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The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice

The groundbreaking book, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, published by Jossey-Bass, is a comprehensive resource that integrates authoritative research and definitive examples for those professionals and students involved in a wide variety of conflict resolution fields.

The groundbreaking book, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, published by Jossey-Bass, is a comprehensive resource that integrates authoritative research and definitive examples for those professionals and students involved in a wide variety of conflict resolution fields.

Wynton Marsalis and Dean Gordon
Professor Emeritus Morton Deutsch and Professor Peter Coleman.

Morton Deutsch, the Edward Lee Thorndike Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, one of the most respected figures in the field of conflict resolution, and Peter T. Coleman, Assistant Professor and Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), a prominent scholar in the field, have brought together a diverse group of experts to create a volume that offers clear directions for creating constructive solutions to interpersonal, intergroup and international conflict.
President Levine calls the handbook, "A path-breaking compendium which is the definitive guide for mediation practitioners, educators and students of conflict resolution."

The editors, Deutsch and Coleman, make it quite clear that the text is concerned with finding cooperative, win-win solutions to conflict, no matter how difficult. "The 'black arts' of conflict," they write (such as violence, coercion, intimidation, deceit, blackmail and seduction), "are not discussed except, if at all, in the context of how to respond to or to prevent the use of such tactics by oneself or others. In our view, such tactics are used too often, are commonly destructive and self-defeating, and are less productive in the long run than a constructive approach."

In an interview with Coleman and Deutsch, both said the book came out of a felt need in the field to try to bring theory and practice closer together. "In the field of conflict resolution," Coleman said, "there's something of a division between those who develop theory and do research and those who actually practice-mediators, teachers, administrators, etc. What we wanted to do was to summarize what we felt were important ideas, important conceptual distinctions, models and frameworks from research and different disciplines for people who are trying to mediate specific conflicts or people who want to be trained in a certain area."

Deutsch added, "I hope it will influence a wide variety of people who are interested in conflict-students as well as practitioners, so that they start to understand the range of issues that are involved. Then they will understand the complexities. There is somewhat of a superficial attitude that, well, we're going to have an afternoon of conflict resolution training and that's it. It's a field that requires, if you're going to be thoroughly trained, to really know a good deal of the social, psychological processes. And what we've tried to do is provide, in this handbook, knowledge of these processes, and also indicate how, in a practical way, they can be used to improve managing conflicts."

Coleman called the Handbook comprehensive in its summary of ideas from different perspectives. "We write about power, trust, cooperation and competition," he said. "We write about mediation, negotiation and training models. But our goal was really to make a point that it is accessible to practitioners and lay people. But we also wanted it to meet the standards of scholars."

"I hope it will influence a wide variety of people who are interested in conflict -- students as well as practitioners, so that they start to understand the range of issues that are involved."

According to Deutsch, it is important to understand the nature of cooperation and competition since almost all conflicts are mixed-motive, containing elements of both cooperation and competition. "It turns out that a constructive process of conflict resolution is like a cooperative group process," Deutsch said. "People talk openly and honestly with one another. They have some sense of being on the same side, having a similar perspective. They are interested in the well being of the other. They benefit when the other is doing well, rather than poorly. These sorts of things that are characteristic of cooperative situations and help a conflict take a constructive course."

"On the other hand," Deutsch continued, "in a competitive situation, you're out to do better than the other. You're out there, if necessary, to harm the other in order to win. You're not interested in giving the other honest, accurate information. You want to mislead the other. You see the differences in opposition between yourself and the other, more than the common ground between yourself and the other. These characteristics, if they occur during a conflict, make that conflict take a destructive course."

"If you understand that," he added, "then you understand that you want to try to develop a kind of cooperative relationship where the conflict is seen as a mutual problem between you and the other. One which you're going to work on together, cooperatively, to try to come to some mutual outcome for the both of you. That orientation enormously facilitates constructive resolution. I would say that idea is the key idea in the conflict resolution movement."

"That's not fair," expresses a feeling that frequently leads to conflict. A politician thinks the election was lost because his opponent stuffed the ballot boxes. These all involve issues of justice, which may give rise to conflict. Deutsch commented on the scope of conflict and justice. "The most profound conflicts generally involve feelings of being treated unjustly. That's what we have a lot of now throughout the world. Ethnic groups who feel that they are not being fairly treated by the majority. And that is one side of it. The other side is that conflict itself, if it takes a destructive form, can produce injustice. So you have to look at injustice and conflict as being deeply meshed together. And if you're going to deal with some of the difficult problems of the world, you have to deal with the issues of justice. Conflict can't be taken just in the abstract and removed from the questions of oppression, poverty, discrimination. Conflict can stimulate social change. It may produce, or increase an injustice," he said.

Deutsch began his career as a clinical psychologist, trained as a psychoanalyst, and practiced psychotherapy for a number of years. It was at that time that he started to work with married couples who had developed bitter and "sometimes strange relationships." It was these experiences that prompted him to proffer a model of "malignant conflict" that was applicable to international relations, especially during the period of the Cold War. "In my experience working with married couples, they are perfectly intelligent people who are not crazy, but who are driven into spirals of suspicion, hostility, destructiveness, which were injuring each of them and their children. So they were getting into a process that itself was malignant, and I thought that was true for the Cold War," Deutsch said.

In approaching similar issues of conflict, Coleman reserved a chapter for himself on "Intractable Conflicts," as an example of the complexity of conflict resolution. "Those are types of conflicts that have a potential for violence that tend to cycle in and out sporadically so that, at times, you'll see a violent situation, like race relations in this country," Coleman explained.

Intractable conflicts, according to Coleman, have certain characteristics that are different, for example, than resource conflicts where negotiations are about the price of a house or job salary. "Intractable conflicts tend to be different because they're based on issues that we call identity issues," he said. "They are basic issues that are important to people-like dignity, security and participation."

Coleman said he sees intractable conflicts as those that have a very powerful past and, therefore, call for "a process mechanism" to allow the disputants to deal with that past. "Often times," he said, "problem solving is completely inappropriate. Because it's not about problem solving, it's about being heard and respected and appreciated. So a dialogue process is necessary at that point."

In setting an agenda for scholar-practitioner collaboration in the field, Coleman asked how readiness to resolve conflict can constructively be fostered in individuals, groups and nations. "The first task," he said, "is simply to make people aware that there are options available to them in conflict other than fight or flee. This is largely what most preliminary training or course work in conflict resolution attempts to achieve: to make people aware of their own competitive or avoidant tendencies in conflict, and of the fact that they have a broad menu of available options."

He also asked, "How can we learn to learn about our methods and practice?" Coleman said he believes that much of the practice of conflict resolution is not evaluated, or poorly evaluated. He spoke about research "to understand the conditions under which certain tactics and strategies are more or less effective, and to build on what is effective and discard what is not."

Finally, he asked, "How can we foster creative innovation in our thinking and our practice of resolving conflict?" He responded, "As the nature of the conflicts that we face changes, so must our thinking and our strategies for resolution."

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001


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