By evaluating a conflict according to the five categories below — relationship, data, interest, structural and value — we can begin to determine the causes of a conflict and design resolution strategies that will have a higher probability of success.
Relationship conflicts occur because of the presence of strong negative emotions, mis-perceptions or stereotypes, poor communication or mis-communication, or repetitive negative behaviors. Relationship problems often fuel disputes and lead to an unnecessary escalating spiral of destructive conflict. Supporting the safe and balanced expression of perspectives and emotions for acknowledgment (not agreement) is one effective approach to managing relational conflict.
Data conflicts occur when people lack information necessary to make wise decisions, are misinformed, disagree on which data is relevant, interpret information differently, or have competing assessment procedures. Some data conflicts may be unnecessary since they are caused by poor communication between the people in conflict. Other data conflicts may be genuine incompatibilities associated with data collection, interpretation or communication. Most data conflicts will have “data solutions.”
Interest conflicts are caused by competition over perceived incompatible needs. Conflicts of interest result when one or more of the parties believe that in order to satisfy his or her needs, the needs and interests of an opponent must be sacrificed. Interest-based conflict will commonly be expressed in positional terms. A variety of interests and intentions underlie and motivate positions in negotiation and must be addressed for maximized resolution. Interest-based conflicts may occur over substantive issues (such as money, physical resources, time, etc.); procedural issues (the way the dispute is to be resolved); and psychological issues (perceptions of trust, fairness, desire for participation, respect, etc.). For an interest-based dispute to be resolved, parties must be assisted to define and express their individual interests so that all of these interests may be jointly addressed. Interest-based conflict is best resolved through the maximizing integration of the parties’ respective interests, positive intentions and desired experiential outcomes.
Structural conflicts are caused by forces external to the people in dispute. Limited physical resources or authority, geographic constraints (distance or proximity), time (too little or too much), organizational changes, and so forth can make structural conflict seem like a crisis. It can be helpful to assist parties in conflict to appreciate the external forces and constraints bearing upon them. Structural conflicts will often have structural solutions. Parties’ appreciation that a conflict has an external source can have the effect of them coming to jointly address the imposed difficulties.
Value conflicts are caused by perceived or actual incompatible belief systems. Values are beliefs that people use to give meaning to their lives. Values explain what is “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” “just” or “unjust.” Differing values need not cause conflict. People can live together in harmony with different value systems. Value disputes arise only when people attempt to force one set of values on others or lay claim to exclusive value systems that do not allow for divergent beliefs. It is of no use to try to change value and belief systems during relatively short and strategic mediation interventions. It can, however, be helpful to support each participant’s expression of their values and beliefs for acknowledgment by the other party.