I’ve had repeated requests for the language I use to describe and define common conflict resolution terms like dispute, conflict, mediation, and facilitation. Here’s the language I use and a PDF download suitable for printing.
Some definitions are contextual. That’s true for terms related to intangibles like conflict and conflict resolution as well.
In a handout I prepared years ago for graduate students in my theory of conflict resolution and negotiation course, proposed definitions of conflict showed the influence of world events, the academic discipline of the writer, and the rise and fall of popular terms.
Example: During the Cold War, sociologist Lewis Coser wrote that social conflict “is a struggle between opponents over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources.” Today, in a post-Cold War world, Folger, Poole and Stutman’s commonly-referenced definition of conflict is “the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals.”
The language I used will be contextual, too, though mine is deliberately less academic. I have a preference for simple, straightforward language and my definitions most likely reflect that much of my conflict resolution work centers on helping people in states of conflict and who must be or want to be in continued personal or professional relationship.
These are the definitions I find myself teasing out most frequently:
Dispute: A disagreement, often short-term.
Conflict: A state of disharmony, perhaps long-term.
Negotiation: Discussion aimed at finding common ground or mutual agreement.
Mediation: A process for resolving disputes and conflict in which another person, substantively impartial, helps the parties negotiate a solution.
Facilitation: A process for helping a group reflect on and discuss a matter, solve problems, and/or make decisions; there may or may not be conflict.
ADR: Alternative dispute resolution is a collection of processes available for resolving conflict and disputes. “Alternative” signifies that these processes (mediation, coaching, arbitration, etc.) are different from traditional resolution processes like grievances or court. Some ADR providers prefer “appropriate dispute resolution” to signal that these processes should no longer stand in the shadow of traditional processes and that the best process should be determined by the circumstances of the conflict or dispute.
Here are a few resources that have informed my thinking about this over the years:
- Beyond Intractability’s Conflicts and Disputes
- The Handbook of Conflict Resolution by Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman
- The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz
- “Big M” vs “little m” mediation