Strategies for Resolving Conflict
There are several alternative processes that can be accessed to resolve disputes between individuals or groups. One alternative for conflict resolution is that of arbitration. The term arbitration is used when those in dispute agree to place the decision-making process in the hands of an individual or a group with the authority to make a final decision after each person in dispute has had a chance to fully present his or her case. Arbitration provides opportunities for preserving and debating the merits of the opposing viewpoints. The arbitration process allows for written and verbal presentations of the issues without the constraints inherent in litigation. Evidence is usually presented on a more informal basis, legal counsel may be included in the process, and the process is adversarial in nature. The Arbitration Act governs the arbitration process and the arbitrator’s decision is final and binding on both parties. The disputants enter into arbitration with the understanding that a binding decision will be made to finalize the outcome of the dispute.
Arbitration does not necessarily resolve the differences that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. However, there is great benefit to having the opportunity to fully explore both sides of the dispute within a structured meeting. Both parties have an opportunity to hear the opposing viewpoint, to argue their viewpoint, to ask previously unanswered questions, to clarify issues, and to review new information presented by the opposing party or by the arbitrator. The information presented by the arbitrator may be related to current research, recent market trends, and/or previously unconsidered consequences of possible decisions. The arbitrator considers all of these factors in arriving at the final decision and presents the decision with the underlying rationale. Following arbitration, the participants may still be in dispute but usually believe that the decision is balanced and impartial. While the participants have agreed to abide by the decision, they still may fight it out in other ways or at another time.
A third conflict resolution strategy is the use of mediation. Mediation is a facilitated process that allows the participants to explore all aspects of the dispute or conflict, to look at the full range of alternatives for resolving the conflict, and to work toward a mutually agreeable decision. It requires conciliation and cooperation. The advantage of mediation is that, when properly conducted, it is the only means by which the conflict is actually resolved. With mediation both parties “win” because the final agreement is mutually determined and is acceptable to both sides.
A fourth and relatively new conflict resolution strategy is a combination of the mediation and arbitration processes and is called mediation-arbitration. In this process the mediator/arbitrator attempts to first enable the participants to achieve a mutually agreed upon resolution to their dispute. If the participants cannot reach agreement on some or all of the substantive issues of contention, the mediator/arbitrator will provide them with direction and a final decision.
The Value of Conflict
Before exploring some of the important aspects of effective conflict resolution processes, it is important to look at the positive side of conflict. After all, it is necessary to generate a little conflict before there can be anything to resolve. People come together in a marriage, a family, a work environment, or in a community setting to pool their talents and strengths, and their intellectual, financial, and/or emotional resources. There is an underlying and often unspoken assumption that the open exchange of ideas, viewpoints, insights, suggestions, and criticisms will yield a more extensive examination of the problem and a higher quality decision than if a person acted on his or her own initiative.
Constructive disagreement must be a part of the debate and/or problem solving strategy if a couple or a group wishes to reach its potential. Because ideas are never more critically examined than when they are attacked and must be defended, disagreement among participants (provided it is focused on issues rather than personalities) can promote critical thinking and can generate creative and previously unconsidered solutions. When disagreement is minimized or ignored, important aspects of the problem may be disregarded and potential flaws in the proposed solution may be overlooked. When individuals are reluctant to participate in the problem solving process, they may undermine or fail to participate in the solution. Promoting reasonable disagreement or conflict is essential in most groups (including marriages and families) if the group is to achieve its greatest success.
While conflict is essential to ensure a full and critical examination of all aspects of a problem or issue, it is equally essential that the conflict be effectively resolved. A successful conflict resolution process brings closure to the issue, encourages the participation of both parties in developing and adhering to the resolution agreement, and serves to not only maintain but enhance the relationship between the parties involved. On the other hand, if the conflict is left unresolved, it frequently continues to simmer below the surface and the underlying hostility is expressed indirectly or directly. The conflict can continue in this way for years with ongoing and negative long-range effects on all of those involved.
Setting the Stage For The Conflict Resolution Process
The key to productive conflict is trust between the participants. Ideally, participants in the conflict will feel free to present their opinions no matter how far that position differs from others. In mediation, the mediator plays a major role in establishing this sense of trust between the disputants and between the mediator and the disputants. In arbitration, it is important that the disputants trust the skills and knowledge of the arbitrator to arrive at a fair and equitable decision. In the mediation/arbitration process, trust in all parties is integral to achieving successful resolution of the conflict.
It is the responsibility of the mediator/arbitrator to clearly explicate and enforce parameters that enhance a safe, respectful, open, and trusting climate for the conflict resolution process. Within the conflict resolution process, variant opinions and ideas must be encouraged and solicited from the outset so that such input becomes the norm rather than the exception. Responses to remarks of participants must be accepting and respectful and not sarcastic or demeaning. Personal attacks must be avoided, controlled, and occasionally reprimanded. Finally, the participants must be encouraged to deal in facts and issues rather than personalities.
Once generated through active discussion, disagreement or conflict must be managed so it will not immobilize the participants. The effective use of conflict resolution skills is essential if conflict is to be managed effectively. The basic principles of conflict resolution follow.
To ensure that participants in the conflict resolution process agree to mediate/arbitrate in good faith and understand the nature of the process, the mediator/arbitrator will outline the behavioral expectations of the participants prior to the first formal meeting. These parameters are usually included in a formal agreement signed by all parties prior to the beginning of the process.
Establishing Norms For Conflict Resolution: Just as the mediator/arbitrator must set a receptive tone for constructive disagreement, he or she must also establish some formal ground rules for resolving conflict as it surfaces during the discussion. The rules do not need to be elaborate nor do they need to be explicitly articulated each time participants disagree. However, the participants must know that each party to the dispute will have ample opportunity to state his or her case without interruption. The participants must be clearly advised that personal attacks will not be tolerated. The participants must also understand that the mediator/arbitrator is an objective third party and that he/she will not engage in the conflict.
The following techniques are useful to set norms for effectively managing conflict and for keeping participants’ emotions under control.
Intervening When Norms Are Violated: The professional leading the conflict resolution process must watch for interruptions or personalized criticism. Immediate intervention with the expressed expectation of respectful communication will set the norm of fair play and objectivity.
When an inflammatory statement is made, the mediator/arbitrator can choose to rephrase the remark to make it more acceptable. This is another way of censuring and discouraging unacceptable comments from the participants and teaching/modeling constructive communication.
Getting To The Root Of The Conflict: To resolve any conflict, it is critical to identify its source. Each participant requires an opportunity to express him/herself. However, it is possible that even after they have done so, the mediator/arbitrator may not have a complete picture. Those in dispute may disguise psychologically or emotionally based disagreements. Getting to the root of these disputes requires some probing. The mediator/arbitrator may ask specific questions about the emotion that is visible. These questions encourage participants to become aware of their feelings and behavior in the process and to uncover underlying issues.
Even if the disagreement is related to the substance of the issue being discussed, more information than initially volunteered by the disputants may be necessary. This information can be solicited by supplemental questioning to clarify the facts, by paraphrasing responses to assure common understanding, and by periodic summarizing of key points on both sides of the dispute.
Looking For Areas Of Agreement: The mediator/arbitrator will, after getting all the facts on the table, develop some framework for forging a compromise solution or eliminating unsupportable positions from further consideration. Three techniques may be utilized here.
The mediator/arbitrator may identify and point out areas of agreement as a basis for further discussion. If the participants see that they do share the same views on some matters, they will likely be more willing to seek compromise on others. This technique is most effective when the mediator/arbitrator appeals to some common value or long-range goal that the parties in dispute share. The participants will more readily focus on the means of reaching agreement if they can see some collective advantage or benefit.
The mediator/arbitrator will attempt to seek early agreement on simple, less contentious issues before addressing the more difficult questions. This means approaching differences in increments and building a track record of successful compromise before dealing with more substantive and difficult topics.
If one person’s position is found unsupportable after discussion and exploration, the mediator/arbitrator may encourage exploration of alternative positions. One of the basic causes of ongoing conflict is the need to ‘save face’. When proven wrong, participants do not wish to appear to have been stupid, foolish, illogical, uninformed, unenlightened, or misdirected. To avoid these feelings a participant may (1) persist emotionally in a rationally untenable position, (2) refuse to discuss the matter further, thereby leaving it unresolved, or (3) find some loophole to get out of the dilemma without losing prestige. The last option provides the mediator/arbitrator with the opportunity to elicit a face-saving alternative.
Encouraging Those In Disagreement To Offer Solutions Or Positions Of Compromise: The conflict resolution process is most successful when the disputants find mutually agreeable solutions to their conflict. In many cases, the disputants have given serious consideration to questions of fair play and compromise but do not want to be seen as giving in. Questions such as, “Well, what do you see as the solution?” “How can we avoid these problems in the future?” or “You’ve got some good reasons why this procedure may not work; do you have any suggestions on an alternative?” will usually yield more detailed and creative alternatives. When the ideas start flowing, they must all be evaluated objectively regardless of apparent merit. To criticize or dismiss any suggestion will impede the possibility of compromise.
When all else fails the mediator/arbitrator can suggest alternative or compromise positions. In mediation, it is important for the participants to take responsibility for the outcome rather than have the solutions being driven by the mediator. In arbitration, the arbitrator will impose the outcome.
Using Breaks In Discussion: When tensions rise or discussion is at an impasse the mediator/arbitrator may call for a break in the process. A short recess will allow the participants to open their perspective, to rethink their position, and to approach the process from a different viewpoint. A recess is also helpful if the reason for the inability to gain compromise is the need for additional information.
Fostering Commitment, Confidence, Pride, And Participation: Effective conflict resolution requires the active and constructive participation of all key members. Participants in any conflict resolution process must feel safe within the process, acknowledged for their contributions, and respected as a participant. When participants do not feel that their contribution is valued as an integral aspect of the conflict resolution process, they will rarely be committed to the process or to the outcome.
The knowledge and skills of the mediator/arbitrator are essential to creating an environment that brings out the best in the participants. The majority of participants are capable of reaching agreement when they enter and engage in conflict resolution in a constructive manner. When the mediator/arbitrator provides skilled leadership throughout the process and expects the best, he/she often gets the best.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist, Mediator