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Volume 2, Number 2, Feb 2002

Conflict Coaching

By Ross Brinkert


"ADR Plus One" suggests that the alternative dispute resolution field can expand its boundaries and potency by incorporating one or more types of coaching. Coaching is a powerful concept that has roots in this nation's love of sports. In recent years, coaching has been used to make sense of a variety of different supportive relationships. Conflict coaching is one type of coaching relationship. It can be used in anticipation of an interpersonal conflict or to make a thorough assessment of a conflict that has already occurred. Conflict coaching fosters an individual's clarity for how a conflict shapes.

Temple University’s campus alternative dispute resolution organization, the Conflict Education Resource Team (CERT), developed and implemented a conflict-coaching model in 1996. The imitative came after CERT recognized that their mediation services were underutilized by the campus community. Coaching proved to be a service especially suited to conflict cases where only one party was seeking CERT’s assistance.

The aim of this paper is to help the reader understand the general appeal of coaching. I will provide an overview of the basic types of coaching and conflict coaching, explore the conflict styles model of conflict coaching and identify some new opportunities for conflict coaching.

While reading this paper, it is important to note the assumptions that infuse my approach conflict models. These assumptions may be valuable for those in the role of coach or participant. My first assumption is that a particular model can be understood as one of many valid models. This is to say that one model does not necessarily represent reality better than another model. Perhaps a more important issue is whether a particular model is more or less meaningful than another at a particular point in time. It may be well the case that so-called competing models are equally meaningful. It may also be the case that they are too different to make a comparison.

My second assumption is that a model’s strengths and weaknesses are related to the system to which it is applied. A particular model means different things when used by different people in different contexts. Therefore, strengths and weaknesses are best assessed by considering specific applications rather than attempting a universal assessment.

My third assumption is that people live with uncertainty. The researcher, coach and participant all work without the benefit of complete information. This means it is wise to act with humility. It is also wise not to judge too harshly the past actions of others or ourselves since retrospect provides a degree of certainty that we rarely, if ever, experience in the present moment.

My fourth assumption is that despite uncertainty, meaning and action are important. An uncertain world allows us to justify either meaninglessness or meaningfulness. Most would agree that the latter makes for more attractive lives and relationships. It also makes us more likely to act with intention. Action is important because it helps construct the environment we act into. Acting may mean making a leap and exploring a model even though we might later apply another.

My final assumption is that it is useful to act with curiosity. Many people find that a curious mindset is helpful for remaining comfortable with uncertainty and diversity, in various forms.

In addition to understanding my assumptions about conflict models, I must also provide my assumptions about conflict itself. The assumptions are as follows: 1) conflicts are a part of everyday life and have positive potential, 2) the nonviolent expression of conflict should be generally encouraged, 3) developing both individual and shared responsibility for conflict is valuable, 4) voluntary participation in conflict management is likely to increase the overall success of the process and 5) a general openness to differences is helpful in a pluralistic community.


Coaching has traditionally referred to the activity of training athletes or athletic teams. When Americans think of coaching, many recall famous professional sport coaches from television, or sport coaches from their childhood and teenage years. These impressions of coaching are often deeply positive. For example, mega-star Michael Jordan played basketball with the Chicago Bulls as long as he did because of the relationship he had with his coach, Phil Jackson. Prior to his final year, Jordan insisted that the Bulls keep Jackson as their coach otherwise he would not play.

People may be connecting with the coaching metaphor, in part, because of the following associations: the emphasis is external, the focus is on the future, the relationship is directed toward goals and success, the player is respected for his/her strength and the relationship is a highly regarded helping relationship.

The positive impressions associated with coaching make people want to extend it to non-sporting relationships. There is coaching for specific communication skills, in which the focus is on a person's one-on-one skill development process. Typically, this involves an outside trainer/coach working with an employee on a single communication skill such as giving and receiving feedback, using inclusive language, or speaking more assertively. The coach works with the employee for a set amount of time to support a pre-specified behavioral change. Coaching of this type is not necessarily tied to the possibility of promotion for the employee.

Coaching for managerial development also exists. A common type of organizational coaching involves an internal or external coach working to develop a potential managerial candidate. This form of coaching may focus on a particular skill but is likely to be broader in scope. Oftentimes, a supervisor acts as a subordinate's coach. This use of the word "coach" is sometimes frowned upon because of the perceived incompatibility between the directing function of a supervisor and the supporting function of a coach.

Whole life coaching has received attention over the past few years. There has been a boom in the demand for coaches who not only support an individual's professional development but also his/her personal development. The individual seeking coaching services usually hires these coaches privately. These coaches, often called personal coaches, tend to meet weekly with each client, for between half an hour and an hour, either in person or on the phone.

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.

Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
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Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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