Analytical Problem Solving

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Analytical problem solving is a social-psychological approach to dealing with deep-rooted, protracted intergroup and international conflicts. Initially developed by Herbert Kelman and John Burton, this technique is based on the human needs theory of conflict, which says that most deep-rooted conflicts are caused by one or more person's or group's inability to obtain its fundamental human needs--for instance, identity, security, or recognition. ''] By identifying the underlying needs that are lacking, parties are often able to redefine the conflict in a way that facilitates joint problem solving and collaboration, when such was impossible before. (This is especially true when conflicts are defined in terms of mutually exclusive interests.) Unlike interests, needs are usually mutually-reinforcing. rather than mutually exclusive.

Although the term "problem solving" makes the approach sound similar to the settlement-oriented approach to mediation, the approach is actually more closely aligned with the transformative approach to conflict. For instance, a great deal of emphasis is put on identifying and examining each parties' perspective on the problem, including the parties' values, interests, prejudices, hopes, fears, and needs. As with transformative mediation, emotions are not avoided, but are dealt with directly. Much emphasis is put on mutual recognition of the needs of the other party and empowerment of the parties to approach their mutual problem in new ways.

Although the ultimate goal is resolving the conflict, in almost all of the cases in which this approach has been used, the workshops have focused on a much shorter-term goal of increasing mutual understanding and respect. Many workshops have been held, for instance, between Israelis and Palestinians. These workshops helped lay the groundwork for the Oslo accords, and have continued since Oslo in efforts to facilitate the agreement's implementation. However, in that situation, as most others like it, obtaining true resolution and a complete peace is a very slow process. Increasing mutual understanding and interpersonal (rather than intersocietal) trust is the short term goal which is being achieved by this workshop process.


Interests, Needs, and Values

Interests, needs, and values are three concepts that underlie most conflicts, yet are often confused. The term "interests" is generally used to refer to the things people want in a conflict. They are often, though not necessarily, material. They are generally negotiable--people are willing to trade more or less of one interest for more or less of another. Yet conflicts are often defined in terms of incompatible interests. It is assumed that there is only so much of something (money, land, jobs, etc.) and the more one person or group gets, the less the other side gets. Thus, framing conflicts in terms of interests often yields a "zero sum" or "win-lose" situation.

Needs, on the other hand, are also things people want in a conflict. However, they are usually not material things, but intangible things such as security, identity, and recognition. According to John Burton, one of the leading human needs theorists, the "reflect universal motivations. They are an integral part of the human being." Needs differ from interests in several important ways. First, they are non-negotiable. People will not trade away their identity or their security. Identity and security are so fundamental, so necessary to all human satisfaction, that people will do almost anything, even things that violate fundamental norms, or diminish their ability to attain their interests, in an effort to obtain their fundamental needs. A second difference is that needs are usually not mutually exclusive. While interests may be structured in such a way that only one side can get what it wants, needs are usually mutually supporting. Insecurity tends to breed aggression against others; security allows one to leave others alone. Similarly, if one's own identity is secure, then there is no need to threaten another's sense of identity. If a group's identity is denied, however, it is likely to respond by asserting its identity against that of the opposing group(s).

Values are also fundamental beliefs that are non-negotiable. Values are the "ideas, habits, customs and beliefs that are a characteristic of particular social communities." (Burton, Conflict: Resolution and Provention, p. 37.) Values determine how we understand the world and how we respond to it. As with needs, if one's values are questioned or threatened, one is likely to respond strongly to defend one's values.

Since values and needs are non-negotiable, these concepts are not dealt with as often in settlement-oriented forms of dispute resolution, which tend to focus much more on interests. Transformative forms of dispute resolution, however, tend to deal with values and needs much more extensively, believing that having an understanding of those issues must preceded any work on interest negotiation.

[1] Here recognition generally refers to something one gets, but it links to Bush and Folger's definition of recognition because it cannot be received if it is not given.


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For More Information: Contact: Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Campus Box 327, Boulder, Colorado, 80309-0327, E-mail: Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303)492-2154.

Copyright 1997 by Conflict Research Consortium