Issues in Conflict Theory and Practice
Much has been written about conflict – its causes, manifestations, methods of treatment or correction and consequences. However, like many such issues, there has been little attempt made to integrate what has been learned into a body of “knowledge” about the subject that would allow us to grow our understanding. The result of this systemic inability means that unpleasant events of the past keep repeating, leaving us to “treat” them with methods that have not substantially improved in a very long time.
As with a host of issues across many disciplines, what has developed is a retinue of conventional wisdom that newcomers and cynics are loathe to challenge, for fear of encountering indifference, disdain and, perhaps, wrath. Should students in conflict studies dare ask why things occur in certain ways, or why events are treated in certain ways, they are ordered to pay attention and stay silent. Such is the tyranny of instruction by one’s “betters.” They have been there, done that and have the bruises to show for it. Conflict management is one of those professions that does not welcome challenges to their “tried and true.”
Is there an argument for a new perspective, and if so, why now? Conflict is ubiquitous in our time and space. It shows no signs of being mitigated or eliminated, so one might logically conclude that we are not masters in discovering new and better ways of managing ourselves, and our social existence. We might well be questioned as to our competence in this very important field of endeavor. The issue is serious enough that we need to frankly, and without fear, examine all that we do and how we are doing it. We should also be honest enough to admit what doesn’t work, and, as well, be brave enough to discard what doesn’t work.
We are in an interesting epoch. While the stovepipes of learning and practice are breaking down, a fresh, eager horde of interdisciplinary students are roaming about our colleges and universities, and entering the professional workforce. Look at undergraduate degree programs now and you will see categories of combined majors unlike anything imagined in previous generations: examples are environmental law and sociology, physical education and microbiology, education and architecture.
What this means is that the narrow views of the past are being replaced by expertise in a variety of areas, rather than being an expert in a single area. This generation studies connections where none were even imagined before. Doctoral dissertations are now more highly treasured when they link disparate elements, rather than “simply” establishing a new benchmark in a single line of study. Indications are that academic institutions are fully in step with this transition, but we need to support their becoming even more imaginative in how they establish, and relate, courses of study. These institutions need the support of practitioners. Furthermore, practitioners and theorists need to drill down deeper than process and procedure.
Some of the conflict business models seem problematic, and some key working concepts and vocabulary show signs of inadequacy. Let us visit some examples of this situation.
Do you know we don’t have a good definition of “peace”? Many define peace as the absence of war. This is inadequate. Let’s spend some time looking at this issue and determining whether there aren’t meaningful and useful definitions that could work for us. How about this debate resolution: “peace between people and nations represents a state of harmonious non-conflict which may de disrupted from time to time due to a failure in management.” This is a simple statement of being, and cause, about which we will be challenged to find widespread agreement. However, a conversation around the topic could bring value in sharpened understanding, a general movement to commonality and strategic decisions regarding means and ends; all of which are needed.
It’s also a fact that we really have no internationally agreed method for determining who won a war. After all this time, and all the wars in history, we still aren’t clear how to choose winners and losers. War is nothing like a rowing match or a drawing contest. Different “authorities” have suggested that you can determine the winner by counting casualties, lands acquired or lost, costs expended, or perhaps even diplomatic gains. What happens, in fact, is that at some point during hostilities, the parties agree that the battle is over and that someone has “won.” Sometimes the declared loser does not admit that he has lost, and the messages to the taxpayers and survivors at home need to be carefully crafted. Reluctance to admit defeat could well simmer for some time with potentially undesirable consequences.
I would argue that we really don’t know a whole lot about conflict, an issue that one could say is, at the upper end, an issue of planetary sustainability. That being the case, we need to start working on discovering ways to do a more effective job of eliminating, reducing or redirecting the energies of conflict into more helpful activity. And clearly and emphatically, I deny the alleged “helpful” aspects of conflict. Practitioners in the conflict field need to go into situations with a clear head about this. There is simply no evident goodness in a situation of conflict, and interventionist time and effort is wasted if they spend it trying to ferret out positive aspects. Conflict is failure, and there is no point trying to put a better face on it.
In the remote circumstance where there is indeed something positive in the conflict event, I would argue that good is conditioned by, and perhaps even contaminated by the conflict. It is therefore of questionable value. If a beneficial element is extracted, and an effort made to build a new relationship on that element, it seems likely that plans will collapse, because that element’s existence may well be dependent upon the continuation of a conflict which may have already been “resolved.”
I have heard the argument that “synergy” is enabled and enriched by conflict – that organizations that use this model are building an environment that nurtures innovation and creativity, and perhaps even great productivity. All I can say about that is, show me the data. Proponents of this model say that conflict got the USA to be first to the moon. I answer that allegation by noting that an inter-national, inter-organizational collaborative effort might have got the world there earlier, and cheaper.
If we are to tackle the conflict issue we need to know a whole lot more about it than we do, and we need to start by discarding a lot of what we take for granted about it. It’s unclear, for example, whether conflict exists through a continuum, with a process of escalation from “face slap” to total war. The literature seems to view all manifestations of conflict as generic: being parties in opposition, with no real difference whether they are carrying guns or not, and whether those guns are loaded, or not. This, as I see it, is a very dangerous view. A “conflict management specialist” who is working with a unitary conflict model represents significant risks to all parties concerned, not to mention the possibility of him / her expending vast sums for no real benefit. Are academics and practitioners really saying that conflict between a married couple and a co-habiting couple are just two demonstrations of the same thing? Is an employee’s contract dispute over work incentives with an employer the same, more or less, as the a failure of a supplier to deliver on time?
It is extraordinary that we have yet to know with certainty whether conflict works as a progression, from one level to another with a culmination in out-and-out war; or whether the form of a conflict changes over time. The importance of these understandings would seem to be a fundamental need. Just how is one to address a state of conflict if one does not have an intuitive understanding of how that conflict began, how it evolved, in what state it is now and what is likely to follow? If intervention “specialists” do not have that innate sense, or a reliable method for deriving that knowledge they can at best only connect with, and address, the moment. Without a sense of evolution – and moreover if context is unknown – the chances are that only that which is visible and evident are “on the table.” Real, effective and sustainable resolution does not come with a modification of superficial aspects.
My research in peace and conflict suggests to me that conflict is a waste of time, energy and resources with no real net value to organizations or people. The one exception is competitive sports. Hockey would be less interesting if it was a game of inter-team collaboration. So in this arena, managed conflict goes hand in hand with competition because this is an entertainment activity, and people will continue to demand it whatever the costs or consequences. All parties in competitive sports are there willingly, so it is a one-off from those activities and events that cause insult and injury and which most people will wish had never happened.
It is another surprise to see the number of “conflict authorities” who believe without hesitation that conflict – and its evil conclusion – war – is inevitable. “It is,” they say, “part of the human condition – it’s human nature.” I do not accept the notion of “human condition” or “human nature” if such is used to explain and justify disagreeable aspects of humanity. But if there was something to this human nature thing, might it also be part of human nature that people like living in a state of peace and security? And if we have agreement about that duality, we need to spend some time talking about why one takes over the other from time to time. One noted military tactics author stated, “Wars simply break out from time to time.” What foolishness. Wars have clear causes. They may not be evident and may not be discovered for years, or ever, but war doesn’t just happen.
Now – let’s talk about these “interventionists.” They have many names, many titles, and many diplomas and degrees. Often, they think of themselves as “conflict managers” though of course that is not what they do. Boxing referees are “conflict managers.” They are actually “third part interveners” and their objective – sad to say – is usually to achieve something called “compromise.” I define compromise as a condition where parties in a disagreement all lose. Yes, lose. By definition if the parties compromise, they each give up something. They each move on from their fixed position – a position which is a statement of what they want, conceding eventually to their “fallback position,” or worse. As “success” is eventually realized through a game of loss management, it is not conflict management at all. Wins are assumed from an accumulated series of losses, and gains that may or may not be significant. The “winner” – if one of the parties can be declared such – is the one who has lost the least. This is a game of negation. (This could well be the formula the generals apply as they tally up the war’s consequences).
When “resolution” is achieved through this process, is it reliable (i.e. valid, sustainable and open to replication) and beneficial? I’d argue that there’s no clear way that we can be sure. The truth will emerge (for the conflict parties) with time, but when “resolution” is achieved the game is over. Then, everyone moves on to their respective corners (and some would add here “to fight another day”).
To address these deficiencies, we need to work on a number of fronts. “Conflict management” events need good outcome measures. Getting there we need to move way beyond defining a “win” as getting something called a “resolution” that means everyone has to lose something. And the so-called “win-win” one sees in the management literature is also not suitable for our purposes. It is not enough to have each party in conflict gain something. There must be a collective gain – a gain that helps build the relationship and in turn, and in time, helps build the organization.
One measure that could be looked at is what resources are needed to address conflict. Parties in emerging or active conflict might consider eliminating the need to have a third party intervener. In this model, success is achieved when needs for third party intervention are reduced, modified or eliminated. The parties – all of them – have learned something about their respective and joint dynamics and know better how to work with each other. Alternatively, if, like in many union-management relationships unhappy events are always dealt with by grievance, and third parties inevitably become part of the “resolution” process, then there is no evident progress being made in “conflict management.”
While eliminating the need for third party intervention would almost certainly reduce costs, delays and perhaps complications (though perhaps not in the first experiences with this), even that should not be considered in any way a new and better norm. In that norm the structure and process remain intact, with only one party not at the table. Organizations, and those involved in relationship management, need to envision a time when issues are identified as they are emerging. As well, organizations need processes by which those emerging issues are either stopped in their tracks, or modified in a way that they become inconsequential. In this model there is no master-servant relationship between the parties and there is no defined authority. These notions should not be considered earthshaking in a time of flat organizations, participatory democracy and mission statements that talk about shared outcomes.
As this is, hopefully, the end of the stovepipe era and the beginning of an era of interdisciplinary studies and practices, could we not apply the latter concept in our choice of interveners? Consider interveners who do not represent one specific, tightly defined field – such as law. I choose that example intentionally, for it is my experience that lawyers have shown excellence in these events as being “right,” but do not always present the skills needed to advance the cause. Many union-management grievances are awarded without any apparent gain in conditions, situations, understanding or power. In other words, the grievance gets “settled,” but everything else just goes on as before. Achieving yet another line of explanation or interpretation in a contract just might have delivered only more complexity, rather than improved relations and a “clearing of the air.” These are examples of failure, not success.
While some rail at the proliferation of laws and lawyers in North America, my remarks should not be read as a criticism of the profession, or the way that the profession operates. Lawyers are good at setting out terms and conditions, defining context and issues, and recognizing and respecting precedent and agreed procedures and best practices. But driving for serious and meaningful change might mean stepping away from the legal and normative framework from time to time. And when resolution is achieved, there is a need for the parties to drive the changes that are needed in the laws and rules. Here, the greatest strength is not in conformity – or even in order – but in an ability to move with agility in an environment of trust, finding solutions where none may be apparent.
In my view it is humanity’s preference to be in a state of peace; to have food and shelter and the care and love of friends and family. Of course, we have people on Planet Earth who live for trouble; but we human beings are really in difficulty only when we allow those people to control our lives. To dismiss our collective failure in maintaining peace and order as a constant state of being with only very minor interruptions by stating that, “conflict just naturally breaks out from time to time,” is to dismiss our human capacity to know what we want, even if we aren’t always sure how to gain it.
This essay is meant for discussion and debate. I am sharing it widely, because I am eager to encourage discussion among those concerned about conflict. I am not adverse to challenge. I welcome all reactions, and will make every effort to respond to all that come my way.
Managing conflict is an issue of planetary sustainability. I am not concerned that we can’t easily determine who won or lost a war. However, I am very concerned that within our relationship management activities we have no agreed way to identify, measure, exploit and share those things that really work. In our inter-personal and international lives building stronger, healthier relationships should be the flag that we rally around. Getting there means that we need some agreement around the problem. When we get that agreement we can start charting the course.
David G. Jones
Interested in managing without conflict – in your personal and professional life? Think that war is inevitable? Here’s my book on the way to peace.