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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Hinson

Why Conflict Resolution?

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

Hi there!



Welcome to the blog! This space is devoted to exploring the art of negotiating and the magic of conflict resolution from soup to nuts, from the smallest disputes to the biggest geopolitical conflicts.


To start, I want to provide some background on why I think the concepts involved in negotiating and resolving conflict are so interesting, critical, and broadly applicable. Ultimately, this blog can be relevant for anyone, regardless of your age, experience level, or profession. As I’ll get into more later, I hope to offer some negotiation tips, discuss some of the theory and practice of resolving disputes, and maybe even provide some examples of real conflicts being resolved and the lynchpins in each instance. But for now, here is a little insight into how I got interested in this field.


Begin at the Beginning


Although I used to practice law (and have also done stints in business, marketing, and politics), I now have a mediation practice. I also consult on negotiation strategies and conflict resolution, and, among my other charitable endeavors, I am working to make mediation more available and accessible to pro se parties in the Dallas area. I have arrived here professionally, however, as a result of an intellectual journey through both moral/political philosophy and psychology. Below, I will trace my own understanding of the field of conflict resolution from some first principles, talk about the character of conflict resolution in America and the role that it plays in the American psyche, and suggest that conflicts at all levels can largely be reduced to one framework and resolved with similar strategies.


What causes conflict?


At a very fundamental level, the cause of conflict is a scarcity of resources. Virtually every conflict can be reduced to the crude formulation: You have something that I want. In some instances, that something can be very tangible. You’re playing with the Hot Wheels car that I want to play with. Or, on a grander scale, your people live on an oil field or some other prized piece of land whose resources I want. Sometimes, though, the something that we desire may be more abstract. I want to have a good reputation and you’re maligning me. Or I want to be free from the threat of invasion or terrorism, but you’re acting too aggressively for my tastes. Or something like: I want recognition for my contribution to this marriage. But in every case of conflict that I can think of, there is some good – physical or abstract – that a person or a group wants to possess and, either through natural scarcity or because of another’s withholding, that person or group is unable to acquire the good.


How do we get what we want?


When thwarted in our desire to acquire that good, we are – at least in a state of nature – faced with two ways to solve our problem and get what we want rather than just walking away. The first is through force or violence: We simply take what we want and eliminate whatever gets in our way. The second is through words and persuasion: We attempt to use language and reason to convince our opponent to hand over or at least to share the resource. In general, we moderns view the use of unilateral force to get our way as, by and large, morally dubious and the use of persuasion as morally valid and preferable.


But, in fact, it’s not simply persuasion that we need to resolve a conflict in lieu of violence; rather, it’s negotiation. And negotiation is so much more than a substantively meritorious and well crafted argument. Negotiation is relationships. Negotiation is alternatives. Negotiation is credibility. Negotiation is PR. Negotiation is hard!


Negotiation really is an elaborate chess game where the strength of your arguments and the strength of the evidence supporting your arguments matter greatly but other things matter, too. Sometimes they matter more. And those “other things” tend to be psychological factors – whether it's the psychology of your opponent or your audience or even yourself.


What makes negotiation psychology hard?


In order to negotiate well, we have to be able to put ourselves into the shoes of our opponent to understand how to persuade him or to change his mind. This is, a priori, difficult because of the reality of subjective consciousness (you cannot read another person’s mind) and due to various psychological biases we hold that tend to render us bad at making assumptions about other people’s motivations. The quite obvious solution to this knowledge gap is simply to ask questions! However, we are often nervous to ask our opponents questions for fear of revealing our own interests and strategies and because we may not trust their answers. Open communication requires a level of vulnerability from which our conflict-aroused brains are quick to shield us. Fight or flight does not leave much bandwidth for nuanced conversation. Our brains and their natural heuristics (shortcuts) that help us process and navigate the millions of input signals that come in through our senses everyday can also sometimes be so unconsciously automatic that we don’t even realize what the right questions would be to ask.


To solve conflicts non-violently, then, requires opening ourselves up to the uncertainties inherent in negotiation. It requires us to stretch our brains to consider other people’s perspectives, to reposition our opponents as partners in problem-solving, and always (always) to think outside the proverbial box. And most people find the sound of all of that pretty off-putting, thank you very much - and how do they get off this ride?


The Great American Compromise


Because on the one hand, vigilantism is…bad and, on the other hand, unarmed negotiations are also psychologically challenging, the United States of America has built an elaborate many-tiered justice system designed to evade the force-versus-persuasion battle for the resolution of conflicts in our nation. Our legal system is of course imperfect and has its problems, which must continue to be addressed (e.g., systemic racism, unequal access to justice, and blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional laws among them). But, if it’s working well, our justice system allows us to abandon our own vigilante-style use of force to right our wrongs as we and our appointed advocates use words to convince a judge or a jury of our peers that we deserve justice or a slice of the pie or whatever it is that we feel we rightfully seek.


The justice system is not merely a forum for persuasion, though. As you will know if you have ever been on the wrong side of a sentence or a verdict, our government is perfectly happy to cross to the force side of the equation to bring those deemed (un)worthy to justice and to compel the payment of restitution and damages. We as a nation have just agreed that only the government may use coercive force against its citizens and only in very highly constrained ways. You may be familiar with Max Weber who defined government as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. So, America’s government is not unique in that way – any time humans give up their right to avenge their own injustice to another body, a government has formed. But we are (and certainly were at our founding) unique in the constraints we put on our government’s ability to wield that force domestically as well as in the emphasis we put on making sure that all parties to a dispute get to “have their day in court” (notice, due process, and other constitutional protections). But as we have this conversation about force versus persuasion, we must recognize that the way that the American justice system resolves disputes fits into the persuasion/force dichotomy not by choosing one over the other but rather by combining them in a way that tries to generate safeguards against tyranny and unfairness.


But is this hybrid a monster?


Although America may not be so dreadfully litigious as many like to claim, there is no doubt in my mind that the American legal system has encouraged people to stop trying to resolve their differences on their own. On the one hand, many are eager to get into court to have their rights vindicated, even if that means flushing money down the toilet, ruining relationships, and leaving a trail of scorched earth. So, even though we have put down our actual weapons to resolve disputes, we take the next biggest cudgel available to us toward our “enemies” or opponents. On the other hand, many – particularly corporations or other parties with deep pockets – have learned to navigate the courts such that tying people up in litigation is like a war of attrition, wherein difficult though productive conversations can be avoided so long as the other party runs out of money or energy first.


That’s what initially got me interested in mediation when I was practicing law. Just because you can solve a conflict in front of a judge doesn’t mean that you should. It’s frankly a lot harder and it takes more courage to have an honest conversation with your opponent to try to work things out than it does to clam up and say, “I’m taking you to court, and we’ll solve it there!” Moreover, it often encourages you to dig into a position that might not even be the best for you and certainly isn’t the best for the whole ecosystem moving forward. So, one of my goals as a mediator is to get people to have these hard conversations – which, by the way, actually gives them a much greater degree of control over the outcome. When you go to court, you’re at the mercy of the judge or the jury and how well your lawyer can argue. When you’re negotiating, though, even if you may be butting heads with someone, you retain substantially more control over the final agreement.


So, I am interested in encouraging more of these tough conversations that can, when facilitated correctly, lead to better outcomes, better relationships, and, I hope, a citizenry more interested in cooperation and compromise than in conflict.


What about non-legal disputes?


Even in America, there remain some disputes for which litigation is simply not an option. He wants to eat Chinese food but I really want Mexican. She wants the Barbie with the pink dress, but I was playing with it first. My child’s school wants to include something in the curriculum of which I do not approve. I would like to buy his company for $30 million but he won’t accept anything less than $50 million. In all of these conflicts, there is no legal right to be vindicated, no rule that has been broken. Rather, there is simply a scarce resource needing to be allocated between two parties who don’t agree on the outcome. And in a sense, these conflicts – at any scale – are much harder to solve than those disputes that involve a discernible legal right where a court could, theoretically, pick a winner and a loser. In these cases, there simply is no right answer. There is merely negotiation.


We see similar phenomena in international conflict because we have not yet found a way on a global scale to relinquish to another body a monopoly on the use of force and enforcement of global rules (nor am I necessarily suggesting we should). So, internationally, our options are limited to either war or these very hard conversations. Therefore, the field of international relations provides great fodder for digging into conflict resolution and negotiation strategies because we don’t have the safety net of a relatively well defined and high-functioning legal system to bail us out if we fail to come to an agreement. And unlike an argument over dinner or even a major business deal gone south, in international relations, we often must negotiate if we want to avoid violence.

 

And that’s why I want to do this blog. Because these issues are so universal and so fundamentally human that we can all benefit from thinking about them and improving our own approach to them – no matter what the scale. I want to encourage all of us to think creatively, strategically, and sometimes bravely about how to stretch our brains to come up with peaceful ways to solve even the most intractable problems.


Keep checking back for real-world tips on improving your negotiating and problem-solving skills.



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