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How to wage peace: the skills of principled negotiation

Linda Lantieri

The author identifies three “conflict styles” or characteristic sets of strategies that people use to handle conflict. By using the third style, principled negotiation, people in conflict can arrive at a solution that is acceptable to and meets the needs of both sides. The author shares strategies for developing skills in principled negotiation.

A woman came to Gandhi, asking him to give her ideas on how to get her little boy to stop eating sugar because it was doing him harm. Gandhi gave a cryptic reply, “Please come back next week. “The woman left puzzled but returned a week later, dutifully following Gandhi’s instructions.

“Please don’t eat sugar, ” Gandhi told the young fellow when he saw him. “It’s not good for you.” Then he joked with the boy, a while, gave him a hug, and sent him on his way. But the mother, unable to contain her curiosity, lingered behind to ask, “Why didn’t you say this last week when we came? Why did you make us come back?” Gandhi smiled. “Last week, ” he said, “I, too, was eating sugar. ”

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Conflict resolution requires inner work of subtlety and depth, a journey within. Like Gandhi in the story, we often must struggle, change, and work on ourselves before we can offer authentic help to others – especially young people. Most adults need to be immersed in the concepts and skills of conflict resolution before they can even think about teaching this body of knowledge in the classroom.

Luckily, resolving conflict creatively can be taught it relies on a set of practical tools. If we have been trained in these conflict resolution skills, we can not only open up communication and confront our own conflicts nonviolently, we can help young people do the same.

Defining conflict
In many of our Resolving Conflict Creatively classrooms, we do an activity called a conflict web. We write the word “conflict” on the board and draw a circle around it. We then ask students what comes to mind when they hear the word, and create a web by connecting their responses to the circled word. Even when we do this activity with adults, chances are high that most of the other words mentioned have negative connotations. One third-grade boy said, “Conflict is anything bad that could happen to you.” Another student came up with the word “evil.”

One of the first myths to dispel is that conflict is always bad. Conflict is actually a natural, normal part of life. Conflict is not bad in and of itself, yet for an increasing number of young people, it is now equated with aggression and violence. This is an equation we have to break.

Conflict is an integral part of living and growing, but like a stone-tumbler working a raw stone, conflict has the potential of polishing us or breaking us. Consider the Chinese way of writing the word “crisis”: two characters make up the ideograph-one means danger and the other means opportunity. Conflict can be destructive or constructive, and we can develop the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully, making them opportunities for growth.

When we have the skills to assert ourselves in nonviolent ways, we begin to feel empowered. We enable ourselves to draw upon our past experiences to approach the situation constructively. If we have been trained in conflict resolution skills, we can open up communication and confront conflict nonviolently. In schools where adults model this way of approaching conflict, young people experience a different norm. Alberto, a senior at Schomburg Satellite Academy in the South Bronx, has learned to view conflict in this way:

No one goes out in the morning looking for a fight, but things happen in split seconds. Conflict resolution teaches you how to use your mind more. How to step back from the situation and quickly analyze it before things get nasty. Your posture and eye contact should symbolize strength-that you can handle the situation. And that you want to handle it peacefully.

Conflict styles
Exploring our own histories allows us to understand why it is that we respond to conflict in the way that we do. Subtle – and not so subtle – messages we received in our formative years often affect the way we view conflict:

“If he hits you, hit him back.”
“If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all.”
“I’m your mother, that’s why.” “Grin and bear it.”

Conflict styles are learned when we are very young. These early messages impact our communication with colleagues, students, and loved ones. Training in conflict resolution equips us with the tools to start to change old patterns that we realize are negative. As an ancient Chinese proverb tells us, “If we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the best-selling Getting to Yes, were among the first to identify and analyze conflict styles. They outlined three distinct types of negotiation: soft, hard, and principled. Although most people employ a combination of all three, some of us “get stuck” in one style or another, using that style all the time, even when it is not appropriate.

For instance, a person who is locked into the “soft” negotiation style usually concentrates more on the quality of the relationship than on the problem; a soft negotiator is willing to forego personal needs for the sake of a relationship. This conflict style comes at a high cost. Unmet needs build up and soft negotiators may eventually lash out at themselves or at someone else. They can also internalize their emotions and impair their health.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “hard” negotiator, who aims to win at all costs. A hard negotiator approaches conflict as a contest, one in which he or she wins and the other person loses. Hard negotiators are often so intent on proving their point by whatever means necessary that their relationships with other people suffer. Hard negotiators may win, but often they have no one to celebrate with them at the finish line.

Principled negotiation is the approach on which conflict resolution as a discipline is based. Principled negotiators “separate the people from the problem”; they are hard on the problem but respectful of the people in the process. For example, when Gandhi was in jail in South Africa, he “separated the person from the problem” by making sandals for the man who had imprisoned him. During the struggle for India’s independence, he did so by sending Princess Elizabeth (later Queen of England) a beautiful teacloth that he himself had woven.

The principled negotiator does not have a bottom line. Participants become problem solvers, working together to reach a peaceful and amicable outcome. Principled negotiation fosters respect between participants and creates a climate in which people can have their needs met.

William Kreidler, author and conflict resolution expert, has designed a strategy-CAPS-for approaching conflict as a principled negotiator (Kreidler, 1994). CAPS is an acronym for the following steps:

1. Cool off: Take some deep breaths, acknowledge your feelings.

2. Agree to work it out: Show a willingness to solve the problem and let the other disputant know you are ready to discuss the issues involved. Displaying a willingness to resolve the conflict will often prevent further escalation.

3. Point of view: Using “I” statements, give your point of view of the problem. A model “I” statement generally has three parts to it, sometimes four: I feel (state the emotion) when you (state the other person’s specific behavior) because (state the effect the behavior has on you), and I would like (state what you would like to have happen – something doable).

4. Solve the problem: Brainstorm solutions; decide how to implement a win-win solution.

Win-win negotiation
By using these basic guidelines for conflict resolution, many conflict situations can be resolved in ways that meet the underlying interests and needs of all parties involved. Too often we see conflict as a contest, assuming that one side must win and the other must lose, or that both must give up something and thus neither will get what they need or want. Some conflicts do end that way (in what are called win-lose or lose-lose resolutions), but it is also possible to have a win-win solution in which both parties get what they need.

In a conflict situation, it is important to make the distinction between needs and positions. A position is a statement of what a person wants. It represents just one way in which the person’s needs can be met. Needs or interests are short-term but frequently represent concerns underlying a position. When we are able to separate positions (what we say we want) from actual needs (the reasons for wanting it), then we are more likely to achieve win-win solutions.

In win-win negotiation, a cooperative climate is created in which participants can reframe the situation. This reframing can be summed up in one basic question: “What kind of agreement would allow both of us to get important needs met and feel good about the solution?” Furthermore, a win-win negotiation always ends with the parties deciding on how the solution they have chosen will be carried out-what first steps need to be taken, who will do what, and when they will do it.

The win-win negotiation process as we teach it in schools involves the following steps (Educators for Social Responsibility, 1993):

1. Identify positions and interests. When you negotiate, “positions” are what you say you want; “interests” are the reasons you want it.

2. Present and listen. Say what your positions and interests are. Listen to what the person you are negotiating with says about his or her positions and interests. Be specific about your positions and interests. Use active listening to move from positions to interests. Do not demean others’ positions by calling names or being sarcastic.

3. Brainstorm possible solutions. Think of all the possible ways to solve the problem. Try to think of many. Write them down. Do not judge whether the ideas are good, bad, or practical. (This will happen next.)

4. Eliminate solutions that are unacceptable. Read over all the ideas. Draw a line through any idea that either of you does not like.

5. Select a solution. Read the ideas that are left on your list. Choose the idea or ideas that will meet everyone’s interests. You want to help everyone feel like a winner.

6. Make a plan to take action. Once you choose a solution, decide how you will make sure it happens. Decide what the first steps will be. Decide who will do what and when they will do it.

Making peace
The following pointers on principled, win-win conflict resolution are based on How to Make Peace, originally written by Tom Roderick, Executive Director of Educators for Social Responsibility Metro.

Slow down the action. Many fights and arguments get out of control very fast. Think before reacting.

Listen well. Do not interrupt. Hear the other person out. It helps to paraphrase, or state in your own words, what you hear the other person saying.

Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. In a conflict, each person has a point of view with feelings attached to it. You may not agree with the other person, but try to understand where he or she is coming from. Ask open-ended questions to get information about how the other person sees things. Listen with an open mind. If you see that you have done something wrong, do not hesitate to apologize.

Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. When people believe they have been listened to, they generally become less angry and are more open to communicating. Statements like “I can see you’re angry” or “You really feel strongly about this” tend to diffuse anger and open up communication. However, if they are not delivered sincerely, they can come across as condescension.

Be strong without being mean. Assert your needs and your point of view, but without putting the other person down. Use “I” messages to communicate how you are feeling rather than “you” messages that put the blame on the other person. Name-calling, blaming, bossing, and threatening tend to block communication and escalate conflict.

Try to see the conflict as a problem to be solved, rather than a contest to be won. Attack the problem, not the other person. Get away from fighting over who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, ask yourself: What do I need? What does the other person need? Is there a way we can both get what we need?

If you cannot solve a conflict, ask for help. A third party can be helpful. You will need agreement from the other person that help is needed, and you will also need to agree on who the third party should be. Find someone who is a good listener. Tell the third party that their role is to help the people in conflict talk with each other, not to take sides.

Remember that conflict, when handled well, can lead to personal growth and better relationships. See the situation as an opportunity. Working through a conflict with a friend can actually lead to greater closeness. Hearing other points of view can introduce us to new ideas and increase our understanding of ourselves and other people.

The true heroes of today’s world are not the Rambos but those men and women who have the courage and intelligence to deal with conflict in creative, nonviolent ways. We can teach today’s youth to be these types of heroes by equipping them with the skills they need to resolve disputes peacefully and nurturing the hope that the world can be made better. They are learning that they can be powerful, that what they say and do-that what each one of us says and does-matters.

The skills of principled negotiation empower us to live nonviolently. Thich Nhat Hanh put it succinctly in the title of his book, Being Peace. It is the difference between simply practicing conflict resolution techniques and choosing to live nonviolence. We know we have internalized these skills when Gandhi’s words ring true to us: “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.”



Educators for Social Responsibility. (1993). 1993 ESR workshop and implementation manual. Cambridge, MA: Author.

Kreidler, W. (1994). Conflict resolution in the middle school. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

Roderick. T. (1996). How to make peace. In Lantieri, L., & Patti, J., Waging peace in our schools (pp. 86-88). Boston: Beacon Press.


This feature: Lantieri, L. (1997). How to wage peace: the skills of principled negotiation. Reaching Today’s Youth, Vol.1 No.2, pp. 43-46