E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: People come into say, ethnic conflicts have identities also, and historical memories, and images of what a good future would be like. And that's brought into the conflict, which may be specific and narrow, but is surrounded by these other issues. You have to listen to those other issues, and help the parties deal with the specific issues, if they can deal with the specific issues without getting into the larger issues.
Sometimes you have to deal with the larger issues, but as a general principle, I think, Roger Fisher had this notion of fractionating conflict, that is to deal with the smaller issues.
For example, if you and your wife are having a conflict over which television channel to watch, it should be a conflict about that television channel, not a conflict about her personality, or family, or your history of your relations with one another. So if you can deal with a conflict at a small level, at the international level, one ??? candidate talked about the location of 72 weapons systems during the Cuban Crisis, rather than the free world versus communism. Therefore the conflict was resolvable. The conflict between free world and communism would never had been resolvable through peaceful negotiations. So if you learn to deal with conflicts at the appropriate size level, that will always be helpful. Some people make the mistake of escalating the conflict very quickly and it becomes much less manageable when that happens. But I do say it's the appropriate size that matters. Sometimes you have to deal with larger issues, you have to deal with the basic fact that there is a basic problem of confidence between oneself and the other. It's not just the television channel.
Q: Sure. It makes me think about when there is a conflict that is manifested because of some structural problem. Then it makes it really hard to deal with just that specific part of the conflict knowing that if you only deal with that it will likely repeat itself given the structure that's likely to foster that kind of thing.
A: I think that's very much the case. Our center here does a lot of work in schools and sometimes you have to not focus only on changing the kids by teaching them. You have to look at the whole culture, the parents, or teachers, or administrators. You have to look at the whole culture, and start understanding what are the structural factors that promote competitive relationship between the people like the kids and the way they manage in the classroom, or the teachers and the way they're promoted, or given special honors and duties, and so on. So you have to look not only at the presenting problem, but also what are the factors that are giving rise to the conflict, structural elements that are important.