Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

JPT Practice #3 When Negotiating, Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution Techniques

“So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 5:23-24).

You can’t make peace with someone without talking to them. Jesus knew that and considered peacemaking to be important enough to interrupt worship. (At that, Jesus was simply building on the long prophetic tradition of linking worship and ethics. Jesus, like the prophets, hated any worship that did not result in changed lives.) Don’t waste time with who is at fault, drop the gift, and go.

It’s easy to see that one cannot make peace with an enemy without talking with them, but people fear to talk to enemies–either in interpersonal situations or in international diplomacy. We fear looking weak, either to our enemy or to key constituencies. If I, as a labor leader, sit down with a manager who has insulted the union and me personally, will I weaken the solidarity we need for a strong contract? If I, as an estranged spouse talk with my alienated partner who may have cheated on me or hit me or hurt me in more subtle ways, am I enabling bad behavior? Am I becoming a victim or a doormat? If I, as the leader of a nation, agree to talk with an adversary, will I be appeasing aggression?

Talking is necessary, but those questions are not meant facetiously. They are representative of real questions about real problems. Can we talk in ways that include saying necessary, but blunt truths to the adversary? Will s/he hear us? Are we open to hearing the adversary? If we acknowledge any truth at all on their side, will it be taken as justifying their unjustifiable actions or as rewarding their bad behavior? Should we not just deliver our just demands (ultimata) and leave the ball in their court?

The way forward is to talk without appeasing, by using the Just Peacemaking practice of cooperative conflict resolution techniques. Instead of being tough or soft in negotiations, one is principled: tough on the problem, soft on the people involved. [See Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981).] The techniques involved in this practice have developed over time and have, in recent years, been tested and modified cross-culturally. Principles for successful conflict resolution include:

  1. Seek to understand the perspectives and needs of the adversary, even when you disagree. Affirm the adversary’s VALID interests–not their invalid interests nor, necessarily, the strategy they have adopted to meet their valid interests.
  2. Listen carefully before judging or offering solutions. Make space for the voices of all involved.
  3. Distinguish carefully judgments about behaviors and actions from judgments about persons or cultures.
  4. Acknowledge one’s own shortcomings.
  5. The process is transparent and honest in all aspects.
  6. The practicioner seeks to turn adversaries into partners in problem solving, seeking power with, rather than power over.
  7. If force is necessary, it is used to separate, restrain, and create space so that alternatives to violence and injustice can be found.
  8. Be willing to take risks to find common ground.
  9. Be willing to seek longterm solutions that will help prevent future conflict.
  10. Justice and peace are valued equally.

In this kind of process, one is prepared for the other side to try dirty tricks. Sticking to the principles, usually defuses these attempts. Further, in principled negotiation and conflict resolution, one figures out before hand one’s best alternative if one cannot get an agreement worth having; i.e., one is prepared to walk away from the table. Chamberlain should have done so at Munich. Sometimes the union must strike or the spouse walk out or a nation sanction another in order to get serious negotiations.

Conflict resolution techniques are not magic. They may fail. Refusing to talk at all guarantees failure.

See further:

D. Sandole and H. Van der Merwe, eds., Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Manchester University Press, 1993).

Edward E. Azar and John W. Burton, eds., International Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Wheatsheaf Books, 1986).

Anatol Rapoport, ed., Game Theory as a Theory of Conflict Resolution (D. Reidel, 1974).

John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Good Books, 2003).

John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse University Press, 1995).

Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Lawrence Ressler, eds., Making Peace with Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation (Herald Press, 1999).


September 7, 2006 - Posted by | just peacemaking


  1. Michael, when you’re done, you ought to create a sidelink to a summary page and that summary page should have all the practices linked to it. These are gold.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 7, 2006

  2. Thanks, Dan. I plan on doing this if I can figure out how.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 7, 2006

  3. Whenever we figure out a way to meet up and work on our technical stuff, I can show at least one way to do it.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 8, 2006

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