Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Mediators tend to believe practically every conflict can be resolved through negotiation, and that settlement is almost always better than the alternatives of continued conflict or an adversarial form of conflict resolution like trial. Mediators like to quote Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to discourage litigation and persuade neighbors to compromise, because lawyers do the most good as peacemakers. But Lincoln went on as president to wage war as fiercely as the country had ever seen. Did he forget his own advice to try to reach a negotiated resolution of conflict? Or was he compelled by circumstances to fight, offering the other side only the option of surrender? My prior post about hostage-taking brings to mind situations where it is impossible, or […]

The most high profile negotiations in the world this weekend took place in Geneva, where the U.S. and Russia announced agreement on a framework for the surrender of chemical weapons by the government of Syria. Apparently discussion of this issue has going on for a long time. The idea of disarmament by the government of Syria did not simply arise in response to its recent chemical weapons attack. We might therefore try to analyze this agreement using modern principles of interest-based bargaining. Syria and Russia have an interest in resolving a terrible civil war (they are hoping to resolve it in favor of the government of Syria). They also have an interest in trade and decent relations with other countries in […]

On July 13, 1776, Lord Howe, who had just led the largest armada ever to have crossed the Atlantic, and whose troops were encamped on Staten Island, getting ready to crush the American rebellion, attempted to deliver a letter to George Washington. The letter proposed negotiations with a view to preventing bloodshed and restoring peace between Britain and the American colonies. But according to the account in Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph Ellis, the letter could not be delivered. Howe’s emissaries attempted to give it to General Washington’s representative, Joseph Reed, a lawyer from Philadelphia, in a meeting of rowboats in the harbor between the two gathering armies. But Reed refused to accept the letter because it was addressed to George […]

Empathy is an essential tool in mediation, both for the mediator and hopefully a quality the participants develop as well. Mediators recognize, unless we want to act purely as evaluators (and even then the capacity for empathy is still important), that we need to try to empathize with the needs and feelings of both sides in every case, to build trust and encourage understanding.  But sometimes the actions of parties to a dispute seem so foreign or even repugnant to our own values that we find it difficult to empathize. And when we can’t empathize, we tend to distance ourselves and condemn. Are there limits to the capacity to empathize? Are there actions so beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior that […]

Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday considers what we in modern societies can learn from the few remaining traditional societies. Most of his examples come from New Guinea, where Diamond has spent a lot of time over many years. Diamond doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing traditional societies. He reminds us that as horrific as modern warfare can be among “civilized” nations, at least people in the developed world can, for the most part, travel unobstructed almost everywhere without fear of attack by enemies. That is not the case in many tribal cultures, where people live very circumscribed lives, often unable to travel outside their clan’s territory, otherwise they are likely to be killed by members of […]