Summary of "Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes"

Summary of

Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes

By Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank. Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes. New York: Basic Books, 1987, 276 pp.

Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes offers a guide to consensual strategies for resolving public disputes. Lawrence Susskind is a founder of the Program On Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Jeffery Cruikshank was senior editor at Harvard School of Business Administration.

Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes will be of interest to those who seek a better understanding of the process of negotiating consensual resolutions to public disputes. This work is divided into seven chapters, and includes a very accessible section suggesting further readings. Chapter one opens with a composite case study of a deadlocked conflict. Using this case, the authors describe the drawbacks of traditional responses to public conflict. Traditional approaches discussed include political compromise, litigation, elections, referenda, and appeals to administrative agencies. They suggest that negotiated approaches to consensus building may succeed where more traditional approaches fail.

Chapter two discussed the theory and practice of dispute resolution. Distributional disputes are distinguished from constitutional disputes, which hinge on interpretations of constitutionally guaranteed rights. Constitutional disputes are most appropriately handled by the judiciary. Distributive disputes are best handled by negotiation. The authors identify four characteristics of a good negotiated settlement: fairness, efficiency, wisdom, and stability. Political compromises often fail to achieve these characteristics. Negotiation directed at reaching an "all-gain agreement" may achieve better settlements.

Chapter three describes several distributional disputes in detail, and uses these cases to illustrate "certain flaws in our representative democratic system" which serve both as recurring sources of public disputes, and obstacles to their resolution. Five flaws are identified and discussed: 1) the tyranny of the majority, 2) lack of long-term political commitment, 3) the inadequacies of the voting process, 4) modern technical complexities, and 5) the emphasis on winner-take-all solutions. This chapter concludes with suggestions for improved "ad hoc approaches" to resolving distributional disputes. Such approaches are ad hoc, informal, consensus seeking, face-to-face, and designed to supplement existing structures.

Chapters four and five describe the sequence of tasks which must be understood and effectively carried out if a good negotiated settlement is to be achieved. Chapter four focuses on unassisted negotiations, that is, negotiations which do not employ intermediaries, but are handled by the interested parties themselves. The authors first distinguish between "zero-sum" approaches to negotiation and "integrative" approaches, where consensual all-gain agreement is possible. The problems of escalation and entrapment are described. The consensus-building process is then broken down into three phases: prenegotiation, negotiation, implementation. The remainder of the chapter discusses the tasks appropriate to each phase in some detail. Chapter five focuses on mediation and other forms of assisted negotiation. It describes the role and functions of an intermediary within the consensus building process. The authors then distinguish between three forms of assisted negotiation - facilitation, mediation, and nonbinding arbitration - and describe each. In each form, the intermediary should work to move toward the integrative approach to negotiation.

Chapter six, called "Taking Action" gives "specific recommendations about who should implement these better approaches to dispute resolution and the circumstances under which they should do so." Participants to disputes are grouped under the headings of public officials, citizens, or business interests. The authors devote a section to describing the strategies, concerns, and necessary prerequisites of each group. This chapter concludes with a description of (then) recent advances in dispute resolution.

Chapter seven concludes this work with an overview of the advantages of negotiated resolutions.

Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes offers a comprehensive and yet flexible approach to the resolution of public disputes. It suggests specific techniques and strategies, and is generously illustrated with actual cases.