Discussion 2: Fostering Constructive Approaches to Difficult Conflicts

What can we do to foster a more constructive approach for addressing difficult and intractable conflicts?

This is, in some sense, the topic of the entire BMI-MOOS, so we are kind of jumping the gun to ask it now.  But it goes hand-in-hand with the previous question.  If we do get people--either conflict scholars and practitioners or the general public --to take the conflict problem more seriously, what do they do next?  

  1. Adressing conflict professionals: How can we get our field to be taken more seriously and to really get a meaningful voice in policy processes and decisions?
  2. If we do get that "voice," what can we say that would be most effective?
  3. What are the channels through which we can gain the most attention and traction?
  4. How can we spread our conflict attitudes and knowledge more widely through the general population?
  5. What advice do we have for the general public that might really be taken seriously?  (We must do better than advise to "love thyne enemy" or the like because people simply don't.  Even the left--which generally preaches tolerance and acceptance -- of all the races, relgions, lifestyles, etc, isn't very tolerant of folks on the right--who don't accept the level of tolerance that the left believes is right. So we have to get more sophisticated than that--at least that's Guy and Heidi's assertion!) What's yours?

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A Few Things Here

1) Conflict really isn't about conventional left-versus-right politics.  It's something that people encounter in their regular lives whether in their households, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, businesses, clubs, churches, or other gatherings.  If anything, many people look to politics as a way to address conflict within these arenas.  Sometimes, they look at it to manipulate others to get more than they deserve.  Other times, they look at politics to uphold principles so they don't get less than they deserve.

2) It's important to understand the difference between appearing to not take conflict seriously and actually not taking conflict seriously.  Conflict resolution is a process unto itself that involves communicative negotiations.  It starts with people jockeying for position in how much responsibility they have to bear when revealing their intentions clearly.  If you come out of the gate seriously, then it suggests that you're willing to bear more responsibility that you need to.

This is why, for example, lawyers build their careers by socializing in the jurisdictions they practice within.  Their real objective is to become familiar with people's nuanced communicative styles such that they can use those styles while in the courtroom in the course of debating duty of care.  It also allows them to influence those styles themselves in order to bend duty of care the way they want for their clients.  Judges do the same thing to encourage judgments to follow the direction they want without knowing in advance which cases between clients are going to be presented to them.

3) Just because you're an idealist who wants to make the world a better place doesn't mean you should be focused on spreading ideas throughout society.  What you should be focused on is evaluating the people around you, figuring out how they process ideas in their mind, and then flicking the right switches to make them consider the ideas that matter on an unconscious level.  It's kind of like subliminal messaging, and it's most effective when you counterbalance different people with different ways of processing ideas so they have to deal with each other.  This sort of social persuasion is more effective than personal persuasion because people don't focus on opposing your ideals.  Instead, they're focused on opposing other people's imperfections.  Their imperfections end up cancelling out.

On the side, I'll also say that if you really want to be a professional conflict resolver, then you need to be prepared to live a lonely life.  You need to be willing to accept that at some level, you will never really connect with the overwhelming majority of others around you because you have to look at people in terms of how they mentally function, not in terms of who they are.  You also need to be able to hold back in not revealing what you know to those who you're looking at.  If you do reveal what you know, then you'll make your clients self-conscious, so their internal mental framework will suspect you of ulterior motives that you don't really have.

This isn't to say you can't relate with anyone, but it is to say the overwhelming majority of relationships you have with people will be superficial.  Your goal of relating with people will be to use them against each other for the good of society, not to become personally involved in enjoying each other's company. This will even be the case when you appear to enjoy their company because, again, there's a difference between appearing to take people seriously and actually taking people seriously.

A very late response

Hey, Mike, I just saw this three months (!!) after the fact.  We've been so focused on getting a revised site up that we let some things slip, like responding to posts.  (The good news is we are almost done, at which time we're going to be advertising this heaving and hopefully this "place" will get a lot more interesting.)

A few thoughts on this.  You seem a bit more cynical than I am, or perhaps I am idealistic and naive.  But at the same time you are also speaking to the same kind of thing that I discuss in my two-part review of Mari Fitzduff's Neuroscience for the Peacebuilder monograph..  (That link goes to part 1, here's part 2.)  I used to be really skeptical of neuroscience because I thought it was saying that everyone was driven by genetics and we had no free will to determine our behavior.  I thought that was silly, so I dismissed it.  Now upon readng Mari's excellent monograph, I realize I was misunderstanding the key ideas, which align with some of what you are saying here.  But that doesn't mean one needs to be manipulative and sneaking--above board trying to understand where others are coming from and meeting their needs and interests where you can is most always a good move.  I don't at all agree with conflict resolvers can't relate with people or that their relationships are superficial.  Actually, we tend to listen better than others, which can lead to deeper, more meaningful and more satisfying relationships, it seems to me.