Conflict Research Consortium
University of Colorado, USA


Morton Deutsch, "Constructive Conflict Resolution: Principles, Training, and Research," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 199-216.

Morton Deutsch offers an overview of the factors which influence conflicts toward productive or destructive outcomes. Deutsch opens by identifying four propositions which are generally accepted across the field of conflict studies. First, parties to conflicts usually have a mixture of cooperative and competitive motives. Second, conflict may be positive and productive, or negative and destructive. The goal is to make conflicts productive, not to eliminate all conflict. Third, cooperative or competitive interests each yield different processes of conflict resolution. And fourth, Deutsch explains, "the relative strengths of the cooperative and competitive process within the conflicting parties, and how they vary during the course of a conflict, will be major determinants of the nature of the conflict process and of whether the outcomes of the conflict are likely to be constructive or destructive for the conflicting parties."(p. 199)

Conflicts' Courses

From his own researches, Deutsch has derives this principle of social relationships: "the characteristic processes and effects elicited b a given type of social relationship (e.g., cooperative or competitive) also tend to elicit that type of social relationship"(p. 200) There are a variety of attitudes regarding one's self and others that an individual may, theoretically, take. In practice however only reciprocal relations are stable. In reciprocal relations both parties have similar types of attitudes. Non-reciprocal relations tend to shift toward reciprocal competition. Competitive relations are more likely to destructive forms of conflict, while cooperative relations support productive forms of conflict.

There are a number of factors which influence a conflict toward constructive or destructive resolution. One factor is the personalities of the parties involved. Earlier theorists tended to see social behavior as the result of relatively stable personality traits. Currently theorists recognize that social situations and psychological dispositions are reciprocally influencing. The current view accepts five basic theses. Individuals vary widely in the consistency of their social behaviors. Some situations allow for greater influence from individual traits, while other situations give very little room for the play of individual dispositions. Some situations actually evoke certain personality traits, while other s may be more neutral in their effects. Some situations encourage self-focusing dispositions more than others. People tend both to seek out situations which fit their existing dispositions, and to adapt their dispositions to fit the existing situation. Deutsch also notes that conflict situations sometimes meet the internal needs of parties, by, for instance, providing a distraction from other problems, or providing an outlet for hostility or a means for (unconsciously) projecting their own flaws onto another.

Another factor influencing the course of a conflict is the nature of the issues involved. Issues which are perceived in win-lose or zero-sum terms shape conflicts towards more destructive processes. Conflicts become more destructive when parties rigidly lock themselves into narrow positions. Size is also a factor. Large conflicts are more likely to be destructive than small ones. Deutsch explains that "conflict size may be defined as being equal to the expected difference in the value of the outcomes that a party will receive if it wins compared with the value it will receive if the other wins the conflict."(p. 204) Conflicts over large substantive issues or basic principles tend to be large. Conflicts which set significant or far-reaching precedents, or which effect the parties power or self-esteem, are large. One way to discourage destructive conflict is to define the conflict in ways that minimize the issues involved.

The context in which a conflict occurs affects its progress. Cultural differences between the parties may increase misunderstandings and miscommunication. In-group ethnocentrism, common in all groups, can lead to negative views of others, and to prejudice and stereotypes. Ethnocentric bias consistently shapes moral assessments of one's own group (as good), and the other (as bad). Behavior which would be unacceptable toward a fellow group member may be considered quite acceptable toward an outsider. Competition increases ethnocentrism. Cross-cutting social ties discourage ethnocentrism. Group relations tend to be reciprocal, and so ethnocentric prejudices may evoke prejudice in the other group. Differences between group tend to be perceived in the way that best maintains the group's positive self-evaluation. Low status groups may tend to minimize their differences from high status group, while high status groups will emphasize their differences from low status groups. Ethnocentrism may be reduced by successful cooperation toward superordinate goals, a normative context which supports positive group relations, extended personal contacts between equals from different groups, and education.

The last factor that Deutsch considers is escalation. Escalating and expanding conflicts are destructive. Deutsch's earlier research has identified nine factors that contribute to destructive escalation. These include a competitive orientation, a gamesmanship orientation, inner conflicts within the parties which are being expressed through external conflict, cognitive rigidity, misjudgments and misperceptions, self-fulfilling prophecies, vicious spirals, an anarchic social situation, and unwitting commitments. In an anarchic situation the rules and norms of social order are gone. Under such conditions mutual trust is not possible, and even "rational" choices are self-defeating. The Prisoner's Dilemma expresses such a situation. Participants to conflicts may become unwittingly committed to the behaviors and dispositions which they have developed in response to the conflict. "The conflict, then, is maintained and perpetuated by the commitments and investments given rise to by the malignant conflict process itself."(p. 208)

Skills for Constructive Conflict Resolution

There are four basic conflict resolution skill sets, useful to both participants in conflict and third parties. First are skills for establishing an effective, open, trusting working relationship between the parties, and any involved third parties. Second are skills for establishing a cooperative problem-solving approach to the conflict. Third are skills for developing effective group processes and decision-making processes. Fourth is substantive knowledge of the relevant issues.

Deutsch cautions that conflict resolution training must emphasize the practice of skills, not just the acquisition of knowledge, and that learning conflict resolution skills is different from learning other types of skills (physical skills, for instance). Everyone begins conflict resolution training with some prior experience of conflict. Students must begin by identifying their own preexisting attitudes toward conflict and its resolution. They must learn to solicit effective feedback about their practice. The exercise of conflict resolution skills requires sensitivity to the broader socio-cultural context in which they are being used.

And finally Deutsch notes that "the transfer of social skills from the training setting to real-life situations is more difficult" than, for example, the transfer of physical skills from practice to a real game.(p. 212) In some cases the broader social context may work against the choice to use one's conflict resolution skills. Exercising conflict resolution skills may brand one as weak or disloyal. And so the effective use of conflict resolution skills may require further skill at distancing one's self from the social context, and at changing the social context.

Further Research

Deutsch points out three areas that should receive further research. First, and most importantly he argues, research is needed to determine whether it is possible to develop a general model f conflict, applicable across different types and levels of conflict. Research should also be directed toward producing comparative assessments of various third-party interventions in conflicts. Researchers should also look into the effectiveness of conflict resolution training methods and programs.

Copyright 2000 Conflict Research Consortium

Conflict Research Consortium
Campus Box 580, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA 80309-0580
Phone: 303-492-1635; Fax: 303-499-0354; E-mail: