Kelman, Herbert, "Interactive Problem-Solving: A Social-Psychological Approach to Conflict Resolution."

Conflict: Reading in Management and Resolution. Ed. John Burton and Frank Duke. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990. Pp. 199-215.

Summary by Mariya Yevsyukova

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


The type of international mediation that the author works in is characterized by an emphasis on interaction between the parties. The goal is not to offer solutions, but to facilitate communication between the opponents and for them to come up with their own ways of resolving their problems. Even if direct communication between them is not possible, the author as a third party tries to communicate the views and concerns of the other party and to encourage direct negotiation.

This model differs from the traditional "strategic or 'realist' approaches" in three ways (p. 200): (1) it condemns the use of threats in influencing the conflict development and considers positive incentives to be a better way of moving the conflict toward resolution; (2) it views conflict resolution in much broader terms than just achieving an agreement: it is a process that changes parties perceptions about each other in a way that reconciles them and transform their relationships; (3) it examines the history of conflict escalation and suggests ways of interaction that can reverse this dynamic. The primary goal is not just establishing interaction, but creating the conditions for mutual conflict analysis and recognition, as well as joint problem-solving. The model has the purpose of transforming social systems by influencing the attitudes of respected opinion makers. Its two major aspects (learning and transferring new ideas to the arena of political decision-making) require different conditions. This creates tension between them and makes the model a dialectical process.

Another important feature of the process that the author engaged in is combining of action and research. Kelman sums up the key ideas of this action research program on conflict resolution in the following way: "it assigns a central role to an interactional, problem-solving process in its model of intervention; it is designed to produce changes in attitudes and perceptions and to generate creative new ideas among influential individuals on the two sides of the conflict, in ways that would maximize direct impact on official policy; and it utilizes social scientists in a special third-party role, based on an integral relationship between action and research" (p. 202). The emphasis of the model on social-psychological factors of conflicts does not undermine the political aspects of them. Conflict involves both realistic issues of incompatible interests and psychological issues of distrust and stereotyping. The latter ones play the major role in conflict escalation. Overcoming psychological barriers creates necessary conditions for negotiations at the political level.

Next the author proceeds to a description of problem-solving workshops. These workshops are based on the theoretical approach described above. They have two interrelated purposes: to create change in the parties themselves, and through this change influence the conflict development toward de-escalation. The parties are brought together in an environment free from political pressure, usually an academic setting, where they can directly talk to each other with the help of social scientists who are skilled in group facilitation and conflict management. The participants can be divided into three categories: "pre-influentials" or young scholars (their participation makes the educational aspect of the workshops more important); "political influentials" or well-known intellectuals (they can influence political decision making and bring new knowledge in conflict analysis); and political actors (at this level the political or transferring aspect of the process prevails). The author believes that the best participants are those who are influential figures but not themselves policy makers. This represents the best combination for the dialectical model of the workshops. During the workshop the parties are free from the pressure of sustaining their political positions and are able to get involved in the process of mutual sharing and learning. The process starts with an analysis of the conflict and each others' perceptions and attitudes. Parties communicate their needs and fears. Then it proceeds to problem-solving and the discussion of the barriers in the way of conflict resolution and ways of overcoming them.

The functions of the third party can be described as follows. The third party conducts individual meetings with the parties prior to a joint meeting. The facilitators establish ground rules of communication that reduce possible accusatory interactions. The academic context of the meeting supports the analytical atmosphere. Trust in the third party ensures the opponents that their interests and feelings will be respected and protected. The facilitators encourage constructive interactions between the parties and sometimes share their theoretical knowledge, content and process observations with the participants. The author provides examples of incidents that took place during the workshops that illustrate the possible ways that third party intervention can promote a discussion of each side's values and beliefs and other issues that play a major role in conflict dynamics. The author notices that facilitators who actually have some interest in the conflict (a team of Arab and Jewish Americans) make a better intervention team than those who are indifferent to the issues discussed. Facilitators are also committed to peaceful solutions that would satisfy the basic needs of the parties and promote their reconciliation. Thus, their actions are based on a political position.

Workshops provide an opportunity for learning. The author describes several types of learning: (1) the participants learn that they can talk to each other; (2) they learn about each others' needs, beliefs and values; (3) they learn about transformations that have occurred within their opponents, and possible ways for further transformations; (4) they learn about importance of symbolic acts in de-escalating the conflict. Problem-solving workshops do not replace diplomatic efforts, rather they develop supporting conditions for political negotiations. They offer the parties a forum for negotiations if they want to talk but are not ready to go ahead with it in a political arena; they give the parties a chance to work out some solutions that can later be incorporated into the official negotiation process. Workshops have something to offer to the political negotiation process on all its levels. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the workshops currently help the people working toward peaceful conflict resolution to cooperate and find ways to assist each other in their struggles with internal opponents.