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Conflict Analysis Needs Better Tools

Tree problem metaphor graphic


Conflicts happen when one party believes that another damaged or diminished their interests. When we take these beliefs to an extreme, possibly augmented by social media influencers, it becomes increasingly difficult to solve by negotiation. According to Bernard Mayer[1], conflicts have three dimensions: perception, feeling and action. There is a perception that one party’s interests, needs or values are incompatible with those of another, and feelings such as anger, fear, or sadness reinforce those opposing interests. Each of these dimensions can vary independently of the other, although they usually affect each other.

It is important to note that resolution, like conflict, has multiple dimensions. Resolution involves believing the conflict is ended, no longer feeling in conflict, and stopping conflict behavior and implementing new behaviors. Emotional closure often comes from having one’s key objectives acknowledged and addressed.   When the commitment and readiness for an agreement is high, a third party, such as an arbitrator or mediator, can achieve a negotiated resolution by helping parties decide to settle the dispute. Unfortunately, most times, resolving a conflict has focused primarily on signing a settlement agreement. Since most people have not been taught how to make long term logical decisions, the resulting settlement agreement can often result from a short-term emotional decision and may have longer-term negative consequences.  

Longer-term Logical Thinking

“Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” said Laibson[i], an economist in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert, and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog, and quit smoking.” Most of the research in this area shows that impulsive choices or preferences for short-term rewards result from the emotion-related parts of the brain (Limbic System) winning out over the abstract reasoning parts (Neocortex). As difficult as it is to understand, we often view future versions of ourselves as strangers. This inability to wrap our brains around the people we’ll be in the future leads to an emotional disconnect, in which we care less about the future because we just can’t relate to it.  According to neuroscientists, our brains have developed to attend to more immediate stimuli and cannot analyze the large quantities of data required for longer term decision making. Unfortunately, during conflict resolution, people are often required to make major decisions involving dozens of factors in their head without the aid of decision support tools or training in logical decision making. While an emotional decision to settle might bring an immediate end to a conflict, longer-term conflict behavior and negative financial consequences might persist.

With the growing complexity of major business sector globalization and the need to resolve complicated cross-border disputes, as well as the negative influence of social media on individuals, dispute resolution now requires more advanced conflict analysis.

Conflict Analysis

The challenge of conflict resolution for a neutral third party, especially in highly emotional & involved conflicts, is the challenge of grappling with complexity. The organic interconnectedness among diverse events and sectors, and their dynamic interplay, makes it difficult to develop an effective strategy to resolve the dispute. To understand the complexity, one can describe a conflict as an incompatible interaction between two or more actors, where one of the actors’(plaintiff) experiences damages, and the other actor (Defendant) causes this damage. Analysis of a conflict to find a resolution is about understanding the causes, and root causes, of the conflict. Many of the traditional conflict analysis models or frameworks (such as Bernard Mayer’s Lens analogy) do not address conflict resolution holistically as a system. Holistic approaches are those that consider systems in their entirety rather than just focusing on specific properties or specific components.

As a result, we can view of conflict and resolution in the following way:  

Diagram 1  Plaintiff (Actor 1), Defendant (Actor 2)  Red circles indicate areas for conflict analysis

Conflict Analysis Tools & Systems Thinking

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots… Today systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity.” – Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline.

In systems thinking, a leverage point is a place in a system’s structure where a solution element can be applied. It’s a high leverage point if a small amount of change force causes a large change in system behavior. In Diagram 1, I circled the high solution leverage points of the conflict resolution system in red. These are the areas where conflict analysis tools will provide the most leverage for conflict resolution.

According to Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, people are so self-confident in their rationality that they think all their decisions are well-considered. When we choose a job, decide how to spend our time, or buy something, we think we’ve considered all the relevant factors and are making the optimal choice. In fact, our minds are riddled with biases leading to poor decision making. We ignore data that we don’t see, and we weigh evidence inappropriately. To facilitate a good long-term resolution, we need conflict resolution tools that foster critical thinking and circumvent our inherent biases.

Resolution of a conflict is essentially a multi-criteria decision between the actors and their opposing priorities and motivation.  To be effective, conflict analysis tools must support longer term logical decision making and address conflict system high leverage points:

  • Elicit each actor’s understanding of the dispute. What has happened? Who did what? Who said what? The goal is to focus on observable facts only, without interpretation or influence from the neutral third party.
  • Understand the background interests, motivations, and objectives of each actor and their weighted priority. This priority should, as much as possible, be absent of inherent biases (emotional, confirmation, optimism, anchoring, etc.).
  • Facilitate brainstorming of potential options or alternatives for prioritization based on the weighted objectives.
  • Clear understanding of the reality of litigation and associated risks to help balance optimism and the motivation to win.

To summarize: The result of conflict analysis should at a minimum provide a detailed understanding of the conflict/dispute, logical priorities of each involved actor’s objectives, and a priority of options to be negotiated that are based on those objectives and a clear understanding of litigation risks.  

This information will help clients make logical decisions and aid the neutral third party in arriving at a more comprehensive, longer-term resolution of the dispute.

[1] The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, Bernard Mayer, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[i] Brain takes itself on over immediate vs. delayed gratification: Steve Bradt, The Harvard Gazette (2004)


Robert Bergman

Robert Bergman with Next Level Mediation provides full mediation services - including proprietary and confidential Decision Science (DS) analysis that assists each party in understanding their true litigation priorities as aligned with their business objectives. Each party receives a one-time user license to access our exclusive DS Application Cloud. We… MORE

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