Conflict Transformation - conflict as a force for changeLike it or not, dispute is an integral part of everyday life and of social and interpersonal relationships and systems. While usually conflict is perceived as a negative phenomenon that should be gotten rid of as soon as possible, it’s important to look closer and examine what can we learn from it. It’s even more important to examine whether the methods we’re currently using to solve disputes have positive or negative effects, especially regarding large scale social conflicts.
When the alarm device of a mechanical system goes off, or when a person suddenly feels pain, a responsible professional would first dedicate some time to examine the cause of the problem and then take the appropriate measures to solve it in the most effective way. On the other hand, should she choose to just turn off a switch or hand out a painkiller to her patient, it’s very likely that sooner or later the symptom will recur and the original problem will only get worse.
A conflict is similar to that pain or alarm sounding. The unpleasantness associated with the symptoms – an ache or an obnoxious noise – serves to call our attention to the existence of a problem, which is often hidden underneath the surface. Just as pain appears for a reason, also conflict isn’t a random phenomenon- it indicates that something in the system is unbalanced and requires a correction in order to return to the regular flow of life. The more complex the problem is, the more a through and systematic treatment is required. But most of all -real change is needed instead of empty talk.
For many conflict isn’t a pleasant experience and therefore they tend to ignore or avoid confronting it. When that becomes impossible and the elephant in the room can no longer be ignored as the crisis comes to head, they choose one of two popular methods of coping – fight or flight. Either they attack the other side in order to force a resolution of their liking, or they run away from dealing with the situation and completely lose their ground. Both scenarios involve a win-lose solution: One side wins it all and the other loses all.
There are several approaches to dealing with conflict that are relevant for both the interpersonal and the international levels. War is one, where force is used in order to allegedly solve security, diplomatic or economic problems. It is common knowledge that many drugs cause side effects that often are just as bad for you as the original symptoms they are supposed to cure. The side effects of war and the use of violence include the systematic destruction of the fabric of life of the attacked community, as well as fear, hatred, humiliation and revengefulness. Another popular approach is “conflict management” – believing that there is no possibility or will to achieve a resolution a choice is made to continue and live with the conflict for the long term. Instead of trying to solve the underlying problems, efforts are invested treating the negative impact of the dispute, while keeping a status quo that often suits one of the sides and is far less convenient for the other.
Since the 80’s another kind of approach of handling conflict is being developed- one that puts emphasizes on the transformation of the relational systems that provide the framework in which of the conflict exists, and on finding long term and sustainable resolutions for the problems that caused the breakout of the conflict to begin with. While conflict resolution professionals put an effort into solving crises on an immediate level, and at the same time addressing the complexity of underlying problems, conflict transformation advocates treat conflict as an agent of change. They advance constructive processes of change whose object isn’t just to get rid of negative symptoms that disrupt normal function but also to construct positive approaches for ongoing handling of systems and relationships1.
Think of it- a conflict is created when there is friction between people and/or systems. There has to be some level of contact or movement in the shared space in order for such friction to be created. The need to share a common space remains even after the immediate dispute is resolved, yet the actual sharing of space is a fertile ground for the emergence of new disputes. It is therefore preferable whenever a relationship sours, to find the optimal way to address the different needs of the involved sides, so that they are able to continue living alongside each other in the same space and for the duration of time. The fundamental change that took place in the relationship between France and Germany – after hundreds of years of bloody war that reached a culmination in WWII- shows that such transformation is indeed possible.
1.For further reading: John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Good Books, 2003