Complexity-Oriented, Massively Parallel Reconciliation

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

January, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video applies the notions of complexity and "massively-parallel peacebuilding" to the concept of reconciliation.  There are a great many competing definitions of "reconciliation" in the literature, and even more strategies for pursuing and obtaining it.  This video argues that all are right and all must be pursued simultaneously to make a signficant impact on the kind of complex adaptive systems that characterize most intractable conflicts.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. Hi! This is Burgess.  Today I want to talk about massively-parallel, complexity-oriented reconciliation. Before I explain what that mouthful means, I want to give a little bit of history.

Slide 2. In 2003, we were just beginning to write Beyond Intractability, and we asked Chip Hauss to write an article on reconciliation. He did, leading with the notion that reconciliation had become one of the hottest topics in the increasingly hot field of conflict resolution. He went on to say that when he wrote a book in 1995, reconciliation was not mentioned once. But by 2001, it was the most frequently cited concept.

Slide 3. In 2017, I was going back over the various Beyond Intractability essays, looking to see which ones needed updating. I said then that it seemed to me that Chip’s reconciliation essay was especially in need of updating. I was reacting tparticularly o his observation that reconciliation had become a hot topic. I said it was not such a hot topic in 2017, although it badly needed to be.

Slide 4. Well, it turns out that that wasn't entirely true.  Rather, it depends where you look. I was looking primarily at political conflicts in the United States and Europe.. This was two years after Brexit, a year after Donald Trump was elected president in the United States. Most of the attention was not on reconciliation between the Left and the Right.. Rather, on the Left, the attention was being given to how to resist Trump and how to win the next time around.

Slide 5. This was true for the Republicans too, of course.  During the Obama Administration, they certainly not looking at reconciling!  They were trying to block absolutely everything Obama was doing and were trying to lay the groundwork for winning in 2016, which they did, indeed, do.

Slide 6. The trend only worsened over the next four years, leading to an extremely bitter election in 2020 that both sides thought that they couldn’t possibly lose (Guy wrote a series of six blog posts on the dynamics that surrounded that notion—where it came from and where it was likely to lead to—that I’ll put in the reference area for anyone who is interested.

Slide 7. Indeed, the Republicans did everything they could think of to win.  Even after the votes were counted, recounted, verified, certified by the states, challenged in courts across the country, found to be valid in each of the 50 states, fully 147 Congressmen and Senators, led by Josh Hawley of Missouri, tried to get the Senate, and then Mike Pence in particular, to deny Joe Biden the presidency.

Slide 8. And then, of course, we got this…the attack on the Capitol.  This leaves both the Congress, and we, the American people in quite a predicament!  Clearly, reconciliation is needed now--more than ever.  But it is also going to be harder to achieve, perhaps, more than ever!  Certainly it is going to be harder than it might have been before attack on the Capitol!  Just look at the discussions going on about what to do about it.  Some people are advocating moving on…letting President Biden get on with his agenda without looking back and hoping that to do so will allow some successful bipartisanship. Others are calling for full retributive justice, starting with the impeachment of the president, and the indictment on sedition charges of many others.  Not until justice is served, they assert, is any bi-partisanship (hence reconciliation) possible!

Slide 9. Well, there was a lot of reconciliation and peacebuilding going on while all this was happening in the United States, it just wasn't happening here.  But it was happening in Africa, South America, Asia, Middle East, etc.  Most of the peace building organizations that I knew of that were based in the United States were working in other places and they were not paying a whole lot of attention to what was going on in the United States. However, what I should have recognized, when I said that reconciliation wasn't a hot topic, was that all this was going on abroad.

Slide 10. Simon Keyes, in an article that mapped reconciliation activities in 2018 noted that “to talk about reconciliation is to join a crowded conversation in which hundreds of people are talking from different positions in different languages.”

Slide 11. Keyes went on to say that there were 150 new articles on reconciliation just in 2019. A hundred countries had reconciliation programs and 90 have had truth commissions.  So there was certainly a lot of activity going on, but it wasn't in the United States.

Slide 12. And that's still pretty much true now, but that might be beginning to change. The run up to the November 2020 election got to be so hostile, that there were organizations who specialize in predicting when violence is going to break out overseas, which were warning that violence could very well break out in the United States. There was a lot of talk about the need to cool the rhetoric and calm things down. And of course, January 6 suggests they were right.

Slide 13. Indeed, Joe Biden tried to do that in his victory speech, a portion of which is copied here.  “I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide but to unify.  Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States.”

Few Republicans reciprocated that attitude, unfortunately, and,as I said before, 147 Republicans in the House and the Senate tried to force Congress and V.P. Pence to overturn the election results.  That poisoned the reconciliation well profoundly, and the coup de grace, of course, came with the attack on the Capitol.

Slide 14. But that might have been a bridge too far.  Even Mitch McConnell and Liz Cheney, the number 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, began to call for Trump’s impeachment for inciting the riot. So maybe, just maybe…our leaders and/or our citizens will finally realize we are going to have to reconcile if we want to prosper.  Indeed, I've been saying for awhile, we are going to have to reconcile, if we are going to survive at all!

Slide 15. There are a number of organizations in the U.S. that are working for reconciliation. The Bridge Alliance is one that has been existence for quite a while. I couldn’t find on their website a date when they were founded, but I know that they were founded before Trump was elected. They try to bridge the difference between conservatives and liberals in the United States and have been doing so for quite a long time.

Slide 16. More organizations started to get on this bandwagon in the run-up to the 2020 election. The Alliance for Peacebuilding formed a US Working Group and if you go to their website and go to the URL that is shown on this slide, you'll find lots of resources on US peacebuilding: books, videos, AFP statements, news stories, antiracism resources, and a very useful Building Trust Handbook.

Slide 17. Similarly, Search for Common Ground is, I believe, the biggest peacebuilding organization in the world and until recently, they were not working in the United States either. However, they now do have United States projects, because they realize that there is a grave need for peacebuilding and reconciliation here too.

Slide 18. So now I want to turn my attention to the question of what reconciliation is, and what I meant by the terms I put forth in the title: complexity-oriented, massively-parallel reconciliation.

Slide 19. When we originally started teaching this class, we showed this rather standard bell curve. You may have seen something like this before. This is a rather traditional notion about how conflicts develop. The idea is that tensions begin to grow, but they don't erupt. Things start out relatively quiet, but then they get tenser. On the graph this is shown as latent conflict. Then there's a triggering incident and the conflict emerges and then usually quickly escalates with increasing intensity over time. Eventually you get to a stalemate or what Bill Zartman called a “hurting stalemate,” which is the point where it becomes obvious that neither side can win and both sides are hurting or getting damaged by the conflict. This was the point that Zartman claimed was "ripe" for reconciliation or negotiation, because once both sides realize that they can't win and they're getting hurt, if rationality prevailed, they would negotiate.  So the notion was that that is when de-escalation and negotiation happens, At the end of negotiation, that's when you get dispute settlements and peace agreements. It's only after this dispute settlement and peace agreement stage that you supposedly get what was called post-conflict peacebuilding or resolution and reconciliation. But there still is a question as to whether reconciliation can ever be achieved and whether it can be worked towards before you have a dispute settlement or peace agreement. Those are issues we will be talking about as time goes on.

Slide 20. If we look a little more carefully at this diagram, however, we’ll see it has some problems. One of the problems with it is and has two different types of entities. It has what I call here statuses or situations--such as latent conflict or hurting stalemate, which are the way things are at a particular time. Then you have processes: conflict, emergence, escalation, de-escalation, settlement, peacebuilding. Those are processes, and those processes can lead to any number of states or statuses: resolution, transformation, reconciliation, stable peace, what Robert Ricigliano calls peace-writ-large.  Whatever you call it, the general image is that the conflict is “fixed.” Everything is working the way it should be, relationships are mended, structures are mended, everyone is happy.

So one problem with the diagram is that it shows statuses and processes as if they are the same thing.  (In my new slide here, I added the terms “nouns” and “verbs,” because I also sometimes talk about reconciliation as a noun or reconciliation as a verb.)

 But there’s also the question about how far you can get down the right side of this diagram.

Slide 21. One of the common problems in intractable conflict is that you never do get down to the right side of that bell curve. If, at the top, one side defeats the other instead of having a hurting stalemate, that tends to create repression and latent hostility, which will cause renewed conflict escalation. Then the conflict will start over again. Even if you don't have the defeat of one side, if you do have hurting stalemate, and you do get de-escalation for a while, if progress isn't rapid enough, or one side thinks that is not being treated well enough, you can easily get latent hostility and start the cycle over again.

Slide 22. So in an earlier version of this video, Guy argued that conflict is actually a breaking wave and you have to deal with all the stages simultaneously and be very careful to stay on your feet, or else you’ll get very badly battered around.

Slide 23. Then he drew a diagram that looked like this. This is the schematic of a breaking ocean wave. You just get caught in the circle: escalation- stalemate- de-escalation-escalation-stalemate, round and round.

Slide 24. Unless you can come up with an exit option.  Now, with the concept of reconciliation, what’s the exit option?

Slide 25. It is usually peacemaking and peacekeeping, which are not part of reconciliation, but they enable people in countries sometimes to get out of that vicious circle and to start following the blue arrow off in a better direction toward reconciliation.

Slide 26.The key here is, can you keep on going off to the right and follow the blue arrow? Or will you following that black arrow back into the circle?

Slide 27. Again, in our earlier video, we likened this to a rocket taking off. When a rocket takes off, it has to reach a certain speed and a certain height in order to break through the atmosphere and go into earth orbit. So you can imagine the escape velocity as being sort of similar to what you need to establish to follow the blue arrow and get out of that vicious circle.

Slide 28. So we continued with the multistage rocket metaphor and applied it to reconciliation and peacebuilding. Stage I was peacemaking, and peacekeeping, which was not part of reconciliation, but set you up so you got out of the circle and escaped earth’s orbit.   Stage 2 was looking forward. It is looking towards a positive vision of how to live together in the future and figuring out what it is going to take to get there.  Stage 3 we labeled retrospective reconciliation, where you look backward at the harms done, as if you were looking down at the earth, if you want to keep on going with the metaphor. Retrospective reconciliation comes after prospective reconcilation because we argue that it is easier to figure out how to deal with the past, if you know where you are trying to get to in the future.  Stages 4 and 5 are implementing those visions.  Stage 4, implementing the vision at the interpersonal and intergroup level, and  Stage 5 implementing it at the societal level.

Slide 29. While all that seems to make sense, there's a problem with this metaphor, which is that rockets are very complicated systems, but they're not human systems which are complex. Wendell Jones taught us the difference between complicated and complex adaptive systems back in 2003, and this is a very important distinction.

Slide 30. Complicated systems are determined. The pieces are put together according to a plan and they work in a predictable way. That is not to say they don't break, but usually everything works as planned, and you can predict what will happen. The relationship between inputs and outputs is linear and it’s predictable.

Complex systems are indeterminate.  Wendell talked about flocks of birds as an example of a relatively simple (compared to people) complex system. Birds fly according to particular rules. There's usually a leader and they have rules that they're supposed to follow the leader or the bird in front of them, but not get so close as to hit each other. But even when the agents (which is what individual entities in complex systems are called by systems theorists), even when agents act according to preset rules, the outcome is unpredictable.

The relationships between inputs and outputs is not linear. That's not predictable either. So sometimes one bird can make a small change and that will send the whole flock off in a new direction. And sometimes there can be a big change, but very little happen.

Slide 31. In his earlier video, Guy went on to demonstrate this in a series of slides that show pool tables. Now this pool table has a whole lot of balls. But it only has one player. So the goal of that player is to hit balls one at a time to get them all in the pocket, and get all the balls to disappear.  And if the player is good and understands physics, the player should be able to do that. Because in a complicated system, you can still predict if the ball is hit straight it on it, will go straight on.  And if it hits another ball, both balls will go off in a predictable way. You can tell what’s going happen. This is a complicated system.

Slide 32. A complex system is one where you have lots of people who are hitting balls, trying to affect where the other ones are going. And on top of that, all of the balls themselves are moving! You might notice that I started to put little arrows by some of these balls, showing that they are moving on their own. But I decided that's ridiculous, as it would have taken me all day to put in all the little arrows!  But in a complex system, each one of the entities has its own decisions to make and has its own decision rules. Which in the case of birds are all the same, but in case of humans, are decision rules are different. So you will rapidly get a very, very complex system that adapts either well-- or badly--to changes in their its environment, whenever those changes occur.

Slide 33. Now when you apply this notion to reconciliation, what you see is there are lots of different people and organizations who have different definitions of reconciliation. I just took six definitions out of Simon Keyes’s article. Some people think that reconciliation is the building of new narratives. So one of the players in this pool game is trying to get people to build new narratives. Someone else is trying to establish new social norms. John Paul Lederach tries to balance peace, truth, justice, and mercy. Others emphasize shared visions. Others emphasize changing relationships from negative relationships to positive relationships, Robert Ricigliano talks about changing structures, attitudes, and transactions at the interpersonal and societal level. So you have lots of different images of what reconciliation is and how it is brought about.  Complexity-oriented reconciliation says all of them are right! It’s not that one's right, and another is wrong-- you have to do all those things simultaneously to get to reconciliation.

Slide 34. And you have to do it at the intrapersonal, psychological level; you have to do it at the interpersonal level and the community level and the national level and the international level to reach full reconciliation.

Slide 35. And what's the goal? Is the goal to get all of the entities to line up doing just exactly what you told them to do and once they are lined up, stay that way? No!

Slide 36. They are still scattered all over. They still have different roles. They still have different values and decision rules. They still have different interests and needs. But, they have an image of the future that is compatible. They have improved relationships, so they're not fighting with each other over everything, and everybody is working to some degree in parallel. If I would draw this today, I would not have all of those arrows going parallel, but closer to it than going every which way, because verybody is working towards the same goal of a better society in which everybody would like to live.

That's my definition of reconciliation. The notion of “massively parallel” means that all of these folks are working roughly in concert, not directed by anybody, because complex adaptive systems cannot be directed or run by anybody. If you have somebody who's in charge of the system, that means the system is complicated, not complex. In complex systems you have lots of individual actors doing their own thing. They can work approximately in concert, so you can assist them at the end where everybody does indeed, “live happily ever after.” Now, whether or not we can really get that point will be a matter that we will be discussing over quite some time. But it does seem like a goal worth pursuing.  We will be covering more of this later. Thanks!


Slide 6: Guy Burgess. "The Election that Both Sides Believes they ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY Cannot Afford to Lose--Compilation." 

Slide 11: Simon Keyes.  "Mapping Reconciliation."

Slide 12: Olgo Khazan. "How to Tell If the Election Will Get Violent: Some experts are predicting violence after November 3. But there are ways to prevent it." The Atlantic. NOVEMBER 1, 2020

Slide 13:

Slide 16: Alliance for Peacebuilding's US Peacebuilding Resources.

Slide 29: Wendell Jones: "Complex Adaptiave Systems". Beyond Intractability.



Photo Credits:

Slide 4: Europe map from pixabay:

US map from Wikipedia:Source:,_blue_state.svg, AAttribution: Creator: Angr. CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Slide 6:  Trump: Pixabay -

Biden:, attribution:  Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7  from:

Slide 8: Creator: Tyler Merbler from USA - DSC09523-2 . CC BY 2.0

Slide 14: Source:  Copyright David Lally and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Slide 15: from

Slide 16:from

Slide 17:

Slide 18: Picture from unsplash: Open Source.

Slide 22: Picture from unsplash: Open Source

Slide 25: Source: Attribution: MONUSCO Photos, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 27: Space shuttle:  free for commercial use.

Slide 28: Saturn rocket pic:  Source: Attribution:  Jim Evans. CC BY-SA 4.0

Slide 29: Saturn rocket pic:  Source: Attribution:  Jim Evans. CC BY-SA 4.0

Protest: C BY-SA 4.0  Creator: Ted Eytan 

Slide 30:  Birds: pixabay free for commercial use:

Rocket: Saturn rocket pic:  Source: Attribution:  Jim Evans. CC BY-SA 4.0

Slide 31: Pool table photo:  Attribution: Derbeth, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons