Five proven conflict resolution strategies from the Harvard Program on Negotiation

Tower at Harvard University

As a mediation and negotiation specialist, I am always looking to improve my skills associated with conflict resolution. Katie Shonk is the editor of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter associated with the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard Law School. Starting with her well-written article on 5 Conflict Resolution Strategies, I build on her commentary and offer additional thoughts based on my over 30 years as a mediator and negotiator. Hopefully, these practical examples will help you too.

Here - in brief - are Katie Shonk’s five proven conflict resolution strategies:

  1. Recognizing that all of us have biased fairness perceptions
  2. Avoid escalating tensions with threats and provocative moves
  3. Overcome an “us versus them” mentality
  4. Look beneath the surface to identify deeper issues
  5. Separate sacred strategies from pseudo-sacred issues

Let us look at each of these proven strategies with some additional commentary beyond her article.

 

1. Recognizing that all of us have biased fairness perceptions

 

KATIE SHONK: “Both parties to a conflict typically think they’re right (and the other side is wrong) because they quite literally can’t get out of our own heads. Our sense of what would constitute a fair conflict resolution is biased by egocentrism, or the tendency to have difficulty seeing a situation from another person’s perspective, research by Carnegie Mellon University professors Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein and their colleagues shows. When embroiled in a conflict, we need to try to overcome our self-centered fairness perceptions. We might do this by jointly hiring a mediator who can help us see one another’s point of view, or by enlisting another type of unbiased expert, such as an appraiser, to offer their view of the ‘facts.’”

MIKE GREGORY COMMENT: Shonk clearly articulates that we all have bias, and we see conflicts as right and wrong with us in the right. In these instances, it is recommended that a mediator or an expert such as an appraiser may bring insights to help the parties. In my blog on January 8th, I posted “Could I be wrong?” In this blog, you are asked to explore your own arrogance, pride, and sense of superiority. You are asked to step back and search for what both of you see as common values. Why? To see if you can find a light to move from dislike or even hate to open the opportunity to find a solution that could work for both parties. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offers us these quotes to consider:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

Everyone wants to feel loved and worthy. Consider the thought beyond these quotes and your position and their position. What are the facts? What are the issues? What are the emotions behind those issues? What are the interests of each party? Interests are the seeds to a solution. Clearly digging deeper and uncovering interests is the key.

 

2. Avoid escalating tensions with threats and provocative moves

 

KATIE SHONK: “When we feel we’re being ignored or steamrolled, we often try to capture the other party’s attention by making a threat, such as saying we’ll take a dispute to court or try to ruin the other party’s business reputation. There’s a time and place for litigation, but threats and other attention-getting moves, such as take-it-or-leave-it offers, are often a mistake. Because of the common human tendency to treat others the way they’re treated, people tend to respond to threats in kind, leading to an escalatory spiral and worsening conflict. Before making a threat, be sure you have exhausted all other options for managing conflict.

MIKE GREGORY COMMENT: Fear, anger, and disrespect often result in a tit-for-tat exchange resulting in both parties becoming entrenched. Knowing this, if you can control the desire to respond in kind and instead remain calm, competent, and confident you can force yourself to listen actively. Instead of making a threat or attacking back if you can keep your head while others are losing theirs and blaming you, then you are far more likely to be able to focus. Be patient. Focusing on the problem and being gentle on the people (that is being firm, fair, and tough without provoking) may help. If someone feels excluded, betrayed, or wronged, stop and listen to their story.

 

3. Overcome an “us versus them” mentality

 

KATIE SHONK: Group connections build loyalty and strong relationships, but they can also promote suspicion and hostility toward members of out-groups. As a result, groups in conflict tend to have an inaccurate understanding of each other’s views and to see the other’s positions as more extreme than they actually are. Whether dealing with conflict as a group or on your own, you can overcome the tendency to demonize the other side by looking for an identity or goal you share. Begin your conflict management efforts by highlighting your common goal of reaching a fair and sustainable agreement. Try to identify and discuss points of similarity between you, such as growing up in the same region. The more points of connection you can identify, the more collaborative and productive your conflict resolution process is likely to be.

MIKE GREGORY COMMENT: Shonk points out many disputes are about money but go much deeper with additional analysis. This has been my experience too. By doing your homework ahead of time and looking for ways to authentically connect with the other person this may produce elements of trust.  What do you have in common? What are ways you can relate to one another? Location, children, hobbies, education, interests, and values are common ways to find ways to relate to one another.

 

4. Look beneath the surface to identify deeper issues

 

KATIE SHONK: Our deepest disputes often seem to involve money: labor disputes over employee wages, and family conflicts over assets, for example. Because money is a finite resource, these conflicts tend to be single-issue battles in which one party’s gain will inevitably be the other party’s loss. However disputes over money often involve much deeper causes of conflict, such as the feeling that one is being disrespected or overlooked. The next time you find yourself arguing over the division of funds, suggest putting that conversation on hold. Then take time to explore each other’s deeper concerns. Listen closely to one another’s grievances, and try to come up with creative ways to address them. This conflict management strategy is likely to strengthen the relationship and add new interests to the table, expanding the pie of value to be divided in the process.

MIKE GREGORY COMMENT: Although the dispute may be about money, Shonk suggests taking a break and exploring deeper concerns. For example, I have found the simple question of “What have you been thinking about lately?” can have a profound impact. Then listen actively. Take at least 10 minutes to listen. When listening actively keep asking yourself what else could I be asking so that you can go deeper. Avoid judgment or offering advice. The key here is to listen to them and give them a chance to share with you, their concerns. This may indeed help to build a relationship that could help diffuse the situation. By being curious and respectful, and at that same time aware, you may find ways to deepen that connection.  You may uncover new interests. These interests may help uncover alternatives for consideration.

 

5. Separate sacred strategies from pseudo-sacred issues

KATIE SHONK: Conflict management can be particularly intractable when core values that negotiators believe are sacred, or nonnegotiable, are involved, such as their family bonds, religious beliefs, political views, or personal moral code. Take the case of two siblings who disagree about whether to sell their deceased parents’ farm, with one of them insisting the land must remain in the family and the other arguing that the parents would want them to sell it. We tend to err on the side of not negotiating when sacred principles and values are at stake, writes Program on Negotiation Chair Robert Mnookin in his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate When to Fight. But many of the issues negotiators consider sacred are actually pseudo-sacred, notes Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman—that is, the issues are only off-limits under certain conditions. So it’s important to thoroughly analyze the benefits you might expect from a negotiation that could allow you to honor your principles. For example, the sibling’s objections to selling the family land might soften if a percentage of the proceeds are donated to the parents’ favorite charity.

MIKE GREGORY COMMENT: Sacred strategies are nonnegotiable values of the parties. These can be religious, political, or moral principles. As Shonk points out, often issues that seem to be sacred are actually pseudo-sacred with her example of whether to sell or keep the inherited family farm. One child wants to keep the legacy farm, and the other wants to sell the farm. There can be limits and alternatives to explore. In her article, a suggestion is to sell the farm and give some of the proceeds to the parents’ favorite charity. When the other party has offered something or identified something beyond their position, give recognition to that insight.

In mediations I have found asking questions about how other stakeholders may look at the issue has offered insights. For example, how may shareholders, competitors, vendors, customers, employees, and other stakeholders view the transaction?  What if the commentary on the conflict were made public? What if the results were leaked to the press? Would it matter? This is but one example.

The key here is to help the parties realize that an intractable position may have a way of opening if it were viewed from a different direction. By exploring different viewpoints, it may be possible to work towards a solution.

 

Dealing with conflict

 

Shonk has done an excellent job raising these five strategies. I would like to offer you dozens of blogs on various topics related to conflict resolution that have been researched and written to help you. These cover a wide variety of situations:

  • work environments
  • business issues
  • building bridges to overcome conflict
  • addressing the reds and blues in our society
  • fostering collaboration
  • de-escalation
  • overcoming implicit bias
  • listening actively
  • steps recommended by medical science

and more.

Given this article and the points made here, what are your thoughts?

If you’re looking for some assistance or want to learn more related to collaboration or conflict resolution, or enhancing your Servant Manager skills, check out these links.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]