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Conflict Analysis Models for Mediators and Other Practitioners


This is a handbook for conflict resolution practitioners aimed at helping them understand and analyze conflict more effectively in their work. To this end, this handbook introduces a number of conflict analysis models that are useful and practical in diagnosing conflict and understanding the dynamics of conflict in many different situations.

First of all, who is a “practitioner”? In other words, who might benefit from using and applying some of these models? Since this Handbook is focused on the nature of the conflict resolution process itself (which includes mediation as a large and significant subset of the conflict resolution field) we are not limited to “professional” practitioners. Conflict is a daily experience for most people, and in that sense, we are all practitioners when it comes to conflict resolution. Therefore, these models should be useful and applicable for all people who deal with conflict as a regular part of their job or life. In other words, these models and tools should be useful for anyone interested in improving their understanding of the causes and dynamics of conflict, and how to better manage them. For sake of simplicity, this Handbook will use “mediators” and “practitioners” interchangeably to mean “people who deal with and manage conflict”.

Secondly, why do we need conflict analysis models at all? To answer that question, we need to recognize that mediation (and conflict resolution as used daily by most people) is primarily a “practice profession”, which means that the purpose, intention and value of applied conflict resolution skills (whether within a mediation context or not), is in their successful application to specific situations of conflict. It is a practical, results-focused process aimed at getting, or helping people get, better outcomes when dealing with difficult situations or issues. To do this, some guiding principles in the form of models or frameworks are invaluable.

It should be noted that this is not a call to introduce more “theory” or more academic understanding into the process. While theory and academic knowledge can be excellent things to have more of, they are often of little help to a practitioner in a given situation. In reality, academic and theoretical knowledge helps give practitioners a general foundation, but rarely helps with specific situations in a directly applicable way. If theoretical knowledge is the general foundation for the field, then models are the specific frameworks that guide the application of some of that theoretical knowledge in practice. This Handbook is not focused toward more theory, but rather on models that can be used in very practical and applicable ways. To start us off, we need to look a bit more in depth at what some of the key characteristics of a practice profession are.

The Nature and Structure of Practice Professions

It’s instructive to first take a look at the specific nature of what we call a “practice” profession. A practice profession, quite simply, is a profession (or segment of a profession) aimed at helping individual people solve specific functional problems. It is distinguished here from professions (or segments of a profession) that focus more generally on research and theoretical applications of knowledge. There are numerous professions that have a significant practice component to them, professions as diverse as medicine and law, ranging all the way to technical professions such as civil engineering and even auto repair. The nature of every practice profession is that the first critical skill the practice professional must have is the ability to diagnose, the ability to determine the root cause of a specific problem.

For example, when a patient sees their doctor, the first thing that the doctor must arrive at is a diagnosis of the problem; indeed, everything flows from the diagnosis, and little is done until a diagnosis is reached. During the diagnostic process, if there is any doubt about either the diagnosis, or the recommended course of action (i.e. intervention) that flows from the diagnosis, a “second opinion” is often sought out before any treatment is considered. Similarly in law or engineering, or even car repair, little can be done until the professional understands exactly what the problem is, and based on that, recommends or conducts an intervention. Few of us would accept a professional saying, “Well, I’m not sure why your teeth are hurting, so I’m going to try pulling a few of them to see if it helps.” Few of us would return to an auto repair shop that randomly replaced part after part hoping that this will eventually solve the problem.

If diagnosis is the first key ability for a practice professional, it’s important to understand how the diagnosis process works, and where it fits for the practitioner. In general, most diagnosis has its roots in the theoretical background knowledge of the field. For example, once a mechanic understands the theory that the transmission of a car is responsible for sending power to the wheels, if a car won’t move while the engine is running, the mechanic starts looking at the transmission as the source of the problem. Once a doctor understands the digestive tract and what functions it performs, when a patient presents with abdominal pain immediately after eating food, the doctor will start investigating the digestive system first. Some theoretical knowledge is therefore necessary for good diagnosis skills.

In highly complex fields, however, theory is not enough for good diagnosis. In addition to some grounding in theory, practitioners need effective models and diagnostic frameworks to achieve a good diagnosis. For example, heart disease is one of the most common diseases in the world. There is extensive “deep” theory and knowledge about how high levels of cholesterol contribute to heart disease, including complex mechanisms for how high levels of cholesterol in the blood contribute to fat slowly building up on the to arterial walls, narrowing them and making the heart work too hard, leading to heart attack. The theories about these mechanisms, however, are not overly helpful in diagnosing any given individual patient. Consequently, doctors have devised a simple model that measures cholesterol levels in the patient, and states if cholesterol is over a certain limit, specific actions and interventions are put in place to help correct the problem. The doctor, using a simple tool (a blood test) follows a simple model for diagnosing and intervening that requires very little of the “theory” behind the model for the practitioner to be effective in helping the patient.

We have been using the terms “theory” and “model” in specific and different ways so far, and this leads us to a key question: What is the difference between a “theory” and a “model”?

Theories vs. Models in a Practice Profession

Typically, the terms “theory and “model” are used almost interchangeably, and indeed there is overlap in their meaning. There are also some key differences, especially in the context of a practice profession.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of “theory” includes:

  • “abstract thought”, and
  • “a general principle or body of principles offered to explain a phenomena”, and
  • “an unproved assumption”

These definitions indicate that theories are broad principles, proven or not, and are often related to abstract thought of a high order. Theories are strongly related to research, to the testing of hypotheses or principles to see if they are true. In the scientific method, if a theory is not verified or cannot be proven true, it is discarded as false or unusable.

This scientific approach is found in many professions (including social sciences and conflict resolution), and is typically labeled the “research” side of the field. In the sciences, “pure”, or “theoretical”, or “deep” research, are terms used for research that initially gives little or no thought to practical uses or applications, focusing instead on uncovering foundational principles with little regard for whether they are “practical”. There is a great deal of money spent and many people engaged in this type of research in many fields, including the field of conflict resolution. Separate from this research component of most fields, there is also a “practice” or applied branch of the field centred around “practitioners”, who take the existing knowledge of the field and determine how to directly apply that information to individual patients or clients.

The term “theory”, therefore, seems to point us in the direction of abstract investigation with less, or little, applicability to the practitioner. The practitioner, on the other hand, is focused on learning the clinical skills and tools that help them apply knowledge and information directly with clients or patients. For practitioners, very little “deep” theory is directly useful and applicable in a clinical setting.

This is precisely why many professions describe a significant split in their fields between research and practice, between theoretical work and the application of that knowledge with clients. As in many fields, this significant gap between theory and practice exists because practitioners rarely see how the majority of research conducted helps them as practitioners. In many cases (though certainly not all) research is either too general or too esoteric to be easily understandable, let alone directly applicable in the field. For this reason, a great deal of important information rarely (or only very slowly) makes its way to the practitioners in the field.

Models, however, can be something quite different from theory. Mirriam-Webster defines “model” with some of the following definitions:

  • “a description or analogy used to help visualize something that cannot be directly observed”, and
  • “to produce a representation of”

Models, then, as we are using the term, have a few unique characteristics. Good models are structures or representations that approximate reality, but in a simpler and clearer way. Maps, for example, are a form of model, in that they represent reality (i.e. the streets of a city), but in a smaller and simpler way (it fits in our pocket, where the city streets themselves clearly do not), so that they can help guide us to where we want to go. In the same way, conflict analysis models are maps, maps of conflict processes that are simplified to help us understand where we are, and where we can go in the situation that will help us reach the goal of resolution.

It is clear, then, that a model is different from a theory in a number of ways. First, it is not burdened with whether it is “true” or not, but rather is burdened by the more functional test of whether it is helpful and useful in “mapping” or simplifying what it represents. A model is a device that helps us see more clearly and work with complexity. As described by Robert and Dorothy Bolton,

An elegant model is a useful simplification of reality. It enables you to ignore a mass of irrelevant or less relevant details so you can focus on what is most important. A model shows what to look for, helps identify meaningful patterns, and aids in interpreting what you see. In other words, a model helps cut thought the distracting aspects of a situation so you can better grasp the essence of what you want to understand.” (emphasis in original)

Models help and assist practitioners in accomplishing practical goals. For example, when going to visit a friend in an unfamiliar city, we often rely on hand-written maps that our friend gives us to find his house. These maps are often crude and delete vast amounts of information about the city, concentrating only on key landmarks and streets that are on the way to the house. These maps are rarely to scale, and would be useless in finding anything but the friend’s house. And all that said, it is still an effective model that is first rate in getting us to that one location. It simplifies a great deal of complexity, and is useful for the task at hand.

For the above reason, we do not need to worry whether a model is “true” or “right” per se, but whether the model is useful and helpful with a specific problem; if it is, we use it, and if it isn’t, we don’t discard it forever as “false”, we simply don’t use it in this situation. For example, if I am in Toronto and I pull out a map of Vancouver, the map isn’t deemed false and thrown away. It is simply not useful to me in Toronto, and I put it away until I’m back in Vancouver where it will once again be useful. For this reason, the practitioner, like the experience traveler, carries numerous maps that may be needed on the trip.

Conflict analysis models, then, should be invaluable to practitioners in the field, and should be a core part of any mediator’s training. So how much training in diagnostic models, in frameworks for analyzing and understanding the root causes of conflict, do new mediators get? The short answer is: virtually none.

A brief look at the training outlines for a number of 40-hour mediation workshops taught in Canada reveal that the class time is spent in three primary areas: first, a step-by-step mediation process, often a 4-step or 8-step process; secondly, on a laundry list of mediation and communication skills that are practiced in the workshop; and finally, the mediation process and the list of skills are practiced in role-play situations. Few of these courses teach or spend time on anything resembling a diagnostic or conflict analysis process. Practice-based training, then, seems to be focused solely on face-to-face skills and a simple process model for mediation.

Conflict Analysis Models

Diagnosis, as stated before, is about understanding the causes, and root causes, of a problem or issue. It is the process of learning about, understanding and framing the conflict in a way that has coherence and makes sense. To this end, the effective mediator needs a range of diagnostic models, frameworks that help organize and make sense of a wide range of situations, to help her. This is exactly what good conflict analysis models offer the practitioner.

Because conflict situations can be so diverse, and because models are not exclusive representations of “truth”, we are not looking for a single model of conflict that will help us in all situations. Rather, we are looking for a number of models of conflict analysis that will help us in different situations, different circumstances, and with different people. Said another way, there are many, many different points of view or frameworks by which to understand conflict, many of which can be valid and useful. This Handbook, therefore, contains a number of different models that approach conflict situations from different points of view, all of which can be useful in different situations.

As described by Bernard Mayer, these frameworks and models are essential for the practitioner:

“A framework for understanding conflict is an organizing lens that brings a conflict into better focus. There are many different lenses we can use to look at conflict, and each of us will find some more amenable to our own way of thinking than others…. We need frameworks that expand our thinking, that challenge our assumptions, and that are practical and readily usable.”

Mayer’s “lens” analogy is useful. For example, conflict can be viewed through a cultural lens, a communications lens, a personality lens, a structural lens, a type of conflict lens, a dynamics of conflict lens, and many more. This means that an effective practitioner has to have a constellation of diagnostic models to help frame and understand a given situation, choosing the one(s) that will help create effective interventions.

That said, good, or effective models do have some characteristics in common. When focusing on effective conflict analysis models, this Handbook will present models that are simple and implementable. It needs to meet the practitioner’s test, which is, “Does applying this model help me understand the problem, and help me decide what to do next?” Effective models and tools attempt to strike a fine balance between simplicity and complexity; a model that is overly complex will not be put to use by a practitioner, and a model that is overly simple does not address enough of the principles and knowledge of conflict behaviour to be effective. This Handbook, then, is focusing on a specific type of conflict analysis model. This type of model will have a clear conceptual underpinning (one that offers some clear understandings of the “why” of the conflict”), combined with ideas for the practitioner on what they can do next, what intervention will help manage or resolve the conflict.

The two requirements for an effective conflict analysis model can be described this way:

1. Depth of Diagnostic Capability – This looks at how complex or detailed the proposed model is. The more complex and conceptual the diagnostic model is, the more it will reflect the actual complexity that situations of conflict present. The depth of the diagnosis can be extreme, such as Rummel’s unified theory of conflict in his book, “The Conflict Helix” , which proposes a single, detailed model for understanding all conflict, from the interpersonal to the geo-political; or it can address only one of the many dimensions of a conflict.

2. Level of Strategic Guidance – This dimension assesses how clear and focused the model is in giving strategic direction to the practitioner. The more strategic direction the model gives, the more practical and applicable it becomes (and the more likely it will actually be used in conflict situations.)

The following chart below will help to clarify these two dimensions:

By looking at this classification system for diagnostic models, it becomes clear that we are looking for a specific class or type of model, one that balances depth of diagnostic complexity against ease of practical application. In other words, we are looking for models and tools that centre around Point B on the graph.

Point “A”: Models at Point A would be highly complex, detailed or theoretical, and relatively non-practical. For example, Rummel’s Conflict Helix would rate fairly high on the diagnostic scale, but would rate much lower on the strategic scale, in that it offers little in the way of concrete strategy for using the theory directly in the wide range of conflict types it diagnoses.

Point “C”: Models that locate at Point C would be purely tactical skill applications in conflict resolution work. For example, the skill of asking open questions, a widely accepted tactical skill, is (relatively) easy to apply and practice. This skill, however, comes with little theoretical understanding of why asking questions is useful, when it should be used, or what conceptually it accomplishes.

Point “B”, Practical Conflict Analysis Models: Models that locate around and (perhaps) beyond Point B are the models that this Handbook presents. Point B models offer a clear conceptual framework for diagnosing a conflict, are simple to apply, and offer some clear direction to the practitioner for interventions that may help.


In summary, then, this Handbook is focused on a key missing link, conflict analysis models that practitioners can use to both diagnose a conflict situation, as well as gain some guidance around what intervention might help and why. These models need to be simple, useful maps or frameworks that help the practitioner as they work with each specific situation that is encountered in practice.

The balance of the Handbook will be focused around presenting these models, and it will do so in a very specific way. Immediately following will be a summary of the six models, and a detailed case study of a complex conflict situation. Each model will be presented in detail, and then applied to the same case study, so the reader can gain an appreciation of how the model is used, and how different models will give the practitioner different viewpoints, different diagnoses, and different options for intervention. It should be emphasized again that none of these models are “true” or “right”, that there is more than one way of assessing and intervening in a given conflict, and indeed that is the strength of using different models or maps.


Gary T. Furlong

Gary Furlong has extensive experience in mediation, mediation training, alternative dispute resolution, organizational facilitation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Gary is past president of the ADR Institute of Ontario, is a Chartered Mediator (C. Med.) and holds his Master of Laws (ADR) from Osgoode Hall Law School. As a mediator, Gary… MORE >

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