Conflict Outcomes (Zero-sum and Non-zero-sum situations)
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Earlier, we introduced five different conflict styles that people and groups generally use when inter-acting with other people or groups. We saw to what extent these different styles are relevant to each one of us and, with the role-play, we experienced a potential confrontation, where two actors are negotiating in order to obtain what they want. As we saw, this confrontation could actually lead to different outcomes: some players could have won over the other party, some could reach a compromise, and some could be both satisfied. In some cases no one is satisfied with the outcome. This consideration leads us to an important question:
What happens to the outcome when we consider conflict styles of both (or all of the) parties?
Simplifying, there are three possible outcomes:
- one wins, the other loses;
- both win;
- both lose;
Frequently, who is in conflict thinks that one party will win and the other will lose, or the parties will find a compromise. Here the parties perceive the conflict as a zero-sum situation, i.e. a situation where the gain of one part corresponds to the loss of the other. In other words, the outcome is seen as a fixed pie: the more I get of it the less you’ll get; if I get it all you’ll get none. In compromise we split the pie.
(Insert: picture of a pie.)
Nonetheless, experience tells us that very often in violent conflicts both parties lose. Frequently, if no party can impose herself over the other(s) and they cannot compromise, the costs of fighting of each party will be so high that - no matter what the gain is - costs are higher. In other words, frequently parties in conflict lose more than they gain.
Facilitation note: You can invite participants to brainstorm examples of conflicts where the costs for all parties seem higher than the benefits.
A traditional aim of conflict transformation is to help the parties to see conflict as a non-zero-sum situation, where both parties can win or both can lose. That is to expand the pie.
Let us illustrate the idea by referring to the simulation we have just played. (Facilitation note: participants should role-play this simulation before you introduce this content).
- INSERT IMAGE GRID ***
Towards the right side of the grid is the satisfaction of A. Smith, where he obtains what he wants. Towards the upper side the grid is the satisfaction of P. Patel. The conflict is around 2.000 bananas. If Smith perceives the conflict as a zero-sum situation, he will struggle to obtain as many bananas as possible; Patel will do the same. In this fashion, Patel will struggle to get as close as possible to point A in the grid (Patel wins, Smith loses); Smith will struggle to get as close as possible to point B (Patel loses, Smith wins).
If it is not possible for either Patel or Smith to get complete satisfaction, they look for a compromise. An ideal compromise is shown in point C in the grid; here Patel and Smith would get 1.000 bananas each. But other compromises exist, which can be represented on the line from point A to point B). Any point closer to point A, would represent a compromise where Patel gets more bananas and Smith less, the opposite is true for any point closer to point B.
The line between A and B shows a zero-sum situation: Patel and Smith see the outcome as a fixed pie. Both parties want 2.000 bananas, both need 2.000 bananas. Both Patel and Smith may reason as follows:
- the more the other party gets, the less I get;
- the more I get, the less the other party gets.
But, in our simulation both Patel and Smith need 2.000 bananas. Patel needs 2.000 bananas to produce enough vaccine for further testing and make it possible to have approval for widespread distribution in one year, provided further trials go well. Smith needs 2.000 bananas to produce enough chemical to salvage the upcoming planting season and to de-contaminate the ground water supply. With less that 2.000 bananas they can’t be satisfied.
This reality leads us to another possible outcome for the conflict: both lose. Point E in the grid shows this situation. We can call this a non-zero-sum situation – specifically here both parties may lose and the outcome of the conflict is a negative one. Nobody gets the pie. Even if Patel and Smith reach a compromise, no one is satisfied with less than 2.000 bananas, they both lose considering their interests.
There is another line in this grid that can be traced from point E to point D. This line represents all non-zero-sum solutions. The optimal solution in the role-play is when Smith gets the peels of 2.000 bananas and Patel gets the flesh of the same 2.000 bananas. This solution is graphically represented with point D. Here Smith and Patel have expanded the pie.
Parties have more possibilities to reach D if they cooperate with each other (refer to lecture on conflict styles). When both/all the parties adopt a competing/forcing conflict style there is a high possibility of obtaining solutions close to point E or, in the best of situations, solutions that lie in the line between A and B.
Confrontation can easily generate outcomes where one or all parties are not satisfied. Cooperation can help the parties expand the pie. Mutually satisfactory solutions can be more easily achieved with cooperation.
Note: for further reference on "conflict styles", see "Conflict Outcomes and Conflict Processes", in Galtung, J., Transformation by Peaceful Means (The Transcend Method), United Nations, 2000