group of children with school gearAs someone passionate about teaching people about conflict resolution, I often wish I had a concise way of describing it. A few weeks ago I posed the title question to a group of professional mediators and attorneys using alternative dispute resolution methods. I was curious to see what sorts of pithy descriptions they might use to get to the essence of what is truly a multi-faceted process.

Conflict has such negative connotations for so many people and yet managing it well is critically important for success in any realm of our lives.  It’s important to me to find accessible ways to describe this rich set of skills and attitudes in a way that invites curiosity and inspires a desire to learn.

I’d like to encourage questions about conflict dynamics. I want to provoke discussion about different ways of being with and approaching this most challenging aspect of human interaction. Most of all, I wish to create a space for people–for you–to feel safe and comfortable sharing your pain, frustrations, confusions, and break-throughs with respect to conflicts in your life.

I know. The question needs to be broader. It’s not only about describing conflict resolution. It’s about how to begin speaking about conflict so people don’t immediately want to change the subject. I mean, come on. Conflict? Where’s the fun in that as a topic at the water cooler?

By focusing on how to explain conflict resolution to a ten-year-old in five words, I hoped to elicit user-friendly and approachable descriptions. I got those and so much more.

So how would mediation professionals talk to a ten-year-old?

I thank my fellow mediators for their wise and insightful comments and for being willing to “play” with me. I promised the group I wouldn’t name names but am sharing some of my favorites. I’ve organized them into clusters. Some of the best bits came from stories and examples (no surprise there). Perhaps the most important caveat came from a seasoned attorney who asked, “Why would you want to explain any complex concept in five words?”

Point well taken.

This was tempered by another participant who said, “The more words you use, the less most people pay attention to any of them.”

So true, right?

I will attempt to strike this balance by adding my insights to the clusters,  but I’ll keep them short.

Let’s begin with the story one attorney told about a divorce case. The couple in question argued about EVERYTHING (emphasis is the story teller’s) in a hearing on how to divide assets from books to the family parrot to kitchen utensils. The judge sent a message to the two attorneys, “If you two experienced lawyers cannot settle this, I am having the parrot shot.”

They settled.

Solomon would  have been proud.

This leads me to the first cluster.


Several statements dealt with negotiating which is one form of conflict resolution. Negotiation is typically defined as a formal (sometimes strategic) discussion to reach an agreement. A few of the examples on this list are about persuasion and some about achieving dual goals (yours and theirs):

  • Letting the other side have your way (you might want to read this one twice 😉
  • Make it EASY for the other side to see things YOUR way
  • To get what YOU need, help the other side get something THEY need
  • Go where THEY are to get where YOU want to go
  • Deciding who gets the bike
  • Stop or you are toast

Collaborative Problem Solving

I contrast negotiation and collaborative problem solving though I acknowledge there’s overlap depending upon the negotiation style being used. So-called “principled negotiation” a la Getting to Yes is akin to collaborative problem-solving. However, not all negotiations follow those principles. Not all have the goal of win-win outcomes. Collaborative problem solving does.

  • Find solutions so everyone’s happy
  • Solving problems without blaming
  • Working together to solve disagreements
  • Solving problems fairly for all
  • A conversation to solve problems
  • Running the race at different speeds and crossing the finish line together

Focus on Relationship 

Some approaches lean most toward resolving a specific issue of substance. Some include a focus on preserving the relationship as well. Collaborative problem solving may or may not include this focus. It’s all about the emphasis.

  • Want to be friends again?
  • Listen to each other for understanding (yes, collaborative problem requires this as well but if the primary goal is to achieve understanding, then it belongs in the relationship category)
  • Better to be friends than enemies
  • Please respect each other’s opinions

What Not to Do

I’m including this one comment in its own category because we should all heed it in this day of texts and twitters:

  • Debate by sound bite creates conflict. It does not resolve it.

The caution raised by that statement deserves a future article onto itself. There is much to be said about how conflicts escalate in our virtual world. We need a shared set of skills, rules and principles for preventing, never mind resolving, conflicts in online media.

It’s a Process

As one of the commenters pointed out, most of the descriptions emphasize only a portion of what is in reality a complex process with numerous parts and steps. Put them all together and you begin to approach it. Here are two that attempt to do that in a few words.

  • Question, listen, interpret, adapt, agree
  • Breathe, say sorry, use your words (attributed to Daniel Shapiro’s 7-year old son when asked to describe how he and his brothers solve conflict–sorry I forgot to ask which Daniel Shapiro but am assuming it’s the current U.S. Diplomat to Israel.)

Oh, and let’s not forget, “Communicating in circles of truth.”

This poetic description encapsulates the fact that all of us have our own “truths,” our own understanding and perspectives about a conflict. Perspectives have layers: history, beliefs, experiences. I interpret the circles metaphor as not only multiple “truths” by two or more people but also the need to unpack our own layers (circles) of truth.

Simply by agreeing to have a dialogue about these, we acknowledge that other “truths” exist. That’s big.

Last but not least is this one, “Children, go to bed now.”

After all, it helps to take a break to calm down and start fresh later.


So how would you describe conflict resolution to a ten-year-old in five (or so) words? How would you talk about conflict with anyone to invite curiosity and learning? 



Photo: courtesy Microsoft ClipArt