Resolve Conflicts Skillfully

[Note: This post can also be found on Facebook at “Jim Throgmorton for City Council” ( in the Notes section of the left hand column.]

Throg4IC Position Paper #2: Resolve Conflicts Skillfully

Conflicts will inevitably emerge within any place that is governed democratically. How can those conflicts best be resolved?

Before offering my answer to that question, let me quickly acknowledge that I don’t know how to resolve some of the conflicts we Americans are currently experiencing.  Nor does the professional literature provide much useful guidance for them.

But good guidance can be found for the kinds of conflicts that routinely emerge with cities like ours. Current debates over Melrose vendors and the proposed levee along Taft Speedway are but two local examples. How can conflicts such as these best be resolved?

The all-too-common answer is to let them spiral out of control: a problem emerges, sides form, positions harden, communication stops, perceptions become distorted, and the conflict widens. Conflicting parties quickly slip into “positional bargaining”; each side tries to win and make the other side lose by starting with an extreme position, stubbornly holding to it, hiding one’s true views, and making small concessions only as necessary to keep the bargaining going. The resulting decisions leave relationships damaged and better alternatives unexplored.

“Principled negotiation” offers a better way. According to it, the conflicting stakeholders actually share a common problem: how to devise a mutually beneficial outcome.

To resolve such shared problems satisfactorily, it is wise to seek the assistance of a skilled mediator. This is especially true if the conflict involves multiple stakeholders (people and organizations that have a stake in the problem and its resolution).

Whether or not a mediator assists, it is important to identify and involve all the major stakeholders.

During negotiations (with or without a mediator), the conflicting stakeholders should:

Negotiate as if relationships mattered; in other words, be hard on the shared problem but soft on the people.

Focus on interests rather than positions. (Positions can be thought of as the outcomes that people demand, whereas interests are the factors that underlie and explain the positions they take.)

Create value by trading across differences and inventing options for mutual gain.

Use mutually-acceptable objective criteria to assess the quality of any proposed settlement.

And, to negotiate well, each stakeholder needs to analyze and improve their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement while also analyzing and questioning the others’ BATNA. This is crucial, for no one will come to the negotiating table if they can get what they want away from it. And no one should accept a negotiated settlement that is worse than what could get otherwise.

This is all pretty standard stuff in the negotiation literature, and I’ve taught it for years at the U. of Iowa. It can, if well facilitated, can yield better solutions for most conflicts.

In brief, I cannot claim any ability to solve all the problems that we will face over the coming years. But what I can claim is this: I would strive to be a city councilor who will actively listen to diverse views and treat all people with respect. And I would strive to facilitate mutually beneficial resolution of conflicts among people who have divergent interests.

This entry was posted in 2011 City Council campaign, conflict resolution, Iowa City and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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