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 […]

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 […]

In the highly-charged atmosphere of our current political season, is more fighting really what we need? Senator Elizabeth Warren evidently thinks so. Here is a portion of Senator Warren’s comments on the Rachel Maddow show last night, when Warren explained why she is endorsing Hillary Clinton for President:  Hillary Clinton won . . . because she’s a fighter . . . . And I think this is what we need. . .  As a Democrat, one of the things that frustrates me the most is there are a lot of times we just don’t get in the fight. We ask pretty please if we can have things or we make the argument for why it is the best thing to do, […]