The process of defusing antagonism and reaching agreement between conflicting parties, especially through some form of negotiation. Also, the study and practice of solving interpersonal and inter-group conflict.
"Conflict" from the Latin root "to strike together" can be defined as any situation where incompatible activities, feelings, or intentions occur together. Conflict may take place within one person, between two or more people who know each other, or between large groups of people who do not know each other. It may involve actual confrontation between persons, or merely symbolic confrontation through words and deeds. The conflict may be expressed through verbal denigration, accusations, threats, or through physical violence to persons or property. Or the conflict may remain unexpressed, as in avoidance and denial.
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 from it. The issues of the conflict may be varied, ranging from the simple to the complex. 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 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, like the trial and indictment of a person 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 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 people's relationships or escalates into violence, methods of conflict resolution were developed in business management and gradually adopted in the fields of international relations, legal settings, and, during the 1980s, educational settings. Conflict resolution in education includes any strategy that promotes handling disputes 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 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 Boards study, 61% of schools had some form of conflict resolution program.
Most conflict resolution programs employ some form of negotiation as the primary method of communication between parties. In the negotiation process, parties with opposing interests hold conversations to settle a dispute. 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 discover solutions that embody mutual self-interest (win-win). Research on games theory and the decision making process suggest that the face-to-face conversation involved 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. Certainly the simple act of talking with the opposition sends a message that the parties are committed to positive resolution, and face-to-face negotiation inherently tends to be integrative in its consequences.
The success of a given instance of conflict resolution depends on the attitudes and skills of the disputants and of the mediator or arbitrator. In the workplace, for example, two people may have different ideas about how to accomplish a project. If one person decides to begin the project without the input of the other person, this person's attitude has already jeopardized the conflict resolution process. It is the mediator's role to clearly lay out the issues of the conflict and to help the disputants arrive at the appropriate response to the conflict. There are several responses to a conflict: with drawing 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 highest level, leading to a consensual settlement of negotiations. 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.
Girard, K. and S. Koch. Conflict Resolution in the Schools: A Manual for Educators. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.,1996.
Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution (IMCR). Automation House, 4th Floor, 49 East 68th St., New York, NY 10021.
National Institute for Dispute Resolution. 1726 M Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 466–4764.
Conflict Resolution in Early New England
Conflict Resolution in Early New England
Methods. Legal systems serve as formal ways to resolve conflicts in communities. But going to court is not the only way to resolve a conflict. Indeed, one reason that the colonial legal systems remained fairly simple in the 1600s was that they did not grow until the society was large enough and faced conflicts that required formal processes. Most disagreements between human beings are settled directly, but some conflicts prove harder to resolve, so all communities develop mechanisms of conflict resolution that extend beyond the individual. Colonial New England had three such venues: the town, the church, and the courts.
Well-Ordered Communities. Many of the early New England settlements were dominated by Puritans, who showed much concern for well-ordered communities. They often viewed their churches as bound by covenants with God, and they saw their communities this way as well. The maintenance of order was very important to them, not only to promote security but also because they believed it to be their religious duty. Yet they knew from experience that the good intentions of people do not necessarily promote order, and so they accepted governmental and legal systems as necessary for the survival of the community.
Towns. When colonists were given permission by the colony’s government to settle a new area, it was to create a town with farms around it. The town then became the focal point of local government, and through the local government and the annual town meetings that developed, the community could establish standards of behavior, control land development in the area, and resolve disputes that divided settlers.
Church. Townspeople often were church members, and the church actively addressed disputes among its
members and not infrequently took disciplinary action against members whose behavior was found unacceptable. The Bible, in which they passionately believed, taught them to resolve their differences with one another individually, and if that did not work, to take two or three other people along to assist. If that still did not produce satisfaction, the offended party was admonished to take the issue to the church.
Limits. But while the town and the church served as principal ways of regulating the community, by themselves they were not adequate. Town meetings might pass regulations to define the limits of acceptable behavior, but they did not meet frequently enough to enforce their decisions. The church could regulate disputes among its willing members, but its power was limited to those who would cooperate. As much as these people believed in their government and their churches, it took courts to fill the gap in conflict resolution.
Courts. The Puritans understood the need for a court system to settle disputes that could not be resolved through informal mechanisms. The complexity of land ownership and owners’ rights made the courts indispensable to maintaining order within a few years of settlement. There was too much room for misunderstanding, and the stakes were too high to rely on oral agreements in these matters.
Gradual Independence. Early on, the courts reflected the values of the church to a strong degree. But by the 1660s the courts began to diverge a bit. The church’s influence on the community was not as strong as it had been around the time of the founding of the early New England colonies in the 1630s. As a result the courts sometimes acted not in the interests of the church but instead to protect individuals from the church.
David Thomas Konig, Law and Society in Puritan Massachusetts: Essex County, 1629-1692 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).