- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Conflict assessment is the essential first stage in the process of conflict management and resolution. A primary goal of such assessment is for all concerned parties to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics inherent in their relationships. This understanding not only clarifies one's own interests and positions, but leads to an acknowledgement of the basis for the interests and positions held by others, and thereby promotes reflection by the stakeholders. The assessment maps the conflict, and then uses it as an evaluation tool to determine whether or not there is a reasonable possibility for initiating an intervention process to manage or resolve the dispute.
Susskind and Thomas-Larmer have pointed out that since the 1970s and '80s, assessments have been used as preludes to intervening in disputes. They noted that the assessment concept became formalized in the context of prospective negotiated rulemaking in the early 1980s, and that the Administrative Conference of the United States formally recommended that such assessments be included as part of negotiated rulemaking in 1990. (Rulemaking is the process that administrative agencies go through when they develop the details -- the rules -- that specify how laws are to be applied.) Conflict assessments are also now commonly employed in consensus-building and dispute resolution, in informal ways as well as through the utilization of outside, impartial assessors in the conduct of formal assessments.
The assessment is designed to be embedded in reflection and social learning. The assessor must therefore be particularly sensitive to helping the disputants reveal, often through self-discovery, the issues that are really important to them, as well as to understand the priorities that motivate the beliefs and actions of the other stakeholders. In this sense, then, the assessment becomes a learning process.
The initial data-gathering stage is interactive, as stakeholders clarify their interests and positions. The assessment can be helpful in building relationships among stakeholders as well as between the stakeholders and the assessor, and in eliciting stakeholder participation in managing and resolving the dispute. As an evaluation tool, assessment has inherent advantages. It offers insights into the type of intervention most likely to succeed, and provides input into designing a work plan, should intervention be initiated.
What differentiates conflict assessment from other forms of evaluation is that stakeholders and other interested parties may not have come together as a group previously, and therefore may lack a common information base. The initial phase of the process presents the opportunity to build such a shared body of information and knowledge, before group interaction commences. Moreover, as issues that had previously been submerged come to the forefront, this informational stage can lead to the identification of other stakeholders. Stakeholder identification is therefore more than an a priori action, it is a continuous process.
In intractable conflicts especially, the issues in contention are likely to be deeply embedded in personal and group interests, self/other characterizations, or overarching political and socioeconomic agendas. Since many such conflicts are geographically bounded, the parties may have encountered one another in similar or different sets of disputes. The conflict at hand may therefore be colored by a backlog of animosities, historical grievances, mistrust, alliances, and structural power imbalances. If intervention is to be initiated, a full understanding of these complex relationships has to be shared by all involved parties. In such disputes, there is likely to be no consensus over the boundaries of the conflict. Using a "snowball" method for identifying all the interested parties to the dispute, as well as those parties that might be helpful in the conflict management process, the assessment probes such topics as:
Assessor roles are essentially facilitative and communicative. Assessors must be effective interviewers and sensitive listeners, who have some knowledge of the issues at stake. Most assessments are conducted by dispute-resolution professionals, although assessors with general consensus-building skills may also be effective. In some cases, the assessment may be conducted by one or two individuals. In others, and especially in complex cases, a team of several nonpartisan assessors is more appropriate. The assessor(s) should make clear to the stakeholders that his or her role at this stage is not that of an intervener, although the relationships which develop between the assessor and stakeholders may make the former the optimal choice for playing such a role at a later stage. However, it is important that the assessor's recommendations to move on to the intervention stage not be influenced by the desire to assume the intervener role.
Another possible pitfall is a situation in which the convener is also a stakeholder. In such a situation, extra cautionary measures are necessary to ensure against the distortion of the assessment process. This highlights the need for assessor objectivity and impartiality in the information-gathering, as well as the recommendation phases.
Phases of Conflict Assessment
In general, conflict assessment includes the following phases:,,
Benefits of Conflict Assessment
Conflict Assessment is helpful to the disputants, convener, and assessor(s) in the following ways.
For the disputants:
For the convener:
For the assessor (and sometimes would-be intervener):
 Susskind, L. and J. Thomas-Larmer, 2000. "Conducting a Conflict Assessment," in L. Susskind, S. McKearnan and J. Thomas-Larmer, The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, pp. 99-135.
 Harter, P.J., 1982. "Negotiating Regulations: A Cure for Malice?" Georgetown Law Journal, 71(1), 1-113.
 Pritzker, D.M. and D.S. Dalton, 1990. Negotiated Rulemaking sourcebook. Washington, D.C.; U.S. Government Printing Office.
 Moore , C.W., 1986. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 Carpenter, S.C. and W.J.D. Kennedy, 1988. "Analyzing the Conflict," In Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide to Handling Conflict and Reaching Agreements, San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Chapter 4, pp. 71-91.
 All interviewees are asked whom they consider to be additional stakeholders. If a name/organization is identified more than once, it is included.
 Shmueli, D. and M. Ben Gal, forthcoming 2004. "Stakeholder Frames in the Mapping of the Lower Kishon River Basin Conflict," Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 21:2.
 Ibid, 86-91.
Use the following to cite this article:
Shmueli, Deborah . "Conflict Assessment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/conflict-assessment>.