Our Approach

Our mission is to help people build ways to bridge divides on difficult and controversial issues. Our philosophy is based on the idea that common ground must be actively created, and not simply found. In a typical social or political conflict, people argue and debate over their positions on an issue. They try to convince each other (and people who may be listening) of the correctness of their positions . This tends to lead to an endless back and forth. There tend to be only a few outcomes to political debates: either you win and I lose; I win and you lose; we have a stalemate; or we compromise - in which case no one really gets what they want.

There are better ways. The key to effective social and political conflict is to stop thinking of conflict as a battle or competition and start thinking of conflict as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving.

There are two basic forms of collaborative problem solving. needs-based problem solving occurs when parties to a conflict look past the positions that they take on a political issue in order to identify the unmet needs, interests, fears and concerns that motivate people to take those positions. Partners then seek to develop new, shared ways of meeting their core needs and concerns. Needs-based problem solving is effective way to manage interpersonal, social and political conflict alike. However, in political conflict, the needs that motivate people to adopt different positions on an issue tend to be organized by values, ideologies, and sacred beliefs. n these circumstance, there is a need to go beyond needs-based problem solving to what we call dialectical problem solving. This is discussed further below.

The Basic Process: Needs-Based Collaborative Problem Solving

The key to effective social and political conflict is to stop thinking of conflict as a battle or competition and start thinking of conflict as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving. In collaborative problem solving, instead of debating their positions on given issue, parties seek to look beyond their respective positions. Instead, they seek to engage each other as people -- human beings with needs, interests, fears, and concerns.

A Conflict. People enter a conflict by arguing over their positions on an issue

Look beyond the position. A person's position is an attempt to meet a need.

Find the hidden needs. Both your own and the other's. Ignore the positions.

A Joint Solution. Create a way to meet both sets of needs at the same time.

Click here to learn more about the basics of Needs-Based Problem Solving.

The Advanced Process: Dialectical Engagement

Many social and political conflicts can be managed and even resolved through the use of Needs-Based Problem Solving. However, political conflicts often require more than this. This is because in political conflicts, the needs, concerns, and interests that motivate people to adopt different positions on an issue are defined by social, moral, religious and ideological beliefs. In other words, the needs that motivate different political positions are typically not independent of the ideological beliefs that people hold. When conflicts become ideological, the process of political problem solving becomes more difficult. More difficult, perhaps -- but by no means impossible.

When ideologies clash, it is possible to create common ground using Dialectical Problem Solving. Dialectical problem solving seeks to create new shared ways of thinking, feeling and acting through the integration of opposites. Instead of seeking to either dismiss the beliefs of the other or to avoid the confrontation of opposites, Dialectical Problem Solving seeks to engage opposing beliefs directly. It works by acknowledging the dignity of opposing parties and their rights to hold opposing beliefs. It also preserves the right of each party to maintain those beliefs as they see fit throughout the process of bridging divides. The basic process of Dialectical Problem Solving is shown below:

The first steps in the resolution in any given conflict should involve (I) Needs Based Problem Solving. However, because a party's needs, concerns, interests and grievances are often defined by social and ideological values, in political disputes, Needs Based Problem Solving can only go so far. Dialectical Problem Solving (II) begins only after parties have exhausted progress in creating common ground using Needs Based Problem Solving. Building on progress made using Needs Based Problem Solving, continuing to deep respect for the dignity and humanity of all participants, the next step involves (3) identifying the ideological beliefs of both parties in the conflict. At this point, instead of seeking to avoid ideological differences, the discussion moves to a direct attempt to understand them. Each party thus seeks to understand (and even empathize with, if possible) the beliefs of both party's in as much depth as possible.

Once ideological differences are understood and respected by both parties, it becomes possible for each party to seek to (4) identity "kernels of truth" in the beliefs of the Other. It doesn't matter what those kernels of truth are -- or how much you have to "squint" to see or find them. They can be obvious matters of agreement, very basic points of commonality, or banal "truths" that don't seem worthy of even being acknowledged. But if you find them and acknowledge them, you will generate both good will and a rudimentary form of common ground. The process of identifying "kernels of truth" in the Other will reveal both potentially compatible and incompatible beliefs. At this point, each party can begin to separate compatible from incompatible beliefs.

It even a modicum of trust has been developed over the process, identifying "kernels of truth" in the beliefs of the other sets up the next step, which involves (4) reflecting on one's own beliefs and seeking to (5) adjust, modify or mutually accommodate them in accordance with the "kernels of truth" one finds in the beliefs of the other. If partners are open to the process, this step allows partners to mutually accommodate elements of their beliefs to the "truths" they find each other's belief over time.

As this happens, partners can begin to identify (6) new forms of shared beliefs that emerge between the negotiating parties. These new beliefs will not be profound ones that resolve all of the problems between adversaries. At first, they will be small adjustments in each party's beliefs -- adjustments that each party is able to make voluntarily and without having to "give up" core beliefs. As common ground is created and trust builds, parties can move onward to seek to return to address conflicts between other incompatible beliefs that have been "bracketed" during early periods of problem-solving.

The process tends to be slow, deliberate and cumbersome. It involves the building of trust and good will over time, which can constantly be threatened as parties make the inevitable errors of failing to understand or acknowledge each other's needs, sacred belief and dignity. The process will move in fits and starts, with small periods of progress accompanied by inevitable setbacks. While it is possible to create common ground between adversaries, the path toward doing so is not necessarily an easy one.

An Example of Dialectical Problem Solving

To illustrate the process of Dialectical Problem Solving, consider the following hypothetical example. The example involves a local political conflict. A small town has a historic district. Houses in the historic district are regulated by a series of codes designed to maintain the historical feel of the town. Amongst these codes is the provision that houses cannot be more than three stories high. The historic district is regulated by a committee of elected town members who make decisions about requests to modify or build structures in the historic district. A group of citizens plans to purchase a house in order to create affordable housing units. To do so, they plan to expand the house in several ways, including building a fourth floor. A conflict arises as the town ordinance prohibits expansions and four story buildings in the historic district. Drawing on the process described and illustrated above, the process of Dialectical Problem Solving is shown below:

After the (1) initial registration of the conflict over positions, in lieu of debate, it is desirable to engage in (2) Needs-Based Problem Solving. Here, it is possible for each side in the conflict to look past the initial positions expressed in order to identify the needs, interests and problems of each of the constituents. When this occurs, we find that the Historic Commission desires to preserve the historic character of the historic district while the Citizen's Group seeks to create affordable housing. There are many ways of resolving a conflict based on this articulation of needs. One obvious way is for the Commission to encourage and actively support the group in finding areas outside of the historic district to build affordable housing.

If both groups have articulated the genuine needs and concerns -- that is, if the Historic Commission's interests are really to preserve the historic character of the district and the Citizen's Group genuinely desires to create affordable housing -- then this solution should at least be a feasible one. By acting with the support of the Housing Commission, the Citizen's Group can advance its interests. The Citizen's Group might even pursue this option. However, the question of affordable housing is a political one that is influenced by systems of social, moral, ideological and even religious beliefs. While finding affordable housing outside of the historic district address the basic need, it may not address the Citizen's Groups ideological concerns -- issues related to conditions that allow certain people to live in the historic district, while others are relegated to other areas of the town.

In such circumstances, the political conflict involves strong ideological differences. In the next step of the process, the Citizen's Group engages in (3) Dialectical Problems Solving with town authorities. In so doing, a moderator manages the process in which each sides seeks deep understanding of the ideological beliefs, values, commitments, grievances and needs of the other. After a deep process of seeking deep understanding, each side is asked to separate compatible from incompatible systems beliefs. The Historic Commission articulates its belief that towns should be able to develop codes to maintain historical integrity of certain districts. The Citizen's Group articulates is belief that historic districts are discriminatory - that they function to keep certain groups of people, namely poor and minority people -- out of the district.

At this point, having developed a deep understanding if not appreciation for the ideology of the other side, each group is asked to identify "kernels of truth" in the beliefs of the other. At this junction, the Historic Commission is able to see the "truth" in the Citizen's group call for nondiscrimination; the Citizen's group is able to appreciate a town's desire to maintain the valued historical integrity of particular districts. By working to distinguish points of agreement and disagreement, the Historic Commission and the Citizen's Group are able to agree upon (5) a novel shared belief --namely, the idea that towns should have the right to preserve the historical integrity of certain districts in ways that do not discriminate.

The construction of this novel, shared belief is a developmental accomplishment. It is not a belief that will transform the world or bring the various sides together in a state of uncomplicated bliss. But such an accomplishment is nonetheless something of substance. It would be a first, small, hard won step in a much longer process of creating common ground.

The agreement itself contains the seeds of further conflict. What does it mean for a town to preserve a historic district without discriminating? Isn't the very idea of a historic district a form of discriminating? At the very least, the town would discriminate between that which can be considered historic from that which cannot! Such a discrimination raises other questions: Who pays for the preservation of a historic district? Is it paid for by the residents? If so, to what extent does personal liberty conflict with shared interest in preserving history? Is not the capacity to earn enough income to reside in a historic district a form of discriminating -- especially if minority groups are the ones who are unable to pay? Would this be an acceptable form of discrimination?

Why a Peaceful Society is Not a Conflict-Free One

In a typical back-and-forth debate, such questions tend to produce stalemates. One side argues their position against the other; the winner is the one who can muster the most support. However, such debates may decide who wins, the conflicts and contradictions remain. Dialectical problem solving offers an alternative. By directly confronting opposition, it may be possible to break down the sources of the initial conflict in such a way that we can construct new, shared ways of being that begin to resolve initial contradictions.

The process is ongoing and open-ended. While it allows for the resolution of conflicts, it cannot produce a state that will resolve conflicts once and for all. This is not necessarily a result of a flaw in the process, but instead occurs because there can be no such thing as a conflict-free society. Any new resolution to a conflict contains the seeds for the next one. Conflict is inevitable aspect of the human condition. This is why it is more important to develop ways to manage and resolve conflict iteratively over time than it is to seek to end of conflict. "Peace" is not a conflict-free state. (Such a state would be tantamount to death.) A peaceful state is not characterized by the absence of conflict, but instead the capacity to bride divides in ways that do not lead to violence.