Management Development ForumVol. 1- No 1(98)
Problem Solving for One
Alan Tidwell
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Alan Tidwell

This article presents a new method for managing workplace conflict, Problem Solving for One (PS1). PS1 incorporates the structure of mediation with the essentials of conflict management into a process that can be used by one person in conflict.


Effectively managing workplace conflict remains one of the most difficult challenges for human resource management professionals. Increasing numbers of sexual harassment complaints and the ever deepening chasm of workplace violence are just two indices of poorly managed workplace conflict. It has been some years since studies indicated that managers spend roughly 20% of their time dealing with conflict. Years later, despite the development of such techniques as mediation and facilitation, conflict remains a perennial workplace problem.

Why have the flurry of alternative dispute resolution techniques failed to reduce the impact of conflict organizations? The answer may be found in the very nature of most current alternative dispute resolution techniques. Most techniques require participants to have at least a modicum of good faith. Workplace problems are resolved by managers and employees negotiating their way through problems. Much of the modern practice of negotiation is derived from the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, especially Roger Fisher and William Ury. The Fisher and Ury approach to negotiation requires the existence of some sort of willingness on the part of parties to work through their problems. Yet, such good faith is usually in short supply when it comes to conflict. The challenge in effectively managing workplace conflict is to move past good faith, and instead understand the motivations of individuals in conflict.

At a deeper level still is the assumption that in most negotiations people actually know what it is they want and what they can trade. This, of course, is rarely true. Too often alternative dispute resolution techniques carry the assumption that people are reasonable, knowledgeable and sensible. These are dangerous assumptions at best. Reasonableness, knowledge and sensibility, rather than waiting to be revealed, often need to be coaxed into existence. Human resource professionals who deal with workplace conflict must possess the requisite skills to help people help themselves.

Recent developments, however, signal change on the horizon. The creation of Problem Solving for One (PS1) marks an important departure from past methods of managing workplace conflict. PS1 incorporates the structure of mediation with the essentials of conflict management, into a process that can be used by one person in conflict. The PS1 process may be used by human resource professionals, grievance officers, and employee relations workers.

Problem Solving for One

In 1993 students at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia worked to develop a mediation agency for the university. In the midst of this exercise, students and staff together identified an area of concern -- what to do in situations where only one person agreed to join in mediation. In an effort to answer this need, the term Problem Solving for One (PS1) was coined. The objective of the process is to assist parties in conflict by reducing the negative consequences of conflict.

The PS1 process combines conflict analysis, alternative generation and costing and communication strategies into an overall conflict handling plan. Rather than viewing the resolution of conflict as an end goal, the PS1 process is designed only to help individuals reduce the negative consequences of conflict. This differs markedly from mediation, for example, where the process is designed to enable agreements between parties. In fact, PS1 is predicated on a different view of conflict than in mediation. In PS1, conflict is seen as perceptual and subjective, whereas in mediation conflict is perceptual, subjective and social. A common problem that users of PS1 encounter are situations where one party sees a conflict, and the other is unaware of any conflict.

The Process

PS1 is a six stage process. It is managed by an HR professional who acts as the PS1 facilitator. The facilitator follows the stages, which include:
1. Party greeting and process introduction
2. Problem(s) statement
3. Conflict analysis
4. Generation of options and cost alternatives
5. Development of communication strategy
6. Review of plan

It is important for the PS1 facilitator to follow the six stages, as the structure helps parties delay decision making long enough to gain greater perspective on their problems. Essential to the process is that parties maintain ownership of their plans. The PS1 facilitator must ensure a certain amount of distance from the outcomes considered by the party. Adhering to the process is vital for assisting the party in gaining greater understanding of the conflict and how best to manage it.

Central to the PS1 process are four elements: conflict analysis, generation of options, communication strategy, and the conflict handling plan.

Conflict Analysis. After the party has told the story of the conflict, the PS1 facilitator helps the party dissect the conflict, in an effort to better understand its dynamics and to establish perspective. A common characteristic of parties in conflict is an inability to see, with some sense of objectivity, the nature of the conflict. Instead, what we often find are parties in conflict who see a world filled with stereotypes. Of critical concern, then, for anybody seeking to assist people in conflict is to help them break down stereotypes and see the world with more objective eyes.

The process of analysis allows parties to partialize problems, that is to break problems down and give the parts names. This is important in that it provides greater capacity to ask critical and probing questions. Such questions may hold either greater insight into the problem at hand, or form the basis for future alternatives.

An effective tool for conflict analysis may be conflict mapping. Kurt Lewin, the sociologist, was one of the first scholars to use mapping as a tool for understanding social interaction. Simply, conflict mapping is the process of creating a diagram or picture of a conflict. It may be nothing more than trying to draw a picture of the conflict, not only from the perspective of the party in conflict, but from the perspective of others in the conflict as well. By carefully and deliberately moving through the conflict, parties are forced to see the conflict through the eyes of others. Analysis will reveal underlying aspects of the conflict useful in developing perspective on the problem.

Options and Costing. The conflict analysis stage should result in several things. First, the PS1 facilitator and presenting party will have in hand some richer description of the conflict than what was originally presented. The description may take many different forms -- i.e., it may be several key words on butcher’s paper, or it may be an elaborate drawing, identifying all the players and issues in the conflict. The conflict analysis stage should also generate several pivotal problem statements. These problem statements represent the focal points of discussion for the remainder of the PS1 session.

With the analysis completed, the PS1 facilitator and party can start work on developing a range of possible options. Building on the analysis developed during conflict mapping, the PS1 facilitator and party create a series of alternatives to each problem statement.

Brainstorming is used to generate a list of possible alternatives to each given problem statement. Of course, in the PS1 setting there is likely to be only the PS1 facilitator and the party. Thus, one of the great strengths of brainstorming, bouncing ideas off of others, is missing. It is vital for the PS1 facilitator to be attuned to this fact and to encourage creative ideas. One technique available to the PS1 facilitator is to be provocative with idea generation. For example, when helping an aggrieved employee the PS1 facilitator might suggest the employee “go home and forget it,” or alternatively the employee might “purchase billboard space by the highway.” Both options are extreme and bracket the range of real options. Such provocation is useful because it stirs the other to articulate ideas otherwise left untapped. It may also be useful because the provocative idea might prove useful in the costing phase -- what might have appeared provocative during idea generation may not be so provocative in the light of cost/benefit analysis.

Having created a list of alternatives, the PS1 facilitator works through the list with the party developing a cost/benefit analysis. It is vital that the cost/benefit analysis be conducted both from the perspective of all the parties to the conflict. For example, in a case where an employee feels unfairly discriminated against, the PS1 facilitator would work to generate a series of options around the problem of unfair discrimination. Each option would be tested against a series of critical questions, such as “how would others react,” “would that get you closer to your goals,” or “does that create other problems.” Essentially, the PS1 facilitator simply wishes to ensure that the party is thinking critically about the implications of their actions. In following this course of action, the PS1 facilitator ensures that the conflict options are tested against a variety of influences and conditions.

The range of options may be very broad, ranging from establishing a dialogue with the other party to doing nothing. The broader the range, the better it is for the party in conflict. With more to consider, they may find solutions to the problems that had not otherwise been evident.

Communication Strategies. Following conflict analysis and option generation and costing, the PS1 facilitator and party examine communication strategies used to implement the alternatives. It is no use asking a presenting party to employ a conflict handling strategy if they do not possess the necessary communication skills. In some cases, no new communication strategies are needed. In other instances, the presenting party must create a communication strategy in order to implement the alternative. The PS1 facilitator helps the party do this by asking critical questions, practicing assertiveness and listening skills, and/or role playing. The objective is to establish communication strategies that are within the skill range of the presenting party.

In the brief PS1 meeting, it is difficult to create new skills beyond those the party already possesses. The key for the PS1 facilitator is to quickly assess what strengths and weaknesses the party has and help create alternatives that match their communication competencies. Thus, this stage of PS1 may demand that they return to the option and costing stage to reevaluate alternatives in light of communication skill competencies.

Conflict Handling Plan. Taken together, the conflict analysis, options and costs, and communication strategies combine to create the conflict plan. The plan is simply an outline for future action, designed to decrease the negative aspects of a given conflict. The plan may lead the party to engage in a situation in which other dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, can occur. It may lead to a situation in which the conflict is resolved, because of new insights gained through the process. More likely, however, it will result simply in a greater sense of coping and conflict handling on the part of the presenting party.


While PS1 was originally developed to provide mediators with an additional tool for serving their clients, it now has wider applications. HR professionals tasked with trying to manage organizational conflict can call on the PS1 process through a variety of means. PS1 training can be provided to line managers, employee relations officers, grievance officers, to name a few.

Currently, Student Grievance Contact Officers (SGCOs) and On-staff Grievance Officers (OSGOs) at Macquarie University have been trained in the PS1 method. These grievance officers process organizational problems, and rather than engage in confrontation, they are skilled in attempting to assist parties in finding workable solutions to their situation. The New South Wales Department of School Education Staff Welfare Officers have been trained in the PS1 process as well. There the PS1 process has wide application with both teachers and administrative staff, many of whom work in small remote schools where confrontation is often not an option.

Other applications of PS1 include organizational change, out-placement services, employee assistance programs, and performance reviews. PS1 facilitators can be trained reasonably quickly, thus creating a cadre of trained facilitators within an organization.

PS1 at Work

A PS1 facilitator and presenting party, consisting of two people, sit in a small meeting room of a medium sized organization. The facilitator listens actively to the presenting party’s story -- the presenting party has been unfairly treated, or so it is alleged. The PS1 facilitator determines the scope of the problem initially and decides to proceed. Together the presenting party and the facilitator discuss the conflict, and start to list the components. Using a whiteboard, the PS1 facilitator writes up each element of the conflict as the story unfolds. Having gone through the story once, they go through again, this time with the facilitator asking more probing questions. Ultimately, the facilitator asks the presenting party to draw a picture of the conflict. A simple diagram of circles and arrows goes up on the whiteboard. Already the presenting party seems less upset and more engaged with understanding the problem.

Next, the participant and facilitator generate several key problems to work on. These are deduced from the conflict map. Each problem is taken in turn. The pair start to brainstorm possible solutions to each problem. After the lists are created, they go back through and critically evaluate each option. What are the costs of each? What are the benefits? In the balance, the PS1 facilitator and presenting party narrow the range of possible actions to two or three steps.

Then, they begin to discuss how to implement these steps. Those that require communication and interaction are discussed with special attention. “What will you say?” and “How will others react?” are important questions. The facilitator and presenting party discuss possible language that can be used in pursuing actions. They may even role play a meeting between the aggrieved party and other parties to the conflict.

Finally, they agree on the steps to be taken and on what follow up will take place. They review the steps already taken, plan new ones, and establish a dialogue for future action.

This brief sketch of the PS1 process may provide greater insight into how it may be used. It is particularly useful in those situations where a power imbalance may leave parties feeling like they cannot take any action.


PS1 was developed to fill a void left by the practice of mediation. While PS1 is no panacea, it does provide some greater assistance to presenting clients than had existed before. One suspects that many mediators, managers and negotiators may have already done something like PS1, but mostly in an ad hoc fashion.

Drawing on establishing human relations skills, PS1 may provide a powerful systemic tool for those who deal with human problems. By combining conflict analysis, option generation and costing, and communication strategy development, PS1 provides presenting parties with a wider range of tools in an effort to handle their conflict.

Suggested Readings

Burton, John. (1991). Conflict: Resolution and Prevention, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Coser, Lewis. (1968). The Functions of Social Conflict, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.

Follett, Mary Parker. (1995). Constructive Conflict. Reprinted in Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management, Pauline Graham (Ed.), Boston: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 67-68.

Kolb, Deborah and Jean M. Bartunek, Eds. (1992). Hidden Conflict in Organizations, NY: Sage Publications.

Moore, Chris (1986). The Mediation Process, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Alan Tidwell, PhD, is a senior lecturer in management at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, Australia. He has published and consulted widely in the area of conflict management. He holds degrees from George Mason University and the University of Kent, Canterbury, England.

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