Conflict Resolution, problem solving, and mediation


Sometimes we assume all conflicts are destructive, have no value and we try to suppress, avoid, and deny their existence. Conflicts occur all the time: who to sit by at lunch, when to get on task, when to play, when to talk, when to be quiet, when to listen, what game to play at recess, and who is going to do what.

We should recognize conflicts as inevitable, healthy and valuable; not as problems but as opportunities to discover new solutions as we learn to manage conflict constructively.

Conflicts happen when incompatible solutions are sought. Since long-term relationships are important, people and groups must manage conflicts and maintain positive relationships.

This page reviews four strategies to manage conflict and possible outcomes or resolutions. Benefits for conflict management to solve problems and characteristics for a problem solving environment to resolve conflicts. Six step procedure for resolving problems and general suggestions for its implementation and some strategies to remove impasses and assist a resolution. Finally, notes on zero tolerance and violence programs are included.

Four Strategies to manage conflict

Problem-Solving Negotiation: Seek solutions to ensure all parties achieve their goals and resolve any tensions or negative feelings between them. See six step conflict resolution procedure.

1. Smoothing: party gives up its goal to maintain the relationship at the highest possible level. Saying I'm sorry doesn't mean I'm wrong. It let's the other person know you are sorry about the situation when the goal is less important than the relationship.

2. Forcing a Win-Lose Negotiation: A party seeks to achieve its goal by forcing or persuading the other party to yield their goal. Strategies include threats, imposing penalties, preemptive actions to resolve without others knowledge or permission, persuasive arguments, impose a deadline, commit yourself to an unalterable position, and make demands that far exceed what is actually acceptable. The last strategy begins with an extreme opening position, and follows with a slow rate of compromise in an attempt to force the other party to concede. This strategy can be supplemented with persuasive arguments, threats, and attacks aimed at overpowering, overwhelming, or intimidating others. The purpose is to achieve the goal without concern for the needs or feelings of the other. The harder a party is pushed to give in, the harder the other person will push back. The more you force, the more the other resists and the angrier the other person becomes. When forcing is successful, winning may result in a sense of pride and achievement. When unsuccessful, it may result in depression, guilt, shame, and failure. It causes a high price of alienation and starts a spiral of win-lose tactics. Use when the goal is highly important and the relationship is not.

3. Compromise: Each person or group alters their goal toward the others goal. Methods to help people compromise are to split the difference, meet in the middle, flip a coin, or let chance decide. Use when the goal and the relationship are moderately important and you and the other person cannot seem to get what each want. Each gives up part of a goal and sacrifices part of the relationship to reach an agreement. Compromise when time is short, Sometimes half a loaf is better than none. Use when the goal is not important and you do not need to keep a relationship with the other person.

4. Withdraw: Leave, give up, submit, avoid the issue and the person.

Conflict becomes destructive when it's denied, suppressed, or avoided resulting in anger, fights, physical dominance, harassment, verbal attack, physical abuse, giving in, or cold shoulders. These actions do not resolve conflicts for benefit to all participants and instead result in alienating people.

Conflict Resolution Outcomes

Lose - Lose Win - Lose Win - Win
Both participants lose their original goal and attain something less. One participant wins at the other's expense. All participants achieve their goals.
Participants are angry, resentful, hurtful, and distrustful. Participants are angry, resentful, hurtful, and distrustful. One participant may feel power, pride, and/or achievement while the other may feel depression, guilt, shame, hurt, failure, resentful, and/or angry. Participants like, respect, and trust each other more.
Possibility of constructively resolving future conflicts with each other decreases. Possibility of constructively resolving future conflicts with each other decreases. Potential is increased to resolve future conflicts constructively.


Benefits from conflict management and problem solving

  1. Creatively solve problems
  2. Learn what makes them angry
  3. Understand what frightens them
  4. Gain maturity
  5. Become energized
  6. Stimulated to enjoy solving a problem or competing
  7. Increase motivation to learn
  8. Arouse intellectual curiosity
  9. Deepen relationships
  10. Strengthen their convictions
  11. Improve interpersonal relationships
  12. Improve negotiating skills
  13. Improve self-confidence and self-efficacy
  14. Improve achievement
  15. Improve reasoning
  16. Are better able to deal with stress
  17. Help understand what is important to them
  18. Become less egocentric
  19. Can gain and hold attention of others
  20. Improve the quality of their decisions
  21. Create joint identity and cohesiveness


Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving Terms

Term Definition of term
Want Desire for something.
Need Necessity for survival.
Goal Ideal state that we value and work to achieve.
Interest Potential benefit to be gained by achieving goals.
Conflict of interest A situation in which the actions of one person interfere with or block those of another person attempting to reach a goal.


Characteristics of a conflict resolution and problem solving environment

  • A risk free environment with open honest communication, no physical violence against self or another person, no public humiliation and shaming, and no lying or deceit.
  • Participants motivated to succeed by self-regulation, external rewards, or punishment.
  • A cooperative context with all participants committed to achieve mutual goals or outcomes beneficial to all involved.
  • Frequent, complete, and truthful communication. All must accurately understand the different positions and motivations (wants, needs, or requests).
  • Positive interdependence so all participants desire to search for a successful solution to accommodate all legitimate interests.


General suggestions for creating a positive problem solving environment

  • Stay calm. This can be hard, but someone needs to be in control, keep the situation from escalating, and focus on achieving a solution.
  • Face the issue. Do not withdraw from or ignore a conflict. If you do, in addition to damaging the relationship, you will keep emotional energy tied up in anger, fear, resentment, hostility, dislike, sulkiness, uncooperativeness, sarcasm, or talking behind the other person's back and new conflicts will be linked with the old to create further costs.
  • Be honest. Generally the stronger the relationship, the more direct and open the discussion can be.
  • Focus on the problem not the person. Keep the discussion free of personal criticism, recriminations, abusive language, and especially subtle jibes that inflict pain. Make it clear that disagreement is with the ideas and actions and not a value of the person. Separate the criticism of actions and ideas from the idea that the rejection is a statement of value of a person. Keep a sense of humor. Keep all weapons out of reach. No one hurts another. Protect each other's ego. Provide acceptable reasons for people to switch viewpoints.
  • Start with empathy and validation. Consider what is happening within each person's brain. Stress, trauma, living situations, social situations, ... Try to move things from the primative brain, amygdala, ... and engage the frontal lobe to allow for rational choices to be possible.
  • Remember their behavior is likely more related to stress than lack of trust in you.
  • Think of it as an opportunity to break bad habits, reestablish norms, and teach.
  • Regularly use over communication. It can eliminate misunderstandings.
  • Remember, there is no magic solution. Change is hard because you know what you stand to lose, but not what you stand to gain.!
  • Collaborate with appropriate specialists, family members, teachers, support staff, and other community members.
  • Use Humor that is not sarcasatic or at the expense of another person.


Six Step Conflict Resolution for Problem Solving

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.

  • Describe each person's wants, needs, or goals using words such as I, me, my, or mine.
  • Acknowledged that what each person desires is part of the problem.
  • Explain how each person's desires blocks what each wants.
  • Describe the behaviors. Do not judge, evaluate, or make inferences about people's motives, personality, or attitude.
  • Focus on a long-term cooperative relationship.
  • Use paraphrasing to determine what each understands, cares about, and if they are taking each other seriously.

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.

  • Making it large and general: If you don't let me play, you are no longer my friend.
  • Keeping it small and specific: If they let me play, the teams will be uneven.

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:

  • May I ask why?
  • Can you be more specific?
  • What do you mean when you say ...?
  • I'm not sure I understand.

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
Illegal Intuition tells me no
Inappropriate 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


Other Conflict resolution, mediation, or problem solving heuristics

Teachers should weave conflict resolution procedures and skills into the fabric of school life. Examples include: follow-up lessons on improving communication skills, ways to control anger, appropriate assertiveness, problem solving skills, perspective-taking, creative thinking, intrapersonal, and interpersonal skills. Integration into subjects like social studies and literature by analyzing the people or characters, their actions or inactions, world events or plots of the stories with respect to conflict and their resolution.

Conflict management training should be repeated yearly for 13 years, with an increasing level of complexity and sophistication.


Strategies to Overcome Impasse


  • Tell the story of the conflict situation using a 'once upon a time' format.
  • When the story reaches the point of conflict, stop and ask for suggestions on how to resolve it.
  • Incorporate one of the suggestions in the story and conclude the story.
  • Ask the disputants if this suggestion would meet their needs and if it is a solution they might try it now or the next time they have a problem.

Problem Puppets

  • Use puppets to reenact the conflict.
  • Freeze the puppet role-play at a critical point in the conflict. Ask for suggestions. Incorporate one suggestion, and finish the play.
  • Repeat several different suggestions. Discuss whether each one will work to help children learn to think through the consequences of their suggestions.
  • Ask the children to pick the suggestion they think will work best.

Role play

  • Students set up an imaginary situation in which they act and react on assumptions and beliefs they select or are given for the characters they play.
  • Describe a conflict situation: give time, place, background and any other information to help students with the role. To help students get into their roles introduce them and the situation with descriptive and emotional words and voice fluctuations.
  • Act out the conflict and keep it short.
  • Freeze the role-play at critical points in the conflict. Ask for suggestions about what can be done next. Incorporate one suggestion into the situation and finish the role-play.
  • Discuss the role play by asking questions:
    • How could the conflict have been prevented?
    • How did the character feel in the situation?
    • Was it a satisfactory solution?
    • What other solutions might have worked?


Arbitration and Mediation

Arbitration is a step of last resort. Arbitration tends to result in solutions that are less stable and less effective than those derived by problem solving. Anticipating that the arbitrator will split the difference, disputants may adopt a tough and extreme position, so a half-way position is more favorable to them.

Combining mediation and arbitration has two disadvantages. Participants believe they are being forced to reach agreement under mediation because arbitration will result, if they do not agree. The mediator may also become too forceful during the mediation session and shift prematurely to arbitration.

Arbitration Steps

  • Both persons agree to abide by the arbitrator's decision.
  • Both persons submit their desired goal to the arbitrator. Each party describes what he or she wants and would like to see happen.
  • Each person defines the problem and tells their side of the conflict.
  • Each person presents his or her case, no interruptions are allowed.
  • Each person has an opportunity to refute the other's contentions.

Teachers' primary responsibilities for successful arbitration

  • Building a cooperative context.
  • Teaching all students how to negotiate.
  • Teaching all students how to mediate.
  • Knowing how to mediate if peer mediation fails.
  • Knowing how to arbitrate if peer and teacher mediation fails.
  • Implementing the peer mediation process.
  • Structuring academic controversies so that students challenge each other's reasoning.

Arbitrator makes the decision. Winning or losing is assumed to be secondary to having had a fair opportunity to be heard.

Final offer arbitration

An alternative to conventional arbitration is final offer arbitration. Each disputant submits to the arbitrator his or her best, most conciliatory offer and the arbitrator makes a decision.


Mediated Conflict Resolution

Mediator's steps:

  1. End hostilities and cool off.
  2. Ensure all people are committed to the mediation process.
  3. Help each negotiate successful with each other (six steps for resolving conflict).
  4. Formalize an agreement.
  5. End Hostility and Cool off suggestions

Stop fights

Adults should always break up fights. Two adults should work together. Order students to stop and restrain them. Never restrain one student without restraining the other. Use restraint only in an emergency. Such action could cause the parties to turn on the teacher.

  • Train observers to leave and not to be spectators or
  • surround the dispute and chant stop fighting, or
  • singing a happy song: Row, Row, Row, Your Boat, or
  • distract and divert their attention, physical, and emotional energy. Hey whose $10?
  • Breaking eye contact between disputants will often stop a fight.

Cool off hostile individuals

  • Individuals can move to cool-off corners.
  • Use deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Take in a deep breath while counting to 10 and then back to 1, or
  • Tense all muscles and breath in, while muscles are tense hold breath for five seconds, slowly exhale and relax muscles for five seconds.
  • Imagine the anger leaking out your toes as you relax or imagine it drains away through the feet and walk away from it.
  • Engage in physical activity like jogging.

Reflect on a conflict, define it, and think of alternative ways to resolve it.

Move to a Mediation Area

  • Select a neutral area.
  • The mediator may sit at one end of a table and disputants sit across from one another.
  • Put paper and a pencil on the table for each person.

Mediation Process Suggestions

  • Introduce your self and confirm the names of the disputants.
  • Introduce the purpose of the mediation process. Explain that you will not take sides or attempt to decide who is right or wrong.
  • Confirm if they are committed to succeed.
  • Go over the rules and elicit a promise to abide.

Rules for Mediating

  • Agree to solve the problem.
  • Use only the person's chosen name.
  • One person talks at a time.
  • Be honest.
  • Agree to abide by the agreement.
  • Everything that is said is confidential except for information on drugs, weapons, and alcohol
  • Ask for questions
  • Gather Information
  • Listen.
  • Find the facts.
  • Analyze what everyone says to see if agreement is possible.
  • Enforce the rules (no interruptions, insults, or shouting).
  • Be patient.
  • Respect both students.
  • Ask all parties their wants
  • Ask how the other's actions interfere with their wants.
  • Ask how they felt.
  • Ask for three ways to resolve the conflict and reestablish a good relationship.
  • Ask for three ideas to try if it happens again.
  • Ask each if they have anything to say to the other party.
  • Assist Negotiations if disputants need help.

Summarize what happened and what they want.

  • Summarize how they feel.
  • Ask for their confirmation of your summary.
  • Ask them for reasons for their wants and feelings.
  • Ask for their understanding of the other's perspective, wants, feelings and rationale.
  • Ask for other optional agreements that maximize joint outcomes.

Try to have them select one option and reach an agreement.

The following ideas might help to recognize a need for agreement:

  • Review or identify their common interests and the importance of maintaining a constructive long-term relationship.
  • Discuss how the future of the relationship is more important than any short-term advantage from winning.
  • Suggest the need for each other to reach an agreement.
  • Suggest that if the relationship is damaged, they will have future difficulties that will be worse than not getting what we want today.
  • Describe common interests to bring parties together and describe opposing interests as a mutual problem to be solved.

Other Hints

  • Encourage ownership of their feelings.
  • Use "I" messages.
  • Name the feeling or use sensory descriptions.
  • Avoid pressure to take sides.
  • Reduce emotional charges and language. Rather than saying "She is angry because you stole her purse," say, "She is angry because you had her purse." Rather than saying, "The two of you were yelling at each other about the $15," the mediator can say, "You talk to each other in loud ways when the topic of money comes up."
  • Paraphrase.
  • Restate the facts and summarize the events.
  • Reflect feelings.
  • Remain neutral.
  • Refuse to give advice or suggestions.
  • Avoid bringing up feelings and problems from you own experience.
  • Look for the positive.
  • Explore the multiple meanings of any one behavior.
  • "Think of situations in which that same behavior would be positive."
  • Increase motivation by highlighting the gains for resolution and the costs for no resolution.

Try for a particular agreement.

If disputants are not able to agree on what happened have them agree that they are in crisis.

  • See if they agree on how they will relate in the future. Future-oriented agreements will not force anyone to admit wrongdoing.
  • Try for a package deal and tradeoffs.
  • See if they will agree to a principle. I.e. students may not agree on whether one should replace a lost book but they may agree to the principle that it is wrong to solve problems by fighting.
  • Compromises are unstable because neither disputant gets all of what he or she wants and the relationship is not fully repaired.
  • Understanding is like peeling an onion. One layer reveals another layer underneath.
  • Equalizing power. It is hard for a low-power person to negotiate with a high-power person and vice versa. Help the less articulate person state his or her wants, feelings, and reasons to equalize power.


Teaching Students to be Peacemakers Program

Once students learn how to negotiate and mediate, the teacher may want to implement the Teaching Students to be Peacemakers Program. Each day, the teacher selects two class members to serve as official mediators by randomly assigning pairs. When all students have enough experience they may mediate individually. Mediators wear official T-shirts, hats, or armbands. Refresher lessons are conducted twice a week.

Teachers should weave conflict resolution procedures and skills into the fabric of school life. Examples include: follow-up lessons on improving communication skills, ways to control anger, appropriate assertiveness, problem solving skills, perspective-taking, creative thinking, intra personal, and interpersonal skills. Integration into subjects like social studies and literature by analyzing the people or characters, their actions or inactions, and world events or plot of the story with respect to conflict resolution.

Conflict management training should be repeated yearly for 12 years, with an increasing level of complexity and sophistication.

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


References for Conflict Resolution Programs

  • Evidence of success for Out of School Programs
  • Teaching Students to be Peacemakers. Johnson and Johnson 1970-1994.
  • Children's Creative Response to Conflict (CCRC) Priscilla Prutzman.
  • Resolving Conflict Creatively by Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR)
  • Community Boards of San Francisco Conflict Managers Program. Ray Shonholtz response to Jimmy Carter's call for Neighborhood Justice Centers.


Zero Tolerance as a way to reduce Conflict

"Zero Tolerance" Trouble in New York - June 7, 2010 - Newsweek


WHEN CONGRESS passed a national school-violence policy in 1994, many states followed with even stricter measures. But those laws, it now seems, are based on a faulty premise: that courts are the best place for disciplining children.

The failure of this idea is clear in New York, where zero-tolerance policies have lead to arrests for gun possession on school grounds, but also for relatively minor offenses like shoving. Even nonviolent incidents—doodling, throwing food, back-talking—have landed kids in court, where last year New York sent more than 1 4OO minors (average age: less than l6) to correctional facilities.

According to a series of recent reports—by the Justice Department and the state Office of Children and Family Services—the institutions don't help. Nearly nine of 10 occupants commit additional crimes. It's a "school-to-prison pipeline," says Judith S. Kaye, the state's former chief judge.

She hopes the negative publicity will provide a push toward alternative modes of justice (like youth courts, where peers hear the cases of peers), more civics classes (where kids learn the virtues of sociability), and level headed adjudication—where detention doesn't always involve a cell. — T.D.

Violence Programs Summary

Violence Programs have two major elements:

  1. Reactive violence prevention and
  2. Proactive violence prevention
Violence Prevention Programs Only
Eliminate weapons Encourage students to abstain from violence
Suppress violent behavior Identify causes of violence
Train faculty and staff to intervene Adopt a threat-management policy
Target students who commit violent acts Provide debriefing sessions for students traumatized by violent incidents
Discredit violence Increase self-esteem
Have a weapons hotline Teach students how to manage anger


Comprehensive Violence Prevention Program
Meet nurturing needs
Create a cooperative environment
Encourage positive and lasting relationships
Limit out-of school time
Provide long-term conflict resolution/peer mediation training to all students
Form partnerships with parents and community
Include components from violence prevention only programs

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


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes &