Problem-Solving Workshops

Michelle Maiese

August 2003

"Problem solving workshops are designed to bring together representatives of conflicting parties in a relatively isolated setting...'preferably [in] an academic context -- where they can engage, free from diplomatic protocol and publicity, in face-to-face communication in the presence and under the guidance of social scientists knowledgeable about group process and conflict theory.'" -- Herbert C. Kelman

What are Problem Solving Workshops?

Problem solving workshops are discussions that take place between unofficial representatives of groups or states engaged in violent protracted conflict.[1] Carefully chosen representatives from all sides meet with a third party panel to analyze the fundamental sources of conflict and develop possible solutions. Panelists are typically academic researchers or conflict scholars who arrange for the representatives to gather together for an intensive discussion.[2] The optimal size of workshops is about twelve persons and they typically take between three days and one week to complete.[3] Insofar as the meetings provide unofficial communication channels separate from official negotiations, they are a form of Track II diplomacy. The workshops do not replace official diplomatic activities, but act as a complement to them.

Workshops provide an informal, low-risk, noncommittal forum in which unofficial representatives of the parties can analyze their conflict and engage in problem solving.[4] Meetings are private, and take place in an academic context where adversaries can communicate without the implication that they are recognizing or legitimizing one another.[5] Because participants are not held publicly accountable for what they say during discussions, the meetings do not involve a commitment to any particular outcome.[6] They are informal, discreet, and have a naturally low profile.[7]

Participants exchange ideas, recognize key obstacles, and explore new solutions. The process does not involve negotiation nor does it require disputants to give up their struggle. Rather than bargaining from entrenched positions, participants engage in an academic exercise in which they jointly explore their common problem.[8] Participants should view the workshop not as a struggle to be won, but rather as an opportunity for inventiveness and creativity.[9]

Workshop Participants

Workshops are usually facilitated by a panel of social science scholars who have theoretical knowledge about the causes, dynamics, and effects of conflict.[10] Insofar as they have nothing political to gain or lose from the outcome, they are neutral. In the process of offering their technical expertise, they learn more about social and political processes of conflict.

Party representatives should truly represent all strands of opinions within the adversary groups and provide insight into the party's range of feelings, perceptions, and aspirations about the issues in conflict.[11] Participants should therefore include moderates as well as extremists who might be able to damage or undermine the outcome. Those groups directly involved in the conflict must have a voice in determining which viewpoints are to be represented in the workshop. It is also important that participants from the various sides display roughly equal levels of skill, experience, and knowledge. If there is a great imbalance with respect to the participants' intellectual and analytical capacities, the exercise is far less likely to be a success.[12]

Additional insights into problem solving workshops are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Phases of the Workshop

Workshops do not begin with a detailed agenda. Instead, they should be described and run as research seminars that have an open agenda to be shaped by the participants.[13] However, almost all workshops tend to focus on the origins of conflict, its underlying issues, and obstacles to resolution. Other common topics include matters of trust, how to reduce tension, and what confidence building measures or de-escalation tactics would be effective.[14]

In the first phase, each of the participants should explain their view of the conflict to the panelists. Because parties typically avoid direct communication with each other at this point, most exchanges take place between one party and the panel.[15] The participants are invited, in turn, to explain the nature and origins of the conflict and what appear to be the obstacles to resolution.[16] Each side's account typically includes stories of past atrocities and involves a great deal of provocative comment. There may be provocative challenges and indignant rebuttals, making this stage of the workshop especially emotionally charged.[17] However, it is necessary for participants to be able to tell their story so that they can move on to consider the present and the future. Therefore, presentations should be as free from interruption and debate as possible. Eventually participants may become frustrated and feel that they are talking in circles and getting nowhere. At this point, panelists should try to provide some bridge into a second and more productive stage of the workshop.

In the second phase, the parties maintain their separate spheres but begin to join the panel in analysis. They begin to thoroughly discuss the various accounts of the conflict that have been given. This process involves a rigorous analysis of the structure of the dispute and invites participants from all sides to explore the nature of their conflict.[18] Facilitators often ask a series of clarifying questions about points made in the opening statements and construct a list of key issues for further discussion. They also introduce relevant general theories about why conflicts occur or draw parallels to conflicts in other parts of the world. Eventually participants begin to correct what the panelists have to say about conflict theory and something that resembles an academic seminar begins to take place. Together, the panelists and representatives analyze the conflict, explore mutual perspectives, and generate new ideas.[19]

In the third phase, the group becomes somewhat more integrated and representatives from the opposing sides begin to collaborate.[20] Moving toward resolution involves a series of steps in which panelists help the parties work together to solve their joint problem. They invite the parties to explore the central issues of their conflict and search for solutions that do not require any of the parties to compromise their basic interests or needs.[21] Appealing to 'solutions' that the various participants identified in earlier statements, the panelists lead the discussion and explore various possibilities for ending the violent conflict in question. However, the participants typically realize that initial prescriptions must be rejected in virtue of theoretical considerations and likely negative consequences. At this point, the participants have developed a strong understanding of what the obstacles to resolution are.

Once they have come to recognize just how small the area of possible initial agreement is, they must focus on this tiny area and try to expand it.[22] Sometimes, panelists encourage participants to summarize the ideas they have developed into a number of mutually agreeable principles.[23] In some cases, participants may even agree to more concrete proposals for mutually reinforcing actions once they have returned to their own country. For example, they may sketch out a series of de-escalating moves to be presented to decision makers.[24] At the very least, participants should emerge from the workshop with the feeling that they have a deeper understanding of their conflict and some ideas about moving toward resolution. Because a single workshop is unlikely to include all the relevant parties or deal with all the issues, a series of meetings may be necessary. However, even a single workshop can create new opportunities for communication between groups of antagonists.

The Role of Third Party Facilitators

"In the interactive problem solving approach[,] the role of the third-party is to provide the context for the interaction, to set the guidelines and norms for communication, and to serve as a locus of trust." -- Cosima Krueger, summarizing Herbert C. Kelman, available online here.

The scholar-practitioners who oversee the sessions play both a facilitative and diagnostic role. They invite participants from all sides to engage in an analysis of their conflict and work together to develop creative ideas for its improvement. Because both sets of participants trust the third party, they are able to proceed with the assurance that their interests will be served and their needs respected.[25] The most important task that consultants have is to listen to the parties and analyze the nature of the issues in conflict as well as the obstacles to resolution. Because the central issues often go beyond those portrayed in the parties' public positions, consultants must listen for hidden agendas and unacknowledged resentments.[26] Once they understand all of the important nuances of the situation, panelists can direct the representatives towards relevant theories about the causes and dynamics of their conflict. For example, one commonly used body of material has to do with the tendency of conflicts to escalate. Exposing parties to this body of knowledge can help them to identify the ways in which they are contributing to escalation. If used constructively, theories about the causes and processes of conflict have the potential to generate new ideas for the participants and stimulate productive discussion.

Third parties also facilitate communication among the conflicting parties so that mutually acceptable solutions can emerge. Panelists try to help the participants establish "a flow of communication" that will enable them to find their own way towards resolution.[27] They also provide a framework in which parties who do not normally communicate can come together to listen to each other. Often the academic context is helpful in providing the context, norms, and interventions necessary for constructive communication. This context suggests an analytic, cooperative approach that calls for direct, face-to-face interaction.[28] Holding meetings at a university may help the parties to think in problem solving terms and focus on research and communication rather than bargaining.[29]

Consultation should be distinguished from other intermediary functions, such as mediation, arbitration, and adjudication.[30] All three of these processes, if successful, result in a settlement or a decision being made. Since participants in problem solving workshops are unofficial, they cannot make decisions or commit any one in the group to a particular course of action. They can, however, work with the other parties and the facilitators to explore multiple options, and may develop one or more suggested approaches or creative ideas which they can present to official decision makers after the workshop concludes.

Why Hold Problem Solving Workshops?

While other forms of third party intervention, such as mediation or arbitration, lead to the settlement of conflict, such settlements may not be stable in the long run. This is because even if a settlement is reached, such settlements often focus solely on material interests and ignore the underlying needs of the adversaries, which remain unmet.[31] While violent conflict is no longer manifest, it is likely to arise again. In problem solving workshops, on the other hand, scholars help disputants to jointly analyze the fundamental sources of conflict, focusing on unmet human needs such as identity and security. Rather than reaching a settlement, based on interests, the two central objectives of problem solving workshops are the analysis of conflict and its ultimate resolution. Therefore, workshops aim to produce new ideas, altered perceptions, and innovative solutions.[32] Ideally, these ideas and proposals help participants develop ideas about how to restructure their societies so that all parties' fundamental needs are met. Some workshops are primarily educational and focus on changing people's perceptions and attitudes. This provides participants with new knowledge and abilities that enable them to function better in their conflict-torn societies. Other workshops are more political, and emphasize transferring the new knowledge to decision-making bodies.[33]

Parties caught in deep conflict often view their conflict as win-lose and are unlikely to collaborate. Adversaries typically interact in a legalistic, accusatory atmosphere where it is difficult for them to learn anything about each other or themselves. They express the grievances of their group, proclaim their rights, and defend their positions. Often they do so in a militant way. There are few attempts to really listen to those from the other side and gain an understanding of their perspective. Such interactions typically enforce already rigid positions and negative perceptions of the other side.[34]

Workshops are designed to create a setting governed by a different set of norms, in which more productive interaction between the adversaries can take place.[35] If parties are to participate in a joint search for a solution, they must move beyond their roles as adversaries and become analysts and partners.[36] The fact that representatives are coming together for a research project allows them to interact in new ways. Analysis gives parties tools to reinterpret their relationship, enlarges their view of the situation, and breaks down their former categories of thought.[37] Workshops also provide a creative intellectual environment in which adversaries must cooperate as partners in the problem solving process. These interactions should enable the parties to discover new ways to influence each other by exploring what the other needs.[38]

Some theorists also stress the idea that problem solving should produce significant changes in the parties' attitudes towards one another.[39] They believe that the ultimate goals of the workshops are deep understanding, mutual respect, jointly acceptable solutions, and improved relationships.[40] In the process of analyzing the conflict, participants come to understand the other side's perspective and become aware of possibilities for future change.[41] However, others point out that each party's fundamental attitudes towards the adversary often remain unchanged during the workshop.[42] In fact, mutually hostile perceptions are often enlarged and intensified during a workshop's early stages. Nevertheless, these attitudes also tend to become better understood. Problem solving should be an exercise in realism, helping parties to better understand one another despite their continued opposition.[43]

Workshops tend to reveal a variety of insights:

  • They show the representatives that communication is possible. Parties see that at least some members of the opposing side are committed to a peaceful solution and willing to develop a common vision of the future.[44]
  • They provide insight into the fundamental concerns and priorities of the other side and enable adversaries to directly observe and analyze the impact of their own actions on one another. This gives the parties greater awareness of the possibilities for change and potential for influencing the other side through positive incentives.[45]
  • Problem solving helps parties to develop a sense of mutual trust and to break down enemy images. They also begin to develop mutual confidence, common perceptions, and shared vocabulary.[46]
  • Representatives from the opposing sides realize that neither group needs to abandon its national ideology in order to achieve peace.
  • Participants learn about the significance of symbolic acts and gestures. They become more aware of actions that would entail little cost to their own group, yet mean a lot to their opponents.[47] For example, gestures that indicate the recognition of the other group's humanity or legitimacy can be very helpful.

But workshops not only contribute to the transformation and resolution of conflict, but also produce valuable research, analysis, and insights.[48] The new knowledge that emerges from the workshops often deepens understanding about the way the parties' interactions create the conditions for conflict and help to feed escalation. These new ideas can then be transferred to the policy arena and influence individuals' future political activity.[49] Their new knowledge makes representatives particularly well equipped to ask questions, point out implications, and emphasize costs and risks in order to influence decision making procedures back at home.[50] Workshops in this way produce changes in individuals that can act as vehicles for change in the political system. In some cases, workshop participants act as advisors to the decision makers and political leadership within their own communities.[51] In other cases, they themselves are political actors or representatives of political movements. Non-official but highly influential participants are often most effective because they increase the likelihood that what is learned in the workshop will have an impact on the policy process.[52]

In many instances, workshops also prepare the parties for more formal communication processes and supplement official negotiations.[53] They not only reveal potentially negotiable issues, but also contribute ideas to the negotiation process. In the post-negotiation phase, they can facilitate coexistence and cooperation and contribute to reconciliation.[54]

[1] Ronald J. Fisher, "Interactive Conflict Resolution," pp. 239-272 in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen. (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 239.

[2] Christopher Mitchell and Michael Banks, Handbook of Conflict Resolution: The Analytical Problem-solving Approach, (New York: Pinter, 1996), 81.

[3] Ibid, 114.

[4] Fisher, 241.

[5] Herbert C. Kelman, "Interactive Problem-solving: A Social-psychological Approach to Conflict Resolution," pp. 199-215 in Conflict: Readings in Management and Resolution, eds. John Burton and Frank Dukes, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 206.

[6] Ibid, 206.

[7] Mitchell and Banks, 68.

[8] Ibid, 75.

[9] Ibid, 54.

[10] Anthony de Reuck, "A Theory of Conflict Resolution by Problem-solving," in Conflict: Readings in Management and Resolution, eds. John Burton and Frank Dukes, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 183.

[11] Mitchell and Banks, 35.

[12] Ibid, 55.

[13] Ibid., 115.

[14] Ibid., 130.

[15] de Reuck, 185.

[16] Mitchell and Banks, 102.

[17] Ibid., 104.

[18] de Reuck, 183.

[19] Kelman, 201.

[20] de Reuck, 185.

[21] Ibid., 183.

[22] Mitchell and Banks, 113.

[23] Ibid., 130.

[24] Ibid., 136.

[25] Kelman, 207.

[26] Mitchell and Banks, 117.

[27] Ibid., 100.

[28] Kelman, 208.

[29] Mitchell and Banks, 87.

[30] Fisher, 241.

[31] Mitchell and Banks, 3.

[32] Kelman, 202.

[33] Fisher, 240.

[34] Kelman, 206.

[35] Ibid., 207.

[36] de Reuck, 187.

[37] Ibid., 193.

[38] Kelman, 200.

[39] Kelman, 201.

[40] Fisher, 241.

[41] Kelman, 207.

[42] Mitchell and Banks, 113.

[43] Ibid., 113.

[44] Kelman, 212.

[45] Ibid., 213.

[46] de Reuck, 183.

[47] Kelman, 213.

[48] Ibid., 205.

[49] Ibid., 203.

[50] Mitchell and Banks, 145.

[51] Ibid., 204.

[52] Ibid., 205.

[53] Ibid., 213.

[54] Ibid., 214.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Problem-Solving Workshops." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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