By Deborah Shmueli
Conflict assessment is the essential first stage in the process of conflict management and resolution. A primary goal of such assessment is for all concerned parties to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics inherent in their relationships. This understanding not only clarifies one’s own interests and positions, but leads to an acknowledgement of the basis for the interests and positions held by others, and thereby promotes reflection by the stakeholders. The assessment maps the conflict, and then uses it as an evaluation tool to determine whether or not there is a reasonable possibility for initiating an intervention process to manage or resolve the dispute.
Susskind and Thomas-Larmer1 have pointed out that since the 1970s and ’80s, assessments have been used as preludes to intervening in disputes. They noted that the assessment concept became formalized in the context of prospective negotiated rulemaking in the early 1980s,2 and that the Administrative Conference of the United States formally recommended that such assessments be included as part of negotiated rulemaking in 1990.3 (Rulemaking is the process that administrative agencies go through when they develop the details — the rules — that specify how laws are to be applied.) Conflict assessments are also now commonly employed in consensus-building and dispute resolution, in informal ways as well as through the utilization of outside, impartial assessors in the conduct of formal assessments.4,5
The assessment is designed to be embedded in reflection and social learning. The assessor must therefore be particularly sensitive to helping the disputants reveal, often through self-discovery, the issues that are really important to them, as well as to understand the priorities that motivate the beliefs and actions of the other stakeholders. In this sense, then, the assessment becomes a learning process.
The initial data-gathering stage is interactive, as stakeholders clarify their interests and positions. The assessment can be helpful in building relationships among stakeholders as well as between the stakeholders and the assessor, and in eliciting stakeholder participation in managing and resolving the dispute. As an evaluation tool, assessment has inherent advantages. It offers insights into the type of intervention most likely to succeed, and provides input into designing a work plan, should intervention be initiated.
What differentiates conflict assessment from other forms of evaluation is that stakeholders and other interested parties may not have come together as a group previously, and therefore may lack a common information base. The initial phase of the process presents the opportunity to build such a shared body of information and knowledge, before group interaction commences. Moreover, as issues that had previously been submerged come to the forefront, this informational stage can lead to the identification of other stakeholders. Stakeholder identification is therefore more than an a priori action, it is a continuous process.
In intractable conflicts especially, the issues in contention are likely to be deeply embedded in personal and group interests, self/other characterizations, or overarching political and socioeconomic agendas. Since many such conflicts are geographically bounded, the parties may have encountered one another in similar or different sets of disputes. The conflict at hand may therefore be colored by a backlog of animosities, historical grievances, mistrust, alliances, and structural power imbalances. If intervention is to be initiated, a full understanding of these complex relationships has to be shared by all involved parties. In such disputes, there is likely to be no consensus over the boundaries of the conflict.
Using a “snowball”6 method for identifying all the interested parties to the dispute, as well as those parties that might be helpful in the conflict management process, the assessment probes such topics as:
• Stakeholders’ interests and perceptions about themselves and others whom they consider to be involved;
• Issues deemed important to each stakeholder group, at least at the outset;
• Institutional, financial, and other impediments to successful intervention;
• Conditions stipulated by each stakeholder for participating in any type of conflict management process, and
• Agreement as to who is to represent stakeholders (or outside interested parties) at the negotiation table.
Assessor roles are essentially facilitative and communicative. Assessors must be effective interviewers and sensitive listeners, who have some knowledge of the issues at stake. Most assessments are conducted by dispute-resolution professionals, although assessors with general consensus-building skills may also be effective. In some cases, the assessment may be conducted by one or two individuals. In others, and especially in complex cases, a team of several nonpartisan assessors is more appropriate.
The assessor(s) should make clear to the stakeholders that his or her role at this stage is not that of an intervener, although the relationships which develop between the assessor and stakeholders may make the former the optimal choice for playing such a role at a later stage. However, it is important that the assessor’s recommendations to move on to the intervention stage not be influenced by the desire to assume the intervener role.
Another possible pitfall is a situation in which the convener is also a stakeholder. In such a situation, extra cautionary measures are necessary to ensure against the distortion of the assessment process. This highlights the need for assessor objectivity and impartiality in the information-gathering, as well as the recommendation phases.
Phases of Conflict Assessment
In general, conflict assessment includes the following phases:7,8,9
1. Introduction: A clear mandate from the convener. Preparation of interview protocols that encompass a set of open-ended questions, designed to obtain information organized around specific aspects of the conflict.
2. Information gathering: Survey of general records and protocols dealing with the conflict as background to stakeholder interviews. The bulk of the data is derived from personal interviews with the stakeholders and other interested parties. This phase begins with an examination of the appropriate documents and protocols. In the schedule of interviews that follow, it may be desirable to interview the most important stakeholders toward the end, in order to enrich the questions to be asked of the key actors. Identification of additional important stakeholders may also emerge from the earlier interviews.
One way of conducting the interviews is to have one person ask the questions and prompt the responses, while another takes written notes. Tape recording may substitute for note-taking, or serve as a supplement, if the comfort level of the interviewee allows this technique. In all cases, interviewers should review the main issues to verify the accuracy of the notes, before moving on to the analysis stage.
The results of the interviews and the examination of the other information protocols are expected to yield insights into:
• Development of the conflict from the viewpoint of stakeholders in that category, including the historical chain of events that have led to the conflict;
• The key issues relating to the conflict;
• Basic interests;
• Proposed solutions and acknowledgment of other options;
• Points which are negotiable and nonnegotiable to parties at the outset;
• Important issues for future discussion;
• Perceptions and reactions to the decision-making process;
• Barriers to introducing an approach based on negotiation, mediation, and consensus decision-making.
All suggestions and opinions are included, with no indication of a majority view; the purpose is simply to set forth the range of ideas, not to indicate which views are dominant. Confidentiality may be assured by clustering the comments according to stakeholder category and topics, without attribution to individuals or their organizational affiliations.
3. Analysis: Summarizing findings, mapping areas of agreement and disagreement, and deriving framing information, all of which have direct implications for the design of the conflict management and resolution process. Carpenter and Kennedy10 have provided useful examples of instruments for the systematic analysis of the various parties’ interests and issues, and for measuring the conflict dynamic continuum.
In presenting the data, the focus may be integrative, emphasizing the common interests and positions amongst the different groups, and blurring the distinctions. The integrative approach emphasizes the convergence of interests as a basis for consensus-building. Where differences are acute, however, the integrative approach may be counterproductive, because it could engender distrust of the process as a whole.
Another approach, especially when the differences are deep, is to present the analysis in a group-by-group format. Findings are sent to all stakeholders in each category for review, revision, and approval, before being integrated into a final report which is sent to all stakeholders, as well as to the convener.
4. Process design: Goals, agenda, selection of stakeholder representatives who will participate directly in the process, and time frame for suggested stages.
5. Report writing, feedback, distribution: The report may be a catalyst for bringing together a small subset of the parties to elicit initial feedback. There is no prescribed length for the assessment report, since there are tradeoffs with regard to the level of detail that is to be included. In many instances, complexity of the issues will dictate the size of the report. This can provide guidance for crafting the feedback format or future intervention design for the larger stakeholder universe.
Benefits of Conflict Assessment
Conflict Assessment is helpful to the disputants, convener, and assessor(s) in the following ways. For the disputants:
• Offers a reflective tool which clarifies their own interests, positions, and issues with regard to the conflict, as well as revealing those of other stakeholders;
• Builds a shared body of information and knowledge;
• Begins to reframe relationships, build interest- and issue-based coalitions. For the convener:
• Elicits stakeholder participation;
• Offers insights into the type of intervention likely to succeed, if any;
• Provides input into designing a work plan, should intervention be initiated.
• For the assessor (and sometimes would-be intervener):
• Builds relationships with stakeholders.