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What is Conflict?

What is Conflict?

What is conflict?

 

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What is conflict? That’s quite a big question. For me, it is… and I think this comes back in a way to sort of what where we are with this field as a whole. If you take the sort of conflict resolution, conflict transformation field which runs everywhere from putting a mediation clause in a commercial contract, or putting an anti bullying policy into a school, right up to kind of armed intervention by the United Nations, the underlying critical thing is actually human difference.

 

For me the vision of this field is that human beings over the last couple of thousand years. I’ve got pretty good at good things, many things we can put space probes onto comets, men on the moon, we can possibly find cures for cancer and all the rest of it. But the one thing we have been very bad at is actually dealing with human differences. You see now what is happening in this hideous tragedy across the Middle East.

 

People of different cultures, different beliefs, different power structures, different agendas, tearing each other’s lives apart. This has got to be the great challenge for the 21st century. It’s human beings dealing better with the fact of being different from each other. We are not good at that yet.

So that’s one which I think is underlying to me every time I do something, when you are designing a process, I think you have to think about with how are these people different. What do they need to understand each other, about each other in order simply to be able to accommodate their differences or to overcome them, to transcend their differences? That is for me, this is the vision for the future, is dealing with human difference.

 

Talking about causes of conflict, one which is actually really interesting to me increasingly over the years, is the role which uncertainty plays in difference. For me uncertainty is one of those things which sort of always lurks beneath the surface. When I mean uncertainty, I mean uncertainty about information, about data. What is really going on? What are the facts? And then uncertainty about other peoples intentions. What are other people really wanting to do? What are they trying to get to?

 

Uncertainty about what else could happen? What else could intervene to change the situation as it is? You have these forms of uncertainty. Wherever you have human uncertainty, the human tendency is to get anxious about it. To get fearful. When you have that you tend to trigger the sort of fight or flight reaction. People either disengage because they don’t want to have to deal with the uncertainty because they’re anxious about it. Or they tend to fight back and they tend to fight out, to try and establish that their certainty is the one that should reign supreme.

 

Where you have uncertainty, you first have fear and anxiety and then you have hostility because people try and deal with the uncertainty by actually enforcing their will upon others, and of course then where you have hostility, you have conflict and you have more uncertainty because nobody knows what’s going to happen.

 

This kind of cycle is so common in all sorts of circumstances. The data might be obscured data about climate change or not. Equally it might be about in a local neighbourhood, is what is going to happen when the new road comes in? What is going to happen to the traffic outside my door. This kind of uncertainty does create real problems. The only plus side of uncertainty is that it’s something that everybody has in common.

 

Sometimes when you have people who are very polarized around something, if you can start by working to reduce the uncertainty for everybody, then you kind of start building up some kind of common ground for them. The reduction of uncertainty becomes a kind of common quest.

About the mediator

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Andrew Acland specialises in designing and facilitating stakeholder dialogue and consultation processes in complex, multi-party, multi-issue contexts, often with environmental and social sustainability dimensions. Andrew began his working life as a political analyst specialising in East-West relations and arms control. In 1985, while working on the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, he acted as assistant to the Archbishop’s envoy, T... View Mediator