Problems with Problem Solving

I have spent a lot of time analyzing the dual concern model. The basic idea of this model is that the actors in a conflict must determine how important a particular goal of theirs is in relation to the other party’s concern for or against the same goal. Basically you are weighing your own willingness to fight for something against your perception of your opponent’s willingness to fight against it.

The model provide four basic strategies, plus a fifth alternative. Pruitt and Kim describe them this way: when neither side cares about a particular outcome, you avoid, that is you take no action. If you care about a particular outcome and the other side doesn’t, you contend, or push the other side to concede. If you don’t care about something that is important to the other side, you yield, let them have what they want. If both sides care about a particular outcome then they work together to problem solve. The fifth alternative is compromise, a mutually disagreeable solution.

Problem solve sounds so nice. It makes it seem like the contending parties are just going to come together and work everything out, calmly and rationally. That leads me to my biggest criticism of my field of study: the blind optimism that every conflict that can be resolved.

Don’t get me wrong, problem solving can be calm and rational, but it requires calm and rational participants. In my personal experience, not all people approach conflict in a calm and rational manner. To be fair, Pruitt and Kim do have a chapter on contentious tactics in their book, they are not turning a blind eye to the fact that conflict is not always so easily resolved.

Problem solving describes a situation where both sides are placing a high level of importance on the outcome. Both sides want it to go their way. If both sides are calm and rational, then there is a good chance that they can discuss the issues and create a solution that fully satisfies each side.  I would guess that more often than not emotion and pride quickly move participants beyond calmness and rationality.

I suppose it is philosophically a good idea for we students of conflict resolution to be taught that all conflict is resolvable. I suppose as a matter of pragmatism it is heartening for people to believe that all problems can be solved. I may be a little cynical, but it only takes one bad actor to destroy an optimistic  outlook. One of my colleagues put it best when he wrote, “Conflict is inevitable, resolution is not.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s