Building The Bridge To Peace

Guidelines for conflict resolution

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 27
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

One of the most important obstacles to more effective and alive groups is our general lack of skill in "conflict resolution." People avoid participating in groups because they are afraid that conflicts might arise, conflicts that they wouldn’t know how to handle, and groups drain their vitality by suppressing, rather than dealing with, the conflicts that do arise. Our confusion and awkwardness is a predictable part of the cultural transition we are going through. During the age of empire, conflicts were resolved by "the boss" (not always nice, but at least no ambiguity). During the planetary age, we expect things to be more democratic, but without skills to give substance to those ideals, we flounder.

Fortunately, these skills and the attitudes that go with them are not as difficult as you might imagine, as this article illustrates. The problem is that we need to do more than just privately make these changes. For a truly cultural shift, we need to share and affirm these skills and attitudes with each other so that they can become the new ground rules. If you are part of a group, old or new, why not have everyone in the group read this article and then set aside some time to discuss it. The freeing-up of energy could be fantastic.

Rochelle Wallace is a certified mediator and freelance writer who lives in Anacortes, Washington. Recently, she coordinated a year-long series of speakers and workshops on conflict resolution for the public, sponsored by the American Association of University Women. That year led to the publication of the booklet on conflict resolution described at the end of the bibliography.

NOT LONG AGO, I telephoned a regional disarmament newspaper to request publicity for a conflict resolution workshop. "Excuse me," said the woman in charge of the newspaper’s calendar section, "but you have the wrong newspaper. We’re a disarmament publication."

This eye-opening exchange rescued me from the illusion that the link between peacemaking and resolving conflict was a clear one. In most of our minds the call for global peace and the ongoing need for reconciliation between individuals and within groups remains tenuous. Yet it is precisely this relationship upon which the physical, psychological and spiritual survival of our species depends. Disarmament without a major transformation of how we deal with conflict will not work in the long run: the underlying fear and paranoia that have pushed us to the brink would remain, and the technological expertise that we can never unlearn would offer arms race upon arms race, whether it be nuclear, chemical, laser, or some presently unknown lethal creation of humanity’s intellectual genius.

This is not to say that political solutions are not important or effective in their own way: they are crucial if we are to buy time for a deeper transformation of the spirit to occur. But without a simultaneous commitment to change our hearts, the whims of politics guarantee continued confusion, confrontation, disillusion, and despair.

Carl Jung put it this way: "When the individual does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn in opposite halves." Wars are being waged at the personal as well as the global level. If we wish to make peace among world powers, we must make peace among and within ourselves.

Group Conflict

The middle ground between the global and the personal, the place where most of us actually encounter conflict yet find ourselves ill-equipped to resolve it, is the small group. Whatever we may think are our beliefs about peace, it is only through working with others that we can experience in action the attitudes and behaviors upon which peace can be built.

Conflict resolution is one of the most exciting challenges facing groups of all types, from businesses to social action groups to clusters of friends. The old mode of voting aye or nay to determine the "winning" argument is no longer satisfactory to us if we care about human relationships, self- esteem and bridge-building. As we grow more process- rather than product-oriented, we realize that what we do within the group to create true peace among ourselves is at least as important in the long run as what the group "accomplishes." The value is in the "being" as well as the "doing": the group becomes world peace.

The same fears that keep us from risking resolution with another individual, keep us from doing so in groups as well: fear of rejection, fear of trusting others and exposing our vulnerabilities, fear of dependency, fear of pain. But by developing tools to resolve conflict and making a common commitment among group members to resolve disputes as they arise, group members become empowered with healthy self-esteem, willing to express their individuality as well as their unity. The group becomes enriched, exciting, and bonded to each other. As members become empowered and concerned for one another, that lurking trap – unconsciously surrendering personal power to the group – becomes less and less likely to occur.

Like a troubled marriage, a group without tools and without commitment will fall apart, with underlying resentment affecting the group’s spirit and effectiveness. With a commitment to resolve, however, this sort of outdated behavior can rest where it belongs: in the past.

Ideally, a group will form itself from the beginning on a basis of commitment to resolve conflict in a constructive, caring and cooperative way. It will acknowledge that conflict can be a sign of a healthy, vital, growing group, and that the group will become more creative and productive as it resolves its conflicts.

As members of such a group, we commit to staying involved in the meeting until the conflict is resolved, or until the entire group calls for continuing the process at another specific time and date. We commit to expressing where we stand, and to respecting the stands of others. We commit to discovering the basis of the conflict, and to understanding both our own and others’ feelings and motivations in a positive spirit of personal growth. This is risky to many people, of course; but when we agree to remove the possibility of quick divorce, we have the security to dive into the conflict with honesty as well as care, so that it may be confronted and resolved.

Feelings of intimacy and bonding that grow with each process of resolution are what keep the group creative, alive and loving. We realize that we love these people with whom we work and struggle and cry, and that our connections go far deeper than the issue before us. The joyous times become all the more satisfying because of these connections of the heart.

Groups in which an atmosphere of trust, honesty and good will exists provide opportunities for the deep sharing necessary for true resolution of conflict to occur. Groups that have spent time together struggling over issues are good places to take the next step of actually resolving conflict. In fact, it is most likely that conflict will arise within such groups, as it does in marriages and families, since that is where people come face-to-face with issues that are most important in their lives, where intimacy allows expectations and shadow sides to manifest themselves, and where they will feel most attached to their own views.

It often comes as a surprise and disillusionment that conflict occurs in peace groups. A friend of mine, deeply dedicated to building a world of peace, was appalled to see conflict breaking out at a peace group meeting; after all, they were there for peace, weren’t they? She didn’t realize that nurturing the conflict and its subsequent resolution rather than suppressing it was the most loving thing to do for the people, the group and the world. To stifle the conflict by avoiding it insured its "lose/lose" status: no one would learn anything about conflict except how to avoid it more deftly. The conflict would not disappear; the hurt, anger and pain would fester within the people involved, ready to emerge during some unrelated incident or to contribute to an individual’s withdrawal from the group.

Using Conflict to Build Peace

So what can we do? Our first step on the road to peace is to recognize that conflict is not our enemy. A liberating paradox of our century is the growing realization that conflict can be the foundation of peace. The stereotyped image of peace as the absence of conflict is fading as we develop a better understanding of conflict. Conflict is the catalyst for creating the change that will bring about the dynamic state of peace. Our definition of peace is growing to embrace conflict as the fuel for transformation, and conflict resolution as the fire. No longer do we view peace as static, unexciting, lacking emotion and challenge. With a new respect for the value of conflict and its resolution in building a better world, we have developed a clearer view of peace as dynamic, creative, challenging, and rewarding as any battle we could ever fight.

Conflict resolution is a process of healing. To "resolve" is to re-tie, to re-connect, that which had been unified but which is now apart. To heal is to make whole that which has suffered separation. Ironically, most of us fear pursuing reconciliation because the process demands that we face our fears of separation, alienation, isolation, abandonment – yet these feelings of unconnectedness are precisely what are healed when conflict is resolved. We build a bridge, we touch hearts and souls, and we find that the connection has been there all along, waiting for us to discover it.

Steps of Resolution

Once we understand that resolving, rather than avoiding, conflict is the road to peace, we can move ahead on that road. Whether we are talking about conflict between two people or in a larger group, I have found the following steps to resolution to be essential and effective:

1) Acknowledge the conflict to yourself and to the other party if possible. Try to identify it. This process begins by honoring and expressing the internal feelings that signal conflict: anger, fear, resentment, despair, withdrawal, etc. "I am feeling angry and I’d like to talk to you about it," or "Let’s talk about this disagreement. I’m feeling angry; how about you?" The more fully you can express the hurt, either alone or with others, the more complete the resolution can be.

2) Differentiate between the issue/problem and the feelings of conflict. Set aside the problem for later problem-solving, and concentrate fully on the conflict.

3) Take responsibility for your feelings. Although the behavior of the other person may have triggered your feelings, the feelings are yours. Your own shadow side, expectations and attachments are causing you to react. Withdraw any blame you are projecting onto the other person.

4) Identify the feelings and their origin within you. What insight into your shadow side can this conflict provide? What attachments are being threatened? What expectations have not been met? Can you accept them as part of being human, rather than deride yourself for having them?

5) Identify the other person’s feelings and the life experiences that prompted them. Try explaining the conflict from the other person’s point of view. See where you are similar and where you are unique, and affirm the inherent goodness of both of you.

6) Forgive the other person. We are all human and we sometimes make mistakes and hurt one another in our search for security and acceptance. Forgiveness is simply acknowledging what has occurred and seeking to reestablish connections.

7) Examine your feelings to see if they are resolved. If the other person is participating, check to see if he or she also feels resolved. If not, identify what needs to be discussed further.

8) Redefine the conflict. Having resolved the relationship, it’s time to collaborate to solve the actual problem, if one remains. Now it will be easier to define the problem and you’ll be free to explore solutions.

9) Affirm your willingness to resolve. It’s hard work! Bask in the accomplishment. You’ve moved humanity one step closer to peace.

A Commitment to Resolve

Before a true resolution of conflict can take place, there must be a conscious decision on the personal level to resolve all conflict – inner and outer – as much as possible. This does not mean that it will always happen. It simply means that the intent is clear and abiding. It also means that we have taken the step beyond the poet Alta’s description of our predicament: "Let’s stop hurting each other. You go first." When I decide that I am committed to resolving all conflict, I intend to "go first" by initiating the process of resolution.

For those who choose to practice avoidance in dealing with conflict, this willingness to pursue conflict can appear as if conflict is being created, rather than resolved. A friend with whom I’ve worked closely in the peace movement once exploded, "For someone so concerned with resolving conflict, you cause more conflict than you resolve!" Too often, conflict resolution is seen as something that somehow prevents conflict rather than confronts it head on.

This decision to resolve our conflicts is a decision to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To admit our hurt requires integrity and a healthy respect for the inherent dignity of ourselves and of each other. It requires a belief that you and I are essentially valuable and good; that we have the ability to see truth and act on it if we allow ourselves to be honest and to learn from our openness as well as from our adversaries.

Facing the Shadow Side

The shadow is that part of ourselves that we unconsciously disowned or repressed as we developed our personalities. Often this is composed of negative qualities which we unconsciously project on to others because we do not claim them as our own. When we see these qualities in others, we often react with fear and anger at the reminder that they still exist somewhere deep in ourselves, all the while not really knowing why our feelings are so intense.

This is the process of creating enemies. The more we find ourselves blaming other persons, events or things for our pain, the more we are projecting our shadow side, thereby complicating conflict by reading into it our own suppressed motives and goals. The key to forgiveness is the process of reclaiming our shadow side.

The more consciously we seek to identify our shadow side, the less unconscious shadow side there will be within us, the less we will project onto others in conflict, and the less our "hidden agendas" will complicate the conflict. On the international level, the Soviet Union and the United States are so caught in projection of our unclaimed national shadows that each of our leaders’ descriptions of the other’s country sounds exactly like we’re describing the dark side of our own nation.

In the individual, the group, or the nation, the shadow makes its way to the surface, especially under stress or confrontation – exactly at the moment when we must decide whether the bleep on the radar screen is an incoming missile or a computer error. The more detached we are from projecting our national shadow on the Soviets, the more we can identify it when it occurs, and the more we can see who the Soviets really are. On the personal level, the more we can detach ourselves from our superficial ego, which demands its own way at all costs, the more we can see the true picture and respond in a loving, life-affirming way.

Attachment and Detachment

The word detachment needs definition in the context of conflict resolution. Helen M. Luke, a Jungian analyst and author of The Inner Story: Myth and Symbol in the Bible and Literature, clarifies that often-misunderstood word: "Detachment does not mean freedom from love and suffering on the personal level – it means full opening of the heart to their power and the experience, not as an insignificant personal emotion, but as a part of the whole meaning of creation. Detachment is the cessation of personal demand, not the deadening of feeling."

The ego bases its identity on attachments – attachment to material goods, to ideas, to philosophies, to people – so that when those things are threatened, WE feel threatened, and we are willing to kill to defend these superficial elements of our ego’s identity. The confusion in our society about identifying with property, for example, manifests in those cases where individuals choose to kill their would-be robbers. We can become so identified with what we own that we are willing to kill another human being rather than give up five dollars – and the typical response from others, "He has a right to protect his property," further illustrates how much our identities become fused with things outside ourselves. Rational perspective – the value of money or property vs. the value of human life – is lost.

To the degree that we grow willing to let go of these attachments for an identity based on our true selves, and for a higher goal that encompasses the survival of our planet, we will find the process of resolving conflict becoming easier. The more we identify with the human family interconnected on one tiny planet, and with a spirit of cooperation, the more easily we can see that it is you and I against the problem, not you and I against each other.

As we work to become detached from the demands of our egos, we develop the ability to perceive a conflict from more than our own point of view. We understand the other person’s view as well as our own; ideally, we could argue for the other person’s position and describe his or her feelings as if they were our own. As a result, we realize that no one has all the answers, but that each of us has experienced an aspect of truth which can be linked together during the process of resolving conflict to create a clearer picture of reality. This is the stuff of empathy, compassion and love, out of which close personal and group relationships can grow.

Expectations

Expectations often go unidentified and unchallenged in conflict. Sometimes these expectations are conscious; sometimes they’re not. We expect certain results from certain actions. We expect people to behave toward us in a certain way, and when they don’t, we feel hurt, angry, betrayed, abandoned or depressed – all of which complicate an issue with unspoken resentments. Often these expectations are linked with unmet needs or desires of childhood, which we all carry with us to some extent. We unconsciously expect that the love, approval, respect or understanding that we lacked as children will be given us each time we find ourselves in situations that resemble childhood experiences, and we can react strongly when our expectations aren’t met. Unconscious expectations also can be linked to certain responses that held special meaning for us as children and which we unconsciously seek from others as affirmations of our worth as human beings.

Identifying our expectations is an important part of the process of reconciliation. What did we expect that did not happen? From whom were we really seeking affirmation? How can the need be fulfilled in a more positive manner? Simply becoming aware of the expectation may be enough to eliminate it from the situation at hand, thereby clarifying the issue as well as providing us with another insight into our psyche and our own humanity. Verbalizing the expectation allows the other person the benefit of our experience and provides "permission" to examine his or her own expectations.

Bereavement and Grief

Much of the tragedy in the world today is the result of our culture’s tendency to nurture only partial development in its children. Our childhood experience is rich in rational, left- brained education, but bereft of learning how to develop and sustain deep relationships, bereft of connectedness to our earth, bereft of risking honesty and vulnerability in conflict, bereft of acknowledging our own ignorance without fear, bereft of faith in reconciliation. For those who have allowed themselves to feel even a small part of the grief of these bereavements, the pain is as deep and sharp as a knife to the heart.

It is natural to feel grief for these losses, as it is to feel grief for the possible loss of our species and our planet. But we rarely allow ourselves to express it; we keep the lid to what can seem a bottomless pit of emotion clamped down tightly, and we expend valuable energy making sure it stays that way. One result is that we fear risking our vulnerability, because the emotions might escape and, once begun, never stop. If we find ourselves unable to risk, one helpful step is to make contact with the grief we carry.

There has never been a more crucial time to nurture and develop the openness, honesty, love and desire for truth that will allow conflict to be resolved in a positive way. We cannot wait any longer; we are poised between global suicide and an evolutionary leap. Today’s world leaders were children with parents and teachers who could not teach the skills of conflict resolution, nor provide a deep sense of security. Hope for the future lies with our willingness to make a conscious change in our thinking and our behavior so that we can model peace for our children, the leaders of the future.

Resolving Unilaterally

A friend in his late 60s, deeply involved in politics and peace seeking, recently shared with me an experience of thwarted reconciliation. He had received a bill quite a bit higher than the estimate a mechanic had given him for car repair. John, wishing to consciously resolve the situation, confronted the mechanic with the discrepancy. The mechanic became very angry, saying, "Are you accusing me of dishonesty? Are you saying I cheated you?"

"No, no," my friend insisted. "I only want to discuss this with you. I want to do what’s fair to us both."

The mechanic was growing angrier by the minute. "Take your money then!" he yelled. "I don’t want it. Take it!"

John explained that he wanted to pay the mechanic what was rightfully due him, he didn’t want all the money back. But the agitated mechanic refused to listen. Having placed a check on the mechanic’s desk, John finally left exasperated, saying, "I only wish we could have talked this out."

As he relayed the story to me, I said, "Oh John, that must have hurt!"

"It did," he replied, his eyes filling with tears. "I was trying my hardest to resolve it, but what do you do when the other person just won’t?"

It is true that conflict cannot always be resolved by both parties: one person may be gone, or dead, or simply unwilling to listen and participate. Or the conflict might be with an event, or a situation, or a group which has not made a commitment to resolve. But the more we are willing to explore our own shadow in an effort to make ourselves whole, the more we can resolve conflict whether or not the other party participates. Unilateral conflict resolution is possible. We can acknowledge and express our anger to ourselves or to a friend, spouse, or therapist; we can examine closely the origin of those feelings in terms of our rejected shadow side, expectations and attachments; we can affirm the truth that as human beings we share negative and positive characteristics and possibilities that manifest themselves in our sometimes twisted search for love, acceptance and security – and we can forgive.

There are other benefits to unilateral conflict resolution. We don’t know all the factors that affected the mechanic’s angry resistance to John’s efforts – maybe he had been accused unfairly as a child, or maybe he had purposely overcharged John. But the image of John attempting to talk about the problem will remain with the mechanic at some level, and may allow him to participate in resolving another conflict some time later. John can resolve the conflict within himself, and he can affirm himself for his efforts to resolve it with the mechanic.

Forgiveness

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the first step toward forgiveness, and forgiveness is the component most often overlooked in discussions about conflict resolution. When we do attempt to resolve conflict, we Americans have a cultural tendency to move from hurt to reconciliation without going through forgiveness – maybe because we are an impatient culture which demands harmony and peace in a hurry, or maybe because forgiveness carries spiritual connotations which many rational-minded Americans would just as soon ignore. That forgiveness is at the core of peacemaking is impossible to disregard, however, when such masters as Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa have seen it as the basis of true reconciliation. While it is simple to say but often difficult to do, the truth remains that if we want peace we must learn to forgive.

Blame is the insistence that what has already occurred should not have been allowed to happen. It maintains the feelings of separation and alienation that are signposts of unresolved conflict. Just as it is crucial to our psychological and physical health to acknowledge our feelings of hurt and anger, rather than suppress them, it is crucial to forgive for the same reasons. The alternative is bondage to people or events from the past.

The instinctive survival reaction to being hurt is to defend ourselves by hurting back. In the nuclear age, however, survival demands a different response: a conscious decision to forgive. Only forgiveness can break the cycle of revenge and retaliation that will lead ultimately to the holocaust. Blame freezes the relationship and the individuals in the past. When we don’t forgive, we allow the hurt to take control of our lives, and our perception of reality is skewed because of it. We can no longer see what is real and what is not. We can no longer make life-affirming decisions because we can no longer see what leads to life.

Forgiveness is imperative in the nuclear age, not in the passive sense of turning the other cheek, but in the sense of acknowledging and accepting as reality what has already occurred. This is not the same thing as excusing someone, pretending nothing has happened when in fact it has. As Ernest Boyer, Jr., has stated in A Way in the World, "Forgiveness is more profound. It does not so much ask that whatever went wrong be hidden from view, as that both persons involved actively renew the connection they had with one another. It is a return to the foundation of their love, a return that may involve stripping away some shoddy construction in the relationship, some false image that one was projecting of him- or herself or demanding of the other …." Responsibility must be claimed, but blame, retaliation and vengeance point nowhere but closer to annihilation. The real question is, how do we respond to the reality before us in a life-affirming way that respects our dignity as human beings, but leaves no place for blame and grudge-holding?

Forgiveness may be long, arduous and agonizing – or it may occur as a flash of insight that we are one humanity, and grace abounds. It demands the best we’ve got. It demands reaching past the layers of ego that would hold us back, to touch center of the true self, the soul.

The Price of Peace

John Graham, founder of Politics That Heal, said that the price of peace is a deep look at self. Gandhi said that the only demons in the world are in our own hearts, and that is where the battle must be fought. If we are to exorcise the demons of war from the world, we must begin on the intrapersonal and interpersonal level. By taking that deep look at self, we move closer to releasing our tendency to blame others, our tendency to fault-find, our tendency to try to sink the other end of the boat to save our own.

We have choices before us: lose/lose behavior, where we avoid dealing with conflict, thereby perpetuating it; win/lose behavior, characterized by domination, submission, violence and war; and win/win behavior, characterized by the empowerment of the parties in conflict, ultimately aimed at ensuring the survival of life on earth. We are challenged to take a conscious evolutionary leap for the benefit of the planet, with the added benefit of individual wholeness and the connectedness of community. By working to resolve conflict at a profound level, we experience a bridging of the gulf between individuals – and it can be profoundly moving, fulfilling and joyous. We find that the fears of humanity – separation, alienation, loneliness – are, in reality, illusions, and that underneath the fear, if we would allow ourselves to feel it, life is connected and unified. We are in the dance of life together, enemies and friends, foes and lovers, and we are just beginning to allow ourselves the risk of experiencing it.

Bibliography

Annett, Ronald C., Dwell in Peace: Applying Nonviolence to Everyday Relationships (Elgin, IL: The Brethren Press, 1980).

Boulding, Elise, "Envisioning the Peaceable Kingdom," Fellowship (April/May 1982).

Boyer, Ernest, Jr., A Way in the World: Family Life as Spiritual Discipline {San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984).

Hotchkiss, Marlow, "The Mo Tzu Project," The CoEvolution Quarterly (Fall 1982).

Jung, Carl Gustav, The Undiscovered Self (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1958).

King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love {Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).

Krishnamurti, J., Beyond Violence {New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

Luke, Helen M., The Inner Story: Myth and Symbol in the Bible and Literature (New York: Crossroad, 1982).

Macy, Joanna Rogers, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age {Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1983).

Stoler, Peter, "A Conversation with Jonas Salk," Psychology Today (March 1983).

Wallace, Rochelle, Positive Resolution of Conflict: Techniques, Tools and Theories, an American Association of University Women’s booklet summarizing seven presentations by experts on conflict resolution given in 1983-84. Available for $ 1.50 each, including postage, from R. Wallace, AAUW Booklet, 818 25th St.. Anacortes, WA 98221.

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