Identifying Options

Option identification is an essential step in the process of resolving any conflict, including seemingly intractable situations. In a conflict resolution scenario, once all parties to the conflict have identified the issues under contention, they should systematically list ALL options that they see available to them for advancing their interests. The parties should include options they would not normally choose, as these could turn out to be compatible with those of an opposing party.[1] (This is discussed in detail below.) Option identification is essential through all phases of a conflict. For example, at the beginning of a conflict, parties must decide whether to engage or disengage. If they decide to engage, they must then decide their strategic and tactical options and what their goals are.

How Do Parties Go About Identifying Options?

Additional insights into option identification are offered by several Beyond Intractability project participants.

Option identification is often one part of the mediation or negotiation process. This stage should be the most creative step in the resolution process. The mediator or negotiator will help opposing parties identify and develop options for resolving conflict by transforming the information they have collected about issues, interests, and data into solutions that both sides can live with.[2] The advantage of including a third party in this process is that they will either suggest or help disputants identify options they would not have recognized on their own. The main goal is to come up with as many reasonable alternatives as possible: participants are usually asked to refrain from judging or assessing the options until later.

In order to generate wise options for resolving a conflict, the parties must first reveal the interests that lie behind their positions (see integrative bargaining).[3] Interests include the needs, desires, concerns, and fears important to each side. Rather than making demands and focusing on concessions, more options are generated if parties are forthcoming about their underlying concerns and what they hope to achieve. [4]

Once the parties clearly understand one another's interests, they can begin to generate options for resolving their conflict. There are several different procedures for doing this, but they all share several common characteristics: 1) everyone present is encouraged to suggest options. This changes the discussion from a bi-lateral zero-sum situation to a multi-sided view that often leads to more creativity. 2) Parties try to separate the process of generating options from that of assessing options. (Separating option identification from costing ensures that options will not be thrown out based on premature judgments.) 3) Discussions focus on the issue or problem and not on the parties themselves.[5] Overall, the most important aspect of generating options is that the parties think creatively.

These guidelines can be implemented in a variety of ways:

Ratification of the status quo involves the revision and updating of a previously reached agreement.

The development of objective standards for an acceptable agreement does not result in actual options, but establishes mutually acceptable standards for option generation and for shaping the final agreement.

Open discussion is one of the best methods for generating options, but parties must feel comfortable that they can share ideas without committing themselves to them. Mediators can assist with this by setting ground rules that allow parties to suggest and explore ideas without being expected to commit to them.[6]

Brainstorming is when a group of people generates a variety of settlement options for consideration. The basic principle behind brainstorming in a group is that more people will produce more options.[7] The mediator frames an issue as a problem and then asks a "how" question. For example, "how can a popular park be protected while still allowing visitors to enjoy its beauty?" Members of the group are then asked to respond, one at a time. The mediator records all ideas, including controversial or seemingly impossible suggestions. Parties are asked to abstain from making value judgments about the options until all ideas have been presented. Parties should be encouraged, however, to build on others' suggestions and work to refine them in ways that meet more of their interests. Brainstorming may be carried out in a variety of formats, but is usually done in a large group with all disputants present or in subgroups.[8]

Nominal group process is similar to brainstorming, but aims to maximize individual creativity. The issue is stated as a "how" problem, and individuals make their own lists of solutions within a given time limit. Individuals then form small groups of about five, in which they share and record their ideas one at a time. They discuss and assess the options they generated, and select those options that have the potential for mutual acceptance, presenting them to the larger group for further discussion and consideration.[9]

Task Groups. Another group process is to divide issues into logical categories and have separate task groups identify options for each category. This process is usually used in cases where there are a wide range of issues and when some of them require special knowledge and/or expertise. Again, the job of the task group is to come up with options, not assess them. Task groups are often used in combination with other methods of producing options.[10]

With model agreements, the parties examine agreements made in other disputes that were similar to their current situation. Those models are then explored and changed to meet the needs of the present situation.

Linked trades is a procedure that involves identifying potentially connected (linked) issues and then trading specific things that each party values differently. For example, if one side wants more money, and the other more time, a trade-off can be developed that gives each side what he or she wants. The mediator works with the disputants to figure out what interests they would trade for specific benefits. Together the mediator and parties may be able to develop deals that meet both side's interests.[11]

Single-text negotiation is another approach for generating options. Rather than having disputants generate separate ideas in a process such as task groups, the entire group works with one document, which may be developed by the mediator after hearing both sides' concerns, or it may be drafted by one of the parties, trying to create a document that meets everyone's interests. The document is then taken to all the parties, who gradually make improvements or revisions that make the agreement progressively more acceptable to all parties.[12]

A different sort of procedure is available when parties have different perceptions of the possible outcome of a dispute and/or the future is unknowable. In such cases, disputants may develop "procedural solutions to reach substantiveagreements." The parties come up with a fair procedure that can be used presently or in the future to arrive at a concrete resolution to the dispute. For example, a neighborhood association may be willing to support the construction of a potentially polluting factory under certain agreed-upon conditions. One possibility is that the business agrees to an environmental assessment after one year, and has a bond put aside to compensate residents if any environmental damage is discovered. In other words, the parties work out an insurance policy to make sure everyone will be happy with the ultimate outcome of their agreement.[13]

Package agreements are yet another option, which is available when parties have exchanged enough information to develop mutually acceptable packages. This option involves the construction of a comprehensive agreement that addresses all parties' key interests. Packages are generally designed to balance gains and losses for all parties so that the overall resolution is acceptable to all.[14]

Finally, parties may use outside experts or resources to shed new light on a dispute and help develop options for settlement. This process can be helpful when disputants are unable to separate themselves enough from the conflict to objectively come up with good options. It is often helpful if the mediator is the one to suggest using outside experts or resources because parties will have less suspicion of the sources of information. Outside experts can be helpful in a few ways. For example they can submit written explanations of how other problems have been solved in similar circumstances. Or they can make a presentation directly to the group, about how solutions have been implemented by other groups.[15] Experts may also be needed to provide options in cases that involve technical knowledge. The key to using outside experts, of course is to find people who are not affiliated with either side in the dispute.[16]

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.