Where does this concern for conflict come from?
Working with men who have been clearly abusive to those they say they love the most, it became clear to me that they were very afraid of addressing conflict in their most significant relationships. I observed how their avoidance of conflict caused more frequent and intense conflicts. It became clear that the intensity of conflict for all of us is heightened by trying to avoid addressing conflict.
So are you suggesting that everyone is in conflict?
Yes, exactly. We are all experiencing conflicts all the time. We often don't name the issues as conflicts. We may not call them conflicts unless we don't know how to address them. But a conflict is essentially whenever another isn't who we want them to be or we are not as they want us to be. How often does that happen?
Doesn't your notion of conflict begin to feel a bit overwhelming?
It can. Especially if we believe we can't resolve the conflicts which arise for us. But we resolve conflicts all the time. We are actually pretty good at resolving the familiar conflicts. We have learned what to do to create what we need.
So what do you mean by "resolution?"
Well, that can be complicated. In general a conflict is resolved when we have been able to act in ways that create what we need without it being at the expense of another. In practice it can be very difficult to know what we need. We tend to jump to a tactic rather than figuring out what the qualities are that are missing and working towards creating them. But as I said, we all resolve conflicts all the time. Conflict resolution is what we do whenever we solve a problem--whenever we create something. Any act of creativity is a resolution of a conflict.
I think there are a lot of folks who have addressed conflict and didn't find it to be all that creative.
Not everything we do to address a conflict is going to resolve it. For most of us, though, the problem is not that what we do doesn't work, it is that we decide the conflict can't be resolved so we just back away and try to ignore it. What we have been doing hasn't worked so we give ourselves permission to quit by saying it can't be resolved.
Well, aren't there some conflicts which just can't be resolved?
No, every conflict can be resolved. Maybe not fully resolved right away, but there are always things we can do that will move us toward what we need. We don't know that we can resolve it because we have already tried all of the things we can think of to do which we believe will be helpful and they haven't worked. We have even tried things that make the problem worse. Frequently the very things we try to do to solve the problem create the problem. We are thinking about the problem in a way that guides us to act such that we create the problem.
How can the way we think about a problem create the problem?
When things aren't as we want them to be, we construct a way of understanding the problem that will guide how we will address it. But all maps are partial. They highlight some information and ignore other information. When we use a way of understanding that leaves out important aspects, we then make choices which don't respond to the whole situation.
For example, we often think that the way to get a conflict resolved is to get others to change. Most of us know we can't change others, but this information doesn't stop us from trying. When we are trying to get others to quit what they are doing, we put them in a really powerful position. All they have to do is to keep doing what they are doing and we will lose. We set ourselves up.
If we can't get others to change, how can we resolve a conflict?
The good news is that all we have to do is to change ourselves. Of course, as anyone who has ever made a New Years Resolution knows, that can be plenty hard to do. But at least it is possible. All we have to do--and I fully understand that this is difficult--is to know what we need (as opposed to what we want), and to know what we can do that will create those qualities, and then consistently get ourselves to behave that way. We can, on our own, create many of the qualities we need, and we can create relationships with others in which we work together to create what we all need.
This sounds like an awful lot of work. Is it really worth it?
It is an awful lot of work. It is the hardest work any of us ever does. But it is also the most satisfying work we can do. It is the work of identifying what we need and then creating it and creating relationship with others in which we work together to create what we all need.
As it turns out, life is not a zero sum game. When you create what you need you don't take anything away from others. When you create what you need you are also creating what everyone around you needs. This is the most satisfying work of all.
The publicity team for the release of the book Just Conflict is preparing for a large campaign to begin next Tuesday. As it happens, that is Groundhog Day. While the timing was not coordinated with this odd holiday by design, it has a kind of synchronicity which connects with the 1993 film by Harold Ramis starring Bill Murray.
In the film "Groundhog Day" Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman for a Pittsburg TV station, who once again is on assignment in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the February 2 festivities. He is not pleased. Indeed, very little seems to please Connors. He is a smart and funny but shallow and narcissistic loner who manages to alienate everyone he relates to.
Without explanation Connors has predicted that a big snow storm heading across the mid-west will miss mid-Pennsylvania. He is wrong. The blizzard hits and strands him and his team in Punxsutawney for a second day. Except it is the same day. He wakes up on what ought to be February 3, but it is Groundhog Day all over again. At least it is for Connors. For everyone else it is the first time they have had this day.
What might it mean for women and men to have deeply intimate and just relationships when, for so much of human history, relationships between men and women have been shaped by dominance, gender inequality, and violence?
This question arose for me out of thirty years of work in the domestic violence intervention community starting with my role as a volunteer on the staff of one of the first programs in the country to do intervention with men who batter. This program is RAVEN in St. Louis. I was the coordinator of counseling services there for over eight years in the 1980's.
I have read and reread President Obama's lecture to the Nobel Prize committee and distinguished guests upon his award of the Peace Prize. I find it to be a powerful and important statement, not just of American foreign policy under this President, but of how we as humans might learn to address and resolve conflicts.
I have been working on an essay about the principles of nonviolence Martin Luther King used in his efforts on behalf of civil rights in America so I was especially sensitive to Obama's references. To have a President, especially one who is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, cite King (and Gandhi) as models to follow and to do so in a way that is coherent and carefully considered illuminates the reasons Obama got the award. That he received it saying so many things that so many of his liberal supporters find disagreeable makes it only more remarkable.
I myself didn't agree with everything he had to say. But my disagreement has mostly to do with his use of the term nonviolence in ways that, while consistent with popular usage, limits the meaning to "a set of tactics appropriate to actions taken by oppressed persons addressing grievances against an authority which is morally sensitive." If we limit the term in that way then he is right, it wouldn't have worked against the Nazis and it won't work with al Qaeda.
But if we are looking not so much at the tactics as at the philosophy that undergirds it, and think more creatively about how conflicts can be resolved, then we discover some important principles that unite Nonviolence and the Obama Doctrine. Among them:
- We are all connected in a great web of care and concern. What affects one of us affects all of us.
- Passivity or patience in the face of oppression is not only an abandonment of our moral responsibility but is also an invitation to greater violence.
- The road to peace is through a process of relationship building with those with whom we disagree.
- Justice is not simply about the rule of law but is also about the equitable distribution of rights and resources, but such equity is not possible without the rule of law.
- We cannot allow the fact that others abandon righteous behavior to allow us to depart from the values we hold.
These are all examples of the kinds of principles which I hope to celebrate and promote through the promulgation of Creative Conflict Resolution and through Just Conflict. I welcome your comments.