Tinted Lens: Musings on culture and beyond

Review of 3 Books on Conflict Resolution

Posted in Conflict Resolution, Intercultural communication by interculturaljournal on November 15, 2008

Conflict Resolution: Relationship-building


We’ve all observed or have taken part in conflict in some form or another. The truth of the matter is, conflict is unavoidable. Try as we might to side-track, ignore, or shut it out, sooner or later it finds us. Some of us go to great lengths to keep our surroundings peaceful and serene. Unfortunately, when this is achieved through denial, we build a castle of tranquility upon an ever expanding dungeon of unexpressed thoughts. Harper (2005) suggests that, “what we don’t say controls us” (p.137). Similarly, what we don’t express when we shun conflict deprives us of our sense of empowerment.

Ignoring conflict is not the only coping mechanism we employ. Some of us choose to face it head-on, charging at it with all our might in the hope of shattering it altogether. As individuals, we sometimes see ourselves as heroes, defending a more sensitive side of us (or of another) against a perceived villain (Harper, 2005). We also see it in nations going to war, as in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” We stand our ground and fight for what we believe in. However, after the dust settles and our sharpened vision returns, we sometimes find that victory came at a great cost. The damage we at times inflict upon ourselves as individuals, societies, and nations in the name of self-defense is avoidable, if only we had the tools to properly negotiate the conflict terrain.

The fight or flight response just mentioned represent extremes of black and white, but there are also varying shades of grey—countless ways in which conflict is handled with varying degrees of success. Similarly, countless books have been written on this subject. Henceforth, the techniques contained in three books will be reviewed: The first is, “The Joy of Conflict Resolution” by Gary Harper; the second, “A Public Peace Process” by Harold Saunders; and the third is entitled, “The Power of Positive Conformations” by Barbara Pachter and Susan Magee. However, before delving deeper into these books it is important to define “conflict.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, conflict is derived from the Latin word conflictus, which is “the act of striking together” (2005). This might bring to mind two bulls charging at each other. However, for the purpose of this article, conflict is defined as: a condition in which two or more entities’ interaction creates a heightened tension, often resulting in an impasse requiring resolution. This definition obviously does not preclude these entities (be they people, religions, nations, feelings, etc.) from being parts of a whole, as in the case of national conflicts involving feuding racial or ethnic groups, or distinct feelings or needs within an individual. More importantly, “heightened tension” is not necessarily a detrimental condition – it is a matter of perception.


The Victim, the Hero, and the Villian

Harper (2005) tells us that we all create and enact our own fairytales. We choose certain scenario, or realities, over others—often unwittingly. When a conflict erupts, he sees people picking (interchangeably) one of three positions on a triangle: the victim, the hero, or the villain (p.8). Rarely do people choose the villain role, preferring instead the victim or hero ones. However, this further entrenches the conflict, as blame is shifted, and each party sees the other as the villain. His “circle of resolution” involves shifting focus from the people to the problem (p. 11), by listening intently to others and trying to identify the root issue, which often involves unmet needs (p.79). Harper also describes what he terms “the wobbly stool of conflict” (p.53), which has three legs: the problem, the process, and the emotions. All of these elements need to be properly addressed if the conflict is to be resolved. Most importantly, Harper believes that conflict resolution is more about relationship-building, than conflict resolution techniques per se (p. 54).

A Safe Public Space for Discussion

Saunders (1999) agrees. Although his book is geared towards civil society organizations and non governmental groups, his five step strategy is ultimately about creating strong relationships with the capacity to move from conflict to peaceful resolution, through sustained dialogue in a safe “public space” (p. 14). He maps a process which draws on his experience as an aid to the White House, most notably his work on the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. His five stage process is as follows: First, both parties must be ready to fully engage in the process. This also involves identifying participants, creating the safe public space, defining the problem and setting the agenda, group forming, and finally, meeting (p.98). Second, the parties involved need to map the relationship together (p.111). He writes, “Participants need a definition of the problem(s) they want to probe that is both concise and yet broad enough to encompass the full range of perspectives and feelings of the group” (p.111).

The third stage involves probing the dynamics of the relationship (p.120). Essentially, this stage entails a certain degree of empathy, of putting oneself in the other’s shoes. It is also the time to make the underlying emotional issues visible (p.129). Step four is reminiscent of Harper’s assertion that we all create our own dramas. Here, Saunders recommends that a desired scenario is jointly created to counteract and re-imagine the existing negative one(s). This new scenarios should be empowering to all parties (p. 133). Doing so serves two purposes: to create a new shared perspective and to strengthen the group’s bonds precisely by working together through this exercise (p. 134). The fifth and final step involves acting jointly to put the new found scenario into action (p. 136). However, Saunders cautions that cultural and gender differences can affect how this model is adapted and should be taken into consideration.

Positive Confrontations

Referring to an Israeli-Palestinian women’s group Saunders writes, “women, socialized to be less confrontational tended to avoid the difficult issues lest they disrupt the dialogue… During very critical periods… dialogue broke down, meetings were canceled, and contact… avoided” (p.217). Perhaps these women could have benefited from Pachter & Magee’s book, The Power of Positive Confrontations, which aims to empower its readers to speak up and become assertive in order to create more positive, healthy relationships. Pachter & Magee (2000) seem to agree with Saunders’ earlier statement, because their tone and approach appears to be directed at a predominantly female audience.

Here, we find an approach that is much more based on self-reflection and becoming aware of one’s feelings. The main concept is what the authors call the “WAC’em” model (p.66). The “W” stands for “what”, becoming aware of what’s really going on, to define what’s bothering us and why (p. 67). The “A” refers to “ask”, as in figuring out how the problem could be resolved and then asking in an assertive, but non-confrontational way for what we need (p. 77). Finally, the “C” stands for “Check-in”, connecting with the other person to see what he or she thinks about our request (p.88). WAC’em was clearly envisioned as a freeing, empowering model of positive and assertive, yet polite, self-expression, but how does it compare to Harper and Saunders’ models?


It’s important to note some major differences in the intended audiences and outcomes of each of the three books. However, while they focus on different contexts, the lessons learned can be carried on to other situations. Harper’s audience is likely to be readers with a certain intellectual curiosity, more so than those looking for a “self-help” book with precise, tangible steps to follow. Saunders’ audience would probably be individuals looking to comprehend conflict resolution techniques on a large scale—those involving religious, ethnic, racial, or political components. Pachter & Magee reassuringly hold their readers by the hand, teaching them how to become assertive communicators in their interpersonal relationships. Their intended audience are women who are looking to break away from their social conditioning. Unfortunately, the social and cultural factors that can account for differences in interpreting and reacting to conflict are only addressed by Saunders, yet these component are essential. They can not be overlooked.

A Universalist Approach

Berry, Poortinga, Segall, & Dasen (2002) in their book Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications, elucidate the concepts of Absolutism, Relativism, and Universalism. The theoretical framework that a book reflects can explain the rationale for its approach, in this case, to conflict resolution. Universalism stands in the middle between Absolutism, which views psychological phenomena as the ruling force behind human behaviour, disregarding the influence of culture; and Relativism, which views all human behaviour as culturally mediated. Therefore, Universalism, considers basic psychological processes as common to all, and culture as responsible for influencing the development and display of these processes (p. 167). From this perspective, Harper’s main contribution, that we all create our dramas, while being an immensely powerful concept, seems to exist in a vacuum.

Harper seems to ascribe to absolutism within this book, not allowing any consideration for cultural influences or to variations in psychological processes among individuals. Pachter & Magee also fall under the same theoretical framework, whereas, Saunders is more cautious, preferring a more universal approach to conflict resolution (rightfully so, since his is a global audience). Certainly, ascribing to either relativism or absolutism does not denote a flawed methodology. However, within the framework of this article, such approaches are considered over-simplistic, providing a cursory treatment of a complex subject, involving multifaceted beings in a multicultural world.

The bottom line is that conflict need not be cast in a negative light or avoided. The issue is not to eliminate conflict but to untangle it, allowing it to move from stagnation towards resolution. This can be accomplished though sustained dialogue that addresses the root issues; often the unmet needs (Harper). Individuals, civil society organizations, and governments can create new dramas, and enact healthier scenarios, but only when they are ready to fully engage in such an exercise (Saunders). Ultimately, a mutually beneficial relationship is one in which both parties are empowered to voice their concerns, and feel heard (Pachter & Magee). Empathy, which considers the other party’s psychological and cultural dimensions, is key to communicating and sustaining such relationships. Indeed, various skills and techniques can be mastered, but conflict resolution involves a human element; an ability to build relationships that can continually use the bricks of conflict to build stronger bridges of cooperation, on this, all our authors agree.



Berry, J., Poortinga, Y., Segall, M. & Dasen, P. (2002). Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, (2005), Definition of conflict. Retrieved on Nov
30, 2007, from http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=conflict

Pachter, B., Magee, S. (2000). The Power of positive confrontations: The skills you need to know to handle conflicts at work, at home, and in life. Avalon Publishing Group: New York.

Saunders, H (1999). A public peace process: Sustained dialogue to transform racial and ethnic conflicts.
St. Martin’s Press: New York.