Conflict – a potentially positive force for change?

TransConflict is pleased to present additional contributions to the second Peacebuilders’ Panel , which is designed to stimulate debate about peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

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The second debate focuses on the principle that:

“2. Conflict should not be understood solely as an inherently negative and destructive occurrence, but rather as a potentially positive and productive force for change if harnessed constructively;”

To read initial contributions to the debate, please click here!

Mike Lowe, Discover the Other

In his last book, The 3rd Alternative, (Simon & Schuster 2011) the late Stephen R. Covey writes, ‘Synergy is not just resolving a conflict. When we get to synergy, we transcend the conflict. We go beyond it to something new, something that excites everyone with fresh promise and transforms the future. Synergy is better than my way or your way. It’s our way.’

Most people accept in principle the idea that two heads are better than one, but in practice it is often hard to reach the synergy that Covey writes about. Like the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant, we all have different understandings of any situation, and we tend to assume that our own understanding is correct. Similarly, we each have our own particular needs to fulfil – from the basic needs of human security to the psychological needs for respect, significance and love. Often, our first reaction when confronted with a different perspective is to assume that the other person is either mistaken or following their own selfish agenda.

This results in what Covey calls “two alternative” thinking – it’s either your way or my way. Without conflict, two-alternative thinking is often the default position. In marriages, one partner defers to the other; in organisations, the boss gets their way; in communities and in society, those who are perceived as powerful dominate. In all these cases, the richness of different perspectives is not fully heard and opportunity for synergy is lost.

Synergy is not a guaranteed outcome of conflict. Poorly managed, conflict can also result in a two-alternative outcome – but with additional cost of the conflict itself. It can also lead to a compromise where the different parties are more deeply conscious of what they have given up than what they have gained. But when managed well, and without violence, conflict can lead to the best possible outcomes. This comes through (a) competition of ideas so that the best ideas are heard and accepted, and (b) through cooperation, working together to create solutions which benefit all.

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Deri Joy Ronis, Ph.D., The Conflict Resolution Centre

Conflict has several definitions. One is to live in a state of perpetual disharmony which is brought on by having to deal with mental struggles. These struggles are the result of opposing needs and wishes. As long as we are alive we can expect that conflict will exist because it provides us with opportunities to learn from, although we may not like the lessons.

As we continue to evolve in our consciousness, we can view conflict as a gift, for it lets us know that something needs to be changed to restore order, harmony and serenity. That life is filled with polar opposites is a natural outcome of the human experience, and it appears that our species is making slow strides in this direction given the amount of awareness that is increasing exponentially. We can see examples of this constructive viewpoint in the past changes of history; the Berlin Wall being dismantled, Russia turning to Glasnost, South Africa ending apartheid. If we look at the geographic locales in the 21st century still engaged in armed warfare, we can see similar aspects as to why this is so. And, as was always the case throughout history, it goes back to power, domination and control.

In order to use conflict constructively as a productive force for change we need to continue to change our mindsets. However, we need to acknowledge that everyone’s mindset is based on their experience, hence one cannot compare a free American for instance with a Somali child soldier, or a Palestinian refugee not entitled to live where they were born. I think one of our glaring struggles in the 21st century is to have a worldview of the planet as one fragile support system and allow all people the right to respect, dignity, education, a home, and the chance to fulfill their life purpose as suggested by Dr. Abraham Maslow. At the top of the Pyramid of Hierarchy is self actualization and self realization.

As Dr. Robert Mueller, the former Chancellor of the U.N. wrote in his book, Most of All, They Taught Me Happiness, we need to teach our children to answer the following questions:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. What is my purpose?
  3. Where am I headed?

And last but not least, one of my favorite quotes from the Dalai Lama is, “My religion is kindness.”

Karen Siembieda, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Conflict cannot only be seen as a negative because it exists as a necessary function of society. Lewis Coser was one of the first to point out that conflict is a necessary part of the progression of society. He explained that conflict can create new norms and institutions, resolve tensions and even create unity. Conflict is merely a manifestation of changes in society and does not always result in physical violence.

In fact, democratic institutions create systems in which conflict is allowed to exist without descending into violence. The obvious example of this is elections. Thomas Jefferson once wrote in a letter, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Elections serve this purpose. They are the perfect example of small conflicts every few years that help create progress, release tensions and create new norms.

The fact is that most violent conflicts happen in non-democratic societies where non-violent forms of antagonism and conflict are outlawed. This means the only way for people to release tension or resolve disagreements is to react with violent conflict often manifesting itself in civil wars and, if one side is too powerful, genocide.

This proves that conflict should not be negated at all costs, but rather that it is integral to institutionalize conflict in all of its non-violent formats including elections, freedom of speech, a functioning judicial system, etc.

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