Concepts in Conflict Analysis

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Copyright 2011 by John T. Blankenship, all rights reserved


 “You’ll not oppress me brother!”  These words spewed from the mouth of the incensed congregant and shook the church like thunder.  As tense and volatile as the meeting was, the congregation was dumbstruck by the outburst.  This kind of display was unheard of in a church meeting, and it was certainly unprecedented for a member of the church to say such things to the presiding church leader.  Members of the church on both sides of the issue1 under discussion seemed equally dismayed.[i]

When the congregant stood and uttered those words it signaled the beginning of the end of a bitter dispute which had splintered a vibrant and growing church.  The dispute would soon be “over,” but its conclusion would result in an exodus of many of the members of the church and irreparable injury to the fabric of the church and to the hearts and minds of many of those involved.   Unbeknownst to the well intentioned church leaders who convened the meeting and all the participants, the logical and well intentioned goals of the meeting were beyond reach because worry, sadness, anger, fear, suspicion and other strong emotions held sway.  Indeed, the emotional undercurrent was strong and the tension palpable.  The congregant’s tirade merely opened the floodgates, and when the emotional waters receded, the debris field contained hurt, disappointed and disillusioned people and a landscape marked by two churches where once there was only one.

I remember that night very well.  I was a member of the church and I was in attendance at the congregational meeting called to discuss and consider the conflict that had festered and eventually erupted into an acrimonious dispute that was destined to split the church. The above summary of these events is an excerpt from a final paper I wrote for Understanding Conflict, one of the required courses in the LL.M. in Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Missouri Law School.   My professor, Leonard Riskin, did me two great services: he exposed me to mindfulness meditation, and he challenged me to become a student of conflict and not merely of dispute resolution.  He achieved the latter by wisely requiring that the class write about conflicts in which we had been personally involved.

I must confess that before this class I was not much of a student of conflict.  I was an experienced mediator and a reasonably active student of mediation, but I had very little training or education in conflict dynamics—the dynamics that can be critical factors in the cause and resolution of the very disputes I am hired to help resolve.  I now understand why I contributed so little to reaching a peaceful and positive resolution of a conflict in which I was personally involved and why I was so ineffective in preventing a bitter and acrimonious division in my own church.  Thankfully, I now think of myself as one striving to be a conflict management specialist and not merely a mediator of disputes.  This goal requires and has motivated me to be a lifelong student because I need and want to understand conflict better.  I hope that all of us who call ourselves mediators view ourselves in a larger role—as conflict management specialists—and that we put our education, training, skills and experience to use whenever the opportunity arises, whether it be in a case in which we are engaged as a mediator, or whenever we can make a difference in any conflict affecting any part of our own lives or the lives of others.  My goal in this brief monograph is to challenge those who haven’t begun, remind those who have, and encourage us all to be enrolled in a course of study that never ends, and that we truly strive to become and remain specialists in the world of conflict so that we can bring peace to the parts of that world we are privileged to touch.

Due to space limitations I can only include in this article some additional, abbreviated excerpts from the paper I wrote based on my church conflict (“the church conflict”).  This truncated version excludes a lot of the conflict analysis.  Also, most of the references to a questionnaire I sent to several of my former church brethren are omitted.  I used ideas from a worksheet known as “The ‘Beyond Reason’ Preparation Guide”[ii] and the writings of Bernard Mayer[iii] to help me frame some of the 26 questions.  I apologize for the inevitable disjointedness, but I hope this brief writing it will be sufficient to achieve the discrete goal I have set.  So please take the following snippets as merely a preliminary outline or basic listing of “Concepts in Conflict Analysis” and as an encouragement to study the different but related resources that are referenced, and others, so that you can add to the outline and put more meat on the bones.  I will be happy to forward the larger work to anyone who is interested or needs assistance with insomnia.

Concepts in Conflict Analysis

I. Introspection and Identity

A postmortem analysis of the church conflict caused me to acknowledge that I did not view or handle personal conflict in the same way I did other peoples’ conflicts.  Walter Mischel and Aaron L. DeSmet have accurately described some of my own internal conflicts that were at play: “Among the most frustrating conflicts are those that people fight within their own heads, as they struggle with the dilemmas and temptations they encounter and create.”[iv]  I believe that the question of identity was significantly in play in the church conflict and that it drove much of the evident fear and anxiety.  As Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen have written, “Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves…what we hope we are but fear we are not…having our identity threatened can be profoundly disturbing.”[v]

II. The Core Concerns Concept

In Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher and Daniel L. Shapiro provide valuable instruction about emotions and how to use them as you negotiate.  They suggest that rather than trying to suppress, ignore or challenge emotions, one should endeavor to shift the focus to five core concerns almost all people share, and that one can actually use these core concerns as a lens to see a situation more clearly and to diagnose it.[vi]  Indeed, viewing the church conflict through the core concerns lens has given me the most objective perspective I have ever had.  Fisher and Shapiro identify the five core concerns as: Appreciation; Affiliation; Autonomy; Status; and Role, and more will be said about this important concept and about emotions.

III. Conflict vs. Dispute

Most people use the words “conflict” and “dispute” interchangeably.[vii]  It is helpful to develop a more precise understanding of the two.  “Conflict may be defined simply as a clash of interests or aspirations, actual or perceived.  Disputes are immediate manifestations of conflict, and arise when people take actions based on this actual or perceived clash.”[viii]  This concept resonates loudly to me in terms of the church conflict.  Conflict can exist even if one side doesn’t even know it exists,[ix] and this was certainly the case in the church conflict when new expressions of worship began.  The practitioners of these new and different forms of worship were totally unaware that their conduct was causing other church members significant angst until some of the upset members took action.  One of the respondents to my questionnaire put it succinctly in terms of what action caused the competing interests to engage: “Someone complained.”  “A dispute is a conflict that has been acted upon, a product of the conflict,”[x]

But if a dispute is a concrete manifestation of the underlying conflict,[xi] what happens if you focus only on the dispute and not the underlying problem?  It is critically important to not get so caught up in the battle lines that have been drawn that one overlooks, and fails to deal with, the actual source of or reason for the battle.  Disputes end one way or another, but the conflicts that caused them may not.  Reacting is a related concept.  Learning how to react, or not react, to the initial action that causes a dispute to arise from an underlying conflict is critically important.  How and when reactions are made to the initial action plays a huge role in the intensity, lifespan and outcome of the dispute.  This concept deserves its own book.

IV. The Nature of Conflict

There is no grand theory of conflict.[xii]  There are many theories, however, and, therefore, many ways to analyze conflict.  I found that some of the work of Bernard Mayer[xiii] was helpful in analyzing the church conflict.  “How we view conflict will largely determine our attitude and approach to dealing with it…If we are to be effective in handling conflict, we must start with an understanding of its nature.”[xiv]  Whether we view conflict as inherently bad or not will obviously affect our approach to it.  Although I once thought differently, I now align with those who believe conflict is not inherently bad; that it is neither inherently good nor bad and can, in fact, result in significant positive, beneficial and “good” results.  Truly, how one views conflict and, as a result, approaches conflict will be significant determinative factors in its outcome.  Mayer postulates that conflict occurs along cognitive (perception), emotional (feeling), and behavioral (action) dimensions.[xv]

A. Perception

“As a set of perceptions, conflict is a belief or understanding that one’s own needs, interests, wants, or values are incompatible with someone else’s.”[xvi] Perception, or perspective as I like to refer to it in my mediation opening sessions, is everything.  It is the filter through which all information, going out from and coming in to a person, passes.  It will always be enigmatic in its nature, but it is vital that people in conflict at least understand no two people can have the exact same perception and that changing one’s perception is not necessary in order to achieve successful resolution; only acknowledgement of and respect for the perceptions of those with whom one is in conflict is required.

B. Feelings

“Conflict also involves an emotional reaction to a situation or interaction that signals disagreement or some kind.”  Indeed, “Emotions are the energy that fuel conflict.”[xvii]  My questionnaire respondents listed numerous emotions they thought were at play in the church conflict including: sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration, hatred, love, disgust, and fear.  Of these, they all agree that fear was the initial emotion felt and the one that “signaled” the disagreement.  The other emotions followed as the conflict played out.  Mayer’s emotional (feeling) dimension is very similar to Fisher and Shapiro’s views on emotions.  They define emotion as “a felt experience” that can be a significant obstacle to negotiation or a significant asset in achieving one’s negotiating purpose.  They posit that since you can’t stop having emotions, that it doesn’t work to ignore emotions and that it is a complicated task to deal directly with emotions, that it is critical in negotiation to address the concern, not the emotion; hence their emphasis on the core concerns. “Rather than getting caught up in every emotion that you and others are feeling, turn your attention to what generates these emotions.”[xviii]

C. Action

“Conflict also consists of the actions that we take to express our feelings, articulate our perceptions, and get our needs met in a way that has the potential for interfering with someone else’s ability to get his or her needs met.”[xix]  The new expressions of worship were actions by some congregants to express their feelings and were exactly what is described in the above sentence.  Unquestionably, this had the potential to interfere with objecting congregants’ needs because the two sets of needs were antithetic.

V. The Cause of Conflict

“At the center of all conflicts are human needs…people engage in conflict because of their needs, and conflict cannot be transformed or settled unless these needs are addressed in some way.”[xx]  In the church conflict, there was a myopic focus on the dispute, driven by a fervent desire to preserve the church.  Ironically, the “institution’s” need to perpetuate itself caused the needs of the people who made up the institution to be ignored and unattended.  I appreciate Mayer’s choice of words because he does not say that needs have to be fully met in order to transform or settle conflict, but that they be “addressed in some way.”  Mayer suggests that needs do not exist in isolation or independently of other forces, but are intricately tied to the other things, which are roots of conflict,[xxi] and that there is a priority of needs.    For example, Mayer has identified security as one of the “survival needs.”[xxii]

Mayer’s discussion of needs provides another example of how well his theories and those of Fisher and Shapiro align.  Fisher and Shapiro’s discussion of the five core concerns is analogous to Mayer’s on needs.  Consider Fisher and Shapiro’s maxim that the five core concerns (appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role)   “are important to almost everyone in virtually every negotiation”[xxiii] in conjunction with Mayer’s that in negotiation the participants’ needs must be “addressed in some way.”

Fisher and Shapiro have created tables that illustrate the core concerns,[xxiv] the risks of ignoring the core concerns[xxv] and the power of meeting core concerns.[xxvi]  These tables help form the lens alluded to above through which virtually all conflicts can be viewed.


If I knew then what I am learning now I am confident I would have understood and handled the church conflict differently and better.  None of us embroiled in the church conflict had any fundamental understanding about the nature of conflict, its sources, or what enhances or inhibits its resolution, and as a result we were unable to recognize what was really going on, what needs were at play and what was driving the emotions and responses that so easily grabbed our focus.   Better understanding leads to better handling, this is a given.

A simple but profound truth is that in the midst of conflict there is a dearth of real listening.  A countervailing simple but profound truth is that to apply any concepts in conflict analysis one has to listen.  It is axiomatic that one must be an exceptional listener to be an exceptional conflict management specialist.   “The two hardest (and most important) communication tasks in difficult conversations are expressing feelings and listening.”[xxvii]  Listening is such a simple concept, but it is horribly neglected as a discipline.  If people have a better understanding of conflict they will have a better opportunity to transform it or resolve it, and listening is the key to understanding.  In situations like the church conflict, however, the people involved not only stop listening to one another, they don’t even realize that they’ve stopped.  I appreciate this suggestion: “While you are listening to someone…try to really pay attention.  To do that you may have to notice when you are not listening…”[xxviii]  Had this one concept been understood and practiced in the church conflict, a recognition and appreciation of the competing needs might have occurred.  As a result, the wheel of conflict might have rolled to a different and better conclusion.  For example, this conflict and resulting dispute that ended with an acrimonious “divorce” and no relationship between the disputants could have ended with an agreed and amicable parting and continued relationship.


Despite my advances in learning about conflict, I have not attained the level of wisdom of one of the respondents to my questionnaire.  In response to my question about how he viewed conflict in general, he said: “Unavoidable.  It can be a healthy growth experience that can increase intimacy and closeness if accepted, embraced and openly and respectfully dealt with.  James 1:19: ‘Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.’”   Because of my advances in learning, however, I recognize and appreciate the conflict theory and dispute resolution principles contained in this response.  I hope to go on learning and thereby grow in my ability to recognize, appreciate and employ powerful truths in the conflicts I encounter in my own life and in the lives of those who engage my services.   Despite the lack of flow in this repackaged paper, I hope that it has challenged or encouraged some readers as intended.  It is axiomatic that conflict management specialists must excel in listening, but the first axiom is that they must be lifelong students and never-ending learners.  And by the way, there are all kinds of concomitant benefits to this commitment.  We obtain a renewed, better and deeper appreciation for the wise and sage sayings of our favorite philosophers.[xxix]

[i] The “issue” was the rather sudden and unannounced introduction of more expressive and contemporary forms of worship in the congregational worship services.   On one “side” were the congregants who initiated and wanted to engage in this more expressive form of worship, i.e., raising hands, clapping, spontaneous singing and utterances, etc.; and on the other were those who preferred more traditional, less expressive forms of worship, i.e., planned congregational singing, prayer, scripture reading, etc. and were made extremely uncomfortable by the more expressive and spontaneous manifestations.

[ii] ©2006 by Roger Fisher, Daniel L. Shapiro, Ph.D, & Zoe Segal-Reichlin.  Based on the ideas of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate (Viking, 2005).

[iii] Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practioner’s Guide (Jossey-Bass 2000).

[iv] Walter Mischel & Aaron L. DeSmet, Self-Regulation in the Service of Conflict Resolution, in Morton Deutsch & Peter Coleman, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution Theory & Practice, p. 256 (Jossey-Bass 2000).

[v] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Shelia Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Address What Matters Most, pp. 111, 112 (Penguin Books 1999).

[vi] Roger Fisher & Daniel L. Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, pp. 15, 18 (Viking 2005).

[vii] Leonard L. Riskin, James E. Westbrook, Chris Guthrie, Timothy J. Heinz, Richard C. Reuben & Jennifer K. Robbennolt, Dispute Resolution and Lawyers (3d ed. 2005) at 4, n. 1.

[viii] Id. at 2, 3.

[ix] Mayer, supra note 3 at 5.

[x] Riskin, et al, supra note 7 at 2, 3.

[xi] Id. at 5.

[xii] Leonard Riskin, power point presentation, Understanding Conflict Class, University of Missouri Law School, August 21, 2006.

[xiii] Mayer, supra note 9.

[xiv] Id at 3.

[xv] Id at 4.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id. at 5, 10.

[xviii] Supra, note 6at 4-15.

[xix] Supra, note 9 at 5.

[xx] Id. at 8.

[xxi] Id. at 9.   Mayer goes on to list/describe the other roots of conflict using his “Wheel of Conflict” which has needs as its hub and five basic sources of conflict as outer spokes: communication, emotions, values, structure, and history.

[xxii] Id. at 17.

[xxiii] Supra, note 6 at 15.

[xxiv] Id. at 17.

[xxv] Id. at 18.

[xxvi] Id

[xxvii] Stone et al., supra note 5 at 89.

[xxviii] Leonard L. Riskin, Knowing Yourself: Mindfulness, in the Negotiator’s Fieldbook (Christopher Honeyman & Andrea K. Sneider, eds., ABA 2006).

[xxix] See, e.g., Joe South, Walk a Mile in My Shoes. (Lowery Music Co., Inc. 1969)  “Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes.  Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”