Conflict Resolution Strategy: Howard Raiffa’s Top Conflict Tips

Howard Raiffa (1924-present)

Howard Raiffa brought additional rigor to conflict theory that makes his work a comprehensive source of insights and instruments that has significantly influenced this book.

In particular, his division of decision making into the profoundly generative sequence:

  1. Individual decision: where we can make a decision that has no impact/likely reaction from others or as a preparation for involving others. This approach provides systematic analysis of a particular problem from a single perspective. It may also help individuals decide who to negotiate with, the expected benefits of negotiation and structures negotiation.
  2. Interactive decision making: helps consider alternatives, interests, aspirations and behaviors of other side. The focus on interactive decisions heightens a negotiator’s awareness that their payoff is interactive. This involves thinking strategically about the interaction of separate decisions, which should help negotiators to understand the underlying structure of a negotiation and how to improve leverage in a negotiation
  3. A joint decision making perspective emphasizes opportunities for cooperation and helps both sides avoid falling into the trap of negotiating solely on the basis of what is individually rational. We can use communication to facilitate the drafting of joint agreements to the benefit of both sides. Through cooperation, negotiators might explore agreements based on a process of joint decision making that are mutually superior to disagreements born of separate interacting decisions: the non-agreement state. This raises the possibility of win-win solutions.

We can use this approach to understand the intricacies of the situations we face when in conflict, and how we can make decisions in these circumstances. Above all, Raiffa is striving to help us reach points on the Pareto frontier where the outcome of one side can only be improved by redistributing some of the gains of that side to the other.

He describes Game Theory as interactive decision making with non-cooperative parties, who don’t communicate.  In a future posting we will look at Game Theory in more detail and try to move beyond it. Raiffa’s approach is useful for helping us see that Games are what we revert to if we can’t reach our Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement  in collaboration. It should also remind us that we can only guess what will happen in a game and so uncertainty is not necessarily reduced when we revert to game like behavior.

In the area of disclosure of information, Raiffa also introduces the idea of FOTE or Full Open Truthful Exchange. He also makes clear the risks associated with this strategy, in that other side could use it to gain information on our interests and positions, without disclosing their own. We therefore sometimes need to start with POTE: Partial Open Truthful Exchange, and slowly reciprocate if we think the other side is playing ball.

Raiffa’s study of real negotiations found that they  are rarely clear on trade offs, do not usually involve establishing clear BATNAs or Reserve Values, do not follow FOTE and spend most of the time on cutting up the pie than expanding it. With respect to Game Theory and Social Dilemmas Raiffa as follows is very powerful:

‘Empathetic trust is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for cooperation. Each party might hate the other, indeed may take satisfaction in hurting the other but choose not to defect from a cooperate pattern for fear it would lose in subsequent rounds. There is a positive message here for seemingly intractable disputes: it is possible to get joint gains without empathetic trust. This is not to say it is not important: it is. But in repeated play games it is possible to have mutual, operative, working trust even though the parties remain bitter enemies.’


The role of empathy is critical. It is interesting that we should think of ourselves as unable to empathize with the enemy. Are we fearful that by understanding the enemy we will sympathize or will come to see that their world view is correct or inevitable given the terrain? Couldn’t we clearly see the difference in interests between us, difference in values etc as just data and aim to deeply understand the other side’s theory of mind i.e. be profoundly empathetic without being drawn into their beliefs and accepting their interests as being more important than our own. Is there some meta level at which we reject the other that is more than interest based but is that their view of the world is profoundly threatening and contradicts and somehow threatens to destroy our world view. We will return to this issue repeatedly as it is central to conflict understanding.

If I am a capitalist, secular, globalizer do I really need to see my view as destroyable by Islamic fundamentalism or could I study it, understand it systemically and empathetically and then still find some overlap of interests in specific areas or do I accept the ‘War of Civilizations’ argument. Can we afford to accept that in a nuclear world where we can destroy each other. Should the ultimate objection be that the other side is prepared to destroy the world for its ends? But then the West has been prepared to do that since about 1950? So are we afraid of the other as the mirror of ourselves that we cannot look into because we are so similar?



About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, The Conflict Model, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Conflict Resolution Strategy: Howard Raiffa’s Top Conflict Tips

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this website. Thank you, I will try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your web site?

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