Queen's University IRC

Getting to Yes

An Excerpt from “The Conflict Resolution Toolbox” by Gary T. Furlong
Gary T. Furlong
Queen’s IRC Facilitator

May 1, 2005

In his research and practice, Queen’s IRC Facilitator and mediator Gary Furlong has found that when it comes to real-life conflict, one size does not fit all. In the following sampling from his new book, The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, Gary discusses the value of the Circle of Conflict as a multi-purpose tool — one of his “top eight” to help mediators, negotiators, lawyers, managers, and supervisors reach agreements in even the most intractable disputes.

The Circle of Conflict is strong as a diagnostic model, in that it proposes specific categories for understanding the dynamics that are driving the conflict without being limited to any particular substantive type of dispute. For this reason, it can be used with just about any type of conflict a practitioner may be involved in. In addition, this tool gives practitioners a way to identify the different causes of a conflict, and helps them look beyond the “presenting” problem to begin to question underlying or root causes.

The Circle of Conflict diagnoses and assigns the underlying causes or “drivers” of the given conflict to one of five categories:

  • Values (belief systems; right and wrong; good and evil; just and unjust)
  • Relationships (negative past experiences; stereotypes; poor or failed communications; repetitive negative behaviour)
  • Moods and Externals (factors unrelated to the substance of the dispute; psychological or physiological; “bad hair day”)
  • Data (lack of information; too much information; collection problems)
  • Structure (limited physical resources; authority issues; geographical constraints; organizational structures)

The model offers concrete suggestions for working with each of these drivers, and directs practitioners toward Data, Structure, and a sixth category, Interests, as the focus of resolution. “Interests” refers to an individual’s wants, needs, hopes or fears. Put simply, the guiding principle for the practitioner is to help the parties stay focused [on these three categories], as this is effective in moving them toward resolution rather than escalation. The Circle does this because it asserts that you cannot directly “solve” Values, Relationship, or Mood/External issues with the other parties.

When working with the Data and Structure categories, the model gives specific strategies for the practitioner to focus on, with an emphasis toward joint problem solving.

Some strategies for working with Data problems are:

  • Have each party explain, challenge and correct erroneous data
  • Jointly assess data
  • Surface assumptions around the parties’ assessment of data
  • Challenge assumptions made about other parties’ motives
  • Jointly gather data that each party will agree to accept and rely on.

Some strategies in working with Structure problems are:

  • Identify structural issues both parties face, and brainstorm solutions jointly
  • Negotiate a ratification process if authority is a problem at the table
  • Negotiate who needs to attend for both parties to most effectively resolve the issues
  • Renegotiate priorities for both priorities that are more compatible and workable
  • Brainstorm ways to maximize use of scarce resources.

By far, the Interests slice is the most important area to help parties focus on. Some strategies in working with the Interests of parties are:

  • Identify the full range of interests the parties have in relation to the issues they face
  • Identify and focus the parties on their common interests
  • Look for solutions that maximize meeting each party’s interests
  • Help the parties creatively solve the problems by trading low-priority interests for more important ones.

Two additional conflict patterns the Circle highlights can be very useful to a practitioner in diagnosing conflict: the Values/Data dynamic, and the Structure/Relationships dynamic.

Values/Data Dynamic

If one party sees the conflict primarily from a Values perspective (i.e., feels that it is primarily a moral or ethical problem), and the other party sees the conflict as a Data problem, an interesting dynamic takes over. The person who perceives the conflict as a data problem will tend to give more and more information to the other party in an effort to convince that they are right. The Values person, of course, is very unlikely to change his or her mind based on more data (and are unlikely to even read the data!). The conflict is likely to escalate rapidly, with the Data person accusing the Values person of bad faith(“I keep giving you important and relevant information, and you just ignore it!”) while the Values person will start to consider the Data person unethical or unprincipled (“What kind of person would try to rationalize this kind of decision?!”) The real problem, or course, is that they are actually dealing with two different problems, and are unaware of that fact. If this happens, the conflict will migrate to the top half of the Circle fairly quickly, landing on the Values and/or Relationship drivers, two of the hardest to resolve.

Structure/Relationship Dynamic

Suppose two individuals, A and B, work in different departments, and A needs a report from B to complete his work. For B, this is a low priority, but for A, it is very high. This is a structural problem, in that A has no authority to order or direct B to do what he needs. For the first few days, A will accept B’s promise that he’ll “get to it as soon as possible.” After a week or two goes by without getting a report from B, A will stop thinking that B’s problem is a lack of time, and will start to personalize it, saying, “The problem isn’t B’s time, he’s had two weeks! The problem is B; he doesn’t want to help me.” And rather quickly A and B will no longer just have a Structural problem, it will become a Relationship problem – and much harder to solve

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