Conflict Research Consortium
University of Colorado, USA


"Clarifying Goals." Chapter Four in Interpersonal Conflict. Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot, 2nd ed. rev. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985), pp. 91-106.

In Chapter Four Hocker and Wilmot examine the place of goals in conflict. Incompatible goals are part of every conflict. Goals may also change over the course of a conflict. They argue that clarifying conflict goals is both an important first step toward conflict resolution, and a process that should continue throughout the conflict course. Transforming incompatible goals into collaborative goals is necessary for making conflicts productive. The authors describe the different types of goals, how goals change over time, and four tactics for building collaborative goals.

Productive conflict requires the parties to take "open responsibility for their goals. This occurs when you know what your goals are, can state them clearly to yourself, and can communicate them in a flexible manner with your conflict partners."(p. 92) Goal clarity is desirable for a number of reasons. First, lack of a clear goal makes it difficult to recognize adequate solutions. Clear goals can be explained to others and shared. It is also easier to change or revise clear goals, and to decide whether and how goals conflict. Parties will be more likely to reach their goals if those goals are clearly understood. Clear goals give a party a definite destination. In addition, a clear understanding of the other side's goals tends to limit conflict escalation. The authors note that "unclear goals often promote overreaction from the other party, who misjudges that nature of the conflict."(p. 93)

Goals change over the course of a conflict. Prospective goals are what the parties say they want before a conflict or situation starts. Parties can clarify their prospective goal by writing down the goal and by writing down what performances in what quantity and quality would satisfy the goal. Often prospective goals changed in light of the broader situation, available resources, other needs or other people's needs. Transactive goal development occurs when our goals change as a result of our interactions with others. The authors explain, "If you are a person who says, 'I don't know what I want until we get a chance to discuss it," you understand transactive goals."(p. 96) Goals continue to play a role even after conflicts are over. Retroactive explanations of goals help people make sense of a conflict after the fact, and so learn from it. Retroactive goal explanation also creates an opportunity to justify the conflict outcome and to save face.

The authors distinguish between content goals and relationship goals. All conflicts involve both sorts of goals. Relationship goals focus on issues such as what the parties' relationship means to them, how they should interpret each other's communication, their feelings and their level of interdependence. Content goals involve issue that can be separated from the parties' relationship. There is considerable interplay and outright confusion between these types of goals. Frustration at a blocked content goal may spill over into a relationship. The authors note the truism: "a repetitive conflict that goes over and over the same content issues is a relationship conflict masquerading as a content conflict."(p. 100) In addition, people may interpret issues differently. High power parties often prefer to focus conflicts on content issues, which require less personal investment and can be "won" without adjusting power. Low power parties may try to focus on relational issues as a power balancing strategy, since relationship conflicts require collaboration and power balancing.

Borrowing from Fisher and Ury, the authors suggest four principles for building collaborative goals. First, parties must separate people from the problem. Treat the other person as a valued ally, who you will work with to overcome the problem that confronts you both. Second, focus on interests rather than on positions. Arguing over differing positions can degenerate into a contest of wills, and overlooks other creative solutions. Interests allow for many possible positions, and may be compatible. Third, parties should generate a variety of options before deciding what to do. Pressure tends to reduce people's creativity. They are more likely to focus early on a single solution. Fourth, solutions should be evaluated based upon an objective standard. Parties should agree upon fair standards or procedures for evaluating possible solutions.

Finally, parties need action planning to specify and implement agreements. "All too often, conflict parties discover to their relief that they are not totally opposed to each other; they feel closer as a result of collaboration, but they fail to plan for how to make the agreement reached in the conflict management session happen."(p. 104) An action plan gives a specific, forward-looking statement of the agreement goal. It breaks down the agreement into a series of short term goals. The plan should include a timeline that specifies who will do what by when, what the desired effects are, and how the actions will be evaluated. Outdated goals may need to be revised as the plan or relationship progresses. All goals and plans should be developed in collaboratively. Commitment to their relationship and the collaborative process can help the parties transcend their disagreements and differences, and enhance their relationship. "When parties to conflicts are given the opportunity to work together by giving careful attention to clarifying goals, sharing power, trying alternate styles, and specifying what the conflict is and is not about, destructive conflicts subside."(p. 106).

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Conflict Research Consortium
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