By Frank Blechman
Most of us have seen or been in the middle of situation where two people or groups were fighting over some difference. And, most of the time, being sensible people, we try to get out of the way. From a safe distance, we may have thought, “What a waste. There must be a better way to settle this.”
Or perhaps we have been in a situation where a leader had told us, “We don’t want to do this, but we have no other choice.” If we could maintain our equilibrium, we might say to ourselves, “Really? Of course there are other choices.”
About 50 years ago, a group of social psychologists began studying decisions and realized that many people approached these disputes as if there were only two options: winning or losing. They wondered if they could create frameworks in which folks could find other options in which neither won or lost. They studied negotiations. They studied compromises. Bit by bit, they laid the first foundations for the field that came to be known as conflict resolution.
For 15 years I was part of the pioneering Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Offering the first masters of science and doctorate in conflict resolution in the United States, the GMU academic programs drew students and visitors from around the world. Many came from violence-torn societies such as Sri Lanka, the Balkans, or Norther Ireland. Others experienced conflict at the personal, familial, communal, or religious level. Most came to us seeking a better way to handle differences. Few were blindly idealistic. Some were ex-military, who had been trained that force was a last resort after all other options had been exhausted, but were curious about what those other options might be, firmly convinced that we didn’t have enough other tools in our toolkit.
As clinical faculty, my job was to translate the theories of others into practical procedures and tools that could be taught, practiced, and applied by students and graduates. As such, I was often the member of the faculty who students felt they could turn to when confronted with an idea that they could not imagine how to handle in the real situations they had experienced. I was the explainer, the simplifier–sometimes the over-simplifier.
For example, in psychology, there is a concept called “ripeness.” In conflict resolution parlance it meant that the parties were ready to consider ending their dispute. Many sophisticated models were developed to assess ripeness. I boiled them all down to one question: “Are you having fun yet?” If the response was, “I’m having fun now and will have the time of my life when I pound my opponent into the sidewalk,” I would generally step back and let the fight go on. But if the response was, “No, this is painful, stupid, and wasteful–but I won’t give in to that bastard,” I knew that we could help.
It was exhilarating being part of a group of very bright people who genuinely believed that they formed the “Manhattan Project of Social Science.” They were sure that the energy locked up in long-term social conflict could be redirected to productive ends.
It was exhilarating being part of a group of very bright people who genuinely believed that they formed the “Manhattan Project of Social Science.” They were sure that the energy locked up in long-term social conflict could be redirected to productive ends, producing an almost unlimited source of positive energy for the good of the world. It was one heck of an idea.
Early on, however, I began to wonder if conflict was so embedded in human nature that conflict resolution (if we ever really learned how to do it) might produce unexpected painful, traumatic, and dislocating consequences. What if we had been around and resolved the trade issues that led to the American revolution, keeping the American colonies firmly under the Crown? What if we had been in a position to negotiate the German claims on the Sudetenland, averting World War II? In each of these cases, people who died and/or were displaced in the wars would not have suffered, but there would be no United States, no Constitution, no Bill or Rights, no United Nations, no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no Geneva Conventions … and so on. Or, would those things have eventually happened nonviolently anyway?
These speculations cannot be answered. Generally, I side with Gandhi, who–when asked what he thought of “Western Civilization”–said that he thought it would be a very good thing. I think that averting millions or even thousands of deaths would be a good thing. I cannot believe that carnage is the necessary prelude to or precondition for reform. I have seen formal and informal conflict resolution dramatically reduce violence (and thereby improve the quality of life for both sides in conflict) in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and even between Israel and Palestine. On a smaller scale, I have seen collaborative problem-solving improve relationships between minority communities and police, in workplaces, and in families.
When a difference is causing pain, trauma, and dislocation, it is worth exploring how the tools and techniques of conflict analysis and resolution might assist. With help, many people and groups can find mutually beneficial solutions, avoiding winners and losers and the pain and resentment that follow.
Although I eventually left GMU to return to the work of public policy and electoral politics, I still recognize that power and rules cannot resolve all differences. I understand that some differences are productive and do not need to be “smoothed over” or “transformed.” Yet I still believe that when a difference is causing pain, trauma, and dislocation, it is worth exploring how the tools and techniques of conflict analysis and resolution might assist. With help, many people and groups can find mutually beneficial solutions, avoiding winners and losers and the pain and resentment that follow.
Here in the Washington area, we have a wealth of resources, from private practitioners to nonprofits such as the Northern Virginia Mediation Service, offering training and services to individuals, groups, businesses, and communities.
“Conflict resolution” is still a very young field of study and practice. In disputes with just two parties and one issue, I think we are now able to bring 80% science and 20% art. In more complex cases with a dozen parties and several dozen issues, it’s 50-50. In the deepest-rooted, protracted conflicts and wars, we are only about 10% science and 90% art. Still, in the last 50 years, the field has developed enough that we can say with confidence, “Yes, there are ways to resolve differences other than fighting to win or not lose. No, there are very few cases when there are no other choices.”
Faced with a conflict in your life or community, ask yourself, “Am I having fun yet?” If not, consider sitting down, listening to others, exploring what is really at stake, inventing new options, transforming a potential negative into a positive experience. As cranky as I am, and as much as I need reminding, I do know better than to let a situation like this get out of hand.