The Citizens Handbook
Conflict Resolution

Mediation skills may be unnecessary for small groups composed of people who enjoy one another’s company. But these skills may be needed for large groups containing many different points of view. The best guide to conflict resolution is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The following covers the bare essentials of Getting to Yes. Despite the optimistic tone of most of what is written about community development, it is important to realize that conflict will occur when people get together to promote or address change.

Prohibit personal attacks.
Agree to focus on the problem instead of the person. Chairs and facilitators should intervene at the first hint of personal attack. Nothing proceeds when a substantive problem becomes entangled with an unhealthy relationship. In some cases attacks arise from nothing more than another person resembling a mother, a father, or an ex-spouse.
When the possibility of personal attacks arises, the chairperson can ask everyone to avoid the word “you” and express views in the first person “I”. Thus a participant might say, “I feel my proposal should been taken seriously,” instead of “You always make fun of my proposals.”

Consider a listening exercise.
Unresolved conflicts drive people away. When rivalries, intolerances, or conflicts arise between individuals, take time to resolve them. A simple listening exercise developed by the Quakers often works. Under the guidance of a listening referee, each person states his/her views while the other listens; then the other person givers an interpretation of what he/she has heard. This is repeated until each person agrees on the other’s interpretation. The two parties then try to resolve their differences.

Focus on interests, not positions.
This is the most important recommendation in Getting to Yes. Focusing on interests allows movement because in most cases an interest (need, desire, concern) can be satisfied by a number of positions. Begin by acknowledging the interests of others.

Separate the people from the problem.
Speak about yourself, not about them. Look forward, not back. If there is a people problem, deal with it directly by speaking about perceptions. Take the time to turn strangers into people you know. Make symbolic gestures (shaking hands or an embrace, a thank-you card, an invitation to lunch) to improve shaky relationships.

Invent options for mutual gain.
Conflict resolution really begins to work when people start thinking of themselves as being on the same side. To invent options for mutual gain, switch off your critical voice and brainstorm ideas that will work for everybody.

Insist on using objective criteria.
Many negotiations become a battle of wills. To avoid this, frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria that will decide the outcome of the negotiation. Objective criteria include fair standards such as market value, precedent, equal treatment, court rulings, efficiency, and so forth. They also include fair practices. You may recall the fair way to divide a piece of cake between two children: One cuts, the other chooses.

Progressive cities provide mediators. Nasty problems and community battles involving many people require professional mediators. Progressive cities such as Portland, Oregon, have mediators on staff to help neighbours resolve conflicts.

See also the entries on Non-violent Communication and Grassroots Rot.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.