George and Joanne Argyle contracted with Bill Johnson to build a custom home. The Argyles had saved and sacrificed for years to be able to afford their dream home. George had spent endless hours tinkering with the floor plan, and Joanne had accumulated a full file drawer full of ideas for the interior.They gave their detailed plans and specifications to Johnson who gave them a bid price of $400,000. The Argyles accepted the bid and directed Johnson to begin work.

Problems arose almost immediately. Johnson did not start the job immediately because of other projects. When he did begin, weather delays slowed him down. The Argyles watched the job carefully, comparing the work with the plans and specifications. They began to see deviations from the plans and called them out to Johnson. Slowly, the relationship deteriorated as trust was lost between the parties. Finally, Johnson had enough.He walked off the job with the house three-quarter’s complete.The Argyles hired another contractor to fix the defects and finish the job. The cost overrun was $150,000.

The inevitable lawsuit was filed and, eventually, the case was assigned to mediation.At  the mediation, emotions ran very high. The mediator, seeing how intractable the conflict had become, declared an impasse and ended settlement talks. What went wrong?

Intractable conflicts are deep-seated, emotionally driven disputes.They are intractable because no amount of common sense, logic, objectivity, or rational risk analysis will convince the parties to make peace. Working with intractable conflicts therefore requires a broader analysis than is typically provided by legal or business analysis.

MACBE, an acronym for Motivation, Affect, Cognition, Behavior, and Environment, is a useful model for analyzing and working with intractable conflicts.

Motivation concerns the parties’ desire to make peace. If the parties have truly little motivation to work out their differences, the conflict is intractable. In this case, the Argyles struggled with their deep anger at feeling deceived by Johnson and the turmoil he caused to their dream.They faced conflicting motivations—resolve the matter peacefully or seek vengeance in the courtroom. Johnson, in contrast, was highly motivated to settle, but not by paying much money. In a peacemaking process, the true motivations of the parties would be discussed at pre-mediation meetings. Perhaps the parties were not yet ready to make peace. In this case, the mediator could have continued to meet individually until the motivation levels had developed towards a true desire for peace.

Affect describes the feelings and emotions experienced by the parties.In this case, the Argyles and Johnson were each deeply angry, frustrated, and humiliated. They did not take the time to acknowledge these feelings. Consequently, the mediation stalled against the wall of emotion. The parties’ feelings and emotions had to be exposed and acknowledged. This is done without blaming others, but as recognition of what people really feel.In many cases, simply acknowledging the validity of strong feelings can change the affective state of the parties.

Cognition describes the process of receiving, processing, and interpreting events around us. How people interpret conflict situations often determines whether they can see a way to make peace.In this case, the Argyles interpreted Johnson’s actions as dishonest, drawing the conflict picture in black and white terms. “We’re right; he’s wrong.End of discussion!” Re-stating events from a holistic perspective might have helped these parties overcome their cognitive limitations.

Behavior is what people do and say. In this case, accusations flew back and forth, escalating the conflict into further intractability. Behavior could be changed by enforcing simple ground rules and by building a commitment to cooperation and a momentum of agreement. Rather than allow the old behavioral pattern of attack-defend-attack to occur, the mediator could have guided the parties in very small steps towards cooperation.

Finally, the environment creates a context for the conflict. The cost overrun financially stressed the Argyles with accompanying stress in their relationship.Thus, they were not coming to the mediation from a place of peace, but from a place of intense anxiety. The joy they had expected in moving into their dream home had turned into a nightmare. Perhaps nothing could be done about the family stresses, but the environment within the mediation session could be controlled. In addition, the peacemaker could explore whether environmental factors were contributing to the intractability of the conflict.

Intractable conflicts are difficult. The MACBE model suggests that modifying one or more the five elements of conflict may de-escalate the conflict and move the parties to the peace that they are seeking, but find so hard to attain. The Argyle-Johnson conflict was difficult, but not impossible. With deeper understanding, the case might have been transformed.

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By Doug Noll


Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). He can be reached at