Conflict Resolution

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Conflict resolution refers to the process of resolving disputes and conflicts. This topic is closely related to our consensus process, but this page is about the more general topic of conflict resolution, including conflicts outside of our group.

In Why This way, our goal is to resolve conflicts such that all parties are happy with the outcome.

Process for resolving conflicts

  • Communicate what you want.
  • Ask what the other party wants.
  • Ask why the other party wants what they do.

Although this process sounds very simple, it is often not followed.

Optimal solutions or outcomes

The ideal outcome for any sort of conflict is one in which all involved parties are fully satisfied with the outcome. Some ways this can be achieved include:

  • "Outside of the box" solutions, in which people use creativity to come up with prior solutions that had not been considered, but that satisfy everyone.
  • Changing wants -- As a result of the discussion or conflict resolution process, what one or more party wants changes in such a way that a solution which satisfies everyone becomes possible.

When ideal outcomes are not achieved, compromise can be used as a last-resort. However, compromise often leaves one or more parties unhappy with the outcome, and is less desirable than solutions where everyone is satisfied.

Unhealthy approaches to conflicts

There are numerous things that can go wrong when people attempt to resolve conflicts. Some ways that people can:

  • People may make assumptions about what the other person or party wants, without actually asking the person what they want. If these assumptions are false, the person may see or create a conflict where none actually needs to exists. Even if there is a genuine difference in wants, these false assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication, and make resolving the conflict more difficult.
  • People may try to resolve a conflict through compromise without making an effort to fully understand the other party's wants and reasoning, and without taking the time to explore all possible options. The compromise obtained in this way may be unsatisfying to one or both parties, leading towards later conflict. Having the unsatisfactory situation persist for a prolonged period of time can lead to resentment and long-term characterization of the two parties as opponents, which can make later conflict resolution more difficult, and make it harder for the two parties to work together in other matters.
  • Conflicts can escalate to where the parties are no longer working to resolve the conflict in a problem-solving manner, but instead are engaging in a power struggle, which can be political, or can escalate to threats or violence.

Escalation of conflicts and the rules of communication

The escalation of conflicts often proceeds through a series of predictable patterns. These patterns manifest themselves both in how people think, and how they communicate. Some of these patterns include:

  • People may feel like the other party is not listening to them, or does not understand their perspective or reasoning.
  • People may feel like the other party is not treating them with respect.
  • People may perceive the other party as having bad intentions.
  • People may attach negative labels to the other party. These may start as private thoughts or private statements made within a group, and they may escalate to public statements, such as insults.
  • People characterize the other party as an opponent or enemy, rather than as a person or group to cooperate with.
  • People may blame the other party for failure of negotiations or for negative outcomes related to the conflict resolution process.
  • People may make black-and-white characterizations about the other party, or about the situation.

In each of these cases, the people may have these thoughts or feelings in their own head, but they can also verbalize them explicitly. When they are expressly verbalized, it becomes much more likely to make the conflict escalate quickly, but conflicts can escalate even without any or all of these ideas being expressly stated.

Our rules of communication are designed to make this sort of escalation much less likely, through stopping people from verbally expressing these patterns. Although the rules do not directly prevent people from thinking in ways that lead to conflict escalation, they do directly shape the dialogue, and indirectly shape how people think. All of the rules have some relation or relevance to preventing escalation of conflicts, but two particular relevant rules are:

  • The rules prohibit making statements about a person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations. One of the main reasons for including this rule is to discourage people from assigning bad intentions to the other party involved in a conflict.
  • The rules prohibit the attachment of negative labels to people or groups of people.


Compromise is not necessarily an unhealthy approach to conflict, but it can be in some cases.

Some factors more likely to cause compromise to be unhealthy:

  • An assumption or belief that compromise is the best or only way to resolve a conflict.
  • Implementing a compromise without exploring other options first.
  • Implementing a compromise without communicating what you want, or without listening to what the other party wants.
  • When extensive, lengthy, or costly political conflict precedes a compromise.
  • When the compromise leaves one or more parties unhappy enough that future conflict is likely.

Compromise is most appropriate in cases where:

  • Both parties have communicated what they want, and listened to what the other party wants.
  • The compromise reached, if not ideal, is acceptable enough to all parties involved that future conflict is unlikely.