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System approach to Win-Win resolution of conflicts

System approach to Win-Win resolution of conflicts

| On 15, Feb 2001

Len Kaplan
Ideation International Inc.

Abstract. This paper introduces a model of a conflict situation developed in order to formulate a comprehensive set of “thinking directions” for a conflict resolution. It increases reliability of dispute mediation and helps disputants to find mutually acceptable Win-Win solution. Proposed approach can be used by most of conflict resolution techniques.

1 Conflict resolution: current approaches

1.1 Ways to resolve a conflict

Most of conflicts might be resolved simply by disputants’ listening to each other, by clarifying expectations and complains. Sometimes a solution is obvious, and people do not see it because they think of revenge rather than resolution. However, some disputes are so complicated that the only way to resolve them is invitation or intervention of mediator (Gage, Martin, Gromala, 2000): a supervising manager, a lawyer, a policeman, a psychotherapist, a priest, or a close friend.

Conflict mediation has its own rules, procedures, approaches and techniques (Moore, 1996). The most of them consider the conflict resolution as a process, with the following stages (Potter, 1996):

  1. Gathering information

  2. Solving a problem of the conflict

  3. Selection of mutually agreeable solution

  4. Implementation and follow-up

This process, if successful, should result in either Win-Win or Walk-Away solution. Win-Win solution resolves the conflict by satisfying interests of both disputants, and allows disputants to continue their relationships. Walk-Away solution resolves the conflict by breaking relationships between disputants, and allows disputants to satisfy their interests on their own. The Walk-Away solution, in this case, might be considered as a variation of Win-Win solution. Some authors (Fisher, Ury, Patton, 1991) name it BATNA, the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

The third way to resolve the conflict, the Win-Lose solution, is not likely to be implemented by disputants, and usually results in conflict escalation.

1.2 Shortcoming of current approaches

Special techniques and recommendations are developed for proper gathering of information on the conflict, selection of the most suitable solution, as well as for planning both implementation and follow-up (Moore, 1996; Potter, 1996; Kreidler, 1984). Following these suggestions helps mediator to pass these stages of process successfully. Dispute mediation is more likely to fail, as some authors admit (Potter, 1996), during the problem-solving stage. Reasons for these failures are as follows:

  1. A mediator should avoid suggesting solutions; solutions should be proposed by disputants, otherwise they won’t be implemented. Success of problem solving depends on creativity of disputants rather than on mediator’s facilitation abilities.

  2. Only Win-Win solutions beneficial for all disputants are acceptable. These solutions can be found by resolving contradictions embedded in the conflict situation. This requires substantial creativity on disputants’ side.

  3. Disputants are under stress, and their creativity is significantly impaired.

  4. People don’t like to solve problems. “Being faced with a problem becomes a problem” (Hicks, 2000)

1.2.1 Avoid suggestions

The reason for avoiding suggestions is as follows:

The ultimate goal of a conflict resolution is to change disputants’ behavior and relationships. Such changes expect significant efforts on disputants’ side. Disputant should be committed to apply these efforts. If somebody else suggests solution, people are not so committed and try to find shortcomings (“Yes, but…” reaction – Potter, 1996) as future excuses for proposed scheme not being implemented, for efforts not being made, and, finally, for conflict not being resolved.

A successful mediator facilitates rather than solves and suggests. However, there is a trap. Whether or not the solution is found is determined by creativity of disputants rather than by mediator’s facilitation abilities. Success is hardly under mediator’s control, and this “side effect” seems unavoidable.

1.2.2 Nature of Win-Win solution

If disputant does not expect some benefits from the agreement, efforts on its realization are not likely to be taken. All disputants should really benefit from solution, so that benefits compensate for inconvenience from making efforts.

Usually, disputants consider a conflict as a “zero-sum game”: what one side wins, the other side loses. Win-Win solutions cannot be achieved in this case: a benefit for one side always becomes a loss for another side. Fortunately, our life is not a zero-sum game. People pursue different goals, so they can always find a resource that meets the following requirements (Fisher, Ury, Patton, 1991):

  • It is available and unimportant for one disputant

  • It is unavailable for and highly desired by another disputant

Transfer of this resource from one side to another is not considered as a loss by a giving side, but is considered as a gain by a taking side. If such a set of resources is found for all sides, the Win-Win solution is achieved.

1.2.3 Walk-Away solution

Another way to resolve contradictions embedded in a conflict is separation of the disputants, termination of their relationships. Although it seems easy to do, in reality it isn’t. People usually need somebody’s help in achieving goals and meeting needs.

Ending some relationships means losing a chance to gain something. From this standpoint, Walk-Away solution is likely to be a Lose-Lose one.

Fortunately, it is not so sad. There are many people around, and there are many ways to satisfy needs. Some other people can do the same, without undesired side effects. Some other way does not assume these particular relationships to stay intact. Some other goals can equally or better satisfy the disputant’s needs.

So, even so sad thing like broken relationships can become a gain, not a loss.

1.2.4 Stress and creativity

Win-Win or Walk-Away solution resolves contradictions embedded in the conflict situation. Resolving the contradictions usually requires substantial creativity.

Thorough look at any “psychological” approach to innovative problem solving brings to light one mutual key element: situation that is the most favorable for creativity is stress-free. Inventive thinking works only if the inventor’s mind is freed of any worries, tensions, fears, etc. Successful facilitators are aware of importance of a friendly atmosphere inside a team.

“If necessity is the mother of invention, play is the father. Use it to fertilize your thinking.

Tip: The next time you have a problem, play with it.

Tip: Make your work place a fun place to be.”

(von Oech, 1990)

A conflict mediator has to facilitate people who hate or at least dislike each other, who prefer fight to friendship. The disputants are under stress that can significantly impair or even block ability of some people to make a decision (Heller and Hindle, 1998).

Under such circumstances, facilitator has to set all hopes upon luck.

2 Applying the system approach

Applying the system approach means the following steps:

  • Reveal the Contradiction

  • Formulate the Ideal Final Result

  • Find the ways to resolve the Contradiction

2.1 Revealing the Contradiction

A mediator is always under risk to cross the fuzzy border between prompt and solution and violate the “Don’t suggest” rule.

The above situation can be considered as a following contradiction:

A mediator should give hints to disputants in order to activate and support their creativity, and should not give any hint to avoid suggesting a solution.

As any contradiction, this one can be and is to be resolved.

2.2 The Ideal Final Result

The Ideal Final Result in this case looks like this:

Disputants on their own, without any creativity on their side find the solution.

2.3 A way to resolve the contradiction

The contradiction can be resolved, for example, through separation of opposite requirements in time. Here, it means the following: prompts, hints are prepared by mediator in advance. These “thinking directions” are determined by ideality, ways to resolve contradictions, etc., and represent the practically comprehensive set of alternatives. These prompts help disputants in considering the available options.

A new problem arises: if prompts are prepared in advance, they do represent all alternatives, but they are formulated in too general fashion. And, the more general is a prompt, the less effective it is in initiating the creativity.

Let us consider this new problem as a contradiction:

Prompts should be prepared in advance in order to represent all alternatives available, and should not be prepared in advance because they are too general and, thus, less effective.

We can resolve it by separating opposite requirements between the entire object and its parts. In this case, it means that the entire prompt should be prepared in advance, but some of its parts should be prepared at the instant the conflict is discussed.

A prompt should consist of two parts. A part formulated in advance describes the issue in general. Another part contains the specific information on the conflict being discussed. Combination of these two parts provides a mediator with issue formulated in particular. Practically comprehensive set of situation-specific issues can be developed (TRIZ in Progress, 1999).

2.4 Creative result of non-creative work

What’s more interesting, consideration of these specific issues separately does not require any significant level of creativity.

Disputants are asked the questions so that they know how to answer to the issue. Then, these answers are combined according to simple rules into three Concepts: Win-Win solution for both disputants, and one Walk-Away solution for each disputant.

This combination of several known “ideas” gives, sometimes, result that is not so obvious, i.e., creative output. It happens because some known ideas in this combination start supporting each other, providing each other with lacking resources.

It means that the Ideal Final Result is accomplished. Creativity is necessary to find new resources for both Win-Win and Walk-Away solution. As soon as mediator gives the prompt what particular kind of resource should be considered, naming and listing the available resources becomes less creative work.

2.5 Components necessary to accomplish the solution

To accomplish this solution, the following elements should be developed:

  • Model of conflict situation

  • Set of issues for conflict resolution

  • Rules for customization of these issues according to the situation’s specifics

  • Rules for combining the separate ideas into concepts

3 Model of conflict situation

A new model that considers key elements of a conflict has been developed. To be useful for formulation of issues to resolve a conflict, this model should meet the following requirements:

  • Involve all important elements of conflict situation

  • Describe all types of conflict

3.1 Content of conflict

Usually, the conflict occurs under the following circumstances:

  • All disputants have goals that they cannot achieve on their own

  • Disputants have to communicate, interact, keep relationships in order to achieve their goals

  • Each disputant expects from the opponent(s) behavior directed to achievement of this disputant’s goals

  • Opponent does not know what behavior is expected from her or him, and behaves according to her or his own goals

  • This behavior is at variance with expected one

  • A discrepancy between expected and real opponent’s behavior causes bad fillings to the opponent that result in conflict

According to this description, the minimum information that depicts the core of conflict is as follows:

  • Disputant’s vision of opponent’s behavior that led to the conflict

  • Expected opponent’s behavior

  • Disputant’s goal, intent, interests that could be achieved through expected opponent’s behavior

  • Obstacle that prevents disputant to achieve this goal on her or his own

This information should be collected from all disputants; however, in some cases, when some disputant for some reason cannot be asked, her or his point of view might be “reconstructed”.

3.2 Known types of conflict

Experts (Kreidler, 1984) distinguish the following major types of conflict:

  • Conflict over resources

  • Conflict of needs

  • Conflict of values

When two or more people want to get something that is in short supply, such as orange, open or closed window, money, attention, respect, etc., this conflict occurs over the resource. When somebody’s need, such as need for self-esteem, power, achievement, contradicts realization of need of another person, the conflict of needs takes place. When values, beliefs clash, we deal with the most difficult type of all conflicts to resolve, the conflict of values.

Though this classification seems very logical and clear, real conflict can seldom be categorized. First, the majority conflicts show themselves as conflicts over resources: people rarely can fight for something invisible. Second, each real conflict involves everything: sharing the resource, unmet needs and insulted values.

It means that while dealing with any conflict, one should consider it as blend of all three types; the difference is in proportion.

3.3 Descriptive model of conflict

Now, we can describe a conflict as follows:

  • Disputant A and B need to achieve the goals A and B, respectively

  • Achievement of the goals A and B is hindered by obstacles A and B, respectively

  • Disputant A expects to achieve goal A by method A that assumes participation of disputant B, i.e. by meeting expectation A

  • Disputant B expects to achieve goal B by method B that assumes participation of disputant A, i.e. by meeting expectation B

  • Expectation A results in behavior A that prevents achievement of goal B

  • Expectation B results in behavior B that prevents achievement of goal A

This description, practically, repeats the content of conflict in other words. The difference is that this explanation consists of events such as “Goal A”, “Expectation B”, and cause-and-effect relations between them, such as “results”, “prevents”, etc.

3.4 Graphical model of conflict

We can present the model explained above as the following cause-and-effect diagram built in Problem Formulator (TRIZ in Progress, 1999).:

This flowchart is easy to read: rectangles represent “desired events” and ovals are “undesired events”; crossed arrows show prevention and uncrossed demonstrate providing; continuous arrows symbolize desired relations, and dashed ones denote undesired ones.

4 Formulation of “Thinking Directions”

Utilization of this model of conflict allows formulation of a comprehensive set of “thinking directions” targeted at resolution of the dispute. These “directions” follow the simple rule:

  • Any component of situation should be checked for its changeability

  • Any component that can be changed should be changed according to its role in the situation

Any event and cause-and-effect relation involved in a situation is considered as a component of situation.

Rule is this simple, but not this obvious in a real life: people more likely assume something as non-changeable than verify the assumption and change a situation (Karrass, 1992). As a result, a situation seems non-resolvable, which it is not.

4.1 Changeable elements in the conflict situation

The conflict situation contains the following potentially changeable elements:

  1. Need to keep relationships with this particular opponent

  2. Disputant’s expectations about the opponent’s behavior

  3. Way the disputant wants this expected behavior to be realized

  4. Disputant’s behavior based on her or his expectations

  5. Opponent’s actions that, from disputant’s point of view, caused the conflict

  6. Goal that disputant wants to meet through desired opponent’s behavior

  7. Way to achieve the goal considered by disputant as one that needs the expected opponent’s behavior

  8. Obstacle that, in disputant’s eyes, prevents achievement of this goal

  9. Way to achieve this goal that, from disputant’s standpoint, was hindered by the obstacle

  10. Reasons why this obstacle seems out of disputant’s control

Combination of all those elements gave rise to the dispute; it is apparent that change in some of them can terminate the conflict.

4.2 Opportunities to resolve the conflict

Consideration of changeable elements of conflict situation gives an idea about the opportunities to resolve the dispute. For example, if

“Way to achieve the goal considered by disputant as one that needs the expected opponent’s behavior”

is considered as changeable, the opportunity can be formulated in general as

“Change the way to achieve disputant’s goal so that it does not need the expected opponent’s behavior”.

Now, this opportunity can be formulated in particular as follows:

“What other way can be used to achieve the [disputant’s goal] so that the [disputant’s expectation] is not anymore needed?”

One should replace text in parentheses with the appropriate information on situation.

Analogically, such “thinking directions” can be formulated both in general and in particular to all changeable elements.

Some of these directions work for Win-Win solution, and others work for Walk-Away alternatives.

4.3 Ways to take an opportunity

Each opportunity should be discussed with disputants separately, and no “invention” is needed at this moment. List of known ways to take the opportunity should be developed. Everything that comes to disputant’s mind must be listed without any criticism.

If the disputant does not have any idea for some opportunity, additional prompts could be offered. These prompts are based on system approach.

For example, if the issue

“How to improve the way to achieve the [disputant’s goal] so that it does not depend on neither [disputant’s expectation] nor [obstacle] ?”

is under consideration, the following prompts might help:

  • How the disputant’s efforts can be intensified?

  • What if disputant applies multiple similar or different efforts?

  • What kind of action could intensify the disputant’s efforts?

  • How to concentrate or focus the disputant’s efforts on achievement of this goal?

  • What additional approach can help in disputant’s efforts?

  • What efforts seem to be more effective in accomplishing this goal? How to replace current efforts with more effective ones?

  • What obstacles are on the way of disputant’s efforts? How to remove them in advance?

  • What kind of environment is more favorable for disputant’s efforts? How to shift to such an environment?

As these lists of additional questions in general are developed in advance, a mediator can simply use an appropriate list at a proper moment. If a mediator possesses information what efforts a disputant was trying or going to apply, this information can be used to formulate each question in particular, to make answering easier.

Disputant should not be creative to answer these questions, though the answers obviously give a lead to the opportunity realization.

5 Developing the Win-Win/Walk-Away solutions

Development of three conceptual alternatives for dispute resolution comprises the following steps:

  1. Collecting the ideas related to each Win-Win/Walk-Away solution

  2. Combining the ideas that “match”, support each other in concept

  3. Editing the concept

Then, each disputant should make a choice: what alternative, Win-Win or Walk-Away, seems better. If both disputants select the Win-Win solution, it is to be implemented; if at least one of them prefers the Walk-Away alternative, both disputants should decide in this way.

5.1 Collecting the ideas related to each Win-Win/Walk-Away solution

Collecting the ideas to each concept is easy.

Relate to Win-Win solution all ideas and known ways to take the following opportunities:

  1. Change the way the disputant wants the expected behavior to be accomplished

  2. Make the expected behavior happen so good that the conflict becomes insignificant

  3. Change disputant’s behavior while keeping her or his expectations intact

  4. Prevent conflict-rising opponent’s actions

  5. Change the way to achieve disputant’s goal so that it does not need the expected opponent’s behavior

Ideas and known ways to take all other opportunities should be related to Walk-Away alternatives.

Put ideas in the appropriate lists, in any order.

5.2 Combining the ideas that “match”, support each other in concept

The general intent of combination is as follows:

  • Any decision or agreement involves many actions, functions, events

  • Every function, action, event has many alternative ways to be accomplished

  • Every alternative needs many different resources to be properly accomplished

  • Every alternative brings its own set of resources that can be used to accomplish other event, function or action

It means that some combination of alternatives might become a self-supportive concept.

The following visual model describes this idea.

Desired solution can be represented as a rectangle:

Now, an idea is found:

Looks ugly, doesn’t it? This idea does not meet all needs and requirements, i.e. it has drawbacks. Usually, such an idea is to be discarded.

Now, while working with different alternatives, several other ideas have been found:

They are not perfect, as well, although they cover other areas of our need.

What happens if all these ideas are combined?

Combination covers the entire area, i.e. each idea compensates for weaknesses of others.

This kind of combining does not need any creativity. The only thing needed is to consider each idea as a support for others. However, the result might be highly unobvious, though novelty is not a goal in dispute resolution.

5.3 Editing the concept

As soon as such combinations are developed, they should be reasonably described. This is the purpose of editing.

5.4 Selecting the concept

Each disputant has to select which alternative seems the most beneficial to her or him. Then, all disputants should discuss their choices, and select the solution that meets their needs in the best way. They should agree on content of solution, plan of its implementation and mediator’s follow up.

6 Benefits

Suggested approach helps in mediation of complicated disputes and allows disputants to find mutually acceptable resolution of conflict situation. This approach is complimentary to and compatible with most of known conflict resolution techniques:

  • This approach is “positioned” between gathering information and planning the implementation stages of dispute resolution process

  • Its “input” includes all information recommended by traditional mediation methods to be gathered from disputants

  • Its “output” delivers the solution that meets all requirements to the Win-Win resolution of a conflict

  • As all “thinking directions” and additional questions in general are prepared in advance, they support regular mediator’s facilitating activities

As a result, mediator gains support that does not requires neither unusual changes in her or his approaches nor any additional training.

7 Acknowledgements

My appreciation belongs to my colleagues who helped me in this research: Vladimir Shapiro, Dana W. Clarke, Mark Barkan, Victoria Roza, Vladimir Nikitenko.

I am highly thankful to Barry Wright for explaining me the essence of Win-Win approach.

8 References

  1. Moore, C. W. The Mediation Process. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996

  2. Potter, B. From Conflict to Cooperation: How to Mediate a Dispute. Ronin Publishing, 1996

  3. Fisher, R., Ury, W., Patton, B. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Penguin, 1991

  4. Kreidler, W. Creative Conflict Resolution: More Than 200 Activities for Keeping Peace in the Classroom. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1984

  5. Von Oech, R. A Whack on the Side of the Head. NY: Warner Books, 1990

  6. Ideation International Inc. TRIZ in Progress. Southfield, MI: Ideation International Inc., 1999

  7. Heller, R., Hindle, T. Essential Manager’s Manual. DK Publishing, Inc., 1998

  8. Karrass, C.L. The Negotiating Game. Harper Business, 1992

  9. Gage, D., Martin, D., Gromala, J. What Partners Often Leave Unsaid. Conflict Resolution Journal, School of International and Public Affairs, <>, 2000

  10. Hicks, T. Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace. Conflict Resolution Resource Center, <>, 2000

9 About the author

Len Kaplan, 45, is a Technical Manager in Ideation International Inc. He received his M.S. degree (1977) from Nikolaev Shipbuilding Institute, Ukraine, in electrical engineering, and TRIZ Specialist certification (1981) from seminar conducted by Alla Zusman. Since 1988, works as TRIZ consultant, trainer and researcher.