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Getting in Sync: What to Do When
Problem-Solving Fails to Fix the Problem
Peter T. Coleman & Robert Ricigliano
Editors’ Note: In the first of a trilogy on complex cases, the authors estimate that far beyond the usual categories people think of as “intractable”—such as international, race relations or major environmental conflicts—about 5% of disputes of virtually all kinds actually fit this pattern. The authors review why this is, and outline a series of techniques developed in recent years for handling conflict of the worst kind, in any domain. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Coleman, Redding & Fisher’s “Intractable 1 and 2" chapters.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1940)
(But, just out of curiosity, God, is there another way?)
Negotiators, mediators and conflict resolvers of all stripes like to fix things. We much prefer to enter tense, problematic situations and use our conflict resolution tool kit to help mend fences, solve problems, find win-win, get to yes, and leave behind hordes of satisfied stakeholders. This is why we do the job.
But once in a while—in approximately 1-in-20 of our more difficult cases—we fail (Coleman 2011; Diehl and Goertz 2001). Despite our best efforts, and sometimes the best efforts of our most-skilled colleagues, the challenges we face grind on, escalate, become ever more costly, burn us out, and haunt our dreams. At some point we wash our hands of them, refer them out to the courts, psychiatrists, the gods or other resources, and call it quits. This was one that got away.
Faced with this dilemma, what is an industrious, creative, and committed negotiator to do? This paper outlines a third way—some-where between hauling out our wrench, ruler, and saw to fix the problem at hand and running off in the opposite direction to escape it. Rather than “fix” or “flee,” negotiators can think and work in sync with the “flow” of these more extraordinarily challenging situations to help unlock the potential energy, ideas and actors from within the system to change the system. Think of it as the “turning into the skid” advice for a driver’s approach to conflict resolution—counterintuitive but correct. This chapter outlines this approach and highlights the importance of an alternative negotiation skill set for guiding constructive change when addressing unfixable problems.
Urban Violence: A Parable of a Fix that Failed
Often, the toughest social problems are made worse by well-intentioned, well-designed, and even well-executed plans (see Dörner 1996). These initiatives generate some initial positive results and raise hopes that a “fix” has been found. However, in the medium to long term, the good plans fizzle and can even make things worse. This is known as a “fix that fails.” Take, for example, Operation Impact.
For decades, chronic patterns of urban violence have plagued the leaders and citizens of cities from New York to Chicago and from Lagos to Medellin, typically affecting inhabitants of poorer neighborhoods dispr....
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