A Cooperative Approach to Conflict

Morton Deutsch

E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I go back to the basic idea that your aim in conflict is to try to turn the conflict into a mutual problem that can be worked on cooperatively and creatively by the parties involved to their mutual benefit. If you can do that, then you have done a great deal. So it's important in that sense to really focus on the process. How do they approach the conflict? Are they only looking for outcome of 'I'm going to do better than the other?' Or are they looking to something that can lead to a really good outcome for both? It's a simple, basic idea. And you can say, what helps people to be oriented that way? A lot of my work has been focused on that.

Q: With the sort of behavioral part, or group dynamics that you were focusing on earlier?

A: But the key idea is that it's not always possible, but if you can turn the conflict into a mutual problem were we work on it jointly with mutual respect, to find a good solution, then you're much better off. It's not always possible because some people won't always grant you that respect. They won't engage with you as one who is a moral equal, so to speak, or you don't think the other can be treated as a moral equal and it becomes much more difficult. But in the sense that many of the great religions have the notions that every human being is a creature of God, I don't happen to be very religious, but if you assume that every person has divinity, or some basis of even trying to find someone that is evil and corrupt, and to try to find that element within them, that can be used to work towards a change.

Years ago I wrote a paper on "Negotiating with the Devil," or something like that. You have to make a decision, do you think the devil is corrigible or not? If the devil is not corrigible, then probably in a sense, negotiating really is a matter of amassing the power to contain the devil. However if the devil is corrigible, there are ways to try to elicit those corrigible aspect of the devil into a negotiating situation. I wrote the paper many, many years ago, there was a social science conference on the Cape, called "The Craig Field Papers." There were highly distinguished people talking about issues of war and peace. At that time, the conflict of the Soviet Union was very prominent, and the issue for me was how to view the Soviet Union as a corrigible devil, or something incorrigible. And I tried to show that an incorrigible devil with a hydrogen bomb you're going to loose it any way with that, so its better off making the assumption that its corrigible, which might be true but it might not be true.. And if it's corrigible, you'd take these different courses of action.

Q: And maybe if you assume that it's corrigible then your first tenet is if you initiate cooperation, you might get cooperation back.

A: Yeah, and the question is how to initiate a friendly course of action. So you want to imitate it, you have to be fair in cooperation, which the other sees as fair and flexible. So that you can be creative, but you have to be firm, not let the other trample over you in a way that you are really being used by the other and your interests are completely ignored. So all four elements: firm, fair, friendly, flexible. In any order, its not important.