Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | September 27, 2010

Peaceful Conflict

The Compassionate Listening Project recently posted this quotation of Martin Prechtel:

Violence is the absence of conflict. People always think that if they just think real good thoughts, they’re not going to have any conflict. No – if we have a lot of conflict then we won’t have any violence.

The first comment to the post was, “huh? I’m not getting this at all; please explain”.  I would guess that this statement might be baffling for many others as well because, too often, the word ‘conflict’ is used as a synonym for ‘violence’.  This usage hides the fact that there are peaceful methods for resolving conflict.  Violence is avoided when conflict is: (1) openly acknowledged, (2) directly addressed, and (3) satisfactorily resolved. 

Our strong cultural association of conflict with violence causes people to fear conflict itself.  This fear hinders step one, the open acknowledgement of the conflict.  As a result of this (often subconscious) fear, people tend to excuse themselves from approaching conflict by thinking, “things will work themselves out on their own” or “there’s nothing I can do about it”.  Or the fear may be quite conscious and people may think, “getting involved is too risky”.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter From The Birmingham Jail, explains why this is a problem:

[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension.  We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.  We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.  Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

The conflict is already there; acknowledging it does not create it.  This situation occurs frequently enough that we even have an idiom for it: “the elephant in the room” – the thing that everyone knows, but no one will say.  And yet, in the (too-rare) cases where someone does bring it up, it’s been my experience that everyone generally feels relieved, not afraid.  Why would acknowledging a conflict bring relief?  It is because tension results not from conflict itself but from unacknowledged conflict.  The tension causes people to feel fear, but they typically ascribe the fear to the conflict rather than to the tension, and try to avoid the conflict as a result.  This is counterproductive though.  The way to end the fear is to end the tension, which can only be accomplished by acknowledging the conflict.  When conflicts are not acknowledged, they continue to accumulate until people become angry enough that they lose control of themselves and lash out with verbal or physical violence.  We should certainly fear that instead of fearing the conflict; violence can hurt us – conflict cannot.

Once a conflict has been acknowledged, people can begin to address it.  This step contains two stages, and each stage has its own difficulties.  The first obstacle is that people may find it difficult to accurately assess their own position in the conflict, let alone anyone else’s.  Since jumping to conclusions is something that very commonly leads to conflict in the first place, I think that this obstacle occurs frequently.  In order to overcome this obstacle, the first thing all parties to the conflict need to do is pause, for an agreed-upon period of time, for self-reflection.  This means asking oneself questions such as, “on what information do I base my opinion?”, “where did I get this information?”, “is it complete?”, “are there other ways of interpreting this information?”, “what outcome do I really desire?”, “what am I willing to compromise on?”.  

After all parties have had the opportunity to do this, it is necessary for all of them to listen to all the others.  Each of them needs to share the answers discovered during self-reflection.  In this listening stage, the danger is that people will be too anxious to move to the next stages: finding solutions and making decisions.  In the listening time, there must be patience and mindful presence in the current moment, not thinking ahead to what your response will be.  It also requires compassion.  This is very difficult for people to do for someone with whom they disagree.  The ability to listen in this way is not something inherent that one can rely on suddenly, as needed.  It is a skill that takes practice to acquire, and to maintain.  It is becoming more common for people in the US to do this practice, but needs to be much more widespread.

Sometimes, this listening time is all that is needed – perhaps there was merely a misunderstanding which is now understood.  Perhaps a person was truly unaware of any negative effects his actions had on others and only needed to be made aware of those effects.  Sometimes, even when a solution is not immediately possible, just having finally been really heard, i.e., feeling that someone else cares, can allow people to tolerate conditions that were previously distressing.  Other times, it is necessary to go on to the third step…

The “satisfactory resolution” of a conflict:  what does that mean?  First, it means that it is impossible for violence to attain it.  When a conflict is addressed with violence, the inherently implied intent of that violence is that one side will physically vanquish the other, and that the winning side will then have the right to “resolve” the conflict without regard for the needs or wishes of the losing side.  But in that case, not only will the “resolution” not be satisfactory to the losing side, the conflict will still exist; it has not been resolved at all!  So, to speak of using violence to resolve conflict does not make sense on its face.  What’s more, by using violence, each side has deprived itself of any opportunity for understanding why the conflict occurred in the first place.  The complete lack of new understanding and the intentional disregard for others is why violence contains no possibility of advancing human moral progress.

A satisfactory resolution of a conflict is one which all parties are able to agree to.  The aphorism “nobody gets everything they want, but everybody gets something they want” applies here.  As with listening, the ability to accept something less than you want requires a quality that must be painstakingly developed beforehand: humility.  This word has an unfortunate similarity to the word ‘humiliation’.  I call it unfortunate because true humility means that no one is ever humiliated.  Being humble means to frankly recognize your own strengths, as well as weaknesses.  It is finding out what you do best and doing it — and finding out what you’d best leave to others to do for you, and letting them do it.  It is understanding the wonderfulness of diversity: because we are all different, we can each find someone from whom we can get what we need, and to whom we can give something they need.  Doing this, or striving to do so, is the only truly fulfilling goal or purpose that life has.  This is how we are all interdependent:  the inner peace  that each of us seeks, depends entirely on our development of compassion and humility toward others.

In the end, the only satisfactory resolution to a conflict is one which brings peace of mind to all participants.  Anything less, already contains the seeds of the next conflict – therefore, conflict will never cease until each one of us masters the traits of compassion and humility.  Now, I think I really understand what it means to say, “You can’t change the world; you can only change yourself.”

***Author note:  This should not be taken as implying that I am at all good at doing any of these things!  For learning more about compassion I suggest the link at the top, and the works of Thich Nhat Hanh.  For developing humility I recommend Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis, and other Mussar texts.


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