Saturday, February 15, 2020

Managing Conflict at its Sources

In Director Bong Joon-ho’s highly-acclaimed movie Parasite (2019), the wealthy Park family believes that they have a win-win relationship with the lower-class Kims. The Kims, however, view this relationship very differently, allowing them to prioritize their own interests in this relationship. If we were to step into this in the middle of the movie, we’d need to get the Parks to see the actual nature of their relationship, while also addressing the perceptions and emotions that are fueling a simmering conflict between the two families. Moreover, on an appropriately dark and stormy night, the xxxxxxx’s have an unexpected encounter with xxxxxxx and xxxxxxx (redacted to avoid a spoiler). Emotions flare up (especially fear), and magnify the fixed pie cognitive bias that pushes us to assume sharp conflicts of interest, leading all involved to treat this as a win-lose battle for self-preservation. Again, if we were to step in and try to resolve this before it spirals downward and reaches lower depths (an inside reference for those who have seen the movie), we’d need to re-frame the nature of their relationship (they have some common goals), address their decision-making, and help them cool their emotions.

Alex Colvin (Cornell), Dionne Pohler (Toronto), and I call this “managing conflict at its sources.” In other words, to successfully resolve a conflict or dispute, you must first understand its roots or sources, and then appropriately match a dispute resolution method. So we’ve created a three-part typology of the roots of conflict—specifically, structural, cognitive, and psychogenic sources of conflict—to facilitate the identification of effective dispute resolution methods tailored to the particular sources of a given dispute. These are described in my earlier blog posting, but brief definitions are useful here. Structural sources pertain to nature of the parties’ relationship, including their power, rights, and interlinked interests or goals. Cognitive sources relate to mental functioning, including interpretation, perception, information processing, decision-making, and (mis)communication. Psychogenic sources arise from the psychology of feelings, especially emotions, moods, and personality.

We believe that it’s important to diagnose a conflict by looking for these sources because they require different approaches to resolve them. Resolving structural conflicts requires diagnosing the nature of the parties’ relationship. Key alternatives include (i) a self-interested exchange with accessible alternatives (egoist); (ii) lasting interdependence with a mutual gains structure (unitarist); (iii) lasting interdependence with a mixed-motive structure (pluralist); or (iv) lasting interdependence with a win-lose structure (antagonistic). Recognizing these structural forms is important for factoring in issues of power. In an egoist relationship, power is less important than self-interest. If someone gives you a good deal, take it; if not, take your next best alternative. In a unitarist relationship, a focus on power likely interferes with finding interest-aligning policies. In contrast, power differences are likely a significant aspect of an antagonistic relationship, and distributive negotiations would be fully consistent in this structure. Integrative bargaining is very difficult in an antagonistic structure. In a pluralist relationship, both distributive and integrative negotiations are likely, and the parties or third party dispute resolution actors would likely need to ensure that power is not exercised in an overly aggressive way that undermines the shared interests and enduring nature of the relationship.

The effectiveness of third party interventions also varies across these relationship types. In an egoist relationship, the main need for third party intervention is to adjudicate alleged violations of contractual terms, which points toward arbitration-type procedures that provide a clear determination. In a unitarist relationship, in contrast, the importance of mutuality means that the arbitration of conflicts could be counter-productive; rather, mediation-type interventions are most useful in helping the parties recognize their mutual interests and resolve any coordination problems or barriers to achieving the integrative potential inherent in their relationship. But in antagonistic relationships, mediation efforts that search for common interests are incompatible with the fundamental oppositions of interests that drive conflict in this structural form, and thus would likely be futile. By contrast, pluralist relationships are most open to a range of interventions, including mediation- and arbitration-type third party interventions, reflecting the diverse nature of distribution and integrative issues inherent in this type of relationship.

Turning to the cognitive dimension, there are various techniques to address perceptual differences rooted in contrasting cognitive frames, such as a process of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing frames, either with or without mediator assistance. Other interventions can explicitly address cultural differences (more generally, in-group versus out-group conflicts). Regarding conflicts that have an aspect of limited information processing, people can more easily identify cognitive errors made by others than themselves. Providing individuals training in decision-making biases and teaching them critical thinking and self-awareness can help them become aware of decision-making blind spots to work through this type of cognitive conflict. Similarly, recognizing when miscommunication causes or contributes to a conflict also points to specific conflict resolution strategies. This can include avoiding communication channels with low signal-to-noise ratios, listening for the intended meanings of what’s being said, communicating in ways that the listener will understand your intent and that reflects the listener’s perspective, and establishing conditions under which an effective dialogue can occur.  

Psychogenic conflict is perhaps the most difficult type of conflict to tackle, and again requires tailored dispute resolution strategies. This aspect of conflict is not easily resolved through negotiation, nor is it likely to be truly resolved by the imposition of a solution by a third party such as a manager or an arbitrator. Indeed, the most accessible strategy is to give people tools to work through their own emotions, or to control their moods in different situations, either in advance of a conflict or during it. When dealing with hot emotions, cooling strategies such as taking a time-out or a break and trying to re-orient an individual’s attention to be more reflective and self-distanced rather than self-immersed can facilitate problem solving. If hot emotions like anger or humiliation  are contributing to a conflict, then facilitators can lessen these emotions by acknowledging them. An understanding of how different personality types approach not only conflict, but feeling, thinking, and behavior more generally also can be useful to understand how to engage with others constructively with others.

Lastly, not only might a dispute be complex (so don't stop after identifying the first cause), conflict can be dynamic and evolve around over time. As such, the source(s) of the conflict can change in the midst of attempts to resolve the initial source(s) of the dispute. This reinforces the need for those trying to resolve disputes to understand the range of possible sources of conflict, so that changes in the nature or sources of a particular dispute can be identified and appropriately addressed, rather than inadvertently contributing to compounding the conflict. In Parasite, the initial conflict between the wealthy and poor families appeared economic in nature, but with greater personal contact came new challenges that were more cognitive and especially psychogenic in nature. To continue to treat this conflict as purely economic (structural) and to ignore other smelly issues (another inside reference) would not produce a lasting resolution to this conflict. To effectively manage conflict at its sources is to recognize that dispute resolution needs to be tailored to the specifics of each conflict based on a careful diagnosis of the possible overlapping and changing structural, cognitive, and psychogenic dimensions.

Source: John W. Budd, Alexander J.S. Colvin, and Dionne Pohler (2020) "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Understanding the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," ILR Review 73(2): 254-80. [free access to the pre-publication version here]

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