A Breakthrough Approach

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An interview with Dr. Mark Lee Robinson about the applications of Creative Conflict Resolution to large scale conflict.

What makes your approach to conflict resolution a breakthrough?

I am not entirely comfortable with that term "breakthrough," but it is true that the perspective I bring to this field does allow experts--people who have wrestled professionally with the problems of conflict resolution--to shift to a point of view which they find to be significantly more accessible to creative invention. Some aspects of the shift are complicated but there are two that are central and straightforward. One has to do with what we mean by conflict and the other has to do with what we mean by resolution.

You have changed the definition of those terms?

Not so much the definition as the focus. We normally think of conflict as something which arises when parties that have opposing interests invoke strategies designed to dominate each other. For example, we may have a problem when someone in the office is not reloading paper into the copier when it runs out, but we decide not to say anything to him because we "don't want to start a conflict." Or we know there were deep hostilities between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda stemming from the colonial era, but we speak of the conflict starting in 1994 when Hutus began "cutting down the tall trees."

Are you suggesting that the conflict started before the violence?

Exactly, and, while that seems simple, the implications of that shift in focus are huge. On the one hand we have the conditions in which tension between the parties arises, and on the other hand we have the choices each party makes in addressing the tension. Any observer of conflict is looking at both the conditions and the choices, but something important happens when we use the term conflict to refer to the conditions and speak of the choices we make as  strategies or tactics for addressing the conflict. Conflict is not the choice but the conditions which evoked the choice.

Those conditions are not going to be managed away. They cannot be prevented. When we look at the conditions as the conflict it becomes absurd to speak of "conflict management" or "conflict prevention." We can manage a fight or we can prevent war, but we will not substantially and durably resolve the conflict unless we address the conditions out of which the fight arises.

If conflict refers to the conditions which existed before the fighting starts, what does it mean to resolve a conflict?

At its simplest, a conflict is the condition in which the other is not as I want the other to be. As a result, what seems to be the desired outcome is for the other to change to be as I want the other to be. We therefore tend to look for ways to resolve the conflict by getting the other to change. Almost without exception, resolution is conceived of as happening when we have seen a desired change in the other. As a member of the office community, the conflict will be  resolved when I can get my office mate to reload the copier when he runs it out of paper. As a Hutu, the conflict may be resolved for me when the Tutsis no longer control the best land for coffee production and treat me fairly in dealings with the bank.

The only way to resolve a conflict is to get others to act in ways they see as contrary to their own interests?

Right! That doesn't seem very likely, does it? The bind is a consequence of this common way of thinking about resolution. It leads some really smart people to conclude that there are some conflicts which just can't be resolved. But let's adjust the focus a bit. Since we can't make others change, what if we focus instead on getting ourselves to change? What if resolution is when we work to create what we need without depending on or expecting that others will change? Two things happen when we make this shift. One is that it really matters who we think of as "us" and "them." The second is that it becomes crucial to figure out what "we need" as distinct from what "we want them to do." We have to become very clear about the qualities we are seeking to create.

We have to figure out what we need and then act together to create it.

Yes, and when we do that we discover how immensely powerful it is to act together to construct our common needs. When we act together to create the qualities we all need we are far more creative and effective than when we act alone. We have far greater positive impact than when we are trying to change others.

Iran's development of nuclear weapons makes us unsafe and it destabilizes relationships in the Middle East. When all of those nations who see Iran's actions as dangerous agree on the threat and act in concert to isolate Iran, we create greater safety by the fact we are acting together whether or not Iran persists in its activities.

But what if Iran does persist? Don't we have an obligation to try to stop them?

We have an obligation to create greater security for all...but that "all" includes Iran. If we are trying to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions (which is trying to get them to change) we may decide we will threaten them with sanctions or even military force if they don't do what we want. This will create a sense of fear in them and provoke a response of defiance. That won't get them to give up their pursuit of stronger weapons. On the contrary, it will justify their conviction that they need them.

Look at how well our stance with Saddam Hussein worked in 2002. We believed he had WMD's and he wanted us to believe he did. All he had to do was show us that he didn't. But we were so threatening to him that he couldn't. It meant he had to call our bluff and we had to call his. So we destroyed a country to make ourselves safe from an imagined threat. This is the logic of an approach to conflict which requires us to try to make others change.

If we work together with other nations who are similarly alarmed at the saber rattling of Iran and respond in a fashion which creates greater security, not only for Israel but for the people of Iran, then we take away the reason for militarization. We work with others to create what we all need. This doesn't mean that those in Iran who have the power to militarize will decide they don't have to. We can't control them.

When Iran is our "enemy," we won't do what helps Iran even when it helps us. We will "cut off our nose to spite our face." But showing that we are committed to the security of the Iranian people will strengthen the hand of those cooler heads who understand that the resources going to arms can instead go to development which actually benefits the Iranian people.

It is clear that what we are doing is not as effective as we would like. And it is also clear that we can't make others change. So how does this all fit together?

When the conditions of our relationships with others are such that we find ourselves having what seem to be competing interests, we can decide what we will do to address this tension. When we choose to do something which tries to change them--seeks to dominate and control them--we are committed to a strategy which creates the opposite of what we actually need. When we instead work with them to discover what we both need and work to create what serves all of us we actually build a stronger safer world. Addressing conflict can be marvelously creative.

When conflict means "fight," we don't see the creative potential. Then conflict is just a problem to be managed or prevented. But when conflict is an opportunity we discover the very tension which seemed dangerous and paralyzing can actually be powerfully transformative.

Nothing Israelis do which harms Palestinians will create stability and peace. Nothing Palestinians do which harms Israelis will benefit Palestinians. It is only when Israelis and Palestinians work together to meet their mutual needs that they will get what they need. Their interests are tied together. When each refrains from any action that is harmful to the other, and when both act together to meet shared needs--whatever the need may be--they are creating a more durable and stable relationship and the context for peace.

Everyone benefits. This is not a zero sum game. When we create what we genuinely need, we create what everyone needs. We can use the context of conflict to create justice.

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