Students Resolving Conflict

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Excerpted from Chapter 1: Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Students Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools by Richard Cohen


Why Collaborate When Resolving Conflict

The possibility of the win-win outcome, as well as other factors, necessitates an alternative to competitive conflict resolution. It requires collaborative conflict resolution.

When partiescollaborate to resolve conflicts, they work together to find a solution that satisfies both of their needs. Parties might not get everything they want, but they get enough of what they need to feel satisfied. Unlike competition, collaboration requires a respect for the needs of the other party, communication skills, patience, and creativity. And sometimes, collaborative solutions leave parties better off than if they had competed and won. Consider this example:

Mr. Dreyson, the high school drama teacher, had scheduled a 10:00 a.m. dress rehearsal for his cast. When he arrived at the auditorium five minutes early, he found the seats filled with hundreds of eighth grade students who were visiting the high school. Ms. Lau, the middle school counselor, was talking to the students from the stage. Mr. Dreyson politely interrupted and asked Ms. Lau to step to the side so that they could discuss this problem.

If each educator went forward with their activities as planned, they would distract each other to such a degree that both of their plans would be ruined (lose-lose). At first, both attempted to convince the other to reschedule his or her activity and leave the auditorium (win-lose), but neither succeeded with this approach. Finally, they devised a solution that, to their surprise, left them better off than before the problem arose (win-win):

  1. The high school actors would try on their costumes behind the curtain for the first 15 minutes while Ms. Lau finished her talk.
  2. The eighth grade students would then watch the drama students rehearse two songs.
  3. Finally, the middle school students would give Mr. Dreyson and his actors their opinions of the two songs they performed. One of the numbers had to be cut in order to shorten the play.

Mr. Dreyson and his students got an audience, while Ms. Lau and her students got an exciting taste of high school life.

On balance — and contrary to popular wisdom — parties usually do better for themselves when they collaborate to resolve conflicts than when they compete. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The other party's tactics will echo your own.
    As was discussed in regards to escalation, the manner in which parties approach a conflict is determined in reaction to one another. Taking a competitive approach to a conflict will probably convince an opponent (if he or she was not already so inclined) to do the same. They have little choice: Why collaborate when the other party will try to take advantage? And so the opponent will "echo" the competitive behavior, and try to beat the first party back (Axelrod 1984, 121).

    The problem is, when both parties compete, often neither gets what it wants. Manya and Susan both go home, frustrated and unable to agree whether to go to the park or to the restaurant; Mr. Dreyson and Ms. Lau, continuing with their programs in spite of each other, get little accomplished. When parties collaborate rather than compete, however, if one party echoes the other's behavior, it will be of a positive and collaborative nature. This increases the likelihood of achieving a win-win resolution.
  • Winning is not the only thing; the winner must collect what has been won.
    When one team wins a basketball game, it does not depend upon the losing team to certify or provide it with the win. But in interpersonal conflicts, the "winner" is often still dependent upon the loser: the loser must take actions or refrain from taking actions in order to achieve his or her goals.

    When people feel like losers, however, they usually will not go out of their way to help the person responsible for their loss. Perhaps they won't do what they claimed they would. Perhaps they will do it, but they will not do it well. Manya may go to the restaurant with Susan, but she may be miserable company. Ms. Lau may agree to end her presentation, but she may do it slowly and in such a way that it is a nuisance to Mr. Dreyson.

    When parties collaborate, the actions or resources one expects from the other will be more forthcoming, for they will be delivered by someone who is equally satisfied. Better that parties collaborate and receive all of what they need, than compete, win everything, and collect very little.
  • One party benefits from the other's wisdom.
    There is truth to the adage that two heads are better than one. One party might have access to information or resources that would enable both to craft a resolution superior to any that one could create alone. Susan might know of a restaurant that has outdoor dining in a courtyard even more beautiful than the park. Mr. Dreyson might be aware of other activities in school that Ms. Lau's students would enjoy seeing. Approaching conflicts in a competitive manner limits each party to just one head — his or her own. Solutions will be more sound when parties create them collaboratively.
  • What about the relationship?
    Whether the other party is your partner, child, teacher, student, colleague, or grocer, we have ongoing relationships with most of the people with whom we conflict. Sometimes our futures can become entwined even with people we least expect to meet again. The driver of the reckless car turns out to be a new neighbor. The long-lost boyfriend or girlfriend becomes a daughter's soccer coach. The former co-worker becomes the new boss.

    Competing with people usually deteriorates the quality of the relationship in other areas. Manya's and Susan's friendship may sour beyond repair. Ms. Lau and Mr. Dreyson's lack of trust may hamper their efforts on the union negotiating committee. People with whom one competes to resolve interpersonal conflicts will trust that person less, for they have first-hand experience of the competitor's lack of concern for their interests. And they will not seek to collaborate with him or her in the future.

    Collaborative conflict resolution, on the other hand, maintains healthy relationships. People will trust and seek out someone who collaborates because they know that he or she will work together with them to maximize joint gains. In an on-going relationship in which long-term interests outweigh short term ones, the future should "cast a shadow back" upon you, influencing the way that you handle conflicts in the present (Axelrod 1984, 12)
  • Parties will not have to "watch their backs."
    Competition can fix parties on a destructive course that is difficult to change even though it leads to mutual disappointment. This is because losers assume that they will need to compete even harder with you the next time. Manya suddenly realizes that she has "forgotten" her wallet, forcing Susan to pay for her dinner. Or Ms. Lau begins to spread rumors that Mr. Dreyson is difficult to work with. Even lying and violence have an undeniable utility when parties approach conflicts competitively: if it is a question of using dirty tricks or losing, using dirty tricks can seem like the best alternative.

    When parties collaborate, they will not waste time and energy dealing with unnecessary interpersonal tensions. Neither will they have to "watch their backs" in order to protect themselves from the attacks of others. Collaboration leads to a more trouble-free future.