Conflict resolution refers to the process of ending a conflict or a dispute by satisfying at least partially the needs of each side and addressing their interests. It is an interdisciplinary and a relatively new field of research that started to develop after World War II (1939-45).
Conflict scholars prefer to look for peaceful and non-contentious ways of resolving conflicts, which are believed to be more permanent than aggressive methods and the escalation they are likely to trigger.
Conflicts occur at every level of society. In terms of level they are most commonly classified into interpersonal, intergroup and international.
Scholars in the field differentiate between terms such as conflict resolution, dispute settlement, conflict management and conflict transformation.
Dispute generally refers to a short-term disagreement that has at its heart negotiable interests and that can be solved via negotiation, mediation or adjudication. Therefore dispute settlement is the reaching of a mutually satisfactory accord between the sides.
Conflicts, on the other hand, are more long-term and deeply rooted and usually stem from non-negotiable issues like fundamental human needs, moral clashes, or the distribution of resources like money or water.
Resolving a conflict requires identifying and tackling the underlying causes for the conflict. It means going beyond meeting the interests of the parties to satisfy their basic needs with respect to their mores and identities. Yet some intervention techniques, for example mediation, are used both in dispute settlement and conflict resolution.
Conflict management refers to the management of conflicts when resolution appears to be out of reach. The aim is to make the situation less destructive.
Some scholars and practitioners propose the use of conflict transformation as an alternative to conflict resolution or conflict management, suggesting that the destructive effects of a conflict can be transformed to the result that self-conceptions, relationships and social structures benefit rather than suffer from the conflict.
In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann outlined five approaches to handling conflicts: competing, accommodating, avoiding, collaborating and compromising. These approaches are based on the extent of cooperativeness and assertiveness. According to Thomas and Kilmann, each person tends to prefer a specific approach, while at the same time, different approaches are more appropriate in different situations.
The competing style is assertive and uncooperative. It is used by people who pursue their own interests at the expense of others and can take the form of standing up for one's rights, defending a position believed to be correct, or just trying to claim victory. It can be useful when quick decisions are required.
The accommodating mode is unassertive and cooperative and is the antipode of competing. A person using this approach is overlooking his own concerns in order to satisfy those of the other side. The mode involves a nuance of self-sacrifice and can manifest itself in generosity or charity, obeying an order against one's wish, or giving in to a different point of view. Accommodation is useful when the issue is more important to the other side, for example.
The avoiding style is both unassertive and uncooperative and a person using it is in fact not tackling the conflict. It might mean diplomatically evading an issue, delaying a problem until a more appropriate moment, or stepping away from a dangerous situation. This mode is useful in cases of impossible victory, insignificant disagreements, or when another party is better placed to resolve the problem.
Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative and means trying to engage with others to come up with a solution fully meeting their concerns. It can be used when a person needs to gather different viewpoints to achieve the best solution, in cases of earlier conflicts, or when the matter is of high importance.
Compromising is both somewhat assertive and cooperative. It seeks to find a fast, mutually satisfactory solution that meets some of the needs of the parties. It is somewhere in the middle between competing and accommodating. Compromising addresses a conflict in a more direct manner than avoiding, but explores it less profoundly than collaborating. The mode can manifest itself in dividing the difference between the two stances, trading concessions, or trying to arrive at a fast middle-ground agreement.
The style is appropriate when the conflict is more damaging than losing ground, when equally powerful sides are at a deadlock and when there is a deadline to be met.