While working on a series of border conflicts in Ecuador I came up with the "three rules of conflict and conflict resolution." Yes, I know that conflict is too complex to be reduced to three rules. Nonetheless, these keep coming up, so I thought I'd share (explanations to follow):
1. The conflict is never about what the conflict is about.
2. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms.
3. The process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same.
Okay, what am I talking about?
1. Conflicts tend to be about an issue, defined by the different positions of the conflicting parties. This is an objective understanding of conflict, and it is tempting to try to resolve things at this level through logic, negotiation and legal precedence. This is the level of conflict at which the legal system operates. Actually, this it the level that most people try to operate. The catch is that this approach rarely leads to a satisfactory solution. Usually it leads to someone having an "irrational" response, another feeling resentful about the outcome or a total collapse of the process and dissolution of the relationships. This is, because the conflict is never about what the conflict is about.
By focusing on the objective issues we miss the fact that conflict is an emotional experience. The fact that conflict can be a source of great intensity is a reflection of how it touches deep chords in our hearts. This means that discovering the underlying source of a conflict requires great vulnerability. In Mediating Dangerously Kenneth Cloke says, "Every honest communication poses a risk that something will challenge or change us." (p. 4) As we look at the sources of conflict we can't help but encounter what is most intimate in ourselves and in one another. If we ignore the tender and wounded subjective aspects of conflict by focusing on the objective positions and issues we will never be able to find peace or resolution. If we are able to face these vulnerable and profound places with safety and respect we may be able find connection and intimacy like we have never known.
2. Given that conflict arises from our deepest and most intimate selves, it is not something that we can easily let go of. This means that we can't resolve a conflict by getting rid of or ignoring the people that we are in conflict with. These are common strategies with many variations and they never work, at least not in the long run. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms. The reason is that once a person, community or culture is living the deep emotional wound that arose from a conflict situation, they can't let it go and move on. The only way to resolve it is by bringing them close, addressing the underlying needs and finding ways to heal the aspects of the relationship/system that spawned the conflict in the first place.
Sometimes it doesn't seem convenient, comfortable or even possible to engage with the folk we are in conflict with, so it is tempting to opt for oppression, suppression, rejection or neglect to create a temporary sort of "peace." But this can only be temporary. When an individual or a group feels like their needs have not been acknowledged they will find a new way to express their interests, usually in a way that is more disruptive. If ignored again, the common strategy is to continue escalating. One quickly (or slowly) finds themselves is a conflict system that feeds on itself until someone in the conflict finds the courage or maturity to break the cycle, which becomes harder and harder. In short, the costs of engaging directly early on is far easier than trying to avoid or get rid of the problem.
3. So, how do we engage with people in conflict? Well, we have engage with them in the same way that we want to be with them out of conflict. This is because the process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same. The moment we decide to engage directly with a conflict and transform the root causes, the solution is already being formed. If the process is inclusive from the beginning, the outcome will be inclusive. If the process is rational and evidence-based from the beginning, the outcome will be rational and evidence-based. If the process is honors diversity from the beginning, the outcome will be one that honors diversity. If the process is focuses on sustainability from the beginning, the outcome will be sustainable. Whatmore, if the process is exclusive of certain groups from the beginning, the outcome will be exclusive of certain groups. If the process is violent from the beginning, the outcome will be violent. This pattern is true for all variations.
So, we need to consider this as we design our processes. There is an opportunity here for us to dream about the future we want, beyond our current conflicts. The way we do things now sets the stage for what comes next. How do we want our life and relationships to be in the future?
Furthermore, given that conflict is an inevitable side effect of diversity, if we are able to improve the outcomes of our current conflicts by facing them with integrity now, we will have a much better base for the conflicts of the future. We can always be more inclusive of our inner worlds and of each other. In other words, we can keep getting better at this.