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.
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.
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.
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:
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Turak, August. “The 3 Secrets to Conflict Resolution.” Forbes, September 10, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/augustturak/2012/09/10/the-3-secrets-to-conflictresolution/ (accessed July 23, 2015).
Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution (IMCR), 384 E. 149th St., Ste. 330, South Bronx, NY, 10455, http://www.imcr.org .