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Guideline for neighbour problems / COMMUNICATING: 3.2 Cooperative, constructive and non-violent approach

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

During the orientation process of the available literature, we were able to identify the following interventions for building mutual understanding in neighbour disputes:

  • Focusing on positions (competitive approach)
  • Reframing the issue in terms of underlying concerns, needs, and interests (cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach)

Interpersonal conflicts can be understood in terms of parties’ positions, and parties’ underlying needs and interests. Positions are the specific demands or requests made by each party as negotiation begins – each party’s preferred solution to the conflict (Raider, Coleman & Gerson, p. 702). Needs and interests are what each negotiating party is looking to satisfy. If the position is “what you want,” the need is “why you want it” (Raider, Coleman & Gerson, p. 703).  

Focusing on positions can be characterized as a competitive approach to conflict. Parties to the conflict that take this approach seek to enhance their own power and reduce the power of the other. In what has been termed a “fixed pie” approach, parties perceive any increase in the power or resources of the other as threatening to their own (Deutsch, p. 27), and may therefore be unwilling to negotiate their stated position (Raider, Coleman & Gerson, p. 702). The solution of a conflict is understood as something that can only be imposed by one party on the other (Deutsch, p. 28).

Reframing the conflict in terms of underlying concerns, needs, and interests rather than positions can be characterized as a cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach to conflict. These three approaches are referred to collectively because they each focus on collaboration based on understanding and acknowledgment of underlying needs and worldviews. A cooperative/ constructive/ nonviolent approach aims to satisfy the priority needs of each party to the conflict (Raider, Coleman & Gerson, p. 703). 

Parties that take the cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach view conflict as a mutual problem to be solved through joint cooperative efforts (Deutsch, p. 34). Such efforts include:

  • Explaining one’s own concerns, needs, and interests clearly but not provocatively (Davidson & Wood, p. 7)
  • Expressing feelings in relation to underlying needs (Rosenberg)
  • Avoiding criticism, blaming, or threatening (Davidson & Wood, p. 7)
  • Recognizing and respecting the other by being responsive to their needs (Deutsch, p. 27)
  • Placing disagreements in perspective by identifying common ground and common interests (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • When addressing the issues underlying a disagreement, refraining from making personal attacks and seeking to understand the other party’s perspective (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Limiting the expression of negative feelings so that they are primarily directed at the other party’s violation of cooperative norms (if that occurs) or their defeatism (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Taking responsibility for the harmful consequences of one’s words and actions – whether intended or unintended – and sincerely apologizing for them (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Seeking reconciliation rather than nurturing an injury or grudge (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Empowering the other party to contribute effectively to the cooperative problem-solving process by soliciting their views, listening responsively, and sharing information (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Be appropriately honest (avoiding dishonesty as well as unnecessary and inappropriate truth-telling) (Deutsch, p. 35)
  • Recognizing hot buttons (in oneself and the other) that, if pressed, are likely to evoke strong emotions; controlling one’s reactions in that event; avoiding provoking disruptive emotions in the other (Deutsch, p. 36)

 For the sake of the PICO question on interpersonal conflict between neighbours, we compare the competitive approach that focuses on positions to a cooperative approach, as these two interventions seem to be most commonly applied according to the literature.

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to a neighbor dispute trying to understand each other, is reframing the issue in terms of underlying concerns, needs and interests (cooperative/ constructive/ non-violent approach) more effective than focusing on positions (competitive approach) for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: neighbour disputes; communication; neighbour relations; neighbour conversation; neighbour dialogue; interpersonal conflict communication, communication in conflict; cooperative conflict resolution


Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to our research method, we grade the evidence comparing cooperative and competitive approaches to neighbour conflict as very low. Conflict resolution prescriptions tend to have intuitive appeal, relying on anecdotal evidence to substantiate the claims rather than more rigorous evidence (Feeney & Davidson, p. 256). As a result, there is a gap in research – specifically, meta-analyses and large observational and empirical studies – on this topic. However, because we find unanimous endorsement of the cooperative approach to conflict resolution by a core group of experts in the field of social psychology, we upgrade the quality of evidence by one level to low.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Focusing on positions (competitive approach)
Cooperative/ constructive/ nonviolent approach
Training in the cooperative approach has been shown to result in positive conflict resolution outcomes. A randomized study of 48 university students found that those who received a 1-hour training session in cooperative skills (including expectations for a win-win solution, active listening, and appropriate assertiveness) were more likely to arrive at a win-win solution to a conflict resolution task than those who had not received the training (Davidson & Wood, p. 7-9, Davidson & Versluys, 1999).
The cooperative approach to conflict is conducive to mutually acceptable solutions that both parties feel are just. Reframing helps to develop a cooperative approach to the conflict even if the goals of the conflicting parties are seen, initially, to be negatively interdependent (a win-lose conflict). The discussion of underlying needs and interests makes it increasingly possible to persuade one another both that these needs are legitimate and that sacrificing some things of lesser interest may allow each party to gain what is more important to them (Ledgerwood et al., p. 471). Reframing has inherent within it the assumption that whatever resolution is achieved, it is acceptable to each party and considered to be just by both (Deutsch, p. 34).
Solutions reached through the cooperative approach more adequately address the underlying needs and concerns of parties to conflict. 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 (Deutsch, p. 27). Optimal solutions can only be found by going beyond the initial bargaining positions of the participants to explore the underlying needs and concerns with the expectation of being able to generate creative alternatives that more adequately address them (Davidson & Wood, p. 7).
A 1978 study found that parties to an attitude conflict (an argument about differing value orientations on some issue) that take a cooperative approach to conflict are more likely to emphasize the similarity of their opposing positions, which may facilitate conflict resolution(Judd, p. 495).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Focusing on positions (competitive approach)
Cooperative/ constructive/ nonviolent approach
A competitive approach to conflict makes productive communication between parties difficult. Communication is impaired as the conflicting parties seek to gain advantage by misleading the other through use of false promises, ingratiation tactics, and disinformation. It is reduced and seen as futile as they recognize that they cannot trust one another’s communications to be honest or information (Deutsch, p. 28).
A competitive approach tends to expand the scope of the issues under dispute, which may in turn make it more difficult to reach mutually acceptable outcomes. As competing parties seek superiority in power and legitimacy, the conflict becomes a power struggle or a matter of moral principle and is no longer confined to a specific issue at a given time and place. Escalating the conflict increases its motivational significance to the participants and may make a limited defeat less acceptable and more humiliating than a mutual disaster (Deutsch, p. 28).
A competitive approach tends to perpetuate distrust and hostility between parties to conflict. Parties’ 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 positive. This can cause parties to break off contact and communication with the other. The result is that hostility is perpetuated because one has no opportunity to learn that it may be based on misunderstanding or misjudgments or to learn if the other has changed for the better (Deutsch, p. 28).
A competitive approach can result in self-fulfilling prophecies that unnecessarily escalate the conflict. When one party engages in hostile behavior on a false assumption that the other has done or is preparing to do something harmful to them, it may cause their false assumption to come true by provoking the other to react in a hostile manner (Deutsch, p. 28).
A competitive approach can entrench conflict. By contributing to escalation, a competitive approach can cause parties to overcommit to rigid positions and unwittingly commit to negative attitudes and perceptions, beliefs, defenses against the other’s expected attacks. This may increase parties’ investment in carrying out their conflictual activities. After a protracted conflict, it is hard to give up a grudge, to disarm without feeling vulnerable, as well as to give up the emotional charge associated with being mobilized and vigilant in relation to the conflict (Deutsch, p. 29). A 1978 study – which found that parties to an attitude conflict (an argument about differing value orientations on some issue) that take a competitive approach to conflict are more likely to emphasize the discrepancy of their opposing positions – supports this conclusion (Judd, p. 495).
Focusing on positions is usually counterproductive to arriving at a win-win solution because it leads to arguments based on rights (Davidson & Wood, p. 7).
A competitive approach incentivizes the use of coercive tactics, such as psychological as well as physical threats and violence (Deutsch, p. 28).

Balance of Outcomes

Taken together, the available research suggests that whereas a competitive approach creates hostile conditions that tend to entrench or escalate conflict, a cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach helps parties reframe their disagreement in terms of underlying concerns, needs, and interests in a way that helps them arrive at mutually beneficial solutions.


The desirable outcomes of a cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach outweigh those of a competitive approach, and the undesirable outcomes of a competitive approach outweigh those of a cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach. Therefore, a cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach to neighbour disputes is preferred.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the value of needs-based problem-solving and solutions for neighbours in conflict, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a neighbor dispute trying to understand each other, reframing the issue in terms of underlying concerns, needs and interests (cooperative/constructive/nonviolent approach) is more conducive to well-being than than focusing on positions (competitive approach).

Table of Contents

3. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
3.2 Cooperative, constructive and non-violent approach