By Joshua N. Weiss and Sarah Rosenberg

Negotiators and mediators who deal with very large social conflicts have to skillfully manage a very complex and diverse set of challenges. In order to do that, these people must think about the best way to order or sequence the issues in a particular conflict.There are a number of models that enable a negotiator or mediator to make sense out of the complexity and design the best process in order to try to address the issues in the conflict. Due to the fact that many negotiation/mediation processes are often needed before an agreement is reached, the models presented below are used in a stand-alone capacity or in a contingency fashion. For example, it is common to have a few processes that try to use the gradual approach and then, picking up on previous processes, another strategy, such as the boulder in the road, is attempted.

Note: Strategy is defined herein as the overall plan for how to approach an issue, while tactics are singular actions taken in order to achieve the desired ends of a strategy.

General Sequencing Models

While there are many variations, the following models tend to be the manner in which negotiators and mediators approach large social conflicts:

Gradualism (also called Incrementalism, or see Negotiation Strategies)

The gradualism method is characterized by a purposeful strategy whereby the mediator attempts to move the parties from simpler to more complex issues (as defined by the parties). This approach was popularized by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s efforts in the Middle East as well as the more recent Oslo Process between the Israelis and Palestinians. The logic behind the approach is that trust is low and so the parties need to take small steps to create initial trust and/or foster a positive atmosphere such that subsequent vital issues may be broached.

Pros

• It is the most logical and the most practical of all the sequencing strategies.

• It is inherently cautious, which may impart a sense of ease among the disputing parties.

• It concurrently allows the mediator and the parties to gauge progress at different intervals.

• It is flexible…it can be changed as needed.

• Purportedly, the more the agreement is implemented, the more difficult it becomes to alter the “realities on the ground” (in other words, to back away from those changes).

Cons

• It is susceptible to manipulation by the parties, particularly by the more powerful party, as it can control the process more easily.

• It is vulnerable to spoilers whose intent is to disrupt the process.

• It requires patience and ignores the fact that the populaces want tangible change quickly.

• There is a dominant belief that no one issue is too important to hold back progress that has been consummated on other issues. Therefore, the more difficult issues that cannot be resolved are continually pushed off to some future date or postponed indefinitely.

Boulder in the Road

The “boulder in the road” approach can best be characterized as the opposite of the gradualism approach. It proposes to address the more complex issues first, thereby moving the “boulder” or greatest obstacle, which enables an easier resolution of the remaining issues. This approach might, in some ways, seem to be counterintuitive because the core issues have confounded and hence blocked settlement for years and even decades. However the stage of the conflict and whether the conflict is ripe for resolution due to either a mutually hurting stalemate or mutually enticing opportunity — can make this bold and presumptive stance most desirable.

Pros

• It is a high-reward strategy.

• It is a bold strategy that seriously challenges the intentions of the conflict parties from the outset.

• It prevents parties from manipulation of small agreements in a manner that suggests a lack of good faith.

• It attempts to bind the parties to the peace process and thus quickly determines the sincerity of the involved parties.

Cons

• It is a high-risk strategy. If there is a breakdown in the negotiation process, the outcome is most likely renewed violence or even overt war.

• Negotiators/Mediators may simply not consider this approach because it appears unrealistic, particularly if they receive initial negative feedback from the discordant parties.

• Were this strategy to fail, starting anew may be formidable unless other significant changes occur. Many parties often see little point in continuing or trying any other approach if they believe there is no agreement on the most difficult issues.

Committee

Instead of employing either an easy-to-hard or hard-to-easy sequence, negotiators/mediators take the hard issues that the different parties highlight and divide the parties into committees to deal with each issue. These committees work simultaneously on specific issues in smaller groups, and then their resolutions are presented to the larger group. All the committees tend to work under the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Pros

• In the negotiation of many conflicts, one or both parties often demand deliberation of certain issues first, claiming there is nothing else to negotiate about and hence providing an excuse to cease deliberations. But the committee approach meets such demands without causing a breakdown in the negotiations.

• The parties are essentially forced into a cooperative attitude on issues previously considered non-negotiable.

• Its ability to separate complicated issues, addressing them in an isolated manner — so other smaller issues cannot muddy the process of resolving the more contentious issues.

• It follows the mantra of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and is therefore independent yet flexible.

Cons

• The negotiators are not part of the different smaller committee discussions and, as a result, they lack an understanding of how specific agreements were arrived at and decided upon.

• Coordination between the different subset committees is challenging.

• There is less opportunity to link or package issues to resolve a problem because the parties are isolating core issues.

• Small committees require the mediation team to also be split in a similar pattern. This is potentially problematic as not all mediators work in the same manner.

Formulaic (also called Agreement-in-Principle)

This approach involves reaching a general agreement early in the process with the intention of working out the details at a later stage. This general agreement is purposely vague in order to keep the parties at the table, set a positive tone for the rest of the process, and build momentum.

Pros

• It is general enough that the parties are likely to reach an initial agreement without having to commit to too much concretely.

• It generally sets a positive tone of working together and shows the parties they can cooperate.

• It provides enough vagaries for interpretation by different parties and leaders.

Cons

• It often gets stuck in the general agreement stage — the devil is in the details.

• It is vague and open to interpretation, so parties may think they have agreed when they really have not, or they run into interpretation problems.

• It may raise hopes prematurely that an agreement will be easier than previously thought.

Tactics Related to Sequencing

Within the different strategies are tactics, or specific actions negotiators or mediators may take to advance their overall strategy. While a specific tactic is by no means bound to a particular strategy, certain tactics tend to be employed when a certain strategy is used. For example, fractionation (breaking big issues down into smaller pieces or “fractions”) is most closely associated with the gradualism strategy. Below are some of the more commonly used tactics:

Fractionation (or Fractionalization): The process of dividing the most difficult issues into smaller parts in order to keep a situation from escalating and thereby making the issues more manageable. As mediator Bernard Mayer explains, “The art of fractionalization is to divide a conflict into manageable chunks that are neither too small nor too large and that do not isolate any major issue in a way that makes creative problem-solving more difficult.”

Holisticism: The process of addressing issues in their entirety without breaking them into smaller elements. This is done particularly with issues that do not lend themselves to being broken down easily.

Irrevocable Commitments: The process of making a concession that is virtually impossible to rescind. This is used to try to positively entrap the parties in the process, making it very difficult for them to leave the table.

Linking: The process of conjoining one issue with another for the purposes of settling both issues. Nothing is Agreed until Everything is Agreed: A philosophical approach that highlights for the parties they should feel free to generate all sorts of ideas, and not be bound by any one of them until all the issues in question are agreed to.

Packaging: The process of negotiating and linking multiple issues together for the purposes of reaching a comprehensive agreement.

Salami Slicing: The process of taking the whole conflict or a single issue in the conflict, viewing it as a “salami,” and slicing off pieces until one has dealt with the entire problem. Focusing on the easier elements of a specific problem first is generally how this is accomplished.

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by Beyond Intractability

Joshua N. Weiss is currently the Associate Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University in 2002. www.beyondintractability.org