Assessing Collaborative and Transformative Potential
 via The "Progress Triangle:" A Framework for Understanding and Managing Conflicts

 Gregg B. Walker, Ph.D.
 Department of Speech Communication
 Oregon State University
 Corvallis, Oregon 97331-6199
 Ph: 541-737-2461; Fax: 541-737-4443; email:

Material for a workshop, "Empowerment and Recognition in Mediation," directed by Mary Forst, Marg Huber, Theresa Jensen, and Gregg Walker, as part of the 6th Annual Alternative Dispute Resolution Conference, 11-12 April, Seattle, WA.

1. Background

In multi-party public policy disputes, the potential for "empowerment and recognition" may reflect the extent to which the situation has "collaborative potential."  Collaborative potential can be defined as the opportunity for parties to work together assertively in order to make progress in the management of a conflict.  Prior to discussing collaborative potential in more depth, a brief discussion of conflict management as "progress" may be helpful.

1.1 Conflict: Management versus Resolution
Many discussions of conflict turn to the term "resolution" to denote the settlement of a conflict or dispute.  While specific conflicts and disputes can often be "resolved,"  many policy conflicts are both complex and enduring (often with social, political, cultural, economic, and scientific aspects).  Complex conflict situations may never be "resolved," such that an agreement is reached that puts an end to those incompatibilities that caused the conflict.  Rather, many complex conflicts can be managed well, such that the conflict situation, and the specific disputes that arise within them, do not become destructive.  Consequently, the term "management" includes, but does not require "resolution."

1.2 Conflict Management as Progress
"Management" can be defined as the generation and implementation of tangible improvements in a conflict situation.   Improvements in the ways parties manage a conflict situation constitute progress.  Therefore, conflict management can be thought of as "making progress."   As part of improving the situation, progress can include such ideas as reaching consensus, developing mutual gains, learning, resolving a dispute, achieving agreement, and laying a foundation for future negotiations.  Progress is a way of thinking about a conflict situation that recognizes that conflicts are inevitable and ongoing, and that the competent management of those conflicts comes from continual improvements in areas of substance, procedure, and relationships.

    Constructive conflict management, then, involves making progress on these three fundamental dimensions of a conflict situation: substantive, procedural, and relationship.  These dimensions can be viewed as part of a conflict management "progress triangle," as presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The Conflict Management Progress Triangle


                                                    Procedure                               Relationship

    Portraying conflict management as a triangle of three interrelated dimensions-- substance, procedure, and relationship--illustrates a number of things about managing conflicts.  First, any conflict situation includes substantive, procedural, and relationship dimensions.  Second, the three dimensions overlap and effect one another.  A procedural element, for example, may become a substantive issue.   Third, one can address the conflict situation initially through any of the three dimensions.  A health care policy conflict situation, for example,  might feature substantive concerns related to health care costs and service delivery.  A natural resource conflict situation such as salmon recovery might emphasize procedural and relationship factors related to the sovereign status of native peoples.  Fourth, progress on one dimension likely contributes to progress on the other dimensions.

2. The Progress Triangle and Collaborative Potential

Collaboration represents one strategic approach to a conflict situation, in contrast to competition, accommodation, and inaction (Pruitt and Rubin, 1986; Walker and Daniels, 1997).   Collaboration is a process in which interdependent groups work together to affect the future of an issue of shared interests (Gray 1989).  In public policy conflict situations, collaboration differs considerably from the traditional public involvement model (public hearings, comment periods, scoping sessions, etc.).  There are a number of significant aspects to these differences:

 (1) Collaboration is less competitive and more accepting of additional parties in the process because they are viewed as potential contributors more than as potential competitors.
 (2) Collaboration is based on joint learning and fact finding; information is not used in a competitively strategic manner.
 (3) Collaboration features opportunities for creative and systemic thinking about
 problem situations, and the generation of innovative improvements.
 (4) Collaboration allows underlying value differences to be explored, and there is the potential for joint values to emerge.
 (5) Collaboration resembles principled negotiation, since the focus is on interests rather than positions.
 (6) Collaboration structures disputant interaction to encourage integrative
 negotiation and dialogue.
 (7) Collaboration considers process rules and procedures as legitimate areas for
 discussion and negotiation.
 (8) Collaboration allocates the responsibility for implementation across as many participants in the process as the situation warrants.
 (9) Collaboration is an on-going process; the participants do not just meet once to discuss a difference and then disperse.  However, collaborations may have a limited life span if the issues that brought the participants together are resolved.

3. The Progress Triangle: Assessing Conflict and Collaborative Potential

The Progress Triangle can serve as a guide to understanding policy conflicts, and as such, for determining the potential for managing a given conflict through collaboration.   As an assessment tool, the Progress Triangle includes a variety of questions in each of the three areas.  A number are presented here, but the framework is not limited to these particular items.

3.1. The Progress Triangle: The Relationship Dimension
While policy conflicts are overtly about substantive matters, progress on them often hinges on the quality of the relationships that exist among the conflict parties.  Consequently, although assessment can begin at any one of the three triangle dimensions, in many cases examining relationship factors may be insightful.  The relationship dimension includes the parties in the conflict and their history with one another.  It also includes the "intangibles" of any conflict situation, such as trust,  respect, and legitimacy.  The following questions may help in the assessment of the relationship dimension of a policy conflict.

1.  Who are the parties/stakeholders?
   Who are the primary parties?
   Who are the secondary parties?
   Is there media interest?
2.  Do any parties have unique status (e.g., Indian tribes)?
3.  What are the parties':
   Stated positions?
   Interests (concerns, fears. goals)?
   World views and values?
4. What are the parties' relational histories?
5. What are the parties' incentives:
   To collaborate?
   To compete?
   To learn?
6 What are the parties' BATNAs?
7.   Is trust sufficient?  Can it be built?
8. Can representatives/individuals work together?
   Are representatives available for the long-term or likely to change?
   Are representatives restricted by constituents?
9.  Do the players have adequate knowledge and skills?
   To process information and think systemically?
   To communicate constructively and work through disagreements?
   To interact with acknowledgment and respect?

3.2 The Progress Triangle: The Procedure Dimension
The procedure dimension of the triangle includes those elements that pertain to the ways in which conflicts are managed and decisions made.  It also includes the rules, both regulative and generative, that parties adhere to in working through the conflict situation.  Just as progress on the substance of a conflict relies in part on relationship factors, so too does it depend on procedures parties regard as appropriate and fair.  The following questions can guide assessment of the procedure dimension.

1.    At what stage is the conflict?
   Does the situation seem "ripe" for constructive action?
   Is de-escalation needed first?
2. What are the legal constraints?
3. Who has jurisdiction?
4.   What management approaches have been used in the past (procedural history)?
5.  Is mutual learning desired?
6.   What is the decision space?
   How much can be shared with other parties?
   Are key supervisors supportive?
7.  Are resources sufficient (e.g., time, money, staff)?
8.  What are the procedural alternatives?
   How accessible are they?
   How inclusive?
9. Are there needs for design and facilitation by an impartial party?

3.3. The Progress Triangle: The Substantive Dimension
The third dimension of the Progress Triangle features the substance of the conflict situation.  Substantive items are the "tangible" aspects of a conflict, such as the issues about which the disputants negotiate.  Substance, though, also includes issues that parties may consider "symbolic," such as "righting a past wrong."  The following set of questions offers a framework for assessing substance.

1.   What are the issues?
   What are the tangible issues?
   What are the symbolic issues?
2.   What are the likely sources of tension over these issues (e.g., facts, culture,
 history, jurisdiction, values, interests, people)?
3.  Are issues complex?  technical?
4. Is information needed?  Is it available?
5.   Are meanings, interpretations, and understandings quite varied?
6. Are learning opportunities available?
7. What are the mutual gain options (opportunities for mutually beneficial improvements), such as expanding the pie, non-specific compensation, log rolling, bridging, fractionation, and cost cutting.

3.4 Assessing Collaborative Potential
Assessing a policy conflict situation in terms of the Progress Triangle's dimensions should help the analyst determine: (1) the current potential for collaboration, and (2) the extent to which certain aspects of the situation need to be changed in order to establish good potential for collaboration.  There is no "formula" to this assessment process.  Rather, the analyst has to assess the situation as comprehensively as possible given available resources to do so, such as time, access to people for interviews, review of documents, and so on.   In policy conflict situations, though, the  willingness of parties to try to work together and the degree of decision space the relevant decision makers are willing to share are key factors.

4. Collaborative Potential and Transformative Potential

Transformative mediation emphasizes progress toward settling disputes through the empowerment and recognition of disputants (Baruch Bush and Folger, 1994).  Empowerment and recognition rely on the open-mindedness and adaptability of disputants as well as the skills of the mediators to foster transformation.  Transformation, like collaboration, is emergent; contingent on the commitment and orientation of parties in conflict.  When people work through conflicts and make progress on their management collaboratively, they do so by choice.  Similarly, a transformative approach to a dispute reflects mediators' and disputants' choices.  Public policy mediators and facilitators who are considering a transformative approach may find that assessing a conflict situation's collaborative potential useful.  The Progress Triangle is one framework that may aid in this endeavor.


Baruch Bush, R. A., and Folger, J. P. (1994).  The Promise of Mediation.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gray, B. 1989.  Collaborating. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pruitt, D. G., and Rubin, J. Z. 1986.  Social Conflict.  New York: Random House.

Walker, G. B., and Daniels, S. E. (1997).  Foundations of natural resource conflict: Conflict theory and public policy. In B. Solberg and S. Miina (Eds.), Proceedings: Conflict Management and Public Participation in Land Management.  Joensuu, Finland: European Forest Institute.