A Multi-Tiered System of Support for Conflict Engagement


Greg Abell, Principal

Abstract:  The ability of individuals and groups to effectively engage and navigate conflict is essential to individual and collective success.  As a conflict engagement firm we have spent the past 25+ years intervening in conflict, designing and implementing strategies and systems for mitigating the cost of conflict, and reframing conflict as an opportunity for shared learning and innovative and creative action.   In this paper we have two objectives:

  1. Introduce a framework for building and maintaining individual and collective capacity for effectively engaging conflict.
  2. Share examples of the model implemented in the context of educational systems.

We are choosing to focus our introduction of this model in the context of education because

the framework we are adopting has strong implications for the culture of education and because the majority or our work over the years has been with educators and education entities.  We also believe that the model is applicable in a broader organizational and community context.  Our primary goal is to introduce readers to a systemic framework for supporting the effective individual and collective engagement of conflict. 


Two paradigms currently informing educational practice are Response-To-Intervention (RTI) and more recently, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).  MTSS is defined as “the practice of providing high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, monitoring progress frequently to make decisions about changes in instruction or goals, and applying child response data to important educational decisions” (Batsche et al., 2005).

Many schools and districts are using this framework for appropriately responding to the instructional and behavioral needs of students.  In this paper we will explore using a Multi-Tiered System of Support for the effective engagement of conflict within interpersonal relationships, on teams and in communities, organizations, and systems.  The purpose is to introduce an integrated and sustainable continuum of skills, strategies and resources in support of the healthy and effective engagement of conflict.  A Multi-Tiered System of Support for Conflict Engagement is designed so as to:

  • Create a framework that will support an individual, a system or a communities ability to proactively identify and appropriately engage the challenges and opportunities of conflict,
  • Recognize that conflict shows up in the interactions of individuals who work together daily, within teams tasked with pursuing some shared initiative, and in the context of comprehensive and complex organizational improvement and change,
  • Provide individuals and groups operating across the community, organization, or system with skills and resources that will support the healthy individual and collective engagement of inevitable conflict,
  • Design and deliver a continuum of systemic resources and strategies for supporting the healthy and effective collective engagement of conflict,
  • See every engagement as a learning opportunity that will inform improvement of the system and/or organization for those engaged, and ultimately to
  • Align ourselves individually and collectively with what we say we believe; that there is value in diversity of opinion, perspective and experience.

A foundational experience for Sound Options Group, LLC informing this model was a project we participated in approximately fifteen (15) years ago.  At that time we contracted to work with the Navy in the Pacific Northwest to help design and implement a multi-tiered system for responding to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint filings across five major naval bases in the region. While the Navy recognized employees rights to file an EEOC complaint they were committed to providing a range of alternative strategies and resources for engaging and processing these complaints.  This resulted in the implementation of an integrated system of support for employees, supervisors, managers, union stewards, human resource professionals, etc.  It also resulted in a measureable decrease in actual EEOC filings and the cost (as measured by timeliness, money, relationships) related to the processing and investigation of the complaint.

Beliefs/Assumptions:  The system we will be describing is grounded in some key beliefs and assumptions about the experience of conflict.

  • Conflict is an essential life experience.

Conflict flows from life. Rather than seeing conflict as a threat, we can understand it as providing opportunities to grow and to increase our understanding of ourselves, of others, of our social structures. Conflicts in relationships at all levels are the way life helps us to stop, assess, and take notice.  One way to truly know our humanness is to recognize the gift of conflict in our lives.

John Paul Lederach

In great teams, conflict becomes productive.  The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.

Peter Senge

  • Conflict has the potential to be productive or destructive.  Our individual and collective experience with conflict is based on the individual and collective choices we make in the engagement of this shared experience.
  • Effective and intentional conflict engagement practices have the potential to:
    • Build trust,
    • Build Social Capital,
    • Open up the potential for innovation and creativity, and
    • Facilitate our ability to address complex challenges.
    • Ineffective conflict engagement practices have the potential to:
      • Compromise trust,
      • Erode Social Capital,
      • Challenge psychological safety,
      • Result in individual and collective disengagement from the pursuit of a shared objective, and
      • Be manifested in the avoidance of, and unwillingness to, engage critical complex challenges.
      • Interpersonal conflict is experienced when two or more people interact and, in the context of the interaction, perceive some level of incompatible difference or threat.  Conflict is initially experienced when our individual and collective interpretations of an interaction is indicative of some level of dissonance between ourselves and the other person(s).  It could be said that conflict “starts between our ears” and is a result of our interpretation of a single interaction or pattern of interactions.
      • Conflict is experienced on a continuum.  Based on the work of Dr. Bernard Mayer (2009) we acknowledge what he refers to as the “six faces of conflict”; Low Impact, Latent, Transient, Representative, Stubborn, and Enduring conflicts.
      • The health and success of individual relationships, communities, organizations, and systems is based on individual and collective capacity for engaging and being with conflict.
      • Because the manifestations of conflict are complex and the contexts diverse, it is essential to approach capacity building systemically.
      • The following quote from Roland Barth in an article entitled, Relationships in the Schoolhouse (2006), reinforce the importance of our effective conflict engagement within educational institutions:

“One incontrovertible finding emerges from my career spent working in and around schools:  The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishments than anything else.” 

The quality or our relationships as adults is correlated to the success of the students we serve.

  • Much of the work in which Sound Options Group is involved is in the context of educational systems.  Because educators have adopted and utilized a Multi-Tiered System of Support for designing intervention and response systems, the author is proposing this structure for designing and implementing a comprehensive approach for building individual and collective capacity for conflict engagement in education and other related organizational or community contexts.

Basic Structure:

A Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) typically includes three tiers.

  • Tier1 resources involve skills, strategies, and services applicable and available to all.
  • Tier 2 includes resources made available when Tier 1 resources are insufficient to a more specific challenge or context.
  • Tier 3 resources are made available when a more complex, individualized, and comprehensive intervention is called for.

As a professional services company, Sound Options Group, LLC provides conflict engagement support in two primary contexts:

  • Conflict involving families and educators in the context of services for children and families as defined by the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and
  • Workplace conflict including but not limited to staff-staff, staff-administration/management, work teams, Boards, etc.  The majority of our work is with Public Sector agencies, many of these being in the context of education.  This includes Early Childhood systems, Public Education, and Higher Education.

The following is a description of services and resources in support of engaging conflict effectively in the context a multi-tiered framework.  For the purposes of this presentation of this model, as we describe each Tier we will provide examples of services appropriate to the two primary contexts identified above.


Tier 1

Resources, services, and strategies at this level are designed and implemented in support of the engagement of conflict at the earliest point of awareness and from a proactive perspective.  The focus of Tier 1 services is to provide everyone within the group or organization with basic skills necessary to work effectively with others.  It has been known for many years that the reason that many people experience challenges at their job is not because of a lack of technical skills, but due to an inability to work effectively with others.

In his book, Reinventing Organizations, researcher and author Frederic Laloux (2014), describes an emerging organizational structure.  Without going into the detail of the book, one organizational characteristic he describes is the onboarding process for new staff.  An essential focus of this process is on providing individuals and teams with the skills necessary to work together effectively.  More specifically this involves building individual and collective capacity for being with conflict. This is not a one-time endeavor but is built into the “DNA” of the organization.

Tier 1 resources focus on supporting individual and collective engagement of conflict at the “local level” and in the context of a commitment to mutual purpose.  They are applicable in a broad range of situations both personally and professionally and for that reason they have been described by some as “basic life skills”. Examples of Tier 1 competencies include but are not limited to:

  • Strategies and skills for initiating and engaging challenging conversations.  Specific skills such as:
    • Mindfulness/self-awareness of what you, as an individual, bring to interpersonal working relationships.  What is your relationship to conflict?  To collaboration? ,
    • Starting with self:  How do you effectively prepare for effectively engaging conflict,
    • Listening for understanding, genuine curiosity regarding the perspective of others,
    • Sharing your perspective, advocating your perspective and ideas in ways that do not polarize and lead to debate,
    • Exploring issues to better understand interests, identifying a shared understanding of the criteria we will use to determine our shared action, and
    • Creating solutions for mutual purpose/benefit.
    • Skills for facilitating the shared work of others,  supporting others in their ability to work together effectively.
    • Understanding the role and function of leadership in the context of conflict and change.  What is necessary to mobilize others to engage challenges in a healthy and productive way?

Tier 1 skills are applicable in a wide range of settings and applicable in day-to-day interactions.  They are skills critical to our ability to work daily with others within a range of contexts. They primarily support the engagement of interpersonal conflict in one-on-one and small group settings.  The following is a description of examples of strategies for building Tier 1 capacity in our two contexts.

Special Education:  Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Professional Development for individual team members (teachers, para educators, Educational Staff Associate (ESA), administrators, families, etc.) in support of the effective interpersonal engagement of conflict.  Professional Development offerings developed by Sound Options Group, LLC in support of this level of learning include Engaging Challenging Conversations, Leading Through Conflict and Change, Redefining Your Relationship to Conflict.  The content of these seminars is built around the competencies identified above.
  • Professional Development for individuals and teams who are expected to build and sustain collaborative relationships.  Content focuses on proactively clarifying shared expectations regarding a groups, Purpose, individual and collective Roles and Responsibilities, Behavioral Norms, Internal Structures defining how we will get the work done, and External Connections as to how we will communicate with our constituents, stakeholders, and/or others doing work related to, or influenced by our workExamples include IEP/IFSP teams, cross-disciplinary teams, leadership teams, etc.  Offerings developed by Sound Options Group, LLC in support of this level of capacity building include Essentials of Effective Teaming, Leading Participative Meetings, The Elements of an Effective IEP Process.

Workplace/Organizational:  Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Professional Development for individual employees in support of the effective interpersonal engagement of conflict.  This would include those engaged directly in the work of the organization in addition to supervisors, administrators and those in senior leadership positions. Offerings developed by Sound Options Group, LLC in support of this include Engaging Challenging Conversations, Leading Through Conflict and Change, Redefining Your Relationship to Conflict, Leader as Coach, and a Leadership Series:  Supporting the Success of Others.
  • Professional Development for individuals and teams who are expected to build and sustain collaborative relationships. Content focuses on proactively clarifying shared expectations regarding the groups, Purpose, individual and collective Roles and Responsibilities, Behavioral Norms, Internal Structures defining how participants will get the work done, and External Connections as to how the group will communicate with constituents, stakeholders, and/or others doing work related to or influenced by this work. Examples include any kind of committee, team or task force, cross-disciplinary work teams, shared leadership teams (BLT’s), advisory groups, etc.


Tier 2 

As we move to Tier 2 resources we shift focus from the application of individual or localized capacity for effectively engaging conflict to the development and implementation of more systemic supports.  A shift in focus to Tier 2 resources indicates an increase and intensification in the level of support needed and provided.  Those experiencing the conflict have applied Tier 1 strategies and resources and remain stuck in the conflict.  Those providing Tier 2 support are more highly trained in a broader range of skills and strategies for analyzing the challenge and supporting other in more effective engagement.

In addition, resources, services, and strategies at this tier are developed and maintained at the system or organizational level and delivered by individuals and groups specifically trained to support others in the engagement of conflict in the context of working together.  In the program described in the introduction for offering alternatives to the traditional EEOC investigation process, one component was to train human resource professionals to become  “Conflict Resolution Specialists”.  In this capacity they developed expertise for supporting the engagement of conflict from four clearly defined roles.

In this model we propose developing teams of “Conflict Engagement Specialists” (per Dr. Bernard Mayer, 2009) in which individuals and teams are trained to work with others challenged by conflict, drawing from a repertoire of roles for supporting the work of others.  William Ury (2002), in his book, The Third Side:  Why We Fight and How We can Stop, describes ten potential functions of the “Third Side” or in our case “Conflict Engagement Specialist”.  Examples of the roles we initially propose include but are not limited to:

  • Facilitator/Mediator
  • Conflict Coach/Consultant
  • Professional Development resource/Teacher

Examples of Tier 2 competencies include all of those identified for Tier 1.  In addition they include but are not limited to:

  • Skills and strategies for serving as a “third party neutral” in supporting the work of others.  More often than not this falls within the context of facilitator.
  • Frameworks and models for analyzing and understanding conflict so as to assist others to engage effectively.  More often than not this is in support of conflict coach and/or consultant.
  • The ability to teach/mentor/coach individuals and groups to increase their capacity for working together effectively.

Let’s look at what these generic roles might look like contextualized within the two areas of our focus.  While the roles are similar in both function and the potential value they add to people’s ability to work together, they will look different depending on the context of application.

Special Education:

  • Facilitator/Mediator:  The IDEA (federal special education regulations) mandates that individual States make Mediation available at no cost to families and school districts.  In addition many states have chosen to add IEP Facilitation services at no cost to families and districts.  These services are most often administered through a State’s department of education.

In addition to this statewide resource, some larger districts or regional educational offices in more populated states have opted to bring this resource “closer to home” by developing more local capacity for these functions.  This capacity is often developed and organized at a district level in the case of larger districts or developed and delivered through a regional education office such as a Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA) in California or Educational Service District (ESD) in Oregon or Washington.  Example of this include:

  • Training teams of parents and/or educators to support the collaborative work of teams most often comprised of parents and educators.  In many cases this support is delivered in a co-facilitation model with the facilitation team comprised of a parent/family and an educator.
  • Regional education staff has been trained to provide Mediation as differentiated from less formal facilitation.  This is in addition to Mediation offered at a State level.
  • The contexts for delivering this support include IEP/IFSP meetings, Special Education Advisory Committees and/or Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), etc.
  • Conflict Coach/Consultant:  Conflict involving families and educational systems in the context of the IDEA has become increasingly complex and adversarial.  Too often administrators, staff, and/or families lack the requisite skills and experience for effectively engaging this conflict.  The author of this paper, having spent almost forty years working in the context of education, has found that educators in general tend to be somewhat, to very conflict averse.  Many certificate and graduate programs for educators moving into administration do not provide training in effective conflict management/engagement.  One impact of this has been the difficulty in retaining qualified staff to work in special education.

Districts, recognizing the challenge of leaders to effectively lead the engagement of conflict have looked to provide resources at a district and regional level to support these leaders in their work.  Examples of this work include and are not limited to:

  • Training district level Program Coordinators, Executive Directors, Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSA), to coach staff in the implementation of new initiatives and to manage the conflict that can be expected when mobilizing individuals and teams to initiate or support change.
  • A mid-sized suburban district in Washington State has been very intentional over a three-year period to train the central office special education leadership team to provide support to individual staff and teams to work together effectively.  This includes defining three general roles that serve to clarify the level of services requested/provided, professional development on skills and strategies for supporting others, learning models for analyzing barriers to individual and collective effectiveness, and strategies for engaging these barriers.
  • Professional Development resource/teacher:  One method of intervening in group conflict is to create individual and shared learning opportunities so as to provide shared language and models for engaging conflict.  This is all about building local capacity for engaging current and future conflicts.

A number of years ago we worked with a state system to build capacity in this context.  The state had a very large number of districts and no regional support system.  The model we designed and implemented included three components.

  1. Selected district staff participated in a two-day training, Engaging Challenging Conversation, designed to provide skills for initiating and facilitating challenging interpersonal conversation.  These participants developed both personal skills and skills for supporting the learning of others.
  2. Six modules, Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict:  Six Conversations in Support of Effective Collaboration, were designed for sharing this learning with people back in local districts.  Providing specific individuals with a structure for teaching these skills is an example of developing a Tier 2 capacity to teach Tier 1 skills to all staff.  The titles of the modules include:
  • Collaboration and Conflict
  • Starting with Self:  Preparation
  • Listening for Understanding
  • Sharing Your Perspective
  • Exploring Issues to Understand Interests
  • Solutions for Mutual Purpose
  1. A train-the-trainers session to prepare those having taken the initial two-day class to lead this learning in their district. This is in support of creating a Tier 2 capacity.

Families navigating the complexities of the IDEA also find themselves engaging a complex context in which there are rules and regulations and no simple answers to the questions and challenges they face.  Over the years the primary support in this context has been in the form of “parent advocates”.  Their function has been to support families as they engage the system and to advocate for what they believe to be the needs of their children.  Those serving in this role have often been parents of children with special needs themselves.  In some cases parent advocate serve under an organizational umbrella where they receive training and supervision while other serve as private practitioners providing this service.  While this is a needed resource, two concerns have grown over the years.

  1. The quality of services available to families is difficult to assess.  There are no qualifications for someone to serve in this capacity.
  2. The term “parent advocate” has too often come to describe someone who will create and/or maintain an adversarial relationship with a school or school district.  This is not to say that there are not positive examples of parent/family advocacy.

New approaches for supporting families as they engage the system are emerging.  These models have moved away from the label “advocate” and moved to a role of “parent navigator” or  “parent partner”.  In both cases the primary role of the navigator/partner is to assist new parents and/or other parents needing support to understand and engage the system effectively.  They are committed to helping parents of children with special needs to develop the capacity for effectively collaborating with others under the IDEA to design and deliver appropriate services for the child.  Examples include but are not limited to:

  • South Dakota has had a statewide cadre of “Navigators” who support families to engage the special education system.  These resource people are well trained, supervised, and supported and are committed to supporting families to partner effectively with school districts and other professional.
  • Oregon developed a statewide Parent Partner program with approximately 160 Parent Partners available across the state.  As their system evolved they trained Parent Partners to be available to support families in the IEP process, in the understanding and development of Transition Services, and to support families who might be participating in Mediation under the IDEA.
  • Groups in Washington have adopted the Oregon Parent Partner model with a significant variation being piloted by a large urban school district.  This district has identified parents regionally whose children are served by the district and has trained them to support other families within the district.  What is unique is that Parent Partners in this context are paid by the district for this service.  The question of perceived neutrality has come up and will be assessed as this model is evaluated.

Workplace/Organizational:  Variations of the examples identified above are being implemented in General Education and other types of organizations.  Examples include but are not limited to:

  • A large urban school district has recently committed to implementing a Tiered system as described in this paper.  Tier One has included offering to district administration two, 2-day seminars, Engaging Challenging Conversations, and Leading through Conflict and Change.  The purpose of this training is to increase administrators competence and

This year they are developing Tier 2 capacity by training two district level cohorts of staff available to support individuals and groups to effectively engage conflict.  One group is being organized out of the Human Resources Department and the Chief of         Schools and the Executive Directors who support building level leadership are organizing the second.  We are in the process of clarifying the range of functions and services to be provided.


Tier 3

As we move to define and understand the fundamental nature of this third context I have been challenged to reflect on two key dimensions of what may be necessary to support individuals and groups at this level of intervention.  Let me explain.

My initial focus was on the need to bring resolution to conflict when those experiencing and, in some cases, sustaining the conflict are unwilling to seek resolution.  Allowing the conflict to continue unchecked is unacceptable.  In some situations people’s rights under the law or a contract are being violated.  In other cases the behavior of those maintaining the conflict has become toxic to individuals and to the larger organization or community.  An external authority may be needed impose resolution of the conflict in contexts such as this and in service of individuals and organizations moving forward.

Resources, services and strategies available at this level are typically of a more intense nature and in the context of conflict engagement, may remove some of the power parties have in resolving their dispute.  This is however not always the case.  In addition these resources may:

  • Be made available in a contractual context,
  • Be made available as defined by Due Process,
  • Provided by an external entity with the authority to arbitrate or adjudicate the conflict, and/or
  • Be organized and delivered from outside the system (State Department of Education, Office of Administrative Hearings, etc)

For the purposes of this paper we will identify what we see as examples of Tier 3 responses to conflict without going into procedural detail.

Special Education:

  • Mediation:  Provided and administered by the State.  Parties retain control of outcome
  • IEP Facilitation:  Provided and administered by the State.  Parties retain control of outcome.
  • Citizen’s Complaint:  Investigation of complaint by State.  Parties do not control outcome.
  • Resolution Session:  Offered in the context of Due Process Hearing Request.  Parties retain control of the outcome.
  • Due Process Hearing:  Administered through the Office of Administrating Hearings.  Parties do not control outcome
  • Civil Litigation:  Parties do not control outcome


  • Mediation:  Provided through access to a local shared neutrals program or contracted privately.  Parties retain control of the outcome.
  • Settlement Conference:  Advisory in nature
  • Early Neutral Evaluation:  Advisory in nature
  • Grievance:  Outcome typically binding on the parties
  • Hearing:  Internal Hearing Officer hears case and renders decision
  • EEOC: Discrimination, lengthy investigation
  • Imposed Outcome:  Leadership steps in and takes action to eliminate conflict.

The second dimension of Tier 3 work that I have been invited to consider and acknowledge is revealed in the work of Dr. Bernie Mayer, referenced earlier in this paper where he posits the notion of “Enduring Conflict”.  Enduring Conflict is differentiated from his other five faces of conflict in that conflict of this nature is fundamentally not resolvable. According to Mayer, Enduring Conflict is:

  • Deeply rooted
  • Identity based
  • Value driven
  • Embedded in structure
  • Systemic and complex
  • Rooted in distrust (reactive devaluation)
  • Involve fundamental issues of power

He goes on to describe the challenge that conflict of this nature presents to individuals and groups:

  • No Comprehensive Solution Will Solve the Problem but the problem must be addressed
  • Struggle over time of many people with different perspectives is necessary, cooperation is essential
  • Decisions must be made in condition of profound uncertainty
  • Need to live with ambiguity but find the energy that derives from clarity (move beyond despair, rage, false confidence, and bravado and develop a willingness and capacity to live over time with uncertainty)

When working in the context of Enduring Conflict our expectations must be adjusted.  We are not going to fix or resolve the conflict.  We don’t necessarily want to just manage it.  Our goal is to engage it and ultimately, using the words of Mayer, learn to be with it in a healthy way.  In his words this requires individuals and groups to develop the capacity to be with:

  • Anxiety
  • Moral ambiguity
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Identity confusion
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Intellectual uncertainty

Addressing this notion in the Tier 3 context recognizes the need to shift cultures fundamental beliefs about, and relationship to, conflict.  This moves the conversation potentially into a larger context than originally proposed for this paper.  And yet it identifies what the author believes is an ultimate purpose of a multi-tiered system.  When we are able to engage conflict in a healthy and productive way we build trust and social capital that is essential to our ability to work together over time to address high stake, complex and crucial challenges.

Final Thoughts:  This is a first attempt at describing this model in a comprehensive way.  Ultimately it is not a single model but a framework around which can be built a comprehensive system for supporting effective conflict engagement and responsive to the cultural context in which the system is embedded.



Batsche, G., Elliott, J., Graden, J. L., Grimes, J., Kovaleski, J. F., Prasse, D., … & Tilly III, W. D.

(2005). Response to intervention: Policy considerations and implementation.            Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by    the next stage in human consciousness. Nelson Parker.

Mayer, B. (2009). Staying with conflict: A strategic approach to ongoing disputes. John        Wiley & Sons.

Ury, W. (2000). The third side: Why we fight and how we can stop (pp. 4-17). New York: Penguin books.

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