Developing an Effective Program of Conflict Management: Ten Principles
By Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, "Developing an Effective Program of Conflict Management: Ten Principles," chapt. in Managing Public Disputes, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988), pp. 52-65.
The authors offer ten basic principles for dealing effectively with public disputes. First, conflict managers must remember that conflicts are made up of substantive issues, human relationships, and procedures. A narrow focus on the substantive issues will not resolve the conflict. In order to resolve conflicts, equal attention must also be given to human relations and emotions, as well as to developing fair procedures. Next, in order to find a solution, the conflict manager must first understand the problem. This requires identifying and clarifying the parties' needs, fears, and goals, and exploring past and present patterns of interaction between the parties.
It is also important for conflict managers to resist the pressure to resolve a conflict quickly. The manger must take the time to formulate a strategy and must then stick to that strategy. Short-cuts and quick fixes will not resolve the underlying issues. Taking time at the beginning to craft a general plan for addressing the conflict will save time and effort in the long run. The authors also caution that, while mangers need to stick to that general plan, the conflict resolution process itself must remain flexible. Often the process will need to be modified as the situation develops and new facts arise. Another principle is that mangers should try to anticipate what might go wrong in negotiations. The manager's general plan should include techniques for managing the sorts of negotiation problems that are likely to arise. In order to make progress in resolving a conflict, the parties and managers must have a positive working relationship. Parties must communicate and have some trust in each other. Lack of communication leads to polarization, and hostile relations lead to conflict escalation. Parties to a conflict must also work together to develop a constructive definition of their problem. The authors note that "whenever possible, an issue should be defined as a mutual problem to be solved."[p. 59] Simple yes-no formulations of the problem should be avoided. Just as parties must help define the problem, parties should help design the conflict resolution process and the conflict solution. The manger should not impose her own process on the parties, nor attempt to "sell" the parties on her own solution. Parties are more accepting of solutions which they themselves have developed. Next, managers should emphasize issues rather than positions. Positions are more likely to be mutually exclusive. By focusing on the basic issues, parties may come to understand the other sides' concerns and discover compatible or even shared interests.
Finally, conflict mangers should remember the basic principle, "Do no harm." Conflict management programs which are poorly conceived and designed, or which do not allow adequate time to complete the process, can have bad effects. Participants may become frustrated and hostile. The conflict may escalate. Their bad experience may prejudice the parties against other attempts at conflict management.