Non-adversarial Conflict Resolution

The title of this paper may appear awkward or contradictory, but it is the best way for me to suggest a new way of approaching conflict resolution. This new approach involves conceiving of conflict in a very different fashion and acting accordingly. However, it offers real hope and is not so unknown to us as we may at first think.

Adversarial Conflict Resolution

In the West conflict resolution has largely involved adversarial procedures. Notions that there are two sides to every conflict, laws to protect the rights of adversaries, and procedures for the adjudication of conflicts are central to Western culture. Because of this way of thinking, the legal system has become the primary means by which conflicts are resolved. The legal resolution of a conflict is understood as a matter of seeking justice, a judgment which will fairly determine the resolution of a conflict between two parties.

As the courts in Western countries have become clogged with cases, parties seeking to resolve conflicts have increasingly turned to arbitration, mediation and conciliation procedures. These procedures usually bring the parties together to seek a compromise to their conflict. If agreement can be reached between the parties, it is felt that the conflict is resolved. The question of justice is not explicitly raised, but the assumption is that parties will not agree to a resolution that is unjust.

The nature of all these procedures for conflict resolution is adversarial. The interests of one party are seen in opposition to the other. Whether the conflict is adjudicated or negotiated, each party is in the position of defending its position against the other. The use of lawyers to defend the rights of the respective parties will generally intensify the adversarial nature of the conflict, for lawyers are trained to present the interests of their client without acknowledging the legitimate interests of their client's opponent.

When this adversarial style of conflict resolution is employed in political or social conflicts, the procedures are less clearly defined but the nature of the process remains the same. In collective bargaining or political negotiation the advocates for the parties in conflict behave aggressively and overstate their positions, in order to have something to give up without giving away too much. It is understood that each party must give up something to resolve the conflict, but each wants to gain as much as possible and lose as little as possible. It appears obvious to both parties, that a loss for one is a gain for the other.

Adversarial conflict resolution can be more or less fair, more or less unpleasant, more or less formal, more or less divisive. However, in the adversarial approach to conflict resolution the conflict is resolved, by definition, when the process in completed. The judgment imposed or the settlement agreed to is the resolution of the conflict. The conflict is defined as the issue between the two parties, and once that issue is disposed of the conflict is resolved.

Thus, whether the parties feel hatred or respect for one another, whether they believe the judgment was just or the settlement was fair, whether they desire retribution or feel reconciled, in adversarial conflict resolution the conflict is resolved with the outcome of the adversarial procedures. The feelings of the parties with respect to the resolution of the conflict are irrelevant.

Of course, where parties in conflict remain in relation to one another, because they are divorced and share the parenting of their children, or because they are employed in the same company and must work together, or because they dwell in the same community and must live together, the feelings of the parties with respect to the resolution of the conflict are extremely important. If one or both of the parties feels the resolution of the conflict was unfair or unjust, then the conflict will continue in new ways.

Thus, for conflicts where the parties must continue to cooperate in some way, it would seem best to minimize the adversarial nature of conflict resolution. How might this be done? What procedures would be helpful in this regard? How might we think about conflicts so they can be resolved in non-adversarial ways?

Non-adversarial Conflict Resolution

Not surprisingly, the way we conceive of a conflict is the key to a resolution which allows continuing cooperation. If we see a conflict as two sides in opposition to each other, then we are in an adversarial frame of mind regardless of how considerate it might be. However, if we see a conflict as a matter of being out of tune with each other, much as two members of an orchestra might be out of tune, then we may conceive of the resolution of the conflict as a matter of the parties adjusting their positions with respect to each other in the context of their community, much as members of an orchestra tune to each other by tuning to the orchestra as a whole.

The metaphor of the orchestra is worth considering in more detail. Two instruments which are out of tune with each other are not only in conflict with each other but with the rest of the orchestra. Of course, one may be in tune with the orchestra, as the problem may simply be with the other. Or both may be out of tine with the rest of the orchestra. In reality, as instruments change while they are being played, tuning is an ongoing process for all the members of the orchestra. The orchestra remains in tune, if all its members continue to make small adjustments in order to stay in tune with one another.

If we were to apply this metaphor to conflicts between people, we would arrive at the following conclusions. First, a conflict does not merely involve two parties but also involves those who are related to them in various ways. Thus any definition of a conflict which isolates the two parties fails to due justice to the reality of the conflict. That is, conflicts are not just two-sided but many-sided, and thus an adversarial process which ignores this fact will not lead to resolution of the conflict.

This means a party to a conflict who seeks to adjust his or her position in order to resolve the conflict need not see this as giving up something which the other party therefore gets. That is, the making of adjustments to resolve a conflict need not be conceived as merely a matter of distributing benefits between two parties, where if one gives up something the other gets it. Those in conflict, who tune themselves in order to seek harmony, are benefiting themselves as well as all those who are affected by their conflict.

Second, the process of non-adversarial conflict resolution is not a matter of bargaining back and forth between two parties, but of making small adjustments experimentally in relation to all those who are touched by the conflict and evaluating these adjustments to see if the result is an improvement in the situation. There are many possibilities in any given conflict to improve relations with those who are involved, and one is encouraged to try some rather than simply focus on the issues which are known to be divisive.

Third, the goal is not merely a decision with respect to the relative merits of the parties or agreement between them, but reconciliation of the parties. Of course, the relative merits of the parties are of concern, but the objective is not merely an adjudication of their interests or a settlement of their claims but reconciliation of the parties in conflict. Those who are the greater cause of disharmony will have to adjust more, if there is to be harmony, but it is understood that all who are involved will need to make some adjustment. The adjustment of all, whether great or small, is part of the process of seeking harmony and reconciliation.

Fourth, the resolution of conflict is understood as an ongoing responsibility for living in harmony with all those who are involved, not merely the formal conclusion of a dispute between two parties. Those who have had only a minor part in the conflict may find that they have significant opportunities to help maintain the harmony that has been restored. Thus they may bear responsibilities equal to or greater than the parties to the conflict. Even as the harmony of an orchestra during a symphony requires tuning by all its members over the course of the whole piece, so the reconciliation of parties to a particular conflict will only be sustained if the other members of their community continue with them to make accommodating adjustments.

In summary, non-adversarial conflict resolution involves: 1) recognizing the many sides of a conflict and the mutual benefits of resolving it, 2) attempting and evaluating non-adversarial actions which appear to be helpful, 3) seeking reconciliation rather than simply justice, and 4) accepting personal responsibility for the well-being of one's community and its members.

Using the Non-adversarial Approach

If one were to apply this approach to the conflict between parents who are divorcing, one would suggest that the parents consider the affects of their actions not only on each other and their children but on their extended families and common friends. How are the children of this broken family to maintain their relations with grandparents and favorite aunts? How are those who have been brought together by this marriage, relatives and friends, to sustain their friendships? And how are they to continue to care for the husband and wife who feel they cannot continue their marriage?

Actions which might be helpful in this situation would involve relatives and friends, and not just the two parties to the dissolution. Members of the extended families and friends could do things with the children which continue the sense of belonging which is so threatened by a divorce. Communication between those who have been brought together by the marriage should continue, and the parties to the divorce should hear from their inlaws that they are still welcome. Finally, the extended families can absorb some of the anger that the parties to the divorce and their children will feel. This will help both the husband and wife to be more sensitive to the feelings of the other, as they settle the issues between them. Moreover, it will help the children not blame themselves for the divorce or their parents.

These actions need to be evaluated, and changes should be made as the situation changes. Persons who are not very directly related to the conflict, may find themselves able to contribute a great deal. A favorite aunt or uncle may be able to play a major role, not merely with the children, but with one or both of the parties to the divorce. These extended family members can help keep the focus on the well-being of the children and the need for the parents to become reconciled to the hurt and loss the divorce will bring to each. Lawyers who exacerbate the conflict should be avoided or dismissed. Economic issues should be analyzed with respect to the well-being of the children and the parties to the divorce.

Finally, after the divorce, relatives and friends need to maintain a continuing relationship with the children and their parents, to help them all feel that they are loved, and to enable them to put away their anger and maintain their friendships and relations with family members. Again, the most important actions may come from persons who were distant from the original conflict, but who find opportunities to help reconcile those who have been divided by it.

How might non-adversarial conflict resolution be applied to a situation involving communities or peoples? Through education and analysis, the conflict must be defined as including all those who are actually affected and involved. This means looking beyond the two parties who find themselves in conflict to identify the neighboring communities or peoples or institutions which are affected. What groups have contributed to the events which have led up to this conflict? What groups can contribute to its resolution and the reconciliation of those in conflict?

Then non-adversarial actions must be identified, attempted and evaluated. These will be indirect ways of getting at the problem by opening new lines of communication, by finding common areas of concern, by acting in ways which break down stereotypes and make friendship possible, by admitting wrongs in the past, by envisioning new ways of addressing old issues, by living in small ways the larger reconciliation which is sought. Those who are not directly involved in the conflict can contribute a great deal to its resolution by reinforcing the many-sided nature of the issues, and by acknowledging a share of responsibility for the creation of the conflict and its resolution.

Those who seek reconciliation must temper their talk of justice, as the assertion of just claims will inevitably invoke arguments about blame and the duty of the other to address the evil that has been done. While the issues of the conflict must be settled, in a sense there is wisdom in the biblical injunction to leave the justice between peoples to God. For only God can know the whole truth of the conflict, the complex interaction of causes that bring communities into conflict. Our task is not justice, but reconciliation which makes justice possible. This means acknowledging the wrongs of the past and working for a more just situation in the future. Our goal is reconciliation which allows the question of justice to be settled cooperatively among the parties over a period of time, rather than a settlement without reconciliation which is accepted formally as just but actually is resented and resisted.

This requires deeds more than words, ways of changing community relationship, creative experiments in living together in new patterns. Persons and small groups must bridge the conflict between communities, in interpersonal activities and in the cultural life of their peoples. Festivals and holidays must lift up new ways of being reconciled, as an expression of traditional convictions, and music and dance must give shape to new hopes which channel the energy of old fears.

Community conflicts will be resolved when members of the communities take personal responsibility for these conflicts and adjust their lives accordingly. It is a false hope to wait for leaders. Actions of the members of a community will shape its spirit, will change the attitudes of its members, and will create new possibilities for its future. The actions of friends of the communities in conflict are equally important in fostering a spirit of reconciliation. Adjustments in descriptions of the situation and in interventions, which open up new possibilities for cooperation and the settlement of old issues, will contribute to a less adversarial mood. Such a mood will allow communities to work out their conflicts through their ongoing relationships.


Is non-adversarial conflict resolution idealistic and impractical? I think not. I believe it is commonplace and thus generally ignored. Children in conflict may often be distracted into playing with each other instead. Humor may be used to deflect conflict, allowing relationships to continue despite differences of opinion. Conflicts between spouses are often remain unresolved but, where there is love and mutual respect, may moderate over time.

Communities may be forgiving, as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II clearly demonstrates. Children of soldiers may study in the countries where their fathers once fought battles. Ancient rivalries which once led to war may be fought out on the soccer field or at the Olympic games, or may find their release in songs and in stories. Religious institutions which once condemned members of other traditions may come to acknowledge, as the Roman Catholic has done since Vatican II, that the presence of God may be discerned in all cultures. Prayers may be said, which confess our guilt for the sins of the past and commit us to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, as we love ourselves and want others to love us.

If it is claimed that these commonplace activities have not brought peace and reconciliation to our world, my response is that they have brought the peace and reconciliation which we have known. Adversarial conflict resolution may bring about the absence of conflict, or the end of war. It cannot, however, maintain peace, nor can it foster reconciliation. If we wish to live together in peace, then we must take responsibility for adjusting our lives in relationship to all those with whom we share this world. If we would contribute to the harmony of life, we must tune ourselves.

May 21, 1997 © Robert Traer 2016