Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A conflict relationship

If I'm in conflict, I pay no attention to the goals of my opponent, right? My goals are my goals; his goals are totally separate. Actually, no.
"Adversaries significantly affect each other's goals. A potential conflict group may formulate objectives that in some ways mimic those of its opponent or develop ones that magnify the differences" (Kriesberg & Dayton, 2012, p. 78).

Conflict is relationship. If I walk away from a conflict and can safely ignore it forever, I may still seek to attain the same goal my opponent already has, or is attaining in another fashion. No conflict, no relationship. Perhaps the desired resource is intangible and is illimitable, like freedom. Perhaps the contested area is only a small portion of the entire field and I simply move to see about getting my desired outcome elsewhere.

But this is often not possible, hence conflict. And the conflict goals very sensibly do often mirror each other in many ways.

And so, when I give a quiz to students on the 4th edition of Louis Kriesberg's and Bruce Dayton's text, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution (2012), I often ask test questions such as:
Kriesberg & Dayton seem to assert that: Most adversaries tend to ignore the goals of their enemies and express their own goals that have no relationship to the desires of their opponents. Students will inaccurately choose True when, as the authors logically indicate, this is false. Certainly, there may be some adversaries who exist in a sort of Year Zero vacuum whose goals seem only connected to themselves, but they are the exception, as the authors note.

This is totally sensible. If I cannot feed my family and my employer lives in a mansion, we are opponents. We both want a bigger share of the income from the organization, whether that is a capitalist corporation or a nonprofit corporation. Our goals are our conflict. If I want more rock music pumped into my work area and the owners see no interference with the bottom line and they are not affected by that, my goal is not related to their goals; there will not likely be much of a conflict. But if I want more benefits and higher wages, the elites who control most of those resources will see my goal as a direct mirror of their goal. There may be many smaller differences, but we want to control the money. My goals are usually quite related to the desires of my opponent or we wouldn't usually be opponents.

And so, over time, the transformative conflict party develops a partnership and gradually turns an enemy into an opponent and then an opponent into a problem-solving partner. Quixotic? Naive? No, like so much that we study, practice, and research on the nonviolent side, this is the most gain for the least pain, the best sustainable and most cost-effective path to success. That makes it the most realistic choice of methods. The only thing we need to change is our ego-driven self-inflicted conflict management dysfunctions that produce terrorism, violence, and more war dead. It is always a choice and if you and I are in conflict, we almost always have goals that seem mutually exclusive but are completely linked in terms of what we each want. If you know what I want and you can figure out how to get me enough of it to make me happy while gaining a great deal yourself, you win. If you try to crush me, I'll see if I can make you lose too. Yes, the occasional conflict is zero-sum, but those are the most linked of all, usually.

Bottom line: where there is conflict, there is a relationship and we can keep it bad, make it worse, or fix it enough to win.


Kriesberg, Louis, & Dayton, Bruce W. (2012). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (4th ed.) Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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