Strategies to Resolve Conflict: Learning from Star Wars

Strategies to resolve conflict can be found in books, in classes, and at work—but what about in a galaxy far, far away? A new book offers conflict-resolution strategies from the Star Wars saga.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Strategies to resolve conflict star wars

Book CoverWhen we think of conflict-management experts, we tend to think of mediators, lawyers, professors, and hostage negotiators. But what about Jedis, Wookiees, droids, and Sith? After all, “conflict is everywhere in Star Wars,” as Noam Ebner and Jen Reynolds write in the introduction to their new edited book, Star Wars and Conflict Resolution: There Are Alternatives to Fighting. From lightsaber duels to fighter battles in space to trade disputes, the 11 films in the franchise are full of dramatic disputes and conflicts, violent and nonviolent—and they also hint at strategies to resolve conflict.

In Star Wars and Conflict Resolution, the contributors—professors and mediators; judges and lawyers; all of them, it seems, Star Wars fanatics—analyze scenes and characters from the franchise through the lens of conflict resolution.

In the opening chapter, “Exploring Different Conceptions of Power in Star Wars,” Rachel Viscomi, director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, describes strategies the films’ characters use to face down powerful adversaries. In their chapter, “Han Shot First,” Deborah A. Cai and Emily A. Cai apply law, foreign policy, and philosophy to consider the controversial question of whether Han Solo was justified in shooting bounty hunter Greedo in the original Star Wars film from 1977, A New Hope—a question with implications for anyone considering a strategic “first strike.”

Aaron M. Peterson and Jason A. Kaufman’s essay, “Curse My Metal Body!” traces the growth of droid C-3PO’s empathy across the films, which brings him an “improved capacity for conflict resolution.” And in “Lightsabers and Fighting Styles,” Thomas Freeman draws lessons for humans from the seven forms of dueling depicted in Star Wars.

We take a closer look at two other chapters that offer strategies for conflict resolution gleaned from Star Wars films—strategies we humans can apply to our own disputes, both dramatic and mundane.

Note: We hosted a PON Live! Book Talk with the authors of Stars Wars and Conflict Resolution in February 2023. Watch the recorded program now.

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Conflict Modes and Strategies to Resolve Conflict

Around the time George Lucas was writing the first Star Wars screenplay, in the mid-’70s, researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann were developing a diagnostic tool for assessing people’s tendencies toward conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann model describes five basic “conflict modes”: competition, cooperation, accommodation, avoidance, and compromise. In his chapter, “Is It Your Destiny? Conflict Modes and Strategic Choice,” Ebner casts Star Wars characters into these five modes. Anakin Skywalker is competitive, for example, as shown by his tendency to treat “every negotiation interaction like a win-or-crash podrace.” Meanwhile, Ben Kenobi is cooperative, as seen in his willingness to let Luke Skywalker decide for himself whether to accompany the Jedi Master to Alderaan in A New Hope.

The Thomas-Kilmann model describes the five modes as “deep-rooted personality traits we each default to,” writes Ebner. By contrast, another conflict framework, the dual-concerns model, reimagines the same behaviors as strategies we can choose among to implement in conflict and negotiation situations.

“Throughout Star Wars, protagonists struggle between their hardwired conflict modes and their ability to choose other approaches,” writes Ebner. “Their success and failure, like our own in negotiation, depend on managing this tension. Spoiler: It doesn’t always go well.” Ebner offers advice on which conflict mode to choose in various situations—and offers the provocative observation that “Nobody demonstrates strategic cooperation like . . . Darth Vader.”

Jedi Mind Tricks and Other Hardball Tactics

In one famous scene from 1977’s A New Hope, Kenobi and Luke Skywalker are stopped by stormtroopers as they attempt to enter Mos Eisley Spaceport with droids R2D2 and C-3PO. When Luke is questioned at the checkpoint, Kenobi calmly says to the lead stormtrooper, “You don’t need to see his identification.” To Luke’s surprise, the stormtrooper agrees: “We don’t need to see his identification.” After Kenobi continues to use this so-called Jedi mind trick (JMT), the stormtrooper lets them pass.

In the classic version of the JMT, “the user implants a thought into the mind of their counterpart, who embraces the thought as their own,” writes C. Scott Maravilla in his chapter, “‘These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For’: Mind Tricks and Manipulation in Conflict.” In another version of the trick, the “Jedi mind probe,” characters—such as Kylo Ren—use the Force to extract specific memories and information from their counterpart to their advantage.

In our own world, writes Maravilla, “negotiators have a range of similarly manipulative tools that they can use and that can be used against them.” Such hardball tactics, common in distributive negotiation, include bluffs, threats, displays of emotion, and silence.

Maravilla discusses the ethics, efficacy, and repercussions of such strategies to resolve conflict and negotiation. Such “mind tricks,” he notes, can reduce trust, harm your reputation, and escalate conflict and negative emotions. They can also cause negotiation ethics in business to deteriorate. One strategy we can use to counter a negotiator’s hardball tactics is to “name the game,” or explicitly describe their tactic, writes William Ury in his book Getting Past No.

Looking for more strategies to resolve conflict? Star Wars and Conflict Resolution offers a wealth of negotiation strategies and tactics, all of them illustrated with insights from Star Wars, that both casual and die-hard fans of the saga will find useful. And, in typical Star Wars fashion, Reynolds and Ebner are already working on a sequel.

Note: We hosted a PON Live! Book Talk with the authors of Stars Wars and Conflict Resolution in February 2023. Watch the recorded program now.

What strategies to resolve conflict have you taken away from the Star Wars films and TV shows?

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