Objectivity, Subjectivity, and the Known Unknowns: Intentions vs. Assumptions in Conflict Resolution

In my last post I wrote about asking, and the important role questions play in creating possibility for conflict resolution. Today is an exploration of important areas of objective and subjective inquiry.

Perhaps we’re all familiar with the analytical equation: in life we have our ‘knowns’ and our ‘unknowns.’ Both can then, in turn, be known or unknown. There are things we are aware that we know (known knowns) and things we know, but not consciously (unknown knowns). Then there are things we know that we don’t know (known unknowns) and things we don’t realize we don’t know (unknown unknowns). In conflict, it’s the unknowns that often trip us up, and the last category – the things we don’t even realize we don’t know – that can be the most insidious. [Read more…]

Public Policy Mediation: Deliberating for Democracy

Late last year I ended my Mediation and Social Justice post with an example of a steering committee facilitation in Colorado Springs that’s integrating diverse community voices into decision-making processes regarding transportation issues. This facilitation falls into a category of mediation/ADR referred to as “public policy mediation.” Given the testy headlines we’ve all been reading since last year’s mid-term elections, and given that we get to inaugurate their effects after ringing in the new year, I wanted to elaborate on this category, and further discuss how mediation can be integrated into the policy making process.

What is Public Policy Mediation?

In their article in Dispute Resolution Magazine online, Howard Bellman and Susan Podziba give the following definition of public policy mediation:

“…a method for securing actionable agreements among a broad range of interested parties who participate as negotiators, often on behalf of constituencies. It creates a forum for deliberative negotiations among government, representative stakeholders, and the general public.”

Public policy mediation creates the opportunity to integrate many perspectives and areas of expertise, and facilitates a process through which consensus can be established where at first glance it looks untenable. [Read more…]

Mediation vs. Justice? : Social Justice through Process

For many of us, mediation or ADR represents a method that transcends more painful forms of communication that can arise in conflict – disrespectful or ineffective communication, the prolonged frustrations of the traditional justice system, or even violence. It’s a method to turn to that allows us to work towards our goals with the help of a third party, when we are struggling to feel comfortable communicating with the other disputant. But mediation is not always seen through this positive lens. Since the field of mediation and ADR began to grow and become popular, there have been debates about its relationship to justice. While the goal of mediation is often to move both parties in the direction of an acceptable solution, some have argued that by giving all parties an equal voice at the table, mediation can pacify, dampen, and privatize deep grievances that need to be addressed through more traditional, adversarial forms of justice such as court procedures and, if necessary, political redress. This is a terribly important question for mediators and ADR practitioners to consider – but there is more than one way to consider it.

 Justice vs. Settlement

In 1984 Owen Fiss, law professor at Yale, published a controversial essay titled Against Settlement, and sent ripples through the fast growing field of ADR. Fiss argued that ADR overly emphasizes settlement and peace in the place of justice, and that by assuming a rough equality between the parties involved in a bargaining process ADR masks real power imbalances. He posited that despite all critiques a more overtly contested process, such as the traditional court system, provides a more just and socially beneficial outcome.

Fiss’ intervention was an important one, and there is still significant support for his arguments today, despite the growth and continuing maturation of the ADR field. For a great response to the “gap” problem between mediation and justice, I suggest reading through Charlie Irvine’s post on Mediate.com.

However, this configuration also sets up a dichotomy that we can challenge. Justice is not simply a matter of chasing an idealized outcome. Often crippling injustices occur throughout such a pursuit, and mediation can play a very important role in achieving social justice through process. [Read more…]

What’s Your Style? Insights on Conflict Styles

In my last post I emphasized the effect that structural and normative context can have on conflict. Context is absolutely paramount, but even in similar scenarios, individuals involved in a conflict scenario will have differing responses and behavioral tendencies. Think about your family, friends, or co-workers: who leaps into conflict with force and passion? Who takes on a mediative role? Who avoids conflict altogether?  Now think about your own tendencies in conflict.

This post is about different conflict styles, and how awareness of them can help you better understand yourself and others in conflict.

Conflict Styles

While conflict styles have been widely studied, the most commonly used classification schema was developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. In Thomas and Kilmann’s configuration, there are five styles: competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. They map the styles on a two dimensional graph, with “Assertiveness (concern for self)” running along the y-axis, and “Cooperation (concern for others)” running along the x-axis.  Each style embodies different strengths and weaknesses in conflict.

[Read more…]

Intractable Conflicts in Society: It’s not just you and me, here

Much of my work and writing focuses, naturally, on conflict transformation or resolution, emphasizing strategies that take parties at odds into a constructive process. However, when we hear about conflict in society, or read about it in the newspapers, it often sounds far beyond the reach of a mediator’s typical toolbox. What are the differences at play? This post is about acknowledging and understanding social conflicts that come to be understood as intractable. 

Social Conflicts and Intractability

The concept of intractability is, itself, controversial. Some people in the conflict resolution community feel it is simply too negative, designating some conflicts as impossible and thus discouraging people from investing in the hard work of transformation. However, there is wide consensus, as Guy and Heidi Burgess describe on the resource page Beyond Intractability, that certain conflicts present themselves as particularly entrenched and challenging. They offer a descriptive list that expands on the meaning of intractability, including adjectives such as protracted, destructive, deep-rooted, grid-locked, identity-based, complex, and malignant. Examples today abound around us, unfortunately, from political issues in the United States such as abortion or race relations, to long-running international conflicts such as the Israel/Palestine gridlock. The recent flares in Ukraine constitute a prominent escalation of potentially intractable conflict. [Read more…]

Frameworks for Analyzing Conflict: Cognition, Emotion, Behavior


It’s finally spring and soon the trees will be covered with new leaves. This month’s feature article discusses the importance of frameworks for analyzing and understanding conflict. Like a tree’s trunk and branches, frameworks give conflict structure and enhance our understanding of the human response to conflict.

Check out our new blog and submit a question about conflict or dispute resolution and we’ll feature it in our next post. Become part of the dialogue!

Frameworks for Analyzing Conflict

Frameworks help analyze conflict and the deeper our understanding of conflict the greater our ability to handle it effectively. Like the steel girders in a skyscraper, a framework, helps conflict have shape. How we see conflict will impact our attitude and approach to it. One framework for analyzing conflict, developed by Bernard Mayer, a well-known practitioner, author of several dispute resolution books, and one of my early trainers, is the three dimensions of cognition, behavior and emotion.

[Read more…]

Stress Causes Conflict that Masks the Core Issue

While the holiday season is generally thought of as a happy time of year it can be stressful for many people.  Just getting ready for the holidays and visitors is stressful.  I found myself getting very angry at someone who was helping me over the phone recently and I realized that the source of the conflict was stress and worry about a family member. It had nothing to do with the telephone transaction. It was an example of displaced conflict.

Stress and Conflict

Hyperstress  happens when too many tasks and responsibilities pile up and we are unable to adapt or cope with these changes.  In hyperstress the source is identifiable, such as too many competing deadlines at work and home.  Hyperstress causes physical and chemical reactions in the body.  If the stress is not alleviated exhaustion sets in.   So at this time of year many people experience hyperstress.

Someone who is in a state of hyperstress may cause a conflict to occur that is really not about the core issue.   For example they may be upset and worried about a sick friend or parent. When they’re in hyperstress they unknowingly take this anxiety out on the clerk in the convenience store who is slow at the cash register.

There are three types of such conflicts: [Read more…]

Handling Chronic Complainers: The Whiner at Work

I spoke last week about managing conflict at the annual meeting of a national non-profit.  One gentlemen asked me,  “How do you handle the whiners?”

In order to figure out the best approach for handling the whiner you need to  analyze and diagnose the conflict.   What is the source of the conflict? There may be multiple conflict sources  that are causing the problem.   In the case of someone who is a constant complainer the source of conflict might be any of the following:  emotions, poor or failed  communication,  unmet  or incompatible needs or negative patterns of behavior.

Emotion as the conflict source

When emotions are an issue it is important to acknowledge feelings and recognize the emotions.  Many leaders are uncomfortable doing this but it is very important.   If people feel heard and acknowledged it takes the sting out of many painful conflicts.  [Read more…]

A Process View of Conflict: Can Conflict be Constructive?

In addition to the mediation, facilitation and training work our firm does, I am an adjunct professor at University of Maryland University College and at Catholic University of America’s graduate program in Human Resource Management. Teaching and consequently learning the theory of conflict enriches my practice. So I thought I’d share some nuggets of theory with my readers followed by some practical tips.


A process view of conflict means that conflict is not just a discrete interaction; rather, it is a series of stages with distinct characteristics. A process is dynamic, ongoing and continuous and changes over time. Similarly, communication is a process even though it comes so natural to us that we don’t think about it that way. But any interchange with another human being is a process. When we fail to look at another person’s point of view and assume our frame of reference is the only correct one we are not taking a process view of conflict. [Read more…]

Organizational conflict

Happy New Year and welcome to the inaugural edition of our newsletter. Every month we will feature a lead article, information about alternative dispute resolution, conflict resolution events in the community and other helpful resources for mediators and professionals interested in consensus building processes.

In order to better serve our readers we have designed a survey so that this newsletter is of the highest value. See the link below. We look forward to hearing your response.

The beginning of a new year is a good time to look at what systems you have in place in your organization for handling conflict when it occurs. This is a field called dispute system design which combines principals of organizational development and conflict resolution.

You might say, “We don’t have any conflict.” While that is certainly possible, conflict is a naturally occurring phenomenon and occurs in most healthy systems. Conflict is defined as an incompatibility in interests, needs or goals. The productive resolution of conflict produces change and growth that help people and organizations move ahead. [Read more…]