All humans have some things in common.
We all need air to breathe and water to stay alive.
We are all social beings, and if we have the capacity to interact with others purposefully, we all experience conflict.
Conflict is not new. It has existed throughout history in narratives passed down from generation to generation.
Coser (1956/2011), famously described conflict as “a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources in which the aims of the opponents are to neutralize, injure, or eliminate the rivals.”
Given this information, it’s surprising that the institutionalization of conflict resolution as an academic discipline or formal field of study in the United States occurred as late as the 1970s (Kriesberg, 2009).
The ubiquity and inevitability of conflict in society demands increasing expertise. But what is conflict resolution, and why is it important?
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
Why Is Conflict Resolution Important?
Bolton (1986, p. 7) states, “Our personality development and mental and physical health are linked to the caliber of our communication.” To become fully human, you must interact with others.
Therefore, poor communication skills hinder development and can affect our physical and mental health (Bolton, 1986).
Let’s inspect the research on the correlation between overall health and social connectedness.
Overall health implications
Researchers draw a clear link between relationships and health, stating that socially connected adults are healthier and live longer than their isolated peers (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010). In fact, Umberson and Karas Montez (2010) cite the use of isolation as an extreme form of punishment.
Some of the risks for people with few and low-quality social ties include increased risk of death (for those with medical conditions), cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, autonomic dysregulation, cancer, high blood pressure, and slower wound healing. Other risks include inflammation biomarkers and impaired immune function (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
Active and ongoing conflict is often accompanied by toxic thoughts, which create stress, release cortisol, and raise levels of bad fats and sugars in your bloodstream (Leaf, 2008). This physical reaction constricts blood vessels, making it harder for blood to flow.
According to Dr. Caroline Leaf (2008), it is dangerous to our health when we won’t forgive another. Unforgiveness often precedes or accompanies ongoing conflict. She says some repercussions are hypertension, angina, coronary artery disease, stroke, and aneurysm (Leaf, 2008).
Angry and hostile people are also more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and consume more calories than people without these traits (Williams & Williams, 1998). The effects of such destructive habits further compromise our health, putting us at risk for illnesses.
Conversely, strong social ties are associated with positive health behaviors.
Social support is the natural byproduct of healthy relationships and is associated with mental health benefits through reduced stress and enhanced life meaning and purpose (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
Mental health and physical health coalesce with other factors to provide personal benefits. For instance, emotional support enhances psychological wellbeing, which can help reduce unhealthy behaviors that lead to poor physical health (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
The interaction of these life elements validates Bolton’s position that poor communication skills can affect our physical and mental health. Effective conflict resolution skills help enhance communication, producing positive personal benefits.
Conflict Resolution Training Explained
“People have been interested in the study of conflict at least since biblical times” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, p. 9).
Focusing on dyadic conflict, Pruitt and Kim (2004, p. 190) describe problem-solving as a “joint effort to find a mutually acceptable solution.”
They describe three possible outcomes of problem-solving: conflict management, settlement, and conflict resolution.
Aside from reading conflict resolution books such as Social Conflicts by Pruitt and Kim (2004), how do you acquire expertise in the field?
Various programs throughout the United States and the world offer training in conflict resolution. Programs encompass a variety of formats, some of which include interdisciplinary components, such as theory, practice, and research.
Another important component of conflict resolution training is skill development. Pruitt and Kim (2004) categorize skill development into five domains.
- Analyzing the conflict
Looking at the conditions that produced the conflict, clarifying the interests of both or all parties, and identifying conflict spirals and other structural changes or patterns.
- Effective communication
Active listening, empathy, open and direct communication, and providing feedback when necessary.
- Problem-solving and negotiation
Stimulating collaboration between parties, prioritizing issues, brainstorming solutions, and creating a mutually satisfying agreement.
- Coping with strong emotions such as anger
Monitoring the emotions of all parties, using skills to work through emotional episodes, being aware of emotions, and coping with them.
- Moving to action
Building conflict management systems and following through management and evaluation of the system.
Participants in these programs gain the skills and techniques to practice conflict resolution, which includes an expanding array of specializations.
Alternative dispute resolution applications
The following list of specialized fields of concentration can be addressed using a variety of practices, each with its own unique effect.
- Policy development (Pruitt & Kim, 2004)
- Program development (Pranis, 2005)
- Historical critique (Kriesberg, 2009)
- Cultural analysis, examining gender, religious traditions, social class, ethnicity, etc. (Kriesberg, 2009)
- Organizational analysis, including business contracts and disputes (Pruitt & Kim, 2004)
- Community-based strategies, involving neighbors, landlords, tenants, small claims, etc. (Pruitt & Kim, 2004)
- Global conflict (Kriesberg, 2009)
- Peace studies and skill building (Pranis, 2005)
- Familial studies, including divorce and child custody (Pruitt & Kim, 2004)
- Social issues, including immigration, politics, social justice, food insecurity, and homelessness (Pranis, 2005)
- Environmental issues, such as land rights, water rights, climate change, dams, and oil wells (Pruitt & Kim, 2004; Pranis, 2005)
- Restorative justice, be it at the correctional, educational, or individual level (Pranis, 2005; Toews, 2006)
Conflict resolution practices
Various practices fall under the umbrella of alternative dispute resolution. Mediation, negotiation, arbitration, intermediaries, ombudspersons, peacekeepers, and conciliation all fall within this category, along with other, lesser known, practices such as circle keeping and conflict coaching (Pruitt & Kim, 2004; Sande, 2004; Pranis, 2005; Jones & Brinkert, 2008).
Alternative dispute resolution is often less expensive and more successful than traditional strategies (Pruitt & Kim, 2004). In addition, disputants’ interests and needs are satisfied, and participants are not subject to stringent rules and policies.
Finally, because integrative solutions are sought and incorporated, the parties’ level of satisfaction with the results is increased.
Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree Opportunities
Do you wish to obtain a qualification in conflict resolution? Then look at the following opportunities.
During the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, work in research and theory was feverishly conducted to prevent a devastating and possibly nuclear war (Kriesberg, 2009).
Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) was central to the emergence of conflict resolution as a field of study. Many of the same founders of CASBS at Stanford were catalytic in establishing the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan in 1959 (Kriesberg, 2009).
Publications focusing on negotiation and mediation went mainstream in 1981 with the publication of Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury. During this same time period, conflict resolution began to spread and become institutionalized largely in part by contributions through the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, whose donations helped found the National Institute of Dispute Resolution in 1981 (Kriesberg, 2009).
Grants were also used to found the Harvard Program on Negotiation, a consortium including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts, and Harvard (Kriesberg, 2009). Soon to follow were grant-funded conflict resolution centers at universities such as Northwestern, Rutgers, Syracuse, Wisconsin, and George Mason University in 1987 (Kriesberg, 2009).
Demand spurred a rise in graduate programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and master’s degrees sprouted throughout various institutions, such as Eastern Mennonite University, University of Denver, University of Notre Dame, and Wayne State University (Kriesberg, 2009).
In addition, certification programs sprouted up at universities such as Cornell, Fordham, and Johns Hopkins (Kriesberg, 2009).
Finally, a PhD major was offered at George Mason University in 1987 – the first of its kind – followed by Nova Southeastern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Kriesberg, 2009).
A closer look
One of the founding mainstays of conflict resolution is the Harvard Negotiation Project. It was created in 1979 as part of the Program on Negotiation consortium. Faculty and staff straddle theory and practice to develop and create useful praxis for scholars.
According to their website, they offer programs varying in length from one day to a full semester in topics such as Negotiation and Leadership: Dealing With Difficult People and Problems and a Harvard Negotiation Masterclass.
The Harvard Negotiation Project offers programs and certificates in mediation and an array of other related topics. According to the website, they chose the moniker “project” rather than program for the continuity of the project as long as it’s needed.
With its lengthy history and long list of distinguished instructors, the Harvard Negotiation Project maintains one of the top spots in the field of conflict resolution.
There are several prestigious programs that deserve attention and consideration. Below are some notable offerings.
18 Best Courses and Online Options
Distinctions between the best courses and online options are clearly subjective. Use these as a starting point for research related to further education in the field of conflict resolution.
Basic mediation training
A great starting point, this is a basic, 40-hour immersive mediation course provided through Utah Dispute Resolution. This course provides the groundwork for understanding conflict dynamics and how to work with parties to resolve it.
Participants analyze topics such as conflict dynamics, negotiation, communication, mediation, opening statements and process, and agreement writing.
Courses in basic mediation are offered in virtually every state as well as globally. Participants can choose from online or face-to-face formats.
Research local and state mediation guidelines prior to choosing a program to ensure your choice fulfills the requirements. It is also good to note that there is often a practicum or observation process that precedes mediating on your own.
Certificates in conflict resolution
The following universities offer certification programs that can further and enhance your career and are formatted to accommodate various schedules.
University of Utah – Conflict Resolution Graduate Certificate Program
The University of Utah offers a graduate certificate in conflict resolution. The course is 102 hours or two semesters and includes topics such as mediator ethics, reframing conflicts, and the boundaries of mediation.
Many conflict resolution programs can be found within university law departments; however, the University of Utah’s program is housed within the Communication Institute.
Pepperdine University – Certificate in Conflict Management
This certification requires 14–16 units offered through the law school and combines theory with skills such as strategic negotiation, creative problem-solving, and effective deal making.
Nova Southeastern University (NSU) – Certificate in Advanced Conflict Resolution Practice
NSU’s certification program is offered in on-site and distance learning formats. This program is intended for individuals seeking to become practitioners or gain additional expertise. Part-time students can complete the program in 16 months.
Creighton University – Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Graduate Certificate
Creighton offers their certification program in an online format that can be completed in as few as 12 months.
Advanced degrees in conflict resolution
Individuals seeking to spend more time and effort to obtain a master’s degree can explore various top-rated programs on the Online Master of Legal Studies Program website.
As noted above, universities such as George Mason, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst all offer a PhD in the study of conflict resolution.
According to Columbia University’s Doctoral Programs in Peace, Conflict, and Sustainability webpage, several other notable institutions have added PhDs in the field, such as Boston University in Massachusetts, University of Buffalo, Capital University Law School, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of New Hampshire, and the University of Notre Dame.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Exemplary communication skills can enhance relationships (Pruitt & Kim, 2004). The Active Listening Reflection Worksheet reviews key skills for active listening and walks clients through a reflective process following skill application.
Learning to cope with stress is another great strategy that can help clients work through conflict. The Coping With Stress worksheet helps users identify situations that lead to stress and conflict and recognize how it affects individuals.
Working through this process can help individuals create new, adaptive strategies that allow them to recognize and cope with triggers in order to reduce unnecessary stress.
The Radical Acceptance worksheet helps clients deal with intense negative emotions and experiences that often accompany conflict. Using this worksheet can help clients identify, consider, and understand situations or emotions a person is struggling to accept. Learning to accept the reality of limited control in certain circumstances and respond mindfully will help clients move forward and reduce suffering.
The article 4 Conflict Resolution Worksheets for Your Practice provides worksheets and tools that will help clients resolve conflict. In addition, the author provides two ideas for teaching conflict resolution. This article applies to individuals, students, couples, instructors, and more.
Reading our article 49 Communication Activities, Exercises, and Games can help individuals develop better communication skills. The author provides games, activities, and exercises that build skills and encourage positive communication using fun, engaging tools.
Fostering Healthy Relationships: 60 Helpful Worksheets provides inspiration and resources to help create healthy relationships. The worksheets are particularly helpful, as many people struggle setting and keeping boundaries. Often, weak boundaries exacerbate or perpetuate conflict. The article also includes resources for youth and suggestions for workbooks to help couples work through struggles.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Learning about conflict dynamics, conflict management styles, and techniques to resolve or deescalate conflict places us at a distinct advantage.
Advantages such as these bring fluidity to complicated communication issues, enhance and restore relationships, and generate health benefits for those involved.
As a writer and social justice advocate, what I’ve learned through my conflict resolution journey is that it’s important to choose words wisely when working with people in conflict.
It is crucial to be present in a way that works for the other person and to listen above speaking.
My training has changed the way I respond to conflict. My hope is that there is a ripple effect for those around me.
Now is a great time to be a peacemaker.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Bolton, R. (1986). People skills. Touchstone.
- Coser, L. A. (2011). The functions of social conflict. Routledge. (Original work published 1956).
- Jones, T. S., & Brinkert, R. (2008). Conflict coaching: Conflict management strategies and skills for the individual. SAGE.
- Kriesberg, L. (2009). The evolution of conflict resolution. In J. Bercovitch, V. Kremenyuk, & I. W. Zartman (Eds.), The Sage handbook of conflict resolution (pp. 15–32). Sage.
- Leaf, C. (2008). Who switched off my brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Thomas Nelson.
- Pranis, K. (2005). Little book of circle processes: A new/old approach to peacemaking. Good Books.
- Pruitt, D., & Kim, S. H. (2004). Social conflict (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
- Sande, K. (2004). The peacemaker: A biblical guide to resolving personal conflict. Baker.
- Toews, B. (2006). The little book of restorative justice for people in prison: Rebuilding the web of relationships. Good Books.
- Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(S), S54–S66.
- Williams, V. P., & Williams, R. (1998). Anger kills: Seventeen strategies for controlling the hostility that can harm your health. HarperCollins.