The Problem with Problem Solving

As a scholar in the field of conflict I spend a lot of time analyzing the dual concern model. One of the basic ideas of this model is that the actors in a conflict determine how important their goals are in relation to the other party’s concern for or against the same goal. Basically you are weighing your own willingness to fight for something against your perception of your opponent’s willingness to fight against it.

The model provide four basic strategies, plus a fifth alternative. I was introduced to the model when I read Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement (3rd Edition) by Dean Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim. Pruitt & Kim, very generally, describe the strategies this way: when neither side cares about a particular outcome, you avoid, that is you take no action. If you care about a particular outcome and the other side doesn’t, you contend, or push the other side to concede. If you don’t care about something that is important to the other side, you yield, let them have what they want. If both sides care about a particular outcome then they work together to problem solve. The fifth alternative is compromise, a mutually disagreeable solution.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problem solving part of the model. Problem solve sounds nice. The model makes it seem like the contending parties are just going to come together and work everything out, calmly and rationally. This leads to one of my biggest criticisms of the field of conflict studies: the blind optimism that every conflict that can be resolved.

Don’t get me wrong, problem solving can be calm and rational, but it requires calm and rational participants. In my personal experience, not all people approach conflict in a calm and rational manner. Pruitt and Kim do have a chapter on contentious tactics in their book, so they are not turning a blind eye to the fact that conflict is not always so easily resolved.

Problem solving describes a situation where both sides are placing a high level of importance on the outcome. Both sides want it to go their way. If the parties involved are calm and rational, then there is a good chance that they can discuss the issues and create a solution that fully satisfies each side. I would guess that more often than not emotion and pride quickly move participants beyond calmness and rationality.

I suppose it is philosophically a good idea for students and practitioners of conflict resolution to believe that all conflict is resolvable. I suppose also that as a matter of pragmatism it is heartening for people to believe that all problems can be solved. I may be cynical, but I know one bad actor can destroy an optimistic outlook. One of my colleagues put it best when he wrote, “Conflict is inevitable, resolution is not.”

Published by Leo

Leo Barrera Writer & Photographer with expertise in negotiation, conflict resolution, social capital, and leadership. I do child support enforcement for a living, but it is not fun.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: