward Azar held ICR workshops to address the conflict between Argentina and the U.K. over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, the Lebanese civil war, and the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Many people have contributed to the theory and practice of ICR. Christopher Mitchell stresses a subjective approach to understanding conflict, and a problem solving approach to resolution. Herbert Kelman views his Middle East workshops as a program of action research, which integrates practices of conflict resolution with the study of conflict. His research has identified barriers to negotiation, and the psychological prerequisites for mutual acceptance. Kelman's workshops have come to focus on the prenegotiation stage. Fisher's own research has explored limitations on the effectiveness of ICR, and his workshops focus on exploring the parties' underlying needs and fears. Harold Saunders has been a key player in the ongoing Dartmouth Conference, which brings together U.S. and Soviet (now Russian) policy specialists.
Many ICR interventions have been directed at the intercommunal level. Examples include workshops in sensitivity training for Israeli Jews and Arabs; problem solving workshops focused on economic development, safety and education; workshops to coordinate Middle East peacebuilding activities by Jewish- and Arab-American organizations, and grassroots reconciliation discussions. A Canadian newsmagazine sponsored a series of dialogues featuring participants from across the country, focused on the issue of Canadian unity. These workshops produced a statement of shared values and a suggested compromise solution. In the U.S., workshops have been held to address intergroup cleavages, such as those between pro- and anti-abortion rights groups, and between peace activists and defense analysts.
ICR theory has arisen from ICR practice, and so there is as yet no comprehensive model of ICR. Theoretical underpinnings of ICR include Burton's model of controlled communication, which emphasizes the role of a third-party in creating a non-threatening, analytical atmosphere in which the parties can realize and correct misperceptions of the other. Burton locates the roots of protracted conflicts in groups' pursuits of their basic human needs. He argues the problem solving approaches to decision making may allow us to "provent" conflict by promoting collaboration and awareness of basic human needs. Leonard Doob has explored methods for evaluating ICR interventions, and examined the planning, timing, choice and implementation of effective interventions. Kelman distinguishes problem-solving processes from human relations training, and stresses the social-psychological nature of the process. Fisher has explored the role, tactics, and qualities of effective third-party consultants in ICR. In related fields, Azar has proposed a model of prenegotiation, Saunders has developed a relational model of problem solving, and John MacDonald and Louise Diamond have developed a typology of multitrack diplomacy.
Currently the field of ICR still lacks a rigorous, comprehensive theoretical model. What theory does exist tends to focus on static pictures of practice, rather than dynamic understanding of processes. Fisher notes that "research remains the weakest link in the theory-research-practice loop."(p. 263) Case study analyses predominate. More controlled, quantitative studies and longitudinal field research are needed. Research evaluating the effects of ICR interventions is particularly difficult, complex and costly. Practice is the strongest link in the loop. Workshops have grown in number, and are being applied to a wider range of issues. Many past workshops have generated positive results. One new and promising development is the move toward continuing series of workshops, which can make more sustained contributions to conflict resolution.
Fisher identifies challenges that ICR must address if it is to fulfill its conflict resolution potential. First, it must explore ways to transfer workshop gains to official decision-making processes. Second, it must develop rigorous assessments of its effectiveness. Next, more training for ICR scholar-practitioner is needed. More, and more reliable, funding is also needed. Finally, ICR must develop strong institutional bases of support, in order to increase available resources, personnel, training opportunities, and credibility for the field. A move toward professionalization of ICR would help address these challenges.