The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner's Guide
By Bernard Mayer
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner's Guide, Bernard Mayer, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).
If it is to be successful, conflict resolution requires more than just a mechanical application of procedures and techniques. What is needed is a way of thinking about conflict, a set of intellectual and interpersonal skills, and a clear focus. In this book, Mayer offers ways of thinking about conflict that are relevant and helpful to conflict resolution practitioners seeking to facilitate collaborative problem solving.
Conflicts may be thought of as having three dimensions: perception, feeling and action. Conflict involves the perception that one person's interests, needs or values are incompatible with those of another person. Conflict also involves feelings, such as anger, fear or sadness. Conflicts are manifest through the parties' actions, from speech to violence. Each of these dimensions can vary independently of the other, although they usually do affect each other.
Mayer uses a wheel metaphor to describe the causes of conflict. Human needs are the ultimate causes of conflict--the" hub." However, basic needs are expressed through, and must be addressed through, other proximate causes: history, structure or context, emotions, values and communication. These proximate causes make up the "wheel of conflict." Attempts to understand a conflict should start by examining the proximate causes. A better understanding of the conflict's history and its context, and of the parties' feelings, values and patterns of communication, will reveal their deeper needs. Human needs range from survival, to substantive, procedural and psychological concerns, to identity-based needs for community, meaning intimacy and autonomy.
People have different attitudes toward conflict in general. These attitudes shape their behavior in particular conflicts. People may think conflict is bad or healthy, solvable or intractable. They may have different norms for conflict behavior. Some people tend to avoid conflict while others are willing to engage. Strategies for avoiding conflict include denial, hopelessness and passivity, capitulation, passive-aggressive approaches. Individuals may try to intimidate the other party into avoiding the issue, may deflect the conflict onto some other party, or may announce a premature "solution". Strategies for engaging in conflict include power, rights or interest-based approaches, appeals to fairness, or indirection and manipulation.
People exhibit many different cognitive, emotional and behavioral conflict styles. A person's way of thinking may be analytic or intuitive, linear or holistic, integrative or distributive, reactive or proactive, process-oriented or outcome-oriented. Emotionally people may be enthusiastic or reluctant, feeling or rational, calm or volatile. People can be direct or indirect in their behavior, submissive or dominant, threatening or conciliatory.
Similarly, there are a number of role individuals may adopt: advocate, mediator, expert, arbitrator or witness.
Power (in the context of conflict) can be defined as "the ability to get one's needs met and to further one's goals."(p. 50) All conflict involves power. One very damaging myth is that the amount of power is fixed, so that more power for one means less for another. In reality, mutual increases in power are possible, and beneficial. Power can come from personal characteristics, or from structural factors such as resources or position within an organization. Different types of power may be more or less effective in different situations. Whatever the source, power is applied in one of three ways: by appealing to another's values and beliefs, by appealing to another's self interest, or by coercion. Power can be used in a distributive way, to force concessions or compromise. Or, power can be used in an integrative manner, to increase everyone's influence. One way to increase power in conflict is to broaden the array of alternative solutions.
Culture affects people's conflict styles, although people often fail to notice the effect of their own culture on their own style. How emotions are expressed, which emotions are acceptable, and what constitutes acknowledgement all vary across cultures. In addition to language differences, different cultures have different styles and norms of communication. Many cultures share basic values. However, different cultures may prioritize those values differently. All cultures have formal rights-based structures and informal structures for dealing with conflicts, although the form of the structures varies. While each culture has its own unique history, shared historical experiences can promote understanding. Conflict participants should be sensitive to cultural differences, while still focusing on relating to the other as a unique individual. Recognize that there are limits to intercultural understanding, but push those limits. Parties should learn to recognize their own cultural style. Avoid stereotyping cultures, and learn to enjoy differences. Conflict resolution practitioners should seek diversity within their teams or organizations. Watch out for supposed cultural conflicts that are actually attempts by one culture to dominate another.
As with conflict, resolutions have three dimensions. Resolution involves believing the conflict is ended, no longer feeling in conflict, and stopping conflict behavior and implementing new behaviors. Emotional closure often comes from having one's needs acknowledged and met. Apologies and forgiveness can also help. Sometimes a symbolic action, such as a handshake, may help signal the end of conflict. Often behavioral resolutions are incomplete. Parties stop fighting, but do not implement resolution behaviors. There are different ways of thinking about the goal of conflict resolution. Some people focus on reaching a settlement. Others focus on transforming the parties. Still others may focus on achieving social justice, or deeper understanding, or satisfaction of interests. Resolution, then, can be occur on many different levels.
There are many effective approaches to resolving conflict, but effective communication is central to them all. Good communication is rests on caring about what the other has to say, focusing energy and cooperation on understanding, and being tolerant of people's difficulties in communicating. Good and communication feedback are crucial in making parties feel connected. Another key to good communication is to change the way parties think by reframing the issues. Reframing can detoxify an issue by dropping unproductive accusations. Definitional reframing involves redescribing the issue in more general or specific terms, or in a longer or shorter time frame. Other ways to reframe issues include finding a metaphor that both parties can use, or redescribing the conflict story line.
Negotiation occurs whenever two or more people try to reach a voluntary agreement about something. Distributive negotiators try to get as much for themselves as they can. Integrative negotiators try to increase the overall amount of benefit available, thus increasing their own share. Most negotiations have both distributive and integrative elements. Negotiations may come to a close when alternative options are ruled out, or when integrative and distributive solutions converge. Either breaking down the conflict issue into smaller, more specific elements, or addressing issues on the level of general principles, can help negotiators reach an agreement. Successive reframing can help parties generate and discard options, and reach a settlement.
Often negotiations reach an impasse. Sometimes causing an impasse is merely a tactical move. Other times the parties genuinely cannot move forward with the resolution process. Impasses can occur on the cognitive, emotional or behavioral levels. Impasse is likely to occur if negotiations fail to address a party's basic needs. Mayer suggests a number of attitudes that help parties deal with impasses. Recognize that there may be good reasons for the impasse, and that impasses are a common part of the resolution process. Move slowly, wait, and try to reduce everyone' s fear and anxiety. When confronted with an impasse, parties should ask what is causing it, what is it accomplishing, are there alternative ways to satisfy basic needs, and whether it is better to remain at the impasse than continue the process. An impasse may be thought of as a conflict within a conflict. Impasses can be addressed by many of the same basic approaches used to resolve conflicts more generally.
Mediators are third parties who help disputants resolve conflicts. Mediators affect the resolution process by supplying skills, values, procedures, energy and a sense of optimism. Although there are many different types of mediation, in general mediators begin by assessing the conflict. They establish an arena or mechanism for communication and negotiation. They draw resistant parties into the resolution process, and manage parties' communication and emotions. Mediators help parties identify and discuss their needs and options. They encourage creativity and constructive risk-taking. And they apply pressure to move the process forward.
Most people think of mediators when they think of conflict resolution. However, mediation has its limitations. Many other roles and approaches to conflict resolution are available. Mediation is not designed to prevent conflict, nor is it oriented toward psychological healing or long-term resolution processes. Some parties are unwilling to give control of the process to a third party. Mediation does not guarantee a settlement. Alternative conflict resolution procedures include using dispute systems and contracts to anticipate and prevent conflicts. Other roles include providing conflict assessment, and simply bringing the parties together and setting the stage for their negotiations. Facilitators focus on improving the quality of parties' interactions. Trainer and coaches prepare parties for negotiation. Conflict practitioners may help disputants in fact finding and data gathering. They may advise experts on how to present information in ways that are accessible and credible. Approaches to fostering reconciliation include dialogues, youth camps, truth commissions, joint activities, individual counseling and structural changes. A variety of decision-making services are available, including advisory mediation, arbitration, mediation-arbitration (med-arb), and expert decision-making.
One of the most important features of the field of conflict resolution, Mayer concludes, is its ability to empower disputants. The conflict resolution field seeks to make the world a better place by decreasing violence and intolerance, and by promoting democracy and the struggle for social justice. These values, implicit in the very nature of the field, also produce profound changes in the conflict resolution practitioner.