In the opening chapter of Barriers to Conflict Resolution, Robert H. Mnookin ascribes the inability of parties to reach optimal agreements through negotiation, to the existence of barriers to successful negotiation.
Mnookin asks the following pertinent questions as a way of introducing the discussion:
“Why do negotiations so often fail even where there are possible resolutions that obviously would serve disputants better than protracted struggle? And why, when resolutions are achieved, are they so often suboptimal for the parties, or achieved only after heavy and avoidable costs? In other words, what barriers stand in the way of successful negotiation and effective resolution of conflict?”
He goes on to state that the first step towards identifying and addressing the different barriers to successfully negotiating a dispute is to understand the specific history and content of the dispute, and to appreciate the social, political or institutional context surrounding it.
In other words, before we can even start addressing the parties’ stated positions or exploring their underlying interests we have to analyse the conflict in the context of the existing relationship between the parties and the socio-political context of the dispute. Once we understand the origin and context of the conflict we will be better placed to identify the barriers that may stand in the way of reaching a mutually beneficial resolution to the dispute. Abraham Lincoln summed it up plainly but clearly when he stated, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe.”
After thorough research- and analysis of the dispute and the parties involved therein, it is possible to identify the specific barriers that stand in the way of a resolution. Barriers are found at many different levels of a dispute but the most common types revolve around the interpersonal relationships, the negotiation collective and the organisational environment within which negotiations are conducted.
Once we’ve identified the barriers in a specific dispute we are able to formulate strategies for managing these barriers during the planning and implementation phases of the negotiation process. These strategies take the form of conscious and deliberate actions designed to remove or circumvent barriers, or as far as possible, to counteract their negative impact.
Mediation or third party intervention is a particularly helpful tool in overcoming a number of common barriers. A few examples of such barriers include the following:
- Selective Perception in Making EvaluationsParties to a dispute regularly have difficulty in making an objective evaluation of their own case. Parties tend to look for facts and law to support their own claims and overlook or undervalue the evidence that might defeat their claims. A skilled mediator is well placed to assist parties in making an objective evaluation and act as an agent of reality by challenging the parties to consider whether their assessments are realistic without offering their own opinions on the merits.
- Reactive DevaluationAs conflict escalates and the relationship between parties deteriorates it is common for a party to reject a proposal made by an adversary simply because it was proposed by the adversary. Parties become so positional in their approach to the conflict that they are unable to assess the accuracy of information or accept a settlement proposal as made in good faith. Rejection of an offer is a basic negative reaction to the person and not based on objective facts. A mediator can overcome this phenomenon by offering proposals as his own and thereby the reactive nature of a refusal can be overcome to be replaced by an objective evaluation.
- Disagreement Between Attorney and ClientDifferences of opinion between an attorney and his own client often act as a barrier to resolving disputes. This is frequently the case when the client and attorney have different perceptions of what a reasonable outcome to a dispute should be or where an attorney overstated the likelihood of success. Such differences of opinion protract the dispute with the result that legal costs escalate and relationships deteriorate. Again, a skilled mediator is ideally placed to protect both the attorney and client’s interest by communicating effectively and by assisting the parties in making realistic assessments of what would constitute a reasonable outcome.
There are many more barriers to effective dispute resolution but the common thread remains that the negotiator or mediator should first and foremost be aware of the existence of such barriers before he can plan on how to best deal with them so as to reach an optimal resolution to a dispute.
 Arrow, Kenneth J, Mnookin, Robert H, Ross, Lee, Tversky, Amos, Wilson, Robert B, 1995. “Barriers to Conflict Resolution”, pg. 5.