International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution
In 1925—two decades before “A Theory of Cooperation and Competition” (Deutsch, 1949) and five decades before “Getting to Yes” (Fisher & Ury, 1981)—Mary Parker Follett presented her model for conflict resolution in a paper called “Constructive Conflict”. In it, she introduced the concept of cooperative problem-solving between disputants that could lead to agreements that fully satisfied both parties, an approach which she called integration.
Follett distinguished three different approaches to conflict: domination, compromise, and integration. Domination, she described, was characterized by a focus on winning, on victory over the other party, and she considered it to be the easiest way people dealt with conflict, as it required the least amount of investment and foresight. Compromise, on the other hand, was characterized by a focus on concessions, on giving up on some of one’s goals as bargaining chips, and Follett warned against the under-appreciated dangers of this method. She explained that, as compromise entails not achieving all that one desires, these unattained wants can lead to the conflicts recurring again or to new conflicts. The last method, integration, was characterized by a focus on fulfillment, on solutions that provided all parties with all that they desired, and this was the approach Follett offered as the most constructive form of resolution.
To successfully undertake integration, there were some important steps. The first is to uncover the true conflict, the true difference of interests between the parties. To do this, one must critically and honestly examine their own desires and needs, as well as those of the other party. Once the true conflict is revealed, one’s positions or demands should be re-assessed and broken up into their smallest components. Does the component part address a need in the true conflict or it is a symbol representing that need but not directly addressing it (for instance, a promotion at work may be a symbol for the need for more compensation or appreciation or power or opportunity)? An understanding of the true conflict and these component desires will allow the parties to come together and co-construct a solution that meets all expectations.
While this may be an ideal approach that is much too often overlooked, Follett acknowledged that there are some instances when it may be inappropriate, due to the fixed pie nature of the conflict. However, she posited that integration was underused, not because of the conflict being a fixed pie situation, but because of the many obstacles she identified as inhibiting the use of integration, including; lack of training in integrative skills, a predominant culture and language of competition, preference for theorizing over planning for conflict management, and unhelpful or unprincipled leadership.
Follett also provided some important tips to combat the obstacles and to successfully achieve integration. First is leveraging differences: differences in the way people think and believe and value things may be what led to some conflicts, but this is also how conflicts can be resolved. To be able to do this effectively, appreciate differences and bring them out in the open to be acknowledged and leveraged for a solution. In addition, there is reciprocal adjustment of ourselves and the situation: only adapting ourselves to the situation may lead us to diminish our needs, while only trying to change the situation to match our desires may lead us to impose unfairly upon others with different desires. Therefore, a balancing act is needed that incorporates both adjustment of ourselves and adjustment of the situation, conducted dynamically over the course of the negotiation.
In this way, Follett established the foundations for integrative negotiation with practical guidelines and applications that remain essential and powerful to this day.
Follet, M. P. (1973). Constructive conflict. In E. M. Fox & L. Urwick (Eds.), Dynamic administration: The collected papers of Mary Parker Follett (pp. 1-20). London: Pitman. (Original work published 1925)
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