Six Step Problem Solving to Resolve a Conflict

1. Describe the Problem:

Describe what each person wants, acknowledge and explain how their desires are part of a joint problem. Frame the problem as small, specific, and solveable.

The conflict is described as a joint problem. Drivers converging on a four way stop; can be seen mutual as:

  1. A competition of chicken and therefore, loose-loose, if no one chickens out they all die in a headon crash;
  2. Win-loose, if one runs the stop sign and the others chicken out; or
  3. Win-win if each yields the right of way through a process of taking turns.

Define the conflict as a joint problem that is small, specific andsolveable.

Example: Kickball game with an equal number of players on each team. I want to play and they won't let me.

Both of these statements acknowledge and explain a joint problem: not getting to play and loosing friendship and getting to play and having uneven teams.

2. Describe how each person feels.

Name the feelings (I feel ...). Use sensory descriptions I feel stepped on. I feel like I'm on cloud nine. I feel like I've been run over by a truck. Report what kinds of action the feeling urges you to do. I feel like hugging, slapping, walking on ... Use figures of speech. I feel like road kill... Avoid labels, commands, questions, accusations, sarcasm, approval, disapproval, and name-calling.

3. Exchange reasons of positions.

Express cooperative intentions. Present your reasons and listen to the other person's reasons:

Tone of voice is as important as the words. Focuses on wants and interests, not positions I won't do this homework... Focuses on why rather than the object or issue. Two students, who each want an object, are opposed as long as their interests are having the object. If you ask why? And if there are different interests, then the conflict can be resolved. Clarify the differences between one person's interests and the other person's interests. You will need to work at it as people are often not willing to express their desires because of fears and vulnerability.

Conflicts can not be resolved until all parties know what they are disagreeing about. When that is know, then empower each person to think of different possible solutions. There may be a better option than either can think of separately.

4. Understand each other's perspective.

Each must be able to take the other person's perspective and understand how it looks to that person. People have different perspectives that have developed from different life experiences. People tend to see only what they want to see and focus on facts that confirm to their beliefs and perceptions and disregard or misinterpret those that call their perceptions or belief into question.

Thus, they only see the merits of their case and the faults of the other side. If a person has been lifting 100 lb. of cement all day a 40 pound sack is light. On the other hand if they've been pushing a pencil all day, then a 40 pound sack is heavy. When you are hungry you notice food, when you are not you do not.

Therefore, you must not only logically understand the other person's view, but you must empathize with their point of view and feel the emotional force the other person believes in it. You may see a glass with a delicious drink. Another person may see a dripping glass that is going to ruin the wood of the expensive table. Change a person's perspective and you will change the way they seek to solve the conflict.

A perception check is the best way to see if each is understanding the other person's perceptions. Describe what each thinks the other person's feelings are. Ask if perceptions are accurate. Refrain from expressing approval or disapproval of the feelings. You look sad. Are you? Use paraphrase, Role play, or role reversal.

5. Invent options for mutual benefit.

Be open-minded don't judge prematurely. Look for multiple or complex solutions and not single answers. Look for more resources. Do not assume a fixed pie. You have a friend who does not want to go to a certain movie, but does want to go to a certain restaurant. By expanding the evening to include dinner and a movie the chances are better to agree, than just deciding on a movie. Focus on the future or long term rather than the immediate needs and goals. Explore the unknown and avoid the same decisions as in the past.

6. Reach a wise agreement.

Such agreements reach the legitimate needs of all participants and can be viewed fair to all. Describe what each person will do differently, might include communicating who does what, when, where, and how.

Realistically ask each to agree and share in that agreement. Review how the agreement can be reviewed and renegotiated if need be. Base the agreement on coin flip, third party, taking turns, sharing, equal use, arbitrator, scientific method, and community values.

Reasons for saying no to a suggested agreement:

Clear reasons to say no

Unclear reasons to say no


Intuition tells me no


Not sure

Hurts people

A good choice is not there

I will have to break my word

I changed my mind


Source: David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson (1995) Reducing School Violence Through Conflict Resolution ASCD


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes