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Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral Resolution of Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


To all of our readers we would like to wish a bright beginning of summer! We hope that as you swim or stroll into the warm weather you will have some positive energy for envisioning new solutions and transforming any conflicts you might be confronting.

In this newsletter issue we take a look at what it means to “resolve” a conflict.

Dissecting Resolution: What was Resolved and What Sometimes Remains

It may initially seem like a simple notion to seek resolution to a conflict, but in doing so what are we truly seeking? What does resolution look like? Sound like? Feel like? In his book The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide,[1] Bernard Mayer discusses various dimensions of resolution, and how we might understand and work towards them.

“In the field of conflict resolution the usual assumption is that resolution is equivalent to agreement about particular issues underlying a dispute.”[2] To Mayer, however, this denotes only a very limited notion of resolution, he points out that “resolution and agreement are not the same.”[3]

True resolution is a process of letting go, actively choosing to move beyond conflict, and gaining through growth. It can be both liberating and challenging, releasing energies that were tied up in conflict for more positive endeavors, and throwing into question any meaning that a disputant might have derived from perpetuating the conflict.[4] To understand what we’re after in this complex process it’s important to acknowledge the multiple dimensions at play.

Cognitive Resolution

Cognitive resolution is about how a disputant views the conflict situation: whether they believe that the conflict has been resolved, or if they think the main issues have been addressed. It’s about deciding to be finished with a conflict and moving to another model of interaction such as cooperation or minimal involvement.

This can be the most difficult dimension of resolution, because people are often deeply attached to their beliefs and perceptions about a conflict, and cling to them for stability in the face of perceived threats. However, letting go and embracing alternatives to conflict can create space for profound changes and lasting resolution. The difficulty of working towards cognitive resolution can be highly rewarding in the end. Examples of conflict resolution activities that seek cognitive resolution are: truth commissions, victim offender mediation, ethnic reconciliation programs, and citizen diplomacy initiatives.

Achieving cognitive resolution generally doesn’t occur in isolation; most often it also requires progress on other dimensions of resolution.

Emotional Resolution

Emotional resolution is constituted by the feelings of disputants in regards to the conflict. “When people no longer experience the feelings associated with a conflict, or at least not as often or at as high a level of intensity as when they were fully engaged, then an important aspect of resolution has been reached.” [5]

This can be the most volatile dimension of resolution, as emotions often rapidly and repeatedly change and react. A disputant might feel emotionally stable and ready to move on, but closure can be disrupted by an event or interaction that rapidly brings back the emotional experience of the conflict. [6]

People deal with the emotional aspects of conflict differently. While some emphasize their feelings and responses as their main experience of conflict, others attempt to keep the emotional element suppressed. All approaches present different challenges, and will require different processing.

Often while a behavioral or cognitive agreement may have been achieved, emotional resolution can hang in the balance. Though disputants often need time and space to heal, it’s important to be mindful that this can also leave a conflict susceptible to reigniting.

Emotional resolution may seem to only address the individual experience of conflict, but it is also a feature of conflict systems. “Conflict systems are containers and transmitters of emotional energy. If a system is characterized by a high degree of emotionality, this may overwhelm the individuals involved, regardless of their personal feelings. Similarly, as a conflict system moves toward resolution, individuals who are still very emotionally involved may be carried along toward closure or their emotionality may be marginalized.” [7]

Processes of forgiveness and apology can be a major part of emotional resolution, depending on the nature of the conflict. Mayer tells us that, for closure, it is typically more essential to deliver an apology or forgive another disputant, rather than necessarily receive an apology or be forgiven.[8]

A final element that it is crucial to be aware of: “Often emotional resolution requires a period of escalation during which people experience a conflict more intensely.” [9] This insight can allow us to approach the process of emotional resolution with an awareness of what it might entail, leaving reactivity behind and opting for informed and mindful responses.

Behavioral Resolution

This is the type of resolution people most often envision: what people will or will not do, or what they agree upon. Mayer describes two aspects of behavioral resolution 1) discontinuing conflict behavior, and 2) promoting resolution.

Sometimes a conflict will only require the first element, but if there is any need for continued contact or collaboration it is likely both will be necessary to some degree. Many official dispute resolution agreements (such as international peace agreements) focus on the cessation of conflict, but fail to then draw disputants into the active portion of creating positive processes for moving forward.

It’s a Process

Full resolution is unlikely to take place unless there is progress along all three dimensions of resolution. However, knowing these three dimensions does not give anyone a universal formula for resolution. “Resolution occurs in stages, with setbacks, and in many unprecedented ways… In most circumstances, resolution is not a fixed end but a process.”[10] Resolution is complex and multidimensional, so we should seek it with this knowledge expecting not a destination, but a journey.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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