Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is achieved through various processes such as negotiation, mediation, and consensus decision-making, all of which are employed to help defuse antagonism and reach agreement between conflicted parties. Conflict resolution also refers to the study and practice of solving interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A group of boys work together to carry a canoe.

A group of boys work together to carry a canoe.
Archives of the History of American Psychology–The University of Akron. Reproduced by permission.

Strategies applied by individuals or groups to resolve or prevent conflict can be classified as avoidance, diffusion, or confrontation. For example, turning on the TV rather than discussing an issue or disagreement is a form of avoidance. Two workers who talk to their boss about a dispute is an example of diffusion. Insulting a person or physically harming someone are examples of confrontation. Courtroom litigation, including indictments and trials of individuals who have violated the law, is a form of confrontation.


—The spreading of something more widely. In psychology, diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon in which exposure of a situation to a wider audience may make people less likely to take action because responsibility is shared.
—Intervention or intercession in a dispute in order to resolve it or reconcile the disputants.

Conflict resolution refers to specific diffusion strategies developed during the second half of the twentieth century as alternatives to traditional litigation models of settling disputes. Based on the idea that it is better to expose and resolve conflict before it damages relationships or escalates into violence, methods of conflict resolution were developed in business management and were gradually adopted in international relations, legal, and educational settings. Conflict resolution in education includes any strategy that promotes handling disputes peacefully and cooperatively outside of, or in addition to, conventional disciplinary procedures.

In the 1980s, the rise of violence and disciplinary problems, along with an increasing awareness of the need for behavioral as well as cognitive instruction, spurred the development of conflict resolution programs in schools. In the United States, the number of programs increased sharply from 50 in 1984 to 6,000 in 1995, and by the early 2000s a majority of U.S. schools had implemented conflict resolution education programs. The Conflict Resolution Education Connection reported that schools around the world were embracing conflict resolution as an important component of good education. National and international guidelines were developed that incorporate a variety of processes, practices, and skills to help elementary and secondary school teachers measure progress toward effective conflict resolution education programs. Studies have shown that when children and adolescents practice conflict resolution in their schools, they also take home some of the skills they have learned, and, as a result, family communication and daily home life seem to benefit. Experts insist that conflict resolution in the schools is essential to stop increasing instances of violence, not only in schools but within society at large.


Boys competing in tug of war competition as part of the Robbers Cave experiment.

Boys competing in tug of war competition as part of the Robbers Cave experiment.
Archives of the History ofAmerican Psychology–The University of Akron. Reproduced by permission.

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif (1906– 1988) and colleagues conducted what is known as the Robbers Cave experiment to study intergroup relations. This experiment gave rise to the social psychological model of intergroup relations known as Realistic Conflict Theory.

The subjects of the experiment consisted of 24 boys who were divided into two groups known as the Rattlers and the Eagles. The boys were all around the age of 12 and from similar lower-middle class backgrounds. They were taken to a camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma and observed by Sherif and colleagues over a period of three weeks as group structures and conflicts arose.

The researchers went into the study with two hypotheses: (1) When individuals having no established relationships are brought together to interact in group activities with common goals, they produce a group structure with hierarchical statuses and roles within it; and (2) if two ingroups thus formed are brought into functional relationship under conditions of competition and group frustration, attitudes and appropriate hostile actions in relation to the outgroup and its members will arise and will be standardized and shared in varying degrees by group members.

The Robbers Cave experiment was divided into three stages. Stage one involved allowing the boys to participate in activities together within their groups and develop budding friendships naturally while the researchers observed. The Rattlers and Eagles were kept apart during stage one, and lived, worked and played separately. They were not aware of one another's presence until the very end of stage one. At the end of this stage Sherif and colleagues reported that clear hierarchies and cultures had emerged within the groups and social norms had been developed.

Stage two introduced activities that required the groups to compete against one another. The boys played competitive games, including a baseball tournament and a treasure hunt in which they competed for valued prizes such as medals and knives. This stage of the experiment mirrored the prejudices and hostilities of society at large. When the two groups were introduced to one another researchers observed a rapid crystallization of negative attitudes and rivalry. Derogatory stereotypes quickly developed, along with name calling and aggression. Sherif concluded that this hostility arises when groups engage in competitive activities in which victory for one group means loss for the other, or when there is a real or perceived scarcity of resources for which the two groups must compete.

In the third and final stage, the two groups were brought together in order to reduce friction. The researchers had difficulty during this stage and were met with resistance when working to restore peace and reduce hostility among the groups. The first tactic used during stage three was to put the groups in contact with one another during pleasant activities, such as seeing a movie together and eating meals together. However, this did not prove sufficient to dissolve the tension and hostility that had developed between them. In the end, the most effective method for this was the introduction of superordinate goals, or goals that required mutual, cooperative action on the part of both groups. Researchers presented the boys with problems that could not be solved without both groups working together cooperatively, for example a broken-down truck required both groups to push it.

The experiment has raised ethical questions because of the possible physical and/or psychological harm to which the children were subjected. The participants also did not know they were being observed for an experiment on group relations, and the researchers posed as camp personnel rather than disclosing their actual roles.

Sherif's hypotheses going into the experiment, that groups naturally develop hierarchies and group cultures, as well as boundaries, which create the potential for conflict especially with regards to the sharing of resources, were substantiated. Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif published the results of the study in a 1961 book titled Inter-group Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment.

Conflict resolution programs usually employ some form of negotiation as the primary method of communication between parties, although mediation and consensus decision-making are often integral components as well. Four principles are essential to all conflict resolution programs: (1) separation of people from the problem so that they see themselves as working side by side rather than against each other; (2) focus on interests of the parties rather than their positions; (3) creation of options for mutual gain; and (4) use of objective criteria to ensure that the agreement reflects a fair standard rather than the arbitrary will of either party.

In a negotiation process, parties with opposing interests hold conversations to settle a dispute. Negotiation can be distributive, in which each party attempts to win as many concessions to its own selfinterest as possible (win-lose), or integrative, in which parties attempt to discover solutions that embody mutual self-interest (win-win). Research on games theory and the decision-making process suggests that the use of face-to-face conversation in direct negotiation may actually influence people to act in the interest of the group (including the opposing party) or some other interest beyond immediate self-interest. The simple act of talking with the opposition sends a message that the parties are committed to positive resolution.

Mediation is a problem-solving process that involves face-to-face meetings and communication between the parties with a neutral third party, called the mediator. The two parties think about the underlying issue in different ways, suggest ways to handle resolving the dispute, and then build upon the ideas that are offered.

Consensus decision-making is a group process in which all parties or their representatives collaborate by developing a plan to resolve the dispute. The plan involves actions that can be supported by all parties. It is only implemented when consensus is reached between the participants.

The mediator's role in conflict resolution is to lay out the issues of the conflict clearly and to help the disputants arrive at the appropriate response to the conflict. Healthy responses to the conflict may include recognizing and responding to key issues; expressing readiness to forgive and forget or at least move on; seeking compromise and avoiding punishment; and believing basically that resolution will support the interests and needs of both parties. Proposing alternatives to the opposing party or proposing condition statements, such as “I am willing to do this, if you will do that,” may suggest the parties’ willingness to negotiate. Articulating and validating the feelings and thoughts of the other party (“I see what you want” ) reflects a higher order of conflict resolution skills. Integration of interests (“We both want this” ) reflects the highest level of skills, leading to a consensual settlement of negotiations. Based on the conflict resolution principles, the only true solution to a conflict is one that attempts to satisfy the inherent needs of all parties involved.

Unhealthy responses to the conflict may include the inability of one party to recognize and respond to matters of utmost importance to the other party; explosive, angry, hurtful, or resentful reactions; withdrawal of love in a personal dispute, resulting in rejection, isolation, shame, and abandonment; expectations of bad outcomes; and fear and avoidance of the conflict. Other possible responses may include withdrawing from the conflict; demanding or requesting the opposing party to concede; or suggesting reasons why the opposing party should concede (appealing to norms).

The success of a given instance of conflict resolution depends on the attitudes and skills of the disputants and of the mediator or arbitrator. A specific set of skills is required of all individuals involved in the conflict resolution process so that conflict and disagreement can be resolved in an environment of compassionate understanding. These skills include the following abilities:



Arbinger Institute. The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, 2nd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015.

Caspersen, Dana. Changing the Conversation: the 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution. London: Profile Books, 2015.

Katz, Niel H., et al. Communication & Conflict Resolution Skills, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt, 2010.


Turak, August. “The 3 Secrets to Conflict Resolution.” Forbes, September 10, 2012. (accessed July 23, 2015).


Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution (IMCR), 384 E. 149th St., Ste. 330, South Bronx, NY, 10455, .