Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is the process of defusing antagonism and reaching agreement between conflicting parties, especially through some form of negotiation.It can also be thought of as the study and practice of solving interpersonaland intergroup conflict.

A given conflict may be defined in terms of the issues that caused it, the strategies used to address it, or the outcomes or consequences that follow fromit. Preschool and early elementary school-aged children tend to have conflict over property issues, and they tend to use physical strategies to resolve them, like taking a toy they want from another child. As children grow older the causes of conflict are more frequently about social order, and they are more likely to use verbal strategies to achieve solutions.

Although conflicts can be categorized as interpersonal, i.e., conflict arising between individuals or groups of individuals, and intrapersonal, i.e., conflict within the individual, conflict resolution is primarily concerned with interpersonal conflict, although intrapersonal conflicts may also be triggeredin the course of resolving an interpersonal conflict.

Conflicts should not be seen as only negatively because they, in fact, provide individuals with opportunities to create more satisfying relationships, andto make needed changes in their lives. Conflict itself does not constitute aproblem, although the mismanagement of a conflict can lead to even more conflict.

It is unfortunate that many social settings, an especially common example being the work place, call for the avoidance of conflict (and the suppression ofanger) in the interest of maintaining a harmonious environment. As a result,some individuals, lacking the skills to negotiate a realistic settlement ofdifferences, turn to manipulation, sabotage, insults, and sulking to achievetheir personal and professional goals.

Strategies for resolving or preventing the development of conflict can be classified as avoidance, diffusion, or confrontation. Turning on the TV rather than discussing an argument is a form of avoidance. Two teen athletes talkingto their peers or counselors after a dispute on the football field is an example of diffusion. Insulting another student's girlfriend or arranging to meetafter school to fight are examples of confrontation. Courtroom litigation, like the trial and indictment of a juvenile who has violated the law, also represents a form of confrontation.

The phrase "conflict resolution" refers specifically to strategies of diffusion developed during the second half of the 20th 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 peoples' relationships or escalates into violence, methods of conflict resolution that were originally developed for purposes of business management gradually became adoptedin the fields of international relations, legal settings, and, during the 1980s, educational settings. According to the principles of conflict resolution, the only true solution to a conflict is one that attempts to satisfy the inherent needs of all the parties involved.

The traditional approaches to resolving conflicts in social, business, institutional, legal, and interpersonal relationships can be assigned to the following categories:

  • Adjudication and arbitration, with a judge of higher authority acting as the arbitrator. In this approach, the arbitrator listens to each presentations by each side, and then determines an option based on existing legislation, precedents, considerations of fairness, etc.
  • Counseling, overseen by a counselor, therapist, or manager. When counseling is used to achieve conflict resolution, the counselor first achieves rapport, thenassesses the real problems and applies intervention strategies.
  • Negotiation, conducted by a lawyer or agent, or by the parties themselves. The process of negotiation involves presenting the position, arguing the position,and disputing the position; it ends with agreement or final breakdown of thenegotiation.
  • Problem solving, carried out by an individual or delegated official of an organization. In this approach, the problem solver identifies the problem, communicates with people as appropriate, develops alternatives, decides on an alternative, takes action, follows up to ensure completion,and evaluates the effectiveness of the action.
  • Mediation, conductedby a mediator or selected third-party facilitator. In mediated conflict resolution, the mediator or facilitator achieves rapport with the disputants, gathers facts and isolates issues, helps create alternatives, guides the negotiation and decision making, clarifies an agreement or plan, provides for legalreview and processing, and carries out follow-ups, reviews, and revisions (ifrequested to do so).

Of these approaches to conflict resolution, adjudication and arbitration give the disputants the least control over the outcome. However, litigation of this sort has been used so extensively in our society that is has becomethe accepted norm for resolving disputes. A major problem with resolutions to disputes imposed by a higher authority is that there may be considerable dispute about the criteria used to make the decision. Thus, if the disputing parties have no faith in the criteria, the original dispute will resurface again at other times. Another significant problem with achieving the resolution of conflict through litigation is that the party with least financial resources to draw on may be at a considerable disadvantage in attempting to present his or her position to the judge or arbitrator.

Counseling, as a means of conflict resolution, has proven most effective in resolving intrapersonal conflicts, although some interpersonal conflicts can also be resolved with this approach.

Negotiation is the most diverse approach to conflict resolution. Mostconflict resolution programs employ some form of negotiation as the primary method of communication between parties. Negotiation can be distributive, where each party attempts to win as many concessions to his or her own self-interest as possible (win-lose), or integrative, where parties attempt to discoversolutions that embody mutual self-interest (win-win). Research on games theory and the decision-making process suggest that the face-to-face conversationinvolved 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. Face-to-face negotiation tends to be integrative in its consequences. Attorneys often serve as designated negotiators. Negotiation has traditionally been viewed as a zero-sum game, i.e., achieving oneposition at the expense of another, though many negotiators have pointed outthat it is possible to achieve mutual gain through such constructive settlement of disputes.

The problem-solving approach can be practiced alone or in combinationwith other conflict resolution techniques. Unlike mediation (see below), problem-solving techniques can be used by individuals or groups to solve problemswithout outside facilitators.

Mediation is an alternative to litigation, self-help, or violence thatdiffers from counseling, negotiation, and arbitration. In mediated disputes,the disputants, with the assistance of a neutral person or persons, isolatetheir points of disagreement, explore alternative resolutions to the dispute,and arrive at a consensual settlement that satisfies all of the disputing parties. The process of mediation involves the following processes:

  • Establishment of a plan for the future that all participants can accept.
  • Convincing the disputants to accept the consequences of their own decisions.
  • Reduction of the anxiety produced by the conflict by helping the disputants achieve a consensual resolution.

Although mediation may lead to a discussion of the disputants' personality structures in so far as they may have led to the dispute in question, personality issues are generally not the main focus of mediation. Instead, mediation tries to stay focused on the resolution of the conflict, and on the development of a plan, rather than on personal histories. Conflict resolution through mediation facilitates the following:

  • Reduction of the obstacles to communication
  • Maximized exploration of the alternatives to resolving theconflict
  • Satisfaction of everyone's needs
  • Establishment of amodel for future conflict resolution

The success of a given instance of conflict resolution depends on the attitudes and skills of the disputants and of any intervening parties, e.g., arbitrators, mediators, etc. The elementary skills that have been identified as promoting conflict resolution overlap to a high degree with those that reflect social competence in children and adolescents. They include:

  • Awarenessof others
  • Awareness of the (not necessarily obvious) distinctions between self and others
  • Listening skills
  • Awareness of one's ownfeelings and thoughts, and the ability to express them
  • Ability to respond to the feelings and thoughts of others

A child or adolescent will employ the basic skills of conflict resolution tovarying degrees in responding to a conflict. Responses can be graded according to the level of cooperation they reflect, i.e., the level of integration that the child experiences between his own self-interest and the interest of the opposing party. Thus, threatening the other party reflects a slightly moreintegrated, constructive response to conflict than an immediately aggressiveresponse such as hitting. Examples of progressively more cooperative responses to conflict are: withdrawing from a conflict; demanding or requesting the opposing party to concede; providing reasons the opposing party should concede(appealing to norms); proposing alternatives to the opposing party; and proposing "if" statements, suggesting willingness to negotiate. Perspective taking, or articulating and validating the feelings and thoughts of the other party ("I see that you want...."), reflects the higher orders of conflict resolution skills. Integration of interests ("We both want...") reflects the highestlevel, leading to a consensual settlement of negotiations.

Conflict Resolution in Education

Conflict resolution in education includes any strategy that promotes handlingdisputes peacefully and cooperatively outside of, or in addition to, traditional disciplinary procedures. 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 during the 1980s. These programs received national attention in 1984 with the formation of the National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME). By the late 1990s most major cities had instituted some form of large-scale conflict resolution program. According to a 1994 National School Boardsstudy, 61% of schools had some form of conflict resolution program.

Conflict resolution programs differ widely in terms of who participates, thequantity of time and energy they require, and levels of funding they receive.Funding is usually provided by an outside source such as the state, a university program, or a local non-profit organization. Programs can be classroom-wide, school-wide, or district-wide, and can include any of the following components:

  • Curriculum and classroom instruction
  • Training workshops for faculty, staff, students, and/or parents in conflict management skills,negotiation, and mediation
  • Peer education and counseling programs where students either train each other in conflict resolution skills and/or actually carry out dispute resolution
  • Mediation programs in which students, staff, or teachers carry out dispute resolution

Some conflict resolution programs provide a venue for actual dispute resolution, while others only provide only training and instruction. School-wide or district-wide peer counseling and peer mediation programs carry out actual dispute resolution on a larger scale. Peer mediation, where students are trainedin a step-by-step mediation process in order to provide ongoing mediation service for other students, is the most popular form of conflict resolution program. While these "applied" programs are more expensive than strictly curriculum-based programs, they appear to be significantly more effective. One studydemonstrated that curriculum by itself does not change students' behavior inconflict situations, whereas the structured format of a peer mediation program did change the way students addressed conflict.

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