Conflict can be most simply defined as disagreement between people. To expand on this a little more, “Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals.”(1) While it naturally occurs due to our interaction with others and as a result of our human subjectivity, what is important is how we deal with the conflict that arises.
There have been a number of approaches to conflict, three of which are Conflict Management, Conflict Resolution and Conflict Transformation. Conflict Management is generally discussed with regard to intractable conflicts, and has to do with the way people handle, or manage wrongs done to them. Conflict Management refers to a process that will be undertaken for an indefinite period of time (and may not result in a resolution), and is primarily concerned with containing and limiting the conflict. Conflict Resolution, on the other hand, refers to resolving a conflict in such a way that both parties are satisfied, encouraging them to move from a zero-sum mentality to a win-win situation. It includes a number of methods for improving a situation of conflict, or removing conflict altogether. Under the umbrella of Conflict Resolution, we find negotiation, mediation and diplomacy as Conflict Resolution is often dependent on outside parties coming in to aid in the resolution process. Finally, Conflict Transformation attempts to change the positions and perceptions of the disagreeing parties while improving their communication, dealing with the reasons for the conflict, and ultimately, transforming conflict peacefully. As one expert put it:
Contemporary conflicts require more than the reframing of positions and the identification of win-win outcomes. The very structure of parties and relationships may be embedded in a pattern of conflictual relationships that extend beyond the particular site of conflict. Conflict Transformation is therefore a process of engaging with and transforming the relationships, interests, discourses and, if necessary, the very constitution of society that supports the continuation of violent conflict. (2)
There are a number of responses one can have in Conflict Management. Some people react to conflict violently, with war, terrorism, genocide, etc. There are also non-violent methods of dealing with conflict, which are more common in our daily lives. The five main approaches that we will discuss here are Competing, Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising, and Collaborating. We are all able to use any of the five approaches, and we all employ a variety of ways to deal with conflict. However, different people tend to use some of the approaches much more than they use others. Sometimes this is a result of a person’s character, or simply a person’s habit.
The competing approach can be summed up in the statement: “Do it my way or not at all.” Some strategies adopted in this approach are to compete, control, outwit, coerce and fight the other person to achieve your goals. They are impatient with dialogue and information gathering. The qualities of competitors are authoritarian, and threatened by disagreement; they attempt to maintain the status quo, and react in times of crisis. The competitor has a high concern for his/her personal goals and a very low concern for the relationship with the other person.
The avoiding approach can be summed up in the statement: “Conflict? What conflict?” The avoider employs strategies of fleeing, denying, ignoring, withdrawing, delaying, and wishing only to hope and pray. Avoiders prefer to be with other people who will avoid issues as well. They refuse to dialogue or gather information to help deal with conflict. Some characteristics of avoiders include passiveness, timidity, the inclination to moralize, and an aim to weather the storm; they find discussions and group life intrusive, and they are a bit chaotic and unfocused. People who avoid conflict and Conflict Management have a lose-lose outcome, as the avoider has both a low concern for his or her relationship with the other person, and low personal goals as well. People who engage in this behavior do not know how to resolve conflict or continue in meaningful relationships after conflict occurs.
The accommodating approach can be summed up in the statement: “Whatever you say.” The accommodator uses strategies to agree, appease, or flatter the other person, and prefers to be in conflict with others who force their opinions so the accommodator only has to yield in order to manage the conflict. Like the avoider, the accommodator refuses to dialogue or gather information. The characteristics of an accommodator can be summed up by their ineffectiveness in groups, and their indecisive behavior/attitude; they are easily swayed, need to please everyone, and allow discussions to drift. Accommodators tend to have low personal goals and a high concern for their relationship with the person they are in conflict with.
The compromising approach can be summarized with the phrase: “I’ll back off if you do the same.” The compromiser uses strategies such as bargaining, reducing expectations, dividing desired achievements so everyone gets something, and splitting the difference. Compromisers prefer to work with people who compromise or accommodate. The compromiser tolerates the exchange of views, although s/he finds this uncomfortable. Some characteristics of the compromiser are cautious but open, and s/he urges others not to be too open or outspoken. The compromiser has found a mid-way balance between concern for the relationship and meeting personal goals. The compromiser expects to win some arguments and lose others.
The final approach is the collaborating approach. This can be summarized in the statement: “My preference is . . . What’s your choice?” The collaborator uses strategies such as gathering information, looking for alternatives, dialoguing openly, and also welcoming disagreements. Collaborators prefer to work with people who collaborate or compromise. They tend to focus on information gathering, and their characteristics generally include processing, dialoguing, being energized by controversy, and being open to change and growth. Collaborators have a high concern for both personal goals and for relationships, and hope to result in a win – win situation.(3)
When to Use Which Approach
The competing approach is often appropriate when an emergency looms, when you are sure you are right and being right is more important than preserving relationships, or the issue is trivial and others do not really care what happens. This approach is inappropriate when collaboration has not yet been attempted, cooperation with others is important, it is used routinely for most issues, or when the self-respect of others is needlessly diminished.
The avoiding approach is often appropriate when the issue is trivial, the relationship is insignificant, time is short and a decision is not necessary, and you have little power but still wish to block the other person. The avoiding approach is inappropriate when you care about the relationship and the issues involved, when avoidance is used habitually for most issues, when negative feelings may linger, and when others would benefit from caring confrontation.
The accommodating approach is best to use when you encounter an issue you do not really care about, you are powerless but have no wish to prevent the other person from achieving their goals, or you realize you are wrong. This approach is inappropriate when you are likely to harbor resentment as a result, and you use this habitually in order to gain acceptance (which will result in depression or a lack of self-respect).
This approach is best used when cooperation is important but the time or resources are limited, when faced with a stalemate and the only way to overcome it is to settle for a less than ideal solution, and when efforts to collaborate will be misunderstood as forcing. This approach is least appropriate when finding the most creative solutions possible is essential, or when you cannot live with the consequences.
Collaborating works best when the issues and relationship are both significant, cooperation is important, a creative end is important, and reasonable hope exists to address all the concerns. This approach is often inappropriate when time is short, the issues are important, you are overloaded, and the goals of the other person are wrong.
As previously stated, Conflict Resolution encompasses negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy. Diplomacy generally refers to international diplomacy in which experts in the field try and find a solution to a conflict that will be acceptable to both parties or countries on matters of economics, war, peace, etc. Mediation is necessary when two or more parties, states, or individuals have a dispute about a certain topic, and employ impartial, professional mediators to try and improve communication and dialogue between the parties to come to an agreement. Negotiation is a form of dialogue used to resolve a conflict in which advantages and disadvantages are discussed to try and come to agreement, and persuade the other party to agree with you on the best possible outcome for your party, or both parties. Conflict Resolution can vary across cultures as the presence of a third party professional or third party trusted individual can be outside professionals, or inner religious or community leaders. (4) Conflict Resolution approaches such as negotiation, mediation and diplomacy are best used when a quick solution is needed and there is no significant relationship between the conflicting parties.
Oftentimes, professional negotiators are brought in to resolve conflicts between larger parties, but some of the positions they take or methods they use can be useful in interpersonal and intergroup Conflict Resolution which you can encounter in your daily lives or through your experiences with Musalaha.
Conflict Transformation seeks to exceed the goals of Conflict Management and Conflict Resolution, moving beyond the problems and toward a healthy development of relationships between individuals and communities. To begin, look at the chart provided to see some of the differences between Conflict Resolution and Conflict Transformation. (7)
Principles of Conflict Transformation
There are a number of principles of Conflict Transformation. To Envision and Respond: In the midst of conflict, people are always hurt. In intractable conflicts, the hurt is very deep and oftentimes generational. “The key to transformation is the capacity to envision conflict as having the potential for constructive change.” (8) As the result of what we envision, we can then, in turn, respond appropriately to the conflict.
Ebb and Flow: As conflict is a natural and normal part of life, Conflict Transformation does not seek to look at the individual occurrences of conflict, but rather at the pattern of conflict that is occurring in relationships.
Life-Giving Opportunities: Conflict Transformation encourages us not to view conflict as a threat, but rather as an opportunity for growth and learning more about ourselves and others. Scholars in the subject also suggest that without conflict, life would be monotonous and that “conflict creates life and keeps everything moving.” (9) Conflict keeps us aware of our and other’s needs.
Constructive Change Processes: Engaging in conflict generates a lot of energy, and more often than not, negative energy. Conflict Transformation wishes to take that energy and transform it from being destructive to being constructive. The point is to generate creative, constructive processes that can “simultaneously address surface issues and change underlying social structures and relationship patterns.” (10)
Reduce Violence and Increase Justice: Conflict Transformation seeks to deal with the two complex issues of violence and justice. In order to reduce violence, the causes and patterns behind the violence must be addressed. To increase justice, “people [need to] have access to political procedures and voice in the decisions that affect their lives.” (11) The subject of peace is often found between the subjects of violence and justice. Conflict Transformation sees peace as “centered and rooted in the quality of relationships.” (12) Peace is seen not as a goal, but as a process or structure, something that is ongoing and continually developing, and a framework within which nonviolent approaches to conflict can be addressed through increasing understanding, maintaining equality, and respect in the context of relationship.
Direct Interaction and Social Structures: Direct interaction through dialogue is necessary at interpersonal, intergroup and social-structural levels in order to bring about change processes. Through dialogue, social structures can be “modified to be more responsive and just.” (13)
Human Relationships: As emphasized in some of the previous principles, relationships are the key to Conflict Transformation. Issues in conflict are of great importance, but relationships provide the context of the conflict. Working for transformation within the context of relationship as opposed to simply discussing the content of the dispute will aid in moving from resolution to transformation which will be sustained much longer than resolution itself.
Changing the Way We Look at Conflict
With the principles of Conflict Transformation in mind, we can continue and explore some strategies for transforming conflict.
Develop a Capacity to See Presenting Issues as a Window
When faced with a conflict, we need to see the situation before us without viewing the problems as impossible, and avoid looking for a quick solution. Instead of viewing the conflict as an obstacle, learn to see the conflict as a window. When you look at a window, instead of focusing on the glass or the window frame, you focus on what is through or beyond the window. We need to apply this same principle to conflict, and learn to look through it, seeing the context of relationships and causes that have created the conflict, and then look beyond it.
Develop a Capacity to Integrate Multiple Time Frames
As we develop our abilities to see conflict as a window we look through and beyond, we also need to learn how to develop both short-term and long-term perspectives for the issues at hand. Short-term responses to address immediate and urgent issues need to be combined with long-term plans for sustainable change. We also need to allow for flexibility as certain processes and perspectives that worked well in one situation will not always work well in every situation.
Develop a Capacity to Pose the Energies of Conflict as Dilemma
Oftentimes in intractable conflicts, there are no easy answers or solutions. Sometimes making a positive difference in a certain situation will mean allowing for some negative outcome to occur. For example, Israelis may think they want to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but they know that sending in medicine and materials to rebuild infrastructure might be taken over by a hostile Islamic party that will use the resources to strengthen themselves for the next fight with Israel. For Palestinians, they might think they want to return to negotiations with Israel, but they know that Israel will continue its “natural growth” and other settlement expansion at the same time, so returning to the peace process might include simultaneous undermining of the peace process. Or to apply this to a conflict unrelated to ours, people who worked in aid organizations in Somalia in the 1990s “struggled with choices about where to put [their] energies and responses when none of the apparent options seemed adequate. Should [they] send food and relief aid even though [they] knew armed groups will take advantage of it to continue the war, or should [they] not send food but then feel helpless about the enormous humanitarian plight?” (14)
Generally, people think of conflicts as dilemmas in an either/or frame of reference. Instead, we need to change our frame of reference to a both/and point of reference, thus allowing ourselves to deal with complex situations which are full of inner contradictions. Instead of choosing between one goal or another (either/or frame of reference) we need to view dilemmas as having interdependent goals. The question we need to learn to ask is: “How can we address ‘A’ and at the same time build ‘B’?” (15) To apply this principle to the Somalian example above, the question would be “How can we build capacities for peace in this setting and at the same time create responsive mechanisms for the delivery of humanitarian aid?” (16) The point of re-framing the question in this way is to change our approach, identify our goals more clearly, allow us to recognize the different parts of complicated situations, and develop integrative responses.
Develop a Capacity to Make Complexity a Friend, Not a Foe
Intractable conflicts are incredibly complex, which can cause a lot of frustration for those who are trying to offer constructive solutions and goals to move beyond the conflict. In order to deal with this, we need to learn how to view complexity as a friend, not a foe. Complexity often has a great capacity for building and moving toward change, and allows for many approaches in getting there. In order to take advantage of complexity and use it to our advantage, we need to:
a. trust that the present situation has options for change
b. work toward the options that have the greatest capacity for constructive change, and
c. allow for flexibility instead of holding too tightly to one idea or approach.
Develop a Capacity to Hear and Engage the Voice of Identity and Relationship
This section has mentioned underlying patterns that fuel conflict. As we begin to identify patterns in the conflict, we will realize that two “root causes” in social conflict are identity and relationship, or the lack thereof.
Scholars say that identity “shapes and moves the expression of conflict.” (17) As discussed in the previous chapter on identity, identity is fluid and we are constantly defining and redefining ourselves as we grow and change and interact with others. Identity is also part of our narratives, our stories of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Identity is relational and built within the context of positive and negative relationships.
In order to hear and engage about identity and relationship, we must create safe spaces for people to open up, express themselves, and discuss issues of identity. Discussion of identity is and should be an ongoing process necessary to relationship building. It is essential that people feel that their identity is heard and respected, and as a result, relationships will deepen and grow. (18) Leave responsibility for the outcome with the parties, as the process is as important as the outcome. (19)
All three of these methods of dealing with conflict play a role in the process of reconciliation. Conflict Management has its place, particularly when a divisive issue arises in a group setting. For example, if some Israeli participants make a statement that is offensive to Palestinian participants, we encourage honesty and vulnerability to open up and share what was offensive and encourage the other side to listen, hear, and understand. We place a high emphasis on the importance of relationships in the journey of reconciliation, so we encourage participants to compromise, accommodate, or collaborate in an instance such as this. Even if there is disagreement, we encourage understanding (accommodating), dialogue to come to a mutually acceptable agreement (compromise), or working together to find a better way of looking at the situation in which both sides emerge with more satisfaction and care.
Sometimes in the context of Musalaha meetings, we discuss issues that we disagree very strongly on, and at times this results in arguments. Generally in this situation we encourage Conflict Resolution techniques, such as negotiation. We have group facilitators present to remind the group to adopt a problem-solving attitude rather than an adversarial approach. We encourage both sides to see themselves as being “in-this-together,” viewing each other as partners instead of opponents, etc. Even if we do not come to an agreement on the issue, we can often come to some sort of resolution in which we value our relationships and respect one another.
Much of what we try to do in reconciliation dovetails nicely with Conflict Transformation. The principles discussed come up at various points in this curriculum, and throughout the journey of reconciliation. These include principles and issues of reframing the way we look at a situation, how we discuss identity and narrative, or view conflict itself. Relationships are primary in Conflict Transformation, as is the process and journey that we undertake together. These are integral parts of what we constantly emphasize in our efforts toward reconciliation.
Copyright Musalaha 2014 ©
Augsburger, David. Conflict Mediation Across Cultures. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster /John Knox Press, 1992.
Hocker, Joyce and William Wilmot. Interpersonal Conflict, Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985, Second edition.
Lederach, John Paul. “Conflict Transformation.” BeyondIntractability.Org, October 2003. Accessed April 9, 2011. http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/transformation/?nid=1223.
Miall, Hugh. “Conflict Transformation: A Multi-Dimensional Task.” Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management. Berlin, 2004. Accessed April 9, 2011. http://www.berghof- handbook.net/uploads/download/miall_handbook.pdf.
Class Notes, “Intermediary Roles and Mediation” at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisburg, VA. May 2001.