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Resolving Problem-Centric vs. Relationship-Centric Conflict

Updated: May 5, 2023

Part 2 of 3 Series

Exploring two approaches to conflict resolution in intercultural contexts: This is Part 2 of a brief series on resolving intercultural conflict.

As suggested in the previous “Part 1” article, reading up on the 12 Dimensions of Culture and Three Colors of Worldview would help in developing some groundwork understanding for how people from different sociocultural backgrounds deal differently with conflict, particularly in cross-cultural scenarios.

Most attempts at resolving conflict tend to fall into two main categories: Either a focus on the root or resulting problem(s) that instigated the conflict in the first place, or else a focus on the relationship(s) that could potentially become collateral damage in a conflict.

It is fascinating to recognize that conflict resolution models and principles employed worldwide strategize either from a “problem-centric” side, or from the the “relationship-centric” side. (Again, it is a shame that the two approaches are rarely put to work in tandem. If there is an opportunity to be intentional about intercultural conflict resolution, the decision of whether to pursue resolution via a “problem-centric” approach vs “relationship-centric” approach is pivotal—and could have profound, possibly long-lasting ramifications.

The problem-centric approach to conflict resolution is characteristic of people groups where Innocence-Guilt is the predominate cultural paradigm.

Innocence-Guilt is the Color of Worldview “lens” through which many people in North American and European cultures view the world. In fact, the concept of “diversity” originated as a problem-centric, Innocence-Guilt–influenced approach to resolving deep conflict over ethnic differences and over how people who were different (in terms of skin color, cultural heritage, socioeconomically, or physical challenges) were mistreated or disregarded entirely.

Historically, myriad problems emerged and spread in North America and in northwestern Europe over such differences. The injustices committed against people who were deemed to be “lesser” because of their ethnic heritage or various disabilities were grave. The consequences that spiraled out as a result of those injustices were perhaps just as devastating.

So when these injustices were exposed and condemned for what they were, many people—especially in these Innocence-Guilt–oriented cultures—felt keen guilt for wrongdoing and strong conviction to do whatever it might take to make things right. And of course, there was indeed much to rectify. In this case, the “problem,” the intercultural conflict in question wasn’t just any “problem.” It was more significant and complex and life-shattering than a mere slip of the tongue or an awkward social fumble. It was a recipe for societal disaster with far-reaching implications in every aspect of life—family life, work life, religious life, patriotism. And people wanted to do something about it—rightly so.

And of course in the US, the UK, and in other countries in Europe—the injustices of human trafficking and slavery, and then, the resulting debates and wars and loss of life and lands, the need for drastic action in the form of abolishing slavery and emancipating everyone, and the socioeconomic impact that followed—all of these things left all parties involved with more or less negative repercussions. Overall, some of the victories were also unfortunately accompanied by a difficult legacy of fall-out and separation. Something similar happened when Apartheid was brought to an end in South Africa. A different kind of separation, a different kind of segregation—and still more conflict to be resolved. We must deal with our differences—they exist; they are fact. As humans—naturally, we all look different, we have differing abilities, we view life through different cultural lenses, we have differences of opinion. We truly are different! These differences don’t have to lead to conflict, but they do need to be acknowledged.

So what are we to do with these differences? And what are we to do about the fact that different people (in some cases, we ourselves) have disadvantaged others and have taken advantage of others? What are we to do about actions that were taken out of selfishness, self-serving, fulfilling the desires and agenda of one type or group of people over the desires and agenda of a different group? What are we to do about the long-lasting consequences of past injustices and past failed attempts to resolve conflict? What do we do with past and present problems?

So the people who were willing to acknowledge the injustices, travesties, and the resulting mess in the aftermath—those people (especially in an Innocence-Guilt–oriented context) were inclined toward a problem-centric approach to conflict resolution. The general consensus was, “We’ve obviously got a major problem. We really need to do something about it; it is absolutely necessary to rectify this, and to begin a process of change so this problem will never happen again.”

In other words, especially in the West, the problem itself becomes the main point of focus.

In keeping with the general Western mindset, the problem needs to be quantified; each aspect must be identified and examined from every possible angle and attributed some percentage of priority. Clearly, the problem must be assessed, dismantled, and eliminated. It needs to be taken away, the slate wiped clean. Justice must be served, and preventive measures must be instated.

These efforts result in a long-term process—naturally, because change of great magnitude cannot just happen overnight—but that long-term process can also be tricky if you continue to hold the problem itself as the central focus, as opposed to the relationships.

The dilemma that people with a problem-centric approach to conflict resolution face is that conflict is bigger than merely a problem to be solved. You have to look beyond the problem and focus on the relationships involved.

If we focus on the problem only, if we continue filtering our view of conflict only through that problem-centric filter, the end result is not actually resolution of the conflict. The end result is the institutionalization of the problem.

Here’s how it typically goes: People realize, “All right, we have a problem; we need to do something about the problem!” Those people then, out of the goodness of their hearts, they come together, they attempt to quantify the problem, and they try then to put a process in place to rectify what’s wrong and to prevent history from repeating itself. Meanwhile, however, that whole undertaking becomes the center of attention. It consumes their time, energy, thoughts.

The problem itself and what it takes to rectify the problem begin to consume more and more attention and resources. Eventually the priority of solving the problem eclipses the end goal of resolving the conflict.

Because the problem is the main attraction, rather than the relationships affected by it, what actually is getting attention, what is being examined inside and out, with all its nuances? Not the relationships involved in the conflict. What is being built and developed and enriched? Not the relationships.

If the relationship side of the conflict equation is ignored, the problem side is all the more likely to repeat itself in the future.

Too much focus on the problem can generate negative side effects and actually deliver counterintuitive results. Instead of rectification and reconciliation, the problem is actually complicated and perpetuated.

If a problem-centric approach is allowed to play itself out without any relationship-centric input, everyone loses. Why? The fact that the problem exists in the first place gives people a cause, a reason for being, something to do, some tangible way to express care and contribute. Over time (subconsciously, or sometimes consciously) people actually don’t want the problem to go away anymore, because now the movement created to fix the problem has grown beyond that.

Soon an entire institution has been constructed around the problem(s)—yet the relationships themselves still languish, and conflicts continue to spring up out of the same root or resulting problem!

The root or resulting problem still doesn’t ever go away. The relationships deteriorate. The initial conflict still remains unresolved, and more conflicts arise out of the same, persistent root (or resulting) problems.

That is perhaps an oversimplification, but very nearly what has happened in a number of countries where this idea of initially creating a movement to solve the problem—eventually backfires. The movement eventually became its own enemy, because its approach to conflict resolution is problem-centric rather than relationship-centric.

Part 3 of this mini-series on intercultural conflict will address inclusiveness (or inclusion), and what happens when a corporation attempts to open new markets internationally but finds that certain systems and job positions get “lost in translation.”


How do I find out my own Colors of Worldview?

For those who want to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Innocence-Guilt cultural paradigm, KnowledgeWorkx will be publishing several articles over the next few weeks that will explore all three of the Colors of Worldview in-depth. In fact, if you would like to learn about your own color(s), check out this opportunity to discover your own Three Colors of Worldview profile, and get a personalized report:


This series : Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


Quickly becoming the global preferred choice for Inter-Cultural Intelligence development, KnowledgeWorkx promotes mutual understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.



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