Multi-Party Negotiation for Conflict Resolution

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Helena Meyer-Knapp
The Evergreen State College
Stewart Dutfield
Graduate and Continuing Education, Marist College

Any challenge to the status quo can lead to conflict, which raises a key problem: how to shift the conflict creatively to achieve real change. Even within like-minded social change communities, participants can find themselves in conflict with each other. To negotiate over disagreements on the basis that only one of the affected parties can gain at the expense of all the others is to perpetuate the status quo, and often leads to everyone involved feeling that they have lost more than they have gained.


Organizations and communities dedicated to social change will encounter intense disagreements since they are working among people with strongly held beliefs and differing agendas. Many strategic action choices set up conflicts that do more to perpetuate the status quo than to change it: protests, negative media campaigns, lawsuits and regulation battles are time-honored tactics, but their win/lose dynamic tends to polarize opinions around longstanding hostilities. Problems can also arise when attempting to resolve conflicts by relying on a third party to mediate the issues, particularly if the dispute affects multiple divergent and distinct parties. Increasingly, social change actions are developed in settings at which participant decision-makers represent people from around the world. The UN Decade of the Women


Starting in 1981 with the publication of the Ury and Fisher book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In,” Americans, in particular, learned to imagine solutions to conflicts in which constructive win/win solutions replaced the win/lose model. Ury and Fisher centered on negotiation, and negotiation remains a critical conflict strategy. Their Program on Negotiation at Harvard University Law School, operates as a training and research center with a particular focus on large scale and international conflicts, using a fourfold process: (a) separate the people from the problem; (b) focus on interests, not positions; (c) invent options for mutual gain; and (d) insist on using objective criteria. Central to this process is the ability to recognize whether a proposed agreement is in one’s interest; the best alternative to no agreement (BATNA) is a clear understanding of what one will do if no agreement is reached.

Good communication skills and versatile approaches to problem definition are critical to negotiation and to conflict resolution in general. There is no single posture or style which connects across all cultures and power differences, but many people have found Marshall Rosenberg’s training useful for learning to listen effectively and learning to ask clearly. Michelle Le Baron’s book offers detailed descriptions of good practice for respecting specific cultural factors that will impact any negotiation. Meyer-Knapp’s analysis of attempts to end wars highlights some additional factors: secrecy can facilitate progress in difficult talks, key leaders must be involved and success often depends on all parties publicly agreeing to end retributive and punitive actions.

Some conflicts become so embedded in communities that it comes to seem impossible even to discuss them. Two programs illustrate options for opening up the dialogue. The Public Conversations Project has set up forums for private and extended dialogue on abortion in the United States. In the cities where they have worked there is an increasing willingness to reach across the divisions. The Health Bridge Project in the former Yugoslavia achieved a similar effect by setting up clinics and health care recovery projects staffed by professionals from among the hostile Serb, Croat and Bosnian Moslem communities. One particular peacetime derivative of military “gaming” uses an intensive negotiation/planning protocol in which the stakeholders are explicitly required to negotiate from the perspective of someone other than themselves.

Intra-organizational disputes can be softened if workers and board-members routinely engage in mediation and facilitation training. Then, should a disagreement arise, they can use the skills on their own behalf. However managers must remember that in US law and culture, once an organizational dispute has arisen, decisions that withstand leglistic challenges are based in well grounded due process. The essentials of due process are timely handling of complaints, neutrality of decision-makers in relation to the dispute, the right of appeal, and an opportunity for all sides to have their point of view heard.

This pattern links to Conversational Support Across Boundaries, Citizen Diplomacy, Peaceful Public Demonstrations, Collective Decision-Making, Appreciative Collaboration


Conflict can supply a positive impetus to improve the situation, often through negotiations among a variety of opposing parties. So, approach change prepared to acknowledge and actively deal with conflict. To generate lasting change, use an imaginative array of conflict strategies and skills including negotiation, multi-party process, and cross cultural dialogue. To enable constructive outcomes, negotiate with flexible and compassionate attitudes to opposing parties. Organizations should develop and regularly review their capacity for negotiation and dialogue, both internally and externally. Schools at all levels should be teaching skills in negotiation, conflict resolution, and communication. In complex situations, each participant must be willing to assume the responsibility of negotiating for themselves.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Is it possible to shift conflict creatively to achieve real change? Recently people have begun to imagine solutions to conflicts in which constructive win/win solutions replace the win/lose model. To generate lasting change, use an imaginative array of strategies and skills including negotiation, multi-party processes, and cross cultural dialogue.

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