Setting Goals

Michelle Maiese

September 2004

Additional insights into setting goals are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The Importance of Goal Setting

Goals are notions about future desired conditions and are usually embedded in a set of ideas parties have about their plight and what can be done about it.[1] Factors that influence the formation of goals include the aspirations of leaders, the particular culture and social system, and the specific grievances of group members. What goals adversaries seek from each other profoundly influence the settlements they reach and their subsequent relations. Just as you cannot walk to a destination if you do not know where it is, you cannot achieve your goals if you do not know what they are. For this reason, goal setting is an important part of conflict management and resolution.

Parties in conflict generally have three types of goals.

  • First, they have a vision of a preferred future in which certain conditions are instituted, relationships established, and needs met.
  • Second, parties have ideas about what they would like their opponent(s) to do to bring about that future.
  • Third, they have ideas about what they would like to accomplish themselves to bring about their desired future.

To minimize the costs and harms associated with conflict, parties should carefully sketch out their goals and objectives. This helps to define the nature of the conflict more clearly, so that parties are able to respond more effectively. While goals may change somewhat over the course of conflict, beginning with a reasonably clear image of what they hope to achieve can help parties move toward their preferred future.

Goal clarification is largely a matter of defining one's interests and values and getting clear about the interests and values of one's opponent. It is important for parties to be clear about what it is they want their opponents to do and how best to encourage them to do it. What sort of preferred future do parties want their opponent to help them create?

Goal Setting Obstacles

It is not always easy to set clear and productive goals. One complicating factor is that goals may change significantly as the situation changes. While goals sometimes become clearer and more narrowly defined, at other times they become broader. Parties may discover that their own goals are utterly incompatible with those of their opponent. When conflicts escalate, the parties' goals can change from an initial goal to get one's own way to a later goal of depriving the other or hurting the other. When the goal shifts to damaging the opponent rather than helping oneself, conflicts tend to become protracted and destructive.

In addition, too many conflict interventions involve initiatives that are not clearly connected to parties' goals, often because their goals are formulated too vaguely. Often people who are confused about what the conflict is really about or what is important to them will have ambiguous or unclear goals. The failure to set clear goals may result in ineffective actions that needlessly confuse or even enrage the other side. Goal confusion can therefore lead to escalation of a conflict, which makes resolution more difficult.

Ambiguity about goals is also a problem for third parties who enter a conflict to "help." If they do not understand what their own goals are for involvement, they can easily do more harm than good. Third party intermediaries must clearly understand what the parties want them to do, what they themselves want to do, and how both of these goals relate to what is actually possible. If they see that their initial goal of helping the parties deal with the conflict more effectively cannot be achieved, they should be sure to withdraw from the conflict before they do more harm than good.

Another problem that parties may encounter stems from a failure to set reasonable goals. Success in conflict resolution is often a matter of focusing on a few key goals. All too often, well-meaning efforts fail because of excessive and unrealistic expectations. People must set goals to which they will be committed and devoted. If they begin to pursue goals that they have no chance of achieving, they are likely to become disillusioned and burn out quickly. [2] Also, it is reasonable to suppose that in some cases, the more an adversary seeks, the greater resistance it may face in achieving its goals. [3] Setting reasonable goals makes it more likely that parties will find a way to resolve their conflict or dispute.

Parties should also be aware that while some goals are relatively easy to achieve, others may be beyond reach in the short-term and may require more struggle and patience. Once parties have considered the feasibility of particular objectives and the appropriate time frame for achieving them, they can begin to identify and implement the strategies needed to reach their goals.

Goal Setting, Action Evaluation, and Facilitation

Setting goals is an integral part of conflict intervention and the design of effective conflict resolution initiatives. It plays a central role in Envisioning, Action Evaluation, facilitation, and negotiation.

Envisioning or future imaging is essentially a goal-setting process, where parties try to envision ideal futures. This is often surprisingly difficult to do. People become so used to conflict situations that they lose any notion of what life could be like without conflict.

Action Evaluation incorporates goal setting, monitoring and evaluation into a conflict resolution initiative. It seeks to make explicit the goals and motivations of all stakeholders so that they can define explicit criteria of success for intervention projects and then design those projects to maximize the possibilities of success. [4] Groups meet separately and then together to develop a successive set of goals and eventually collaborative goals. The action evaluator facilitates the continuous monitoring and assessment of these goals throughout the life cycle of the intervention. This process of collaborative goal setting clarifies the purpose of an intervention and allows the shared goals of the stakeholders to evolve over time. By making the participants more aware of their goals, action evaluation seeks to promote a reflection about, and shared commitment to, the intervention itself. [5]

Helping parties to set goals is also an important task for facilitators in mediation, consensus building, and negotiation. Intermediaries help parties to define their own goals and agenda, devise ways of achieving them, and assess whether a particular option or decision meets those goals. In some cases, they may ask the group to brainstorm about goals, needs, problems, alternative solutions, and strategies. [6] As group members begin to think about their goals, they can list and prioritize objectives. The broad consensus that emerges is directed toward specific aims and the design of an action plan to implement these goals. Collaborative goal setting in negotiations can help parties to discover compatible interests, learn each other's priorities, and discover mutual goals. Clearly defining one or more shared goals can also encourage parties to take a more cooperative approach to conflict. Getting clear about goals is also helpful in reconstruction efforts and peacebuilding initiatives. In cases where civil society has broken down, international NGOs may play an important role in training local organizations in advocacy skills, goal setting, and option analysis.

Goal setting is also an important part of the work done by action coalitions. A variety of stakeholders join forces in these coalitions in order to achieve specific aims or objectives. Collective goal setting is a crucial first step in public policy advocacy, government lobbying, legislative initiatives and media campaigns. [7]

Note the goal setting is an incremental process. Participants' concerns, understandings are constantly changing, and the contexts in which conflicts are situated are continuously shifting. As the intervention proceeds, various obstacles to implementation will force parties to reconsider their goals. In addition, project participants may discover that there is a gap between their espoused goals and the goals implicit in what they are actually doing. Therefore, it is not wise for initiatives to fully articulate project goals at the outset and to refuse to modify them over time. Instead, there should be room to incorporate incremental changes in goals into project designs. The task of setting goals should continue throughout the life of a project.


[1] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2002), 78.

[2] Norm Riggs, Facilitating For Results: A Task-Oriented Approach To Reaching Consensus And Taking Action. Iowa State University Extension. Available at:

[3] Kriesberg, p. 304.

[4] Marc Howard Ross "Action Evaluation in the Theory and Practice of Conflict Resolution," Available at:

[5] ibid.

[6] Norm Riggs, Facilitating For Results: A Task-Oriented Approach To Reaching Consensus And Taking Action. Iowa State University Extension. Available at:

[7] Janice Forsythe, "A Guide to Coalition Building," Cypress Consulting. Available at:


Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Setting Goals." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.

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