Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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In my sometimes over-simplified way of looking at negotiated agreements, I have argued that the most useful way to evaluate a potential deal is to compare it to alternatives that are actually available. Do not compare it to the deal that you think your side is entitled to, but instead compare it to whatever is likely to happen if you don’t make a deal. When nations are considering entering into peace treaties or trade agreements, for example, it’s generally not helpful to evaluate their benefits by comparing them to the best agreement your side might want. Instead look at whether the deal on the table is a better alternative than not making any deal at all. The same with settlements of […]

I had a chance at the SXSW Interactive Conference this week, to attend an introductory session on how the principles of the martial art of Aikido can be applied to resolving workplace and other conflicts. The presenters used the symbols of sword, shield and withdrawal to illustrate three basic ways of initiating or responding to conflict. For example, someone pushing toward your center can be met with a counter-thrust, or a block, or by running away. When we practiced learning how to recognize these attacks and responses, it almost felt like a game of rock-paper-scissors. Our choices might be dictated by our own instinctive approaches to conflict, or by our perceptions of what would work best against our opponent. Aikido […]

You want to know about us? The kind of people you can trust, that’s us. Reputable people. About them, they are the ones who caused the problem, not us. The thing about us, is that we’re right. We did nothing wrong. OK, maybe we made a few mistakes, and the biggest mistake we made was probably getting involved with them. But for the most part, we’re right. As for them, they betrayed our trust. They took advantage of us. They cheated us. We don’t want anything to do with them any more. We just want them to admit they were wrong, pay us back, and leave us alone. But even if they did that, how could we trust them? They’ll […]

Yesterday, President Trump had a contentious call with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia, in which he questioned a deal made by the Obama administration for the United States to accept a number of refugees currently held in detention by Australia, indicating we might not honor it. Other government officials spent the day trying to smooth over the disruptive and aggressive conduct of our new president. What is ironic is that Australia has long had a much tougher and more racist immigration policy than the US. We detain people claiming refugee status until their cases are determined, but Australia refuses to allow even people who have been deemed refugees to set foot on the mainland, so they remain in deplorable conditions […]

When you look at the literature on negotiating, you tend to find (at least) two schools of thought. One, exemplified by Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes and its progeny, is a “win-win” approach that emphasizes communication and exploration of parties’ underlying interests. The other is more of a “win-lose” philosophy that emphasizes getting the upper hand in negotiations and gaining profits for one side at the expense of the other. Some have labeled these as “soft” or “hard” approaches to negotiation. Before trying to evaluate which approach to negotiation has more validity, I should note that there is some overlap between the two camps. An interest-based bargainer might say that being mindful of the other side’s interests does not […]

How do we know whether those with whom we are dealing have hostile intentions? How do we establish communication with them? How do we develop trust? The new science fiction movie Arrival addresses these common problems in conflict resolution. Confronted by forces that appear new and dangerous, our human instincts urge us to fight or flight. Those instincts may also lead us to interpret ambiguous gestures in a threatening way. We face these challenges even when we are dealing with people we know who are speaking our language. Imagine being confronted by an alien race that communicates with symbols we have no key to interpret. The movie nicely illustrates the linguistic complexities involved in asking a simple question like, “What is […]