Conflict, Communication and Collaboration: Is There Really a Middle Ground?


Development as a process to secure positive change in humans’ lives through combating inequality and poverty is deeply indebted to individuals’ democratic participation in decision-making processes (UNDP, 2016). Many community and international development scholars and practitioners have argued that participatory approaches not only promote economic productivity through inclusion (Abdellatif, 2003), but also with their bottom-up, grassroots-based methodology, they empower members of socially excluded and marginalized groups (Mohan and  Stokke, 2000), and therefore, can serve as a tool in supporting democratic processes.

However, while proponents of participatory strategies often emphasize a homogenized conception of community as a bloc of social ‘solidarity,’ all communities harbor divisions and stratifications and are therefore sites of ‘conflict’ (Dorman, 2002, p. 133). As a result, participatory decision-making in development projects is seldom a seamless linear process due to value-based contestation and power relations among diverse actors¾ each of whom perceives the benefits and incentives of collaboration differently (Cornwall, 2008; Cornwall and Brock, 2005). This brief essay unpacks the connections between communication as negotiated meaning and efforts to secure collaboration amidst diverse actors involved in development projects.

Conflict and Collaboration    

According to Kilmann and Thomas (1977), individual and group behavior in conflict situations – in which the concerns of two (or more) parties seem to be incompatible – can be located along an assertive to cooperative spectrum.  They define assertiveness as the extent to which individuals attempt to satisfy their own (or the group’s) concerns, and cooperativeness as the degree to which a person (or collective) seeks to serve another individual’s or group’s interests.  In their “mode instrument,” Kilmann and Thomas populated the space between these dimensions of behavior with five methods of addressing conflict (Figure 1); competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating.  More recently, Thomas has analyzed collaboration as potentially the most democratic solution for handling conflicts among the five that he and Kilmann had posited, as it requires that opposing parties communicate and work together to find a middle ground that “fully satisfies the concerns” of all involved (2008, p.3).


                                             Figure 1 – Five Conflict-HandlingModes

Deeper than merely connecting interested and/or affected parties, “communication” is the process of negotiation and construction of meanings (Koschmann, Kuhn, and Pfarrer, 2012). This might take the form of examining a disagreement to learn from each other’s perspectives, resolving situations that would otherwise have groups or individuals compete for resources or juxtaposing differing suppositions and trying to find a creative solution that will meet all participating parties’ interests (Thomas, 2008).

However, in many development projects, achieving consensus among stakeholders, who may, and often do, embrace fundamentally different moral commitments is not an easy task (Fink, 2017). Nonetheless, at least theoretically, negotiating such contrasts via dialogue is possible. Perhaps the easiest (if still challenging in terms of power imbalances, fairness and inclusivity) cases are those development scenarios in which participating stakeholders have varied “interests” in projects. These may include an actor’s material needs or wants, and frequently represent a kind of “bottom-line” in negotiations and collaborations (Page, Stone, Bryson, and Crosby, 2018, p. 3). When there are conflicts among interests, negotiations addressing “facts and evidence” can be useful in convincing opposing groups to consider seriously and potentially adopt another point-of-view. That is, while both interests and beliefs influence collaborators’ decisions in development projects, analysts have argued that interests are amenable to compromise (Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 2011) while participants’ core beliefs tend to be nonnegotiable, at least in the short-term (Haidt, 2012).

When normative conflicts deeply entangled with one’s moral imagination regarding what is good, true and right  are in play, negotiation of interest-related meanings is seldom fruitful in creating a consensus among opposing parties (Hunter, 2018). For example, after decades of social policy research, “replete with data analysis and theory testing, liberals and conservatives are still grappling with the predominantly value-laden aspects of social policy” (Gibson, 1997, p. 196). In such conflicts the challenge for achieving agreement is “how” one can bridge the differences in priority placed on certain values—which often “lead to disagreement regarding the means” through which to achieve effective solutions (Gibson, 1997, p. 189). For instance, both conservative and progressive groups in the United States each claim that they wish to eradicate poverty and to address the social challenges that often accompany unwed motherhood (which include poverty).  Nonetheless, their definitions of these concerns and consequently their desired paths to ameliorating them are totally divergent:

Conservatives hate unwed motherhood more than they hate poverty, so they tell one another that the next generation of children would be better off if we made [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] AFDC [now TANF-Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] even less generous than it now is. Liberals hate poverty more than unwed motherhood, so they insist that the next generation would be better off if we gave single mothers more help (Jencks and Edin, 1995, p. 49).

This scenario arises due to the normative conflicts rooted in the moral commitments of the individuals and groups involved: “In particular, the coexistence of discrete sources of moral authority helps to explain the nature of the present conflict over issues concerning the human body” (Davison Hunter, 2018, p. 7).

Once people join a group or adopt a perspective based on their moral principles, they become enmeshed in its matrix, seeing confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it becomes difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them to reconsider their view(s) if one tries to do so by offering arguments outside of their preferred imaginary (Haidt, 2012). In this conflict type, negotiations often fail, since what is at stake are people’s most cherished ideals and commitments. In other words, agreeing to a supposed “middle-ground,” solution may be viewed by the stakeholders involved as accepting an immoral or even evil position.

In these situations, the intertwining of moral and epistemic claims makes it difficult to use “facts” to convince those holding such beliefs of the possibility and even potential superiority of alternate perspectives, since those very assertions are at stake in the conflict. For example, many Christian Scientist parents refuse to allow treatment of their children for medical diseases, because doing so would deny the fundamental beliefs of their faith (Bohman, 1995, p. 257). The question this scenario raises is, if facts cannot be helpful in managing and resolving moral conflicts, what can be used?

Relying on Durkheim’s concept of the profane (day-to-day individualistic) and sacred (inter-social/collective) lives of individuals, Haidt has argued that the sentiments that humans embrace as part of a larger society hold the potential to shut down the self and activate a group overlay that allows individuals simply to become a part of a whole; he calls this process “hive switch” (2012, p. 228). Drawing on evolutionary modeling, Haidt (2012) has contended that human beings are conditional hive creatures with the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose themselves (temporarily and even ecstatically) in something larger than themselves, for good or ill.

To create what Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence,” a term aimed at capturing the passion and fervor that group rituals can generate that can flip the “hive switch,” Haidt (2012) suggests “awe in nature,” which opens people to new possibilities, values and directions in life. Nature’s vastness makes people feel small and its experience is not easily assimilated into their existing belief structures. When confronted with such possibilities, therefore, they must “accommodate” them by becoming conscious of, rethinking and possibly changing their foundational views.

While other scholars and practitioners have suggested other methods of transforming imaginaries in conflict situations, including by experiencing collective love (Sorokin, 2015), community joy/sorrow/memory (Brueggemann, 2001) or shared art-making (Goldbard, 2015) , what is common in all of these approaches and that echoes Haidt’s approach, is their non-rational, interpersonal character and their emphasis on promoting a sense of belonging by reminding those involved of their shared values and/or providing them space to create the same.


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Neda Moayerian is a PhD candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include human development, specifically through community cultural activities, individual and communal agency, and community-based /sustainable tourism. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from the Art University of Tehran and a Master of Science in Urban Management from the University of Tehran

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