One key resource for mediators is the book The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, by Christopher Moore. Mr. Moore divides the causes of conflict into five types, which he depicts as slices of a circular pie, which he calls the circle of conflict.
Whether you are a mediator or in another role—such as manager or Human Resources consultant–that requires you to work your way through interpersonal conflicts, it is helpful to use the circle of conflict to analyze the reasons the dispute arose.
Here’s a description of the five causes of conflict, and how you might use this analysis to help you resolve disputes:
1. Data (or information)
When the parties to a dispute are missing data, then conflict is likely. The way to start to resolve the dispute is to identify the information that is missing, and start to see if resolving the factual issues can resolve some or all of the conflict.
Sometimes, the parties need to resolve not only what the data are, but what the data mean. This can take time, but the starting point is to put all the information out on the table.
That is why it is so frustrating for mediators when one party wants to keep certain information confidential during a mediation session. Far better to start with everyone having the data, because it is often hard enough to come to agreement on the meaning of the data, and far harder if some of the information remains hidden.
Structural causes of conflict often come about when the way an organization or relationship works is interfering with what one or both of the parties needs, or when there is an imbalance of power. For example, if one party controls the resources that another needs to do the job, then there is a structural problem that is likely to lead to conflict. Or if time constraints keep one party from being able to fulfill expectations, and neither party can change those constraints, then that is another cause for conflict.
Often, these are very difficult conflicts to resolve, because neither party controls the structure in which they both operate. The starting point is to identify the structural issues, then to chip away at them where possible.
Where the parties themselves cannot resolve the structural problems, perhaps they can at least gain a better understanding of the issues. Maybe there is a way they can jointly approach the structure of the organization to effect change.
Relationship conflicts are a very frequent source of conflicts. Everyone can point to times when misunderstandings have caused disputes—in workplaces, in families, in any relationship between humans.
These are also difficult causes of conflict to resolve, because often the problem in the relationship has become entrenched before the parties reach a mediator or a therapist or someone else who wants to help them get back to a more positive way of working together.
The first step is usually to get both sides to recognize how their behavior has contributed to the problem. It often is not a matter of fault, but of differing values or interests, which will get us to the other cause in the circle. Or it might be a structural problem enhanced by interpersonal conflict.
Still, because the interpersonal issues can be touchy, if there are a combination of factors causing the conflict, it might be best to start on some of the other causes, which are less emotional.
Different cultures and worldviews can cause conflict. Religious, ethnic, and other differences can literally cause people not to understand each other.
It is probably impossible to move people to a common set of values, and often the mediator doesn’t even want to change the parties’ values. One way to approach these differences is to look at them as points of information, and handle them like data—simply get the issues out on the table to increase everyone’s understanding of the situation.
Another approach is to step up a level to where values might be common. For example, one party may have one religious belief, and the other party a contrary belief, but if the debate can rise to a higher level of freedom of religion, they might find some basis for compromise or reconciliation.
The parties’ interests are the “why” they want something. Their motivations can be conflicting, such as when a parent wants to keep authority and the teenager wants more autonomy. They may be fighting over curfew, but what is really at stake is their desire for control.
Like with values, it is helpful to begin by trying to articulate what the motivations are. Can they be reconciled, or will the parties have to agree to disagree and seek a compromise, each ceding some of their desired position? Or there might be creative solutions that can accommodate all parties’ interests.
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For more on Christopher Moore’s circle of conflict and variations of it using slightly different terms, see
Or, of course, you can read Mr. Moore’s book for yourself.
Where have you seen use of the circle of conflict help you resolve disputes? Or where might it help in the future?