CHARACTERISTICS OF MORE CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACHES TO INTRACTABLE CONFLICT

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by

Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D. -- Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium

Copyright 1996 by Conflict Research Consortium


With the information collected through the knowledge base projects, we have reached certain conclusions about the nature of intractable conflict. These conclusions have, in turn, led us to identify a number of principles which the Consortium is following in its efforts to find better ways of dealing with intractable conflicts:

The Incremental Approach

Completely reworking the process through which society addresses intractable issues is rarely a realistic option. Given the enormous stakes involved in such conflicts, it is virtually impossible to get full agreement to adopt a new approach. We believe that a more realistic approach is an incremental one, which concentrates on identifying particular problems and implementing precisely-focused initiatives to correct them. This incremental approach will not solve all problems or resolve intractable conflicts permanently, but it can make resolution resistant conflicts more constructive than they would otherwise be.

Avoid One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

Our work clearly indicates that a successful constructive confrontation program must offer a wide range of options, each tailored to the specific conflict, the stage of the dispute process, the special needs of adversaries, intermediaries, and bystanders, and differing cultural backgrounds and personal priorities. Solutions which can be implemented unilaterally are needed, as are those dependent on collaborative action and third-party intervenors. For this reason, we are not pursuing a single approach for use in all conflict situations. Rather, we focus on a framework for looking at a conflict, then designing specific strategies for dealing with unique combinations of problems and opportunities.

Consider Long- and Short-Term Measures of Success

The Consortium is looking at intractable conflict from both long-term and short-term perspectives. Over the long term, the parties need to understand that the underlying conflict (between the rich and the poor, for example) will generate a continuing series of disputes. Thus, the underlying conflict will not be resolved with the short-term settlement of a single dispute episode. Thus, parties need to plan strategies which deal constructively with both the immediate dispute and inevitable subsequent disputes. They should not use excessive force or unnecessarily destructive tactics, thinking they can win "once and for all," because they are likely to generate a backlash that is strong enough to reverse their short-term gains.

Recognize That Confrontation Is Largely a Part-Time, Do-It-Yourself Process

Professional conflict intervention is expensive. Only a small number of the confrontations that any society faces can be facilitated by conflict professionals. Most must be handled by the parties themselves. For these people, confrontation or conflict resolution is only a part-time, do-it-yourself activity. Without effective training, they are likely to employ "seat-of-the-pants" conflict resolution and confrontation skills, without benefiting from the considerable insights of the conflict resolution field. The Consortium is looking for quick, easy, and inexpensive ways of disseminating the field's knowledge to these individuals so they don't have to "reinvent the wheel."

Everyone Has a Role to Play in Producing More Constructive Confrontations

Increasing the constructiveness of society's most difficult confrontations is not just the job of professional intermediaries or even the principal parties. Virtually everyone has an important role to play in this effort. The media, law enforcement officers, decision makers, religious leaders, politicians, business leaders, and the general public all influence the way intractable conflicts are played out. For this reason, better confrontation strategies are needed for implementation by all of these people.

Recognize the Existence of Unavoidable Win-Lose Conflict

Persons working to limit destructive confrontations need to recognize that many underlying issues are likely to have an unavoidable win-lose character. Such unavoidable win-lose conflicts are of three principal types: 1) fundamental moral conflicts in which one group views the actions of another as intolerably evil, 2) high-stakes distributional questions over "who gets what," and 3) social status or domination conflicts which arise when individuals or groups compete for preferred positions in the social hierarchy.

Recognize That Win-Win Opportunities Still Exist Within Intractable Conflicts

Within the context of win-lose conflict, there will likely be numerous sub-issues and disputes which offer the parties win-win opportunities. One Consortium goal is to help parties understand how to identify and pursue these opportunities, even while they continue to struggle with underlying win-lose issues.

Recognize the Limits to Agreement-Based Approaches

Given the importance parties attach to high-stakes conflicts over intractable issues, it is unrealistic to expect them to voluntarily accept an agreement if they believe that their interests can be better advanced through some power-based strategy (eg. litigation, lobbying, elections, strikes, boycotts, non-violent protests, or military campaigns). Efforts to deal with intractable conflicts more constructively must recognize and work within existing power relationships.

Directly Address Issues of Justice

Any modifications to confrontation processes are likely to alter the outcome of individual disputes in significant ways. Therefore, it is imperative that any changes which the Consortium might propose be explicitly evaluated to make sure that they genuinely advance the cause of "justice." Since justice means different things to different people, this evaluation process must seek common principles that bind diverse communities together.

Address the Empowerment/Neutrality Problem

Some steps toward increasing the constructiveness of the confrontation process can best be taken by neutral third parties. There are other steps, however, which we believe can be better taken from an advocacy perspective. The empowerment of disempowered groups is one example. Although neutral intervenors (such as mediators) often try to empower the lower-power parties, they cannot do much empowerment without compromising their neutrality. For this reason, it is often useful to create separate roles of neutral intervenor and advocacy advisor, so the latter can more freely work on empowerment issues and the former can remain truly neutral.

Present Ideas from a First-Party/Advocacy Perspective

The adversary groups, which are the driving force behind intractable conflict, are not interested in resolving conflicts for the sake of resolution. They are interested in advancing their interests. Conflict professionals (neutrals or advocacy advisors) must, therefore, be able to show them how a more sophisticated understanding of conflict processes can help them advance their interests. Without this, we should not expect them to follow our suggestions.