9 Approaches to Conflict Resolution

John Ungerleider

The field of conflict resolution offers a toolbox of perspectives and interventions relevant from community and international level conflict situations, particularly how to apply negotiation strategies and third-party mediation to find agreements from small short-term interpersonal disputes to intractable, deep-rooted inter-group conflicts.

Logic and analysis, based on grounded theory and practice, combined with intuitive insight, sensitivity, and awareness of conflict dynamics, all are needed to devise suggestions, prescriptions and interventions that will de-escalate a conflict or bring an agreement between opposing parties. Ideally, the framing and appropriate level of directness and simplicity in an agreement or intervention will accurately address the needs and identities of all parties in a conflict. A third-party consultant or mediator may be required if internal efforts to negotiate or make progress are ineffective.


Conflict resolution theory and practice focuses on developing appropriate and effective approaches for negotiating a conflict. Like varying personal or cultural styles of dealing with conflict, negotiating styles have been described as being (1) soft: giving concessions easily in order to preserve the relationship between the negotiating parties; or (2) hard: focused on the bottom line and not conceding anything, continually pressing to gain the most for my side in a negotiation. In their landmark book about negotiation, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury introduced the notion of principled negotiation, in which negotiators focus on alternative approaches that are neither soft nor hard, focusing on such principles as:

  • working together to uncover underlying and common interests, rather than digging into competing positions;
  • proceeding independent of whether or not trust has been established;
  • being hard on the problem rather than the people in negotiation;
  • trying to understand mutual needs and seek joint solutions.

Parties collaborate to find win-win agreements that meet the needs of both parties. Dean Pruitt named this cooperative, interest-based integrative bargaining. In game theory, a win-lose result is called zero sum; that is, where a win equals +1 and a loss equals –1, the sum of the equation is zero: +1 –1 = 0. A win-win solution could result in a positive sum: 1+1 = 2.

Raymond Cohen named the importance of allowing for informal pre-negotiation sessions, or what US diplomat Harold Saunders called circum-negotiation sessions: meetings outside of a formal negotiation to build trust and communication norms before or during a session, in order to establish effective and potentially face-saving ground rules to facilitate a more successful formal process. For example, participants might agree to the setting and procedures to be used in a formal negotiation, anticipate possible areas for easy agreement, and whether there are some topics that just shouldn’t be raised yet. To build confidence and momentum in a negotiation it may be helpful to work on less controversial issues first to build rapport and trust before getting to the stickier issues. These informal meetings can clarify shared understandings of the essential issues and interests for each party.

Cultural styles may impact negotiations by adding cross-cultural noise,’ i.e. the verbal and nonverbal messages that cannot be clearly understood across cultures, and can lead to linguistic or symbolic misinterpretation.

Assumptions about national negotiating characteristics, even if once useful, have become diluted by rapid international globalization. Like in the cartoon in which an Englishman bows while a Japanese businessman reaches out for a handshake, international negotiators have learned to adapt to many complexities and uncertainties in intercultural communication. Pierre Casse outlined principles for intercultural negotiations that apply to communication in multicultural teams include: flexibility, getting to know the other culture, avoid obvious irritants and stereotypes, be aware of language barriers and check for understanding as you proceed, be careful not to attribute meaning to nonverbal behaviors you may not understand, and watch out for mistrust.


In the professional field of mediation, or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a neutral third party facilitates an agreement between parties in conflict. Mediators also look beyond the ultimate goal of reaching an agreement to consider the importance of relationships and cultural differences in the mediation process.

A broadened focus on transformative or humanistic mediation (begun by Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger in the 1990s) draws awareness to the importance of changing and developing relationships between parties in conflict. Transformative mediators believe that building relationship can be even more important than penning a formal agreement, which may end a dispute in the short term but not resolve the underlying causes of the conflict.

Since the 1980s in particular, mediation has become a nuanced, specific, and effective method of bringing in a neutral third party to address a dispute between two parties. Mediation techniques encourage the surfacing of each party’s interests and needs via storytelling, exploring interpretations of a conflict, reaching for a mutual resolution, and crafting an agreement by the parties.

There are three styles of mediation:

(1) problem solving (traditional/mediator-directed “let’s make a deal”);

(2) transformative (goal is to transform the relationship rather than obtain an agreement); and

(3) humanistic-transformative (people-oriented & dialogue-directed towards transforming relationships).

Some mediator skills are relevant to all mediation approaches, such as listening, observing a conflict from various perspectives, and applying a systems analysis. In problem-solving the emphasis is on agreement: hypothesis building, exploring strategies for resolution, deciding how to solve the problem, and arriving at a resolution. In the transformative approach, the process is dialogue-driven and relationship-focused with a focus on client stories, building rapport, explaining process, and clarifying expectations.

During humanistic-transformative mediation, additional sensitivities may be valuable: centering, connecting with the parties, identifying and tapping into the parties’ strengths, coaching on communication, empowering and recognizing, and techniques involving silence, word choice, tone of voice, body language – all useful in transforming and healing the relationships in a conflict.

A mediator working across cultures should elicit relevant behavioral norms and traditional practices that can be useful in transforming a conflict. In traditional societies, a social leader or elder will be engaged as a mediator. In his elicitive model of mediation, John Paul Lederach encourages mediators in varying cultural settings to consider different interpretations of conflict and integrate the wisdom of traditional ways to mediate a conflict. A mediator may need to translate across cultural dimensions of difference, such as individual vs. collective needs, communication styles, relationship to time, etc.

There may be a need for a neutral third-party to mediate a dispute between parties with culturally-diverging norms for dealing with conflict. Raymond Cohen defines the additional sensitivity and tasks required of a mediator working with parties from different cultures, where trying to negotiate a conflict can be exacerbated by communication dissonance. Cohen’s “Model C” cross-cultural mediator adds to the conventional mediation practices and goals of communication, formulation, and manipulation by serving as an:

          interpreter: bridging the intercultural communication gap

  • buffer: protecting the face of adversaries
  • coordinator: synchronizing dissonant negotiating conventions

During the process of leading training for legal, law enforcement, and civil society leaders in Cyprus from 1997-98, Marc Turk and I developed a model that summarized our principles for successful mediation: the Turk-Ungerleider, TU-SUCCESS model:

            See: listen, observe

            Understand: the problem & competing interests

            Contemplate: all aspects of the situation

            Communicate: stay in contact, interact

            Empower & Recognize authentic perspectives: trust your perspective, authentic                              experience; appreciate what other perspectives can offer

            Strategize approaches: build & test hypotheses

            Solve the problem: envision the structure of a transformed relationship

Mediation principles and practices are applicable to approaching, understanding, and potentially transforming various conflict situations, regardless if one is a formal mediator or not.


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Turk, A.M., and John Ungerleider, J., (2017). “Experiential Activities in Mediation-Oriented Training: Cyprus 1997-2013,” in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, March, V34#3.





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