• Post category:Negotiation

The Challenge of Unproductive Conflict

Leaders, facilitators and consultants are frequently called upon to mediate conflict between competing viewpoints and positions. Warring factions within coalitions, neighborhood groups and within organizations block progress and make life miserable for those who wish to rise above the dissension and move forward with some degree of consensus. Progress can prove difficult when mediating conflict across seemingly intractable factions.

Getting to Yes without Giving In

More than thirty years ago, Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project in the best-selling business book, Getting to Yes without Giving In, introduced millions to the art of interest-based, principled negotiation. Whether discussing labor/management negotiations, international treaty negotiations or divorce, the Harvard Law professors taught that traditional positional bargaining was ineffective. They described the downfall of “soft” bargainers and the stubbornness of “hard” bargainers in the unproductive dance of positional bargaining. One side stays tough. The other side waits. The process can go on forever until eventually someone caves, or not.

With interest-based, principled negotiation, also known as problem-solving negotiation, the process can be far more productive.

Toxic Conflict and the Nonprofit Sector

Non-profits, community organizations as well as relationships are confronted with conflicts and the need to negotiate over issues such as use of facilities, budgets, personnel, programmatic and mission priorities.  Healthy organizations develop group skills to negotiate conflict productively.  Unfortunately, many organizations are plagued with deeply rooted patterns of group behavior that block effective management and resolution of both small and large conflicts.

The nature of many nonprofits complicates the picture.  Dedication to a non-profit’s mission is imbued with powerful emotions and loyalties.  Our deepest hopes, fears and passions are the material from which non-profits serve community needs, often with scarce or limited resources of time, people and money.  At the same time, conflict is often viewed as unseemly or antithetical to the organization’s purpose. Conflict may be denied, suppressed or manipulated if the organization has not learned healthy ways to negotiate conflict.  When a nonprofit learns productive ways of managing conflict, its life can be infused with energy, passion and creativity.

When organizations go through times of protracted, divisive conflict without healthy resolution, future conflicts whether small or large, will tend to mirror destructive behaviors that have may be years, even decades old.  As a reaction to such trauma, unconscious, deeply imbedded rules and structures of decision-making may unknowingly shape group behavior in harmful ways.  The result will be an inordinate amount of energy and resources directed into dirty, non-productive fighting rather than furthering the mission and program of the nonprofit.

Bringing these imbedded patterns to consciousness and learning and practicing new ways to fight fairly leads to a strong, healthy organization fully engaged in service to its mission.

Interest-Based Principled Negotiation

Though the appropriate conflict management strategy varies from situation to situation, one effective process that is often helpful is “Interest-based, Principled Negotiating” developed by Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  The process that Fisher developed is based on research that examined power and communication dynamics in the areas of divorce mediation, international arms negotiations and labor-management disputes. The method has also proven effective in cross-cultural conflicts. Fisher contrasts his interest-based approach with the familiar, yet often unproductive negotiation procedure that Fisher calls “positional bargaining.”  In positional bargaining, conflicted parties stake out positions, argue their merit and then attempt some combination of holding fast, modifying, compromising and making concessions.  Positional bargainers may be either weak or strong.  “Weak” bargainers prefer building and maintaining relationships and usually yield to “strong” bargainers who insist on concessions and make threats.  Agreements produced through positional bargaining tend to be fragile, sloppy and usually favor the hard bargainer.

Interest-based, principled negotiating provides a welcome and effective alternative to positional bargaining.  The method helps to produce wise agreements if agreements are possible.  It is efficient and improves relationships, or at least, does not damage them. Fisher lists four basic steps to the method:

  1. Separate the people from the problem.

This step recognizes that strong emotions often get entangled with the objective merits of a problem.  Taking positions often leads people’s egos to become entangled with their positions.  Therefore, before working on a substantive problem, people’s emotions should be disentangled from the substance and dealt with prior to working side-by-side on the problem.  This permits the problem to be attacked, not each other.

  1. Focus on interests, not positions.

A negotiating position often obscures what a party really wants.  Underlying every position is an interest.  Until underlying interests are satisfactorily met, no amount of positional bargaining will succeed.  Declaring a coercive bottom line (hard bargaining) rarely results in an agreement that is owned and upheld by all parties without laying the mines of its future destruction (passive non-compliance).  Alternatively, interests deal with people’s underlying motives, needs, desires, concerns and fears.  Your position is something you’ve decided upon.  Your interest is what caused you to decide.  Reconciling interests rather than positions works because, first of all, for every interest there usually exist several positions that could satisfy it.  When you look behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only your interests but theirs as well.  Secondly, behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests as well as conflicting ones.  Shared interests and differing interests provide the building blocks for a wise and lasting negotiation.

To arrive at people’s underlying interests requires empathetically asking “Why?” and “What?” questions of each position that is taken.  Also ask “Why not?”  Think about why they have made the choice they have made.  If you’re trying to change their minds, try to figure out where their minds are.  Each side has multiple interests.  List them.  Have them explained.  Declare interests boldly, but be soft on the people.  Rarely does each side have the same, identical interests.  Identify and name the problem areas.

  1. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.

Invent options for mutual gain.  Brainstorm.  List.  Avoid premature judgment.  Avoid searching for a single answer.  Banish the assumption that the pie is fixed or shrinking.  Do not think that “solving their problem is their problem.”  Engage all in generating options.  Star the most promising ideas.  Strengthen the most promising ideas.  Name whether underlying interests are likely to be met.  There may be more than one best solution.

  1. Insist that the result be based on some objective criteria.

Interests conflict.  Glowing talk about “win-win solutions” cannot conceal the harsh reality that many times interests conflict.  Differences cannot be swept under the rug.  Positional bargainers attempt to deal with these differences by talking about what they are and are not willing to accept.  Hard bargainers give bottom lines.  Soft bargainers make generous offers seeking to preserve peace and friendship.  The negotiation deteriorates into a contest between wills or who can be more generous and often is neither efficient nor amicable.  The solution is to negotiate on some basis independent of the will of either side–that is, on the basis of objective criteria.  The selected solution should be based on principle, not pressure or whim that fail to stand the test of time.

Selecting objective criteria can be based on either fair standards or fair procedures.  Fair standards can grounded on several things: precedent, efficiency, costs, moral standards, equal treatment, tradition, reciprocity, etc.  Conflicted groups through the process of negotiation discern which objective standards will be used to weigh the appropriateness of the best solutions.  Alternatively, a fair procedures approach is another way of providing an objective means for resolving conflicting interests.  Fair procedures can include the decision to let another, more objective group decide like the Board of Directors.

To determine which standards shall be used to measure a successful negotiation, frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.  The process is an intuitive one.  Standards emerge as the other steps are taken.  Be willing to use reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.  Do not yield to pressure, only to principle.  Ask “What’s your theory?”  “What value do you base this on?”  Ask some questions as “Is this the precedent you want to set?”  “Is this the standard of fairness that you want to utilize for similar situations?”

For More Ideas and Resources

For help with your organization’s challenges and an array of innovative solutions, check out my website at https://civicreinventions.com. Then email me at mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com or give me a call at 626.676.0287. I will respond personally to every inquiry.

Dr. Mark Smutny is a nonprofit consultant specializing in conflict resolution services. He teaches, writes and consults on ways for nonprofits to turn unproductive conflict to mission success.  He is the award-winning author of the book Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd. Ed.

© 2024 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved. May be copied with permission.