Competitive and Cooperative Approaches to Conflict

Brad Spangler

Originally published July 2003, "Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in June, 2017.

Current Implications

This essay appears in the negotiation section of Beyond Intractability, but I put it in the framing section of the Fundamentals Seminar, because it explains several ideas first suggested in the previous, Process Frames, essay.

This essay goes further to explain why people tend to choose either a cooperative or competitive frame (and hence style of engagement) and what the implications of that choice are.  

What Spangler didn't mention, however, is the self-fullfilling prophecy problem. If you define your situation as inherently "win-lose," then you  assume that you cannot get your needs met without defeating "the other," and you then do everything in your power to do just that.  But sometimes, total defeat of the other also threatens total defeat of oneself, as we are seeing now on both sides of the political conflict in the United States.  

In June, 2017, both the Republicans and the Democrats are vowing (and whenever possible) implementing revenge against the other, which just makes the other even angrier, and more determined to retaliate.  So our political divides are growing deeper and deeper and little if anything is being done to address our increasingly pressing social, environmental, and economic problems while the political fights continue to lead to standoffs.  We need to admit that our goals are interdependent, and start changing our process frames to behave accordingly! 

--Heidi Burgess, June, 2017.

Cooperative vs. Competitive Conflict Styles

When individuals or parties enter into a negotiation process to resolve conflict, they will bring a certain orientation to the table in their effort to settle the conflict. The two most basic orientations people adhere to when entering into negotiations are cooperative or competitive. A cooperative approach aligns with the process of interest-based or integrative bargaining, which leads parties to seek win-win solutions. Disputants that work cooperatively to negotiate a solution are more likely to develop a relationship of trust and come up with mutually beneficial options for settlement. The mutual gains approach is considered a constructive resolution process.

Options for a negotiated settlement are limited in some cases by a fixed pie (a set amount of rewards) that must be divided one way or the other. Such situations leave no alternative for mutual gains and therefore parties must utilize competitive negotiation tactics to pursue their goal(s). Competitive approaches align with the process of distributive bargaining, which result in win-lose outcomes. A competitive approach to conflict tends to increase animosity and distrust between parties and is generally considered destructive.

The Negotiator's Dilemma

At its core, negotiation involves a fundamental tension between whether parties feel they need to cooperate or compete in order to achieve their goals. It is important to remember though, that negotiating an acceptable agreement always includes common and conflicting goals. Therefore both cooperation and competition are necessary to some extent in order to reach resolution. In other words, "[n]egotiators must learn, in part from each other, what is jointly possible and desirable. To do so requires some degree of cooperation. But, at the same time, they seek to advance their individual interests. This involves some degree of competition."[1] Finding a balance between these two approaches is the key to successful negotiation. This basic tension between cooperation and competition in negotiation is known as, "The Negotiator's Dilemma."[2]

Goals, Interdependence, and Process

How a party approaches resolving a conflict depends on many factors. Scholars in the field of social psychology, particularly Morton Deutsch, have developed theories about factors that influence whether a person approaches a conflict cooperatively or competitively. The most important factors are the nature of the dispute and the goals each side seeks to achieve as a result of it. Deutsch's theory centers on the relationship between the two sides' goals, which he calls interdependence. According to his theory, the type of interdependence existing between negotiating parties will largely guide how they interact.

Deutsch identifies two basic types of goal interdependence -- positive and negative. Positive interdependence means that each side's goals are tied together in such a way that the chance of one side attaining its goal is increased by the probability of the other side successfully attaining its goal.[3] Positively interdependent goals normally result in cooperative situations because any participant can "attain his goal if, and only if, the others with whom he is linked can attain their goals."[4] On the other hand, negative interdependence means that each side's goals are tied together in such a way that the probability of one side attaining its goal is decreased by the probability of the other side successfully attaining its goal.[5] Negatively interdependent goals force competitive situations because the only way for one side to achieve its goals is for the other side not to.

Personality and Conflict Style

"In a cooperative situation the goals are so linked that everybody 'sinks or swims' together, while in the competitive situation if one swims, the other must sink." -- Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes, 20.

The approach or conflict style a negotiator chooses to take when entering negotiations may be based on rational criteria, such as selecting the style that will most likely lead to the desired goals. However, the personalities of the people involved may also play a significant role in which conflict styles are brought to the negotiating table. Thus, it is also possible that some people consistently use a certain style "because they have a personality predisposition to do so."[6]

Deutsch distinguishes between two key dimensions of personality: assertiveness in the pursuit of one's own goals, and cooperativeness in pursuit of mutual goals.[7] Researchers have identified five major conflict management styles based on a continuum from assertive (competitive) to cooperative:

  • A competing style -- high on assertiveness and low on cooperativeness.
  • An accommodating style -- low on assertiveness and high on cooperativeness.
  • An avoiding style -- low on both assertiveness and cooperativeness.
  • A collaborating style -- high on both assertiveness and cooperativeness.
  • A compromising style -- moderate on both assertiveness and cooperativeness.[8]

Effects of Cooperative and Competitive Approaches

Morton Deutsch's theory of cooperation and competition includes predictions about what sort of interactions will occur between negotiating parties as a result of their disputing style.

Additional insights into

competitive and cooperative approaches to conflict

are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants

Cooperative styles are characterized by:

  1. "Effective communication" where ideas are verbalized, group members pay attention to one another and accept their ideas and are influenced by them. These groups have less problems communicating with and understanding others.
  2. "Friendliness, helpfulness, and less obstructiveness" is expressed in conversations. Members tend to be generally more satisfied with the group and its solutions as well as being impressed by the contributions of other group members.
  3. "Coordination of effort, division of labor, orientation to task achievement, orderliness in discussion, and high productivity" tend to exist in cooperative groups.
  4. "Feeling of agreement with the ideas of others and a sense of basic similarity in beliefs and values, as well as confidence in one's own ideas and in the value that other members attach to those ideas, are obtained in cooperative groups."
  5. "Willingness to enhance the other's power" to achieve the other's goals increases. As other's capabilities are strengthened in a cooperative relationship, you are strengthened and vice versa.
  6. "Defining conflicting interests as a mutual problem to be solved by collaborative effort facilitates recognizing the legitimacy of each other's interests and the necessity to search for a solution responsive to the needs of all." This tends to limit the scope of conflicting interests and keep attempts to influence each other to decent forms of persuasion.[9]

A competitive process will most likely have the opposite effects on the parties:

  1. Communication is obstructed as the conflicting parties try to gain advantage by misleading each other through false promises and misinformation. Communication is ultimately reduced as the parties realize they cannot trust one another's communications as honest and informative.
  2. "Obstructiveness and lack of helpfulness lead to mutual negative attitudes and suspicion of one another's intentions. One's perceptions of the other tend to focus on the person's negative qualities and ignore the positives."
  3. The parties are unable to effectively divide their work and end up duplicating efforts. When they do divide it, they continuously feel the need to check each other's work.
  4. Ongoing disagreement and critical rejection of ideas reduces participants' self-confidence as well as confidence in the other parties.
  5. The conflicting parties seek to increase their own power and therefore see any increase in the other side's power as a threat.
  6. The competitive process fosters the notion that the solution of the conflict can only be imposed by one side on the other. This orientation also encourages the use of coercive tactics such as psychological or physical threats and/or violence. This process tends to expand the range of contested issues and turns the conflict into a power struggle, with each side seeking to win outright. This sort of escalation raises the motivational significance of the conflict for the participants and makes them more likely to accept a mutual disaster rather than a partial defeat or compromise. [10]

Despite the very negative picture painted by Deutsch, other theorists emphasize that competition, in some circumstances, can be constructive. Competition in sports, for example, encourages each side to strive for excellence. Although most sporting events are structured in a win-lose sort of way, good sportsmanship norms ensure that the games are played fairly, and in many instances, the loser gets to come back and play again on equal ground.

[1] David Lax and James K. Sebenius, The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Competition," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 200), 22.

[4] Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 20. This section of Deutsch's earlier work on constructive and destructive conflict resolution processes is closely paralleled by the later chapter in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, which offers a summarized version of his older work.

[5] Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Competition," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 22.

[6] Roy J. Lewicki, David M. Saunders and John W. Minton, Negotiation, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1999), 358. The other ideas comprising this section were also drawn from this work, pp. 358-361.

[7] Ibid, 359.

[8] The following bullet points come from Roy J. Lewicki, David M. Saunders and John W. Minton, Negotiation, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1999), 359.

[9] The following bullet points were pulled and paraphrased from Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Competition," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 200), 25.

[10] Ibid, 25-26.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Competitive and Cooperative Approaches to Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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