Problem Solving and Decision Making in Conflict Resolution
by Eben A. Weitzman and Patricia Flynn Weitzman
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Problem Solving and Decision Making in Conflict Resolution." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 185-209.
The authors describe the conflict resolution process as composed of two component processes: decision-making and problem solving. They describe each component, and develop a simple model of their interaction within the broader conflict resolution process.
The problem solving process involves two main parts: diagnosing the conflict, and developing alternative solutions. Diagnosis emphasizes identifying the parties' underlying interests. The goal of problem solving approaches is to find mutually acceptable solutions to problems. Solutions may take the form of a compromise, or agreement on a fair procedure for generating an outcome. Integrative, or win-win, solutions are the most desirable. Strategies for reaching solutions include increasing contested resources (expanding the pie), finding alternative forms of compensation (nonspecific compensation), trading off small concessions (logrolling), or creating new options that satisfy underlying interests (bridging).
Research shows that problem solving approaches to conflict resolution generate more agreements, more win-win outcomes, more outcome satisfaction in the short and long terms, and more durable solutions. Research also shows that problem solving approaches are more likely to be used by people in fair and cohesive organizations that recognize success and are open to innovation. Problem solving is more likely when parties are concerned for the others welfare, as well as their own.
Cognitive psychologists describe problem solving as a four stage process: Identifying the problem, generating alternative strategies, selecting and implementing a solution, and evaluating consequences. Cognitive psychology also suggests a model of interpersonal negotiation strategies that focuses on the different developmental levels of perspective taking by the parties. An egoistic perspective sees the other party as an object, and typical reactions include whining, ignoring, or hitting. The unilateral perspective recognizes the other as an individual, but interacts with them in terms of obedience, command or avoidance. A reciprocal perspective acknowledges the others' interests but still considers them secondary. Interactions take the form of exchange-oriented negotiations. From a mutual perspective, "the needs of both the self and the others are coordinated, and a mutual, third-person perspective is adopted in which both sets of interests are taken into account."(p. 193) Interactions are collaborative. Adoption of the mutual perspective is very important for high quality problem solving.
Individual and group decision making occurs throughout the conflict resolution process. Individual decisions include choosing strategies, deciding to trust, evaluating offers, and prioritizing concerns. Rational choice theory says that people make decisions based on their calculation of the utility of the desired outcome and the chance of that outcome occurring. There are a number of factors that affect these calculations. Whether an outcome is perceived as a gain or a loss depends on a person's reference point. Anchor points-- for example, the perceived best and worst possible outcomes--can also affect assessment of a choice. Generally people are loss-averse; they see avoiding loss as more important than achieving gain. Stress and emotional reactions also affect decision making.
Group decisions include whether to continue problem solving, whether to get help, which procedures to use, and which solution to choose. The authors identify common biases that interfere with good decision making. These include irrationally escalating commitments, assuming resources are fixed and outcomes must be win-lose, using information because it is available rather than relevant, and overconfidence. People may also be biased by the way information is presented, by irrelevant anchor points, or by failing to take the other party's perspective into account. Generally, people's notions of fairness tend to be biased in their own favor. Groups are more likely to reach integrative solutions when the parties' power is equal and their aspirations are high. When power is unequal, the low-power party is more likely to make mutually beneficial offers. Parties in negative or business relationships often want to do much better than their rivals, whereas parties in positive or personal relationships prefer more equal outcomes.
The first step in conflict resolution involves deciding what sort of conflict it is, and understanding the problem by identifying parties interests, goals, reasons, options, etc. Parties need to coordinate their perspectives. The next step is to brainstorm for alternative solutions to the problem. Techniques such as idea checklists or What If questions may also be helpful. The third step is to evaluate the alternatives and decide on a solution. Individual evaluative decisions must be brought together to reach a group decision. Here parties must be on guard against the various factors and biases that can undermine rational decision making. Finally, the parties must commit to their decision.
The authors suggest that problem solving and decision making techniques should be taught together in conflict resolution training programs. Training should explain the conditions that encourage adoption of a problem solving approach, and factors that undermine good decision making.