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Book Reviews of The Handbook of Conflict Resolution and The Handbook of Dispute Resolution

Originally published in The Texas Mediator Fall 2007

Book Review

Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, Eric C. Marcus, editors.
The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass 2nd ed. 2006) 940 pp.

Michael L. Moffitt and Robert C. Bordone, editors. The Handbook of Dispute Resolution
(San Francisco, Jossey-Bass 2005) 546 pp.

The titles of these two books, Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Conflict Handbook) and Handbook of Dispute Resolution (Dispute Handbook), are so similar that professionals and students in the field(s) may confuse them if not comparing them side by side. This may be due to the fact that both are published by the same publisher, or perhaps it is that the words “conflict” and “dispute” in each of their titles are so similar that they are often used interchangeably.

In fact, the Dispute Handbook (the second of the two books) touches on what it considers a small difference between both words. “Conflict” is more often used by social scientists, while “dispute” is preferred by lawyers. This Handbook states that the difference, if any, is a matter of magnitude. “Conflicts are often seen as broader (involving more people), deeper (extending beyond surface issues into questions of value, identity, fear, or need), and more systematic (reaching beyond a single interaction or claim).” Yet, the Dispute Handbook suggests that differentiating between both labels is not as worthwhile as focusing on the problems, insights, and views of people observing and experiencing them. “We hope, the editors write, “that those readers trained in disciplines that are most accustomed to treating questions of conflict will join us in looking past terminological differences.”

The Conflict Resolution Handbook

In its introduction, the Conflict handbook offers three vivid examples of conflict; an interpersonal conflict involving a married couple, an intergroup conflict involving racial issues in a school; and an international conflict involving religious and nationality differences in Northern Ireland. A later section adds a fourth type, intrapsychic conflicts. All these types of conflict share many issues in common such as: cooperation-competition, social justice, motivation, trust, communication, language, attribution, emotions, persuasion, self-control, power, violence, judgmental biases, personality, problem solving, creativity, moral conflict, religious conflict, family and gender conflict, culture, intractability, managing conflict, and teaching resolution skills. At 940 pages, the Conflict Handbook is one of the most comprehensive books written on conflict resolution and, as such, is equally useful to the academician and the practitioner, the beginner and the expert. It is a compilation of chapters by various experts in their respective fields. Though the emphasis is on theory and the social psychological processes involved with conflict, the book covers a whole gamut of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research as applied to conflict studies. Many of its chapters are purposely divided in three equally important sections: theory, practical implications for understanding conflict, and practical implications for training in the subject matter.

The book is divided into eight parts: 1) Interpersonal and Intergroup Processes- including chapters on cooperation and competition, trust development and repair, power and conflict; 2) Intrapsychic Processes – including personal judgmental biases, emotions and self regulation; 3) Personal Differences – including comprehensive discussions of personality and conflict, the difference between the parties’ process orientation versus outcome goal orientation in conflict situations and, the importance that framing skills have on goal oriented parties; 4) Creativity and Change – including guidelines for developing creative approaches to conflict and the role of point of view; 5) Difficult Conflicts – discussing intractable conflict, moral, religious and civil rights cases, aggression and violence; 6) Culture and Conflict – including multicultural conflict resolution; 7) Models of practice – including mediation, teaching conflict resolution skills in a workshop, conflict in organizations and methods for managing conflict in large and small groups; 8) Looking to the future – covering the challenges faced by researchers and practitioners . In addition, the Conflict Handbook includes an invaluable list of recommended readings for further learning on the subjects covered by each chapter. All three Conflict Handbook editors are psychologists teaching at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), Teachers College, Columbia University. Deutsch is director emeritus, Coleman is the current director and, Marcus is both an alumnus and a current profesor at ICCCR.

The Conflict Handbook is not a how-to book with step-by-step advice for mediators. Instead, it is a source of ideas and thought-provoking information. By offering the full breadth of conflict resolution themes with plenty of theory and implementation advice, it successfully proves psychologist Kurt Lewin’s words that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”

Dispute Resolution Handbook

Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the field, the Dispute Handbook finds that each practitioner or scholar seems to have different frameworks for describing disputes and their resolution. This presents a challenge because “we cannot even agree on how to organize our observations—much less agree on the substance of those observations or what meaning to make out of them.” Nevertheless, the Dispute Handbook does a great job of organizing its 31 chapters by different experts into one cohesive whole.

The Dispute Handbook’s editors believe interdisciplinary work requires three activities: cutting-edge work, interdisciplinary exchanges, and synthesis. Their compilation of articles strives to offer all three. The book is divided into four parts: 1) Understanding Disputants; 2) Understanding Disputes and Dispute Contexts; 3) Understanding Dispute Resolution Processes; and 4) Emerging Issues in Dispute Resolution.

Part One touches on issues such as : the role of personality; decision perspective in negotiations; the power of positive emotions; relationship dynamics (replacing contention with cooperation); identity, beliefs, emotions, and negotiation success; cultural pathways; negotiation through a gender lens; as well as perceptions, stories, and conflict. Part Two includes chapters such as Disputes as Opportunities to Create Value; Using Negotiating Agents; Finding Settlement with Numbers, Maps, and Trees; Option Generation: Be Careful What You Ask For; Organizational Influences on Disputants; Ethics; and The Role of Law in Settlement. Part Three talks about negotiation; arbitration; litigation, consensus building; integrated conflict management systems, and mediation (by our own Texas professor Kim Kovach). It also includes a chapter on how to select among ADR procedures. Finally, Part Four discusses emerging issues such as strategies for organizational leadership; online dispute resolution; public and private international dispute resolution; victim offender mediation; youths and dispute resolution education; and institutionalization and professionalization of dispute resolution.

The Dispute Handbook was published in conjunction with the Harvard Project on Negotiation (PON). Editors Moffit and Bordone are both PON alumni. As such, though never losing sight of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this handbook leans towards the negotiation aspects of conflict resolution,

Conflict Handbook and Dispute Handbook compared

The books differ in their emphasis of theory or practice. Both strive and claim to address both sides of the coin. However, the Conflict Handbook is more theoretically inclined though it also explores how these theoretical ideas are relevant to the practice of conflict resolution. In contrast, though it addresses the importance of theoretical and multidisciplinary research, the Dispute Handbook “synthesizes” this research into “cogent, practitioner-focused chapters.”

Both handbooks are similar in that they cover many of the same issues and both end with questions that present challenges for the future.

The Conflict Handbook lists seven challenges faced by conflict resolution theorists, researchers and practitioners: How can a field that holds notions of neutrality and egalitarianism so dear work constructively and ethically in situations where intergroup dominance and oppression are the norm? How can readiness to resolve conflict constructively be fostered in individuals, groups and nations? How can people in the field of conflict resolution understand and develop skills in their role as change agents? How can our growing recognition of the importance of cultural differences be used to improve the practice of constructive conflict resolution and to help develop practical theories in this area that are universally valid? How can the field learn to better walk its talk and model how conflicts can be resolved constructively? How can we learn to learn about our methods and practices? How can we foster creative innovation in our thinking and our practice of resolving conflict constructively.

The Dispute Handbook lists four challenges: 1) How can we best respond to those who have voiced concerns with the application of dispute resolution principles? 2) How can we best address private resistance to dispute resolution in the work of practice? 3) How can we build bridges between the various disciplines working on questions of dispute resolution? 4) How can we develop new knowledge about dispute resolution processes and issues. (Some of the issues are: quantification of the costs and benefits of dispute resolution, multiparty dispute resolution, the role of culture, the role of emotions and, the use of effective teaching pedagogies and styles that will help transfer theory into practice).

In its conclusion, the Conflict Handbook tells “a story of hope” about a young military attaché to a United Nations ambassador who was so moved by a conflict resolution course at Columbia University that he expressed the belief that resolution of conflicts rested in peaceful, creative, non-military ways. Similarly, the Dispute Handbook tells of the existing “urgency” to find ways other than force and the threat of force. In the end both handbooks have one grand Utopian goal: that humans find better ways of resolving their conflicts and disputes, one as a matter of “urgency,” the other as a matter of “hope.” Both books are excellent, comprehensive resources that all conflict/dispute resolution professionals should have in their libraries and read more then once.


Josefina Rendon

A mediator since 1993, Judge Josefina Rendon has mediated over 1,500 disputes in a variety of areas including family, employment, personal injury and many other areas of law. For almost 4 years, she taught negotiation and mediated for the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy. She has been a Municipal Court Judge,… MORE >

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