Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Conflict assessment is the first stage in the process of conflict management and resolution. Participants (either disputants, third parties, or both) analyze the conflict including background, participants, issues, dynamics, and possible solutions. Then participants decide on a plan of action.
Anyone involved in a conflict--both disputants and potential intervenors (third parties).
Assessment clarifies who the stakeholders are, each stakeholder's interests and needs, as well as the nature of the past and current conflict dynamics. Once they understand these elements, participants can decide whether there is a possibility to manage or resolve the conflict and which resolution process is most likely to succeed. Participants can then design a work plan, with or without a third party intervenor.
The assessment process can also be helpful in building relationships among disputants themselves and between the disputants and the assessor (if the assessment is done by an outsider). When stakeholders come together as a group, they can compile a common information base. Moreover, as issues that had previously been submerged come to the fore, this informational stage can lead to the identification of other stakeholders.
In difficult conflicts especially, the issues in contention are likely to be deeply intertwined with values, stereotypes,and/ or political agendas. Furthermore, since many conflicts are long-standing, the parties may have encountered each other before in this or other related disputes. In this case, the situation may be complicated by a backlog of mistrust. If intervention is to be initiated, all parties must understand these complex relationships and try to replace their assumptions and stereotypes with accurate information.
Assessments may be carried out by the parties themselves or with the help of an outside (third) party. Often an assessment team works with the parties to first assess the conflict and then make process recommendations for a dispute resolution process.
In an assessment, participants probe such topics as:
- Stakeholders' perceptions of themselves and other parties
- The important issues for each group
- Obstacles to a successful /resolution or intervention
- The stakeholders' conditions for negotiation
- Who is to represent each party at the negotiation table
Conflict assessments generally include the following phases:
- Introduction: Assessors prepare open-ended interview questions designed to obtain information about the conflict.
- Information gathering: Assessors study the background of the conflict through research and personal interviews with the stakeholders. This should help the assessors understand the different viewpoints of stakeholders, the key issues in the conflict, different parties' interests, negotiable and non-negotiable points, issues for future discussion,possible avenues towards settlement or resolution, reactions to the proposed process, and barriers to intervention.
- Analysis: Assessors summarize findings, mapping areas of agreement and disagreement.
- Process design: If requested, assessors may suggest a suitable conflict resolution process, describing goals, agendas, possible structures, and time frame.
- Report writing: The assessor writes a report which is reviewed by the parties. They may then decide to follow the process recommendations of the assessment report, or pursue the conflict in a different way.
- Graphical "conflict mapping": In particularly complex conflicts, it is often useful to diagram or graphically "map" all the different conflict elements (the parties, their attributes, the relationships, and the dynamics). Such graphical depictions of the conflict process often illustrates positive feedback loops that are causing conflict escalation, as well as conflict limiting dynamics that might be accentuated to lead to conflict management or transformation.
Benefits of Conflict Assessment
Benefits of conflict assessment include:
- It offers a reflective tool which clarifies issues, participants' interests, needs, and values and reveals those of other stakeholders
- It builds a shared body of information and knowledge
- It reframes relationships
- It elicits stakeholder participation
- It helps participants decide which type of intervention likely to succeed, if any
- It helps participants design a work plan, should intervention be initiated
Resolve, a public policy consensus-building firm, conducted an assessment of the potential for a productive dialogue in California among advocates for and against legalizing physician-assisted suicide. After identifying all the concerned parties, and assessing the views of (among others) of health care providers, medical ethicists, right-to-die advocates, pro-life advocates, hospice providers and government officials, they recommended a dialogue process be undertaken with these groups. This was done, resulting in a joint statement about ways of improving end-of-life care.
Conflict assessment is needed in any complex conflict where it is not immediately apparent who is involved and/or what the issues are.
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