E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University
Topics: negotiation, competitive or cooperative approaches to conflict, conflict identification
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
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Q: How did you first get into this field?
A: I got into this field after I resumed graduate studies after WWII. In WWII, I flew with the air force. I had a masters degree in clinical psychology and I had an internship in clinical psychology before I went into the air force. I was in the 8th air force flying out of England during the war. I was involved, of course, in a lot of bombing both at the receiving and giving end. I thought that war was a pretty stupid way of dealing with human problems. When I was discharged from the air force in 1945, I had the question of what I would do to further my graduate work. I intended to go towards my PhD and I had the choice of continuing in clinical psychology or doing something more relevant, to some of the issues that were relevant to the war. I decided to go into social psychology to study with a very brilliant, interesting scholar, Kurt Lewin, who had established a new center at MIT called the Research Center for Group Dynamics. In my graduate studies there, I got involved in a lot of different kinds of work, such as work on prejudice. I got involved in working with union negotiators doing some leadership training, and when I came to the point of formulating my dissertation I wanted to do something important that would be theoretically valuable, but also related to the important issues of the time.
Shortly before I resumed graduate school, the UN had been established, and shortly before that the nuclear bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had an image of the Security Council working together in a cooperative way, or working together competitively. I figured that if they worked together cooperatively, we might have a more peaceful world. I decided to do my research on issues related to cooperation and competition, and actually study the effects on five persons, a small group, like the UN Security Council permanent members. But it was a theoretical dissertation and an experimental dissertation. I developed a theory of the effects of cooperation and competition upon what would happen in the interactions within the group. And it was very interesting research. It came out very well from my point of view because there were striking differences in the two kinds of groups.
A cooperative group was established by having every group member out of five people, be constituted as a little class, and I was the teacher. And I was giving them problems to work on such as, human relations problems or intellectual puzzles. And the cooperative group was told that their grade would be determined by how well the group worked together, and by the group's performance on the task. And if your group is the best group of the five groups that were working on the same kinds of tasks. They would all receive an A and the next best, all a B. And the competitor groups were told they would be graded on how much they each contributed to the class. The person that contributes the most will get an A, the person that contributes the next most will get a B, C, and so on. So they had different reward systems, different distributive justice systems operating on them.
One was more of an egalitarian, one was americratic system, but one was cooperative, and one was competitive. It was clear that the cooperative groups worked well together. They communicated openly and honestly. They developed trusting relationships with one another. They had friendly relations with one another. They were interested in enhancing one another, enabling the other to do well, to do as well as they could. And when they had problems working together, they tended to work on them in a cooperative way. They tried to influence one another through persuasion.
On the other hand, in the competitive groups there was a breakdown of communication. People didn't want to give the other people any information that was useful. So there was relatively little communication and a lot of misunderstanding that developed. There was much more suspicion and a lack of trust in their relationship with one another. They were interested in enhancing their own power and their own resources, and minimizing the power and resources of the other. And they were less able to work in an effective way using the different talents that each person might of had. And as a result the cooperative groups actually performed better than the competitive groups. That was an important, interesting result. Then I became interested in what determines whether a group of people will move in a cooperative or competitive direction. I started using what I called "mixed motive situations." When people would be brought together, they would be brought together in what might be called a bargaining situation or a negotiation situation, where they have a mixture of motives to be cooperative and where it would be to their mutual benefits to out with a good agreement. But they had opposed interests in regard to the nature of the agreement that they might reach. So in that sense, there was a mixture of cooperative and competitive interests.
At that point, it became clear that in a sense, that a way of thinking about it was not only in terms of cooperation and competition, but what determines the way in which people will resolve conflicts or negotiate in a constructive way, rather than in a destructive way. So I did a whole set of studies with my students, a lot of research of course, not just by myself, many students were involved, and some of them are very prominent people now in the field, they will be a the conference in Boulder. Basically I came up with a simple idea. From the first study, I came up with the idea that a constructive way of managing conflicts, was to have people working cooperatively. On the other hand, the competitive situation, when they had conflicts, they didn't manage them well, they tended to be win-lose situations. So I came up with this first principle, which is important, that a constructive way of managing conflicts is like having a cooperative, creative group working on a problem, where the problem is the conflict. A destructive way of handling conflict is having people see that they're in a sort of win-lose struggle. Either I win or you win, either I get the top grade, or you get the top grade. And that leads to poor communication. It leads to poor outcomes of the conflict. So that's a very important principle.
The next item is what people will be. Whether they will be cooperative, or constructive in managing the conflict versus competitive or destructive in managing the conflict. And the students and I were all engaged in a lot of the experiments. And out of that series of experiments came out another important but simple idea, which I have summarized in what I call "Deutsch's Crude Law of Social Relations." It concludes that the typical effects of a given relation tend to induce that relationship. The typical effects of a cooperative relation can be found where you talk openly and honestly, where communication is open and honest in full, where there is friendly trusting relationships, where you try to enhance the other's powers and resources and where you manage conflicts in a cooperative way. Those typical effects induce a cooperative orientation to a conflict and lead to constructive management of a conflict.
On the other hand, the typical effects of a competitive orientation are found where there's a win-lose struggle, communication tends to break down, you tend to get suspicious of the other, you tend to want to enhance the power differences between yourself and the other, so that you have much greater power than the other, and you want to win in a conflict. Those typical effects lead to a destructive conflict process. That was published in 1973, a long time ago, thirty years ago, in my book, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. And that book became a very important, sort of classic in the field.Well, that has been the core of my intellectual work in this field, I mean, you can go into a lot of detail, but I'm just giving you a sketch. At the same time I was an academic doing research, developing theory, and teaching. I decided to continue my research doing clinical work.
So, after I became an Assistant Professor at New York University, way back in 1949, I had a couple of clinical internships, just on the side, I mean I worked with people at Mount Siani, and at Bellview hospital. Then I went through a psychoanalytical institute and got trained as a psychoanalytic therapist. And again with my left hand I was doing some therapy part time. As I look back at it from this age, I don't know how I managed. I was teaching, doing research, writing, I had two young children, getting trained, and then doing therapy. It was quite a hectic time in my life. A very full plate. But that also had an impact on my work. I did mostly individual therapy, but I also worked, at times, with couples. And the paper, "Negotiating the Non Negotiable," really came out of my experience working with couples. I was asked by a former student of mine, Jeff Reuben, who was co-editing a book on the middle east, to write a commentary. And I read the papers in the book, I used that model of what happened in a marital conflict that seemed non-negotiable, to talk about the Israeli- Palestine conflict.
But the basic idea was there, even when a couple has basically non-negotiable issues, and that's the way they saw it. The issues were about how the child should be disciplined, who should do housework, basically a lot of things that were a constant source of irritation between the two people. Underlying the differences, were some non-negotiable values between the couple. The woman was a feminist. She had a conception of an egalitarian marriage, where everything should be shared, the husband would be sharing the housework, the child care, and she would share in the income producing. He was an old fashion male who believed the husband should be the wage-earner, the wife should be responsible for the household and the child care. Those are really two different conceptions that are really quite at odds. Well, obviously, the fact that they married is kind of strange because they're rather different in basic conceptions. But they had a lot of mutual interests, in art, literature, sexually compatible, they were both intellectual people, but things started getting rather bad between them because of the constant nagging differences and irritation, when they would be attacking one another. They learned how to negotiate the non-negotiable by dealing with, first of all, by recognizing they were in what Bill Zartman from John Hopkins calls a "hurting stalemate." I didn't use that phrase, I simply saw they were hurting. They would continue hurting unless things changed.
The wife had to come to individual therapy with me and brought the husband in. I helped them to see that there was a possibility of a better relationship between them. Then they saw that the better relationship would not come by imposing one side's preference on the other. So, it wasn't a question of the wife imposing her view on the husband, or the husband imposing his view on the wife. If that happened, the other would reject it, would fight it. They had to recognize, whatever emerged from the discussion had to be satisfactory to both of them. That was an important insight.
They also had to learn that the process that they were involved in during this bitterness between them was one, which they were both right in thinking that the other was hostile and negative. That the other couldn't be trusted on certain issues because they were in the kind of malignant relationship, where it is true that you can't trust the other fully. The other is angry with you and feels justified in their anger. So, they're correct in perceiving the other in somewhat villiness terms. But they're incorrect because they make the attribution to the other, as something intrinsic to the other, rather than to the relationship that has developed, this malignant relationship. As a result, this forces them both to have this negative view of the other. So, you have to help them understand something about the process that has created this so they can get above the process. They can start thinking about how they can change the process, and start relating to one another.
Q: It reminds me of a Mexican saying, "It takes two hands to clap."
A: Right, absolutely.But you see, one of the problems in intractable conflicts, is that people get enmeshed in these malignant relationships. Where it's true that the other is a bastard, so to speak, but you don't realize that you're a bastard too in that relationship. It's that aspect of it.
Q: How do you foster that sort of self-awareness to become aware of your own part in creating the malignant relationship?
A: You help each to see that its natural for the other to interpret your action as being hostile, and for him or her to react to that in a hostile way. What is going on is a vicious spiral in which there are self-fulfilling prophecies. You think the other is being hostile to you and you act in such a way to support the other being hostile to you. In other words, there are many relationships, husband wife relationships, where if a wife thinks that the husband has done something behind her back, she might hear something from a neighbor, or someone, and she gets hurt. She acts in an angry way towards him. He feels that there's no reason why he should be attacked. So, he responds with an attack. Rather than saying, why are you angry with me? Can you explain? I don't understand. Trying to open up. People without any sophistication in these kinds of processes often fall into these kinds of traps.There are a number of such traps that I talk about, and some might be worth learning. One is autistic hostility. You think you've been hurt by the other, you're angry, you break off communication with the other, you don't talk about it with the other, you ignore the other. I have autistic hostility towards coffee. I don't know why, but as long as I can remember I have had an aversive reaction to thinking about it. I, as a result, never drink coffee. I avoid any taste of coffee, like coffee ice cream. I may be mistaken about coffee. Maybe I would like it. Maybe if I experienced it, if I had contact with coffee. If I had communicated, so to speak. If I allowed to coffee to communicate with me, it would change my attitude. That's one thing that happens sometimes in conflict. You maintain your hostility autistically, within yourself, without any necessary reactor.
The other thing I mentioned is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where you act in such a way that generates a reaction that sustains your initial belief. Another thing I often refer to is unwitting commitments. You get committed to your notion that you're a victim, that the other is treating you unfairly. You develop defenses, you develop attitudes that are difficult to give up because a lot of your subsequent relationship may be based upon those attitudes and roles and views of the other, which you have become invested in. I've had to work individually with some patients who simply had grudges that they felt they could not give up for fear that it would be changing something deeply within them. Including changing something about themselves, like being a victim, that they no longer have to conceive of themselves as a victim. If something happened in the past, that doesn't mean that you have to maintain this orientation. In therapy, a lot of what you have to do with people in these entrenched attitudes and roles is help people face the anxiety of changing. Because changing is to them, something maybe unknown, something that you're not familiar with, not experienced with. And you have to help people acquire a sense of confidence and skill that they can change.
Q: You're starting to see the analogy to international conflict, or intractable conflict on a larger scale?
A: Yes. Well, I wrote a paper about preventing World War III. That was during the height of the cold war, I think I wrote it in 1982, it was called "The Presidential Address to the International Society to Political Psychology." And there I took the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and characterized it as a malignant relationship, which had some of the characteristics that I was talking about with the couple. It was right for both the United States and the Soviet Union to think that the other was hostile, would undo it, would damage it, you know, all of these things. The relationship was a malignant one. They had to become aware of the malignancy, and the only way out really was recognizing that it's hurting, recognizing that there is a potential better way of relating. And that better way of relating involves having a sense that one can only have security if there's mutual security. And that's true in most relationships. That's particularly true to recognize groups that have had bitter strife where they've hurt each other. They have to deal with the problem of how to get to where they can live together. It may be ethnic groups within a given nation or community. They can only live together if they recognize that their own security is going to be dependent on the other person's security. So each person, each side, each group has to be interested in the welfare of the other.
On a national level it has to deal with military and other economic security. At the group level and personal level, it often has to do with psychological security. It has to do with someone recognizing, I shouldn't be treating the other in an undignified, disrespectful way. So in an interpersonal relationship, that kind of security, recognizing that not only are you entitled to it, so is the other person entitled to it. And if you don't give that other person that entitlement the relationship is going to move in the other direction, back to bitter conflict.
Q: So once you achieve that self-awareness of your own impact on the relationship and there is that recognition that maybe the other person is hurting as well, is that when you can start to make some progress on the non- negotiable? Or how do you deal with those?
A: With the couple, I had to teach them how to listen to one another's story. How did they come to their respective view points? Their sort of life stories that allowed the man to have his life view points of what it meant to be an adult male, and the female, the woman's point of view, what it meant to be treated as an equal. For them to understand where they were coming from, then they could understand that the other wasn't trying to humiliate them, or hurt them. They could then start thinking was about, how can I preserve the dignity and well-being of the other as well as my own dignity and well-being? And they can work out what potential solutions there might be. With this particular couple, they both were employed, they weren't poor, so a lot of the income, what the man considered unpleasant chores, and what the woman considered unnecessary burdens, could be done by hired help.
It was not necessarily the best outcome, but it was an outcome that both could live with, even though it may have given them less income for other purposes. It then enormously dropped the acrimony and enabled them to live together even though there were some basic differences. Here's where being a psychoanalyst and understanding the inner psychic processes that are involved is important, why people make that kind of choice. I mean, the woman had some investment in feeling like a victim because she was not confident whether she would be successful in her career. So if she had a husband who created a lot of obstacles that, in a sense, gave her an excuse against the possibility of failure. A man, who had troubles in intimate relations, having a wife who was somewhat bitter towards him, enabled him to keep his distance, and to feel not like he really had to open himself up, which would have been very difficult for him personally. You had to work with those elements individually so that those would not hinder, even though they were not completely limited.
I think in the real world, there are conflicts that are based on either different values, which are ultimately difficult to reconcile. The conflicts between pro-choice and so called pro-life, may be ultimately difficult to resolve if you try to resolve it at the deepest level, but there are a lot of things that can be resolved. Like the idea of encouraging situations where it's not necessary to have abortion. I mean creating conditions where that is an unlikely outcome. That could be a joint process.
Q: So avoiding the circumstances that would bring to light the conflict of values?
A: In some cases that's important to do. Its not always possible, but some times it might be that there are conflicts and values that have to lead to separation. Maybe this couple, these two people shouldn't be married to one another. If they can't, if there differences are too deep and too embedded, then they can't really ultimately be happy within themselves. Or, at the national or international level you can imagine those kinds of conflicts. I don't know. I would like to have a dialogue with bin Laden and see. I don't know if it would be possible, but when somebody has an attitude that requires your destruction for their happiness or survival, you are in a zero-sum conflict.That's what one of my students call, "Deutsch's Commandments of Conflict."
My first is to know what kind of conflict you're in. There are some conflicts that are zero-sum.
Q: No matter how you cut it?
A: There are interpersonal relationships that you sometimes cannot separate, but in some relations, where I say, my values must dominate the world, or dominate you, and I will persist until you're dominated. And I don't want your values to dominate me, you don't want your values to be dominated by me. Then you may be in that kind of conflict. If separation is possible that's probably the best way to handle that kind of conflict. Let people who have that kind of belief, who want to spray their territory with some sort of thing to kill off gypsy moths, and those who don't. If they can do it only there, but not here, there's one way of resolving the conflict. But otherwise, if you have to do it one way everywhere, then it becomes zero-sum conflict.
Q: How many commandments are there?
A: I think I have 13, 12 or 13.
Q: Do you remember some others?
A: I have a paper called "Educating for a Peaceful World," in which I go through them. They involve things that I think are pretty common. First is, know what kind of conflict. Then ... I wish I had my paper. I'll tell you what, a lot of these things are fairly distant in the past for me now, I wrote this paper over 20 years ago.
Q: The commandments paper?
A: Yea. But they involve things like, you have to know your anger and how to control it. You have to know the difference between positions and interests. You have to learn to communicate in such a way that you understand what the person says, but also what the person feels. And you have to learn to communicate to other person so they understand you at the cognitive and the emotional level. And some principles about how to deal with people who do not want to engage in fair conflict. The four F's, you have to be friendly, firm, flexible, and fair in conflict. Then I talk about knowing yourself and your tendencies in conflict. Most people, a lot of people, become anxious in conflict. They become afraid that a deeper level, their evil impulses will come out. They will become destructive. They will tear the other person to pieces. Or they will be helpless in front of the other. And those kinds of anxieties lead people to either escalate or minimize conflict. They tend to be very ridged in approaching conflict, or very loose. I have a whole series of things, which don't pop into my mind at the moment, but I go into those sorts of things in my writings..
Q: I think what we'll do, also, in addition to posting portions of this on the web, is also putting the references to the articles so people can get more in-depth.
A: I have a lot of papers. This book is a very good book. As a research book, not only for myself, but I was an editor, but I have a number of chapters in there. You get a good view of my orientation in the book, as well as a lot of other people that are psychologists. I think psychologists emphasize what is an important emphasis; you have to understand that people have feelings, emotions, beliefs, prejudices and misconceptions. You have to understand what is involved psychologically for the person. People sometimes enter into a conflict with a lot of baggage from their personal history and that also has to be understood. Some people will have hang ups in relations with authority, going back to their relationship with their father, or mother.
Or they'll have hang ups in relations with their peers because of how they were treated by their schoolmates, and so on. And that's part of understanding some of the background echoes that go on in conflict. That's not only true, I think, at the personal level. People come into say, ethnic conflicts have identities also, and historical memories, and images of what a good future would be like. And that's brought into the conflict, which may be specific and narrow, but is surrounded by these other issues. You have to listen to those other issues, and help the parties deal with the specific issues, if they can deal with the specific issues without getting into the larger issues.Sometimes you have to deal with the larger issues, but as a general principle, I think, Roger Fisher had this notion of fractionating conflict, that is to deal with the smaller issues.
For example, if you and your wife are having a conflict over which television channel to watch, it should be a conflict about that television channel, not a conflict about her personality, or family, or your history of your relations with one another. So if you can deal with a conflict at a small level, at the international level, one ??? candidate talked about the location of 72 weapons systems during the Cuban Crisis, rather than the free world versus communism. Therefore the conflict was resolvable. The conflict between free world and communism would never had been resolvable through peaceful negotiations. So if you learn to deal with conflicts at the appropriate size level, that will always be helpful. Some people make the mistake of escalating the conflict very quickly and it becomes much less manageable when that happens. But I do say it's the appropriate size that matters. Sometimes you have to deal with larger issues, you have to deal with the basic fact that there is a basic problem of confidence between oneself and the other. It's not just the television channel.
Q: Sure. It makes me think about when there is a conflict that is manifested because of some structural problem. Then it makes it really hard to deal with just that specific part of the conflict knowing that if you only deal with that it will likely repeat itself given the structure that's likely to foster that kind of thing.
A: I think that's very much the case. Our center here does a lot of work in schools and sometimes you have to not focus only on changing the kids by teaching them. You have to look at the whole culture, the parents, or teachers, or administrators. You have to look at the whole culture, and start understanding what are the structural factors that promote competitive relationship between the people like the kids and the way they manage in the classroom, or the teachers and the way they're promoted, or given special honors and duties, and so on. So you have to look not only at the presenting problem, but also what are the factors that are giving rise to the conflict, structural elements that are important.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about Professor?
A: No, I think that you've gotten the basic ideas.
Q: There's a lot of great advice that you've offered.
A: There's a lot more detail, but I go back to the basic idea that your aim in conflict is to try to turn the conflict into a mutual problem that can be worked on cooperatively and creatively by the parties involved to their mutual benefit. If you can do that, then you have done a great deal. So it's important in that sense to really focus on the process. How do they approach the conflict? Are they only looking for outcome of 'I'm going to do better than the other?' Or are they looking to something that can lead to a really good outcome for both? It's a simple, basic idea. And you can say, what helps people to be oriented that way? A lot of my work has been focused on that.
Q: With the sort of behavioral part, or group dynamics that you were focusing on earlier?
A: But the key idea is that it's not always possible, but if you can turn the conflict into a mutual problem were we work on it jointly with mutual respect, to find a good solution, then you're much better off. It's not always possible because some people won't always grant you that respect. They won't engage with you as one who is a moral equal, so to speak, or you don't think the other can be treated as a moral equal and it becomes much more difficult. But in the sense that many of the great religions have the notions that every human being is a creature of God, I don't happen to be very religious, but if you assume that every person has divinity, or some basis of even trying to find someone that is evil and corrupt, and to try to find that element within them, that can be used to work towards a change.
Years ago I wrote a paper on "Negotiating with the Devil," or something like that. You have to make a decision, do you think the devil is corrigible or not? If the devil is not corrigible, then probably in a sense, negotiating really is a matter of amassing the power to contain the devil. However if the devil is corrigible, there are ways to try to elicit those corrigible aspect of the devil into a negotiating situation. I wrote the paper many, many years ago, there was a social science conference on the Cape, called "The Craig Field Papers." There were highly distinguished people talking about issues of war and peace. At that time, the conflict of the Soviet Union was very prominent, and the issue for me was how to view the Soviet Union as a corrigible devil, or something incorrigible. And I tried to show that an incorrigible devil with a hydrogen bomb you're going to loose it any way with that, so its better off making the assumption that its corrigible, which might be true but it might not be true.. And if it's corrigible, you'd take these different courses of action.
Q: And maybe if you assume that it's corrigible then your first tenet is if you initiate cooperation, you might get cooperation back.
A: Yeah, and the question is how to initiate a friendly course of action. So you want to imitate it, you have to be fair in cooperation, which the other sees as fair and flexible. So that you can be creative, but you have to be firm, not let the other trample over you in a way that you are really being used by the other and your interests are completely ignored. So all four elements: firm, fair, friendly, flexible. In any order, its not important.
Q: Thank you very much.