Conflict Assessment

Comprehensive Assessment Guides

Conflict assessment is the process of systematic collection of information about the dynamics of a conflict. The guides stress open-ended, participant-based data as the path to specifying conflict processes. Such approaches are particularly useful for third parties such as intervention agents and students wishing to study a particular conflict. As a party to the conflict, one can use the guides to collect information from himself or herself and the other party about the conflict. In either case, one needs to use primary information from the parties -for they are the ones who created and maintain the conflict.

Two assessment guides are (1) the Wehr Conflict Mapping Guide and (2) the Hocker-Wilmot Conflict Assessment Guide. Depending on the purpose of the assessment, the guides can be combined or altered to specifically address one's assessment goals. All conflicts change over time, and an assessment is limited to the time period in which it was collected--one might obtain different information by assessing earlier or later in the conflict process.

Wehr's Conflict Map

In his book Conflict Regulation, Wehr (1979) provided a "Conflict Mapping Guide" to give "both the intervener and the conflict parties a clearer understanding of the origins, nature, dynamics, and possibilities for resolution of conflict" (19). The map should include the following information:

  1. Summary Description (one-page maximum)
  2. Conflict History. The origins and major events in the evolution both of the conflict and its context. It is important to make this distinction between the interactive conflict relationship among the parties and the context within which it occurs.
  3. Conflict Context. It is important to establish the scope and character of the context or setting within which the conflict takes place. Such dimensions are geographical boundaries; political structures, relations, and jurisdictions; communication networks and patterns; and decision-making methods. Most of these are applicable to the full range of conflict types, from interpersonal to international levels
  4. Conflict Parties. Decisional units directly or indirectly involved in the conflict and having some significant stake in its outcome.
    1. Primary: parties whose goals are, or are perceived by them to be, incompatible and who interact directly in pursuit of those respective goals. Where the conflict parties are organizations or groups, each may be composed of smaller units differing in their involvement and investment in the conflict.
    2. Secondary: parties who have an indirect stake in the outcome of the dispute but who do not feel themselves to be directly involved. As the conflict progresses, secondary parties may become primary, however, and vice-versa.
    3. Interested third parties; those who have an interest in the successful resolution of the conflict.

Pertinent information about the parties in addition to who they are would include the nature of the power relations between/among them (e.g., symmetrical or asymmetrical); their leadership; each party's main goals(s) in the conflict; and the potential for coalitions among parties.

  1. Issues. Normally, a conflict will develop around one or more issues emerging from or leading to a decision. Each issue can be viewed as a point of disagreement that must be resolved. Issues can be identified and grouped according to the primary generating factor:
    1. Facts-based: disagreement over what is because of how parties perceive what is. Judgment and perception are the primary conflict generators here.
    2. Values-based: disagreement over what should be as a determinant of a policy decision, a relationship, or some other source of conflict.
    3. Interests-based: disagreement over who will get what in the distribution of scarce resources (e.g., power, privilege, economic benefits, respect).
    4. Nonrealistic: originating elsewhere than in disparate perceptions, interests, or values. Style of interaction the parties use, the quality of communication between them, or aspects of the immediate physical setting, such as physical discomfort, are examples.

With few exceptions, any one conflict will be influenced by some disagreement emerging from each of these sources, but normally one source is predominant. It is useful not only to identify each issue in this way but to identify as well the significant disparities in perception, values, and interests motivating each party. (Values are here defined as beliefs that determine a party's position on any one issue [e.g., economic growth is always desirable]. Interests are defined as any party's desired or expected share of scarce resources [e.g., power, money, prestige, survival, respect, level).

  1. Dynamics. Social conflicts have common though not always predictable dynamics that if recognized can help an intervener find the way around a conflict. The intervener must seek to reverse some of these and make them dynamics of regulation and resolution. They include the following:
    1. Precipitating events signaling the surfacing of a dispute.
    2. Issue emergence, transformation, proliferation. Issues change as a conflict progresses--specific issues become generalized, single issues multiply, impersonal disagreements can become personal feuds.
    3. Polarization. As parties seek internal consistency and coalitions with allies, and leaders consolidate positions, parties in conflict tend toward bipolarization that can lead both to greater intensity and to simplification and resolution of the conflict.
    4. Spiraling. Through a process of reciprocal causation, each party may try to increase the hostility or damage to opponents in each round, with a corresponding increase from the latter. Also possible are deescalatory spirals, in which opponents reciprocally and incrementally reduce the hostility and rigidity of their interaction.
    5. Stereotyping and mirror-imaging. Opponents often come to perceive one another as impersonal representations of the mirror-opposite of their own exemplary and benign characteristics. This process encourages rigidity on position and miscommunication and misinterpretation between conflict parties.
  2. Alternative Routes to Solution(s) of the Problem(s). Each of the parties and often uninvolved observers will have suggestions for resolving the conflict. In conflicts within a formal policymaking framework, the options can be formal plans. In interpersonal conflicts, alternatives can be behavioral changes suggested to (or by) the parties. It is essential to identify as many "policies" as possible that have already surfaced in the conflict. They should be made visible for both the conflict parties and the intervener. The intervener may then suggest new alternatives or combinations of those already identified.
  3. Conflict Regulation Potential. In and for each conflict situation are to be found resources for limiting and perhaps resolving the conflict. The mapping process notes these resources, albeit in a preliminary way. They may include the following:
    1. Internal limiting factors like values and interests the conflicting parties have a common, or the intrinsic value of a relationship between them that neither wishes to destroy, or cross pressures of multiple commitments of parties that constrain the conflict.
    2. External limiting factors like a higher authority who could intervene and force a settlement or an intermediary from outside the conflict.
    3. Interested or neutral third parties trusted by the parties in conflict who could facilitate communication, mediate the dispute, or locate financial resources to alleviate a scarcity problem.
    4. Techniques of conflict management, both those familiar to the different conflict parties and third parties and those known to have been useful elsewhere. Such methods range from the well-known mediation, conciliation, and rumor control to fractionating issues and extending the time range to encourage settlement.
  4. Using the Map. The conflict map is most useful (and quite essential) as the initial step in conflict intervention. Mapping permits an informed judgment about whether the intervention should continue. The map is also helpful in assisting conflict parties to move back from and make sense out of a process to which they are too close. If the mapper decides to further intervene, sharing the map can loosen up the conflict, making it easier to resolve. Finally, the map helps demystify the process of conflict that, for so many people, seems a confusing, unfathomable, inexplicable, and thoroughly frustrating phenomenon.

The Hocker- Wilmot Conflict Assessment Guide

This guide is composed of a series of questions designed to focus on the components of conflict discussed in part I of this book. It can be used to bring specific aspects of a conflict into focus and serve as a check on gaps in information about a conflict. The guide is best used in tote so that the interplay of conflict elements can be clearly highlighted.

  1. Nature of the Conflict
    1. What are the "triggering events" that brought this conflict into mutual awareness?
    2. What is the historical context of this conflict in terms of (1) the ongoing relationship between the parties and (2) other, external events within which this conflict is embedded?
    3. Do the parties have assumptions about conflict that are discernable by their choices of conflict metaphors, patterns of behavior, or clear expressions of their attitudes about conflict?
    4. Conflict elements:
      1. How is the struggle being expressed by each party?
      2. What are the perceived incompatible goals?
      3. What are the perceived scarce rewards?
      4. In what ways are the parties interdependent? How are they interfering with one another? How are they cooperating to keep the conflict in motion?
    5. Has the conflict vacillated between productive and destructive phases? If so, which elements were transformed during the productive cycles? Which elements might be transformed by creative solutions to the conflict?
  2. Styles of Conflict
    1. What individual styles did each party use?
    2. How did the individual styles change during the course of the conflict?
    3. How did the parties perceive the other's style?
    4. In what way did a party's style reinforce the choices the other party made as the conflict progressed?
    5. Were the style choices primarily symmetrical or complementary?
    6. From an external perspective, what were the advantages and disadvantages of each style within this particular conflict?
    7. Can the overall system be characterized as having a predominant style? What do the participants say about the relationship as a whole?
    8. From an external perspective, where would this conflict system be placed in terms of cohesion and adaptability?
    9. Would any of the other system descriptions aptly summarize the system dynamics?
  3. Power
    1. What attitudes about their own and the other's power does each party have? Do they talk openly about power, or is it not discussed?
    2. What do the parties see as their own and the other's dependencies on one another? As an external observer, can you classify some dependencies that they do not list?
    3. What power currencies do the parties see themselves and the other possessing?
    4. From an external perspective, what power currencies of which the participants are not aware seem to be operating?
    5. In what ways do the parties disagree on the balance of power between them? Do they underestimate their own or the other's influence?
    6. What impact does each party's assessment of power have on subsequent choices in the conflict?
    7. What evidence of destructive "power balancing" occurs?
    8. In what ways do observers of the conflict agree and disagree with the parties' assessments of their power?
    9. What are some unused sources of power that are present?
  4. Goals
    1. How do the parties clarify their goals? Do they phrase them in individualistic or system terms?
    2. What does each party think the other's goals are? Are they similar or dissimilar to the perceptions of self-goals?
    3. How have the goals been altered from the beginning of the conflict to the present? In what ways are the prospective, transactive, and retrospective goals similar or dissimilar?
    4. What are the content goals?
    5. What are the relational goals?
    6. What is each party's translation of content goals into relationship terms? How do the two sets of translations correspond or differ?
  5. Tactics
    1. Do the participants appear to strategize about their conflict choices or remain spontaneous?
    2. How does each party view the other's strategizing?
    3. What are the tactical options used by both parties?
    4. Do the tactical options classify primarily into avoidance, competition, or collaborative tactics?
    5. How are the participants' tactics mutually impacting on the other's choices? How are the tactics interlocking to push the conflict through phases of escalation, maintenance, and reduction?
  6. Assessment
    1. What rules of repetitive patterns characterize this conflict?
    2. Can quantitative instruments be used to give information about elements of the conflict?
  7. Self-Regulation
    1. What options for change do the parties perceive?
    2. What philosophy of conflict characterizes the system?
    3. What techniques for self-regulation or system-regulation have been used thus far? Which might be used productively by the system?
  8. Attempted Solutions
    1. What options have been explored for managing the conflict?
    2. Have attempted solutions become part of the problem?
    3. Have third parties been brought into the conflict? If so, what roles did they play and what was the impact of their involvement?
    4. Is this conflict a repetitive one, with attempted solutions providing temporary change, but with the overall pattern remaining unchanged? If so, what is that overall pattern?
    5. Can you identify categories of attempted solutions that have not been tried?

The Conflict Assessment Guide can be used in a variety of contexts. Students who are writing an analysis of a conflict can use the questions as a check on the components of conflict. Using extensive interviews with the conflict parties or constructing a questionnaire based on the guide enables one to discover the dynamics of a conflict. The guide can also be used for analyzing larger social or international conflicts, but without interviewing or assessing the conflict parties, one is restricted to highly selective information.

A consultant to organizations can also use the guide by modifying it for direct use. Similarly, an intervener in private conflicts such as those of a family can solicit information about the components of a conflict in an informal, conversational way by referring to the guide as an outline of relevant topics. In either case, care should be taken to modify the guide for the particular task, for the conflict parties, and for your intervention goals.

If one is a participant in a conflict, the guide can be used as a form of self-intervention. If both parties respond to the guide, you can use it to highlight what you and the other party perceive about your conflict. Usually, we recommend that a questionnaire be constructed for both persons to answer, and once the data are collected, the parties can discuss the similarities and differences in their perceptions of the conflict.

Whatever your preferred assessment technique, or combination of approaches, the assessment devices in this chapter can enable you to see some order and regularity in conflicts that at first appear confusing and overwhelming. With careful assessment, the dynamics of conflict can come into focus so you can fashion creative, productive options for management.


Conflicts are often perplexing to both participants and outsiders. Usually, however, an interpersonal conflict is operating as a system of relations, complete with repetitive behavior, rules, and other identifiable dynamics. There are many possible ways to assess conflict patterns. Metaphoric/dramatic approaches search for the images of the process held by the participants and use those as a stepping stone for creative management options. Diagramming triangular relations also provides useful information about system dynamics. Sculpting is a nonverbal, spatially-based technique for identifying patterns of communication within a larger system. One can also focus on system rules, the prescriptions for what one ought to do in a given situation. Microevents are observable, recurring patterns of behavior that can be analyzed for underlying conflict structure.

If one wishes a quantitative assessment of conflict components for either (l)conflicts produced by simulation or games or (2) real-life conflicts accessed through self-reports of the parties, many options are available. For example, one can measure general orientations toward conflict, code behaviors enacted in an episode, identify conflict styles, assess power balances, or isolate the tactics used in a conflict.

Finally, two overall assessment guides are presented. The Wehr and Hocker-Wilmot guides are useful ways to generate information about the dynamics of specific conflicts; they can be used by either participants or outside observers.