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The Lenses of Conflict Transformation
In everyday settings we often experience conflict as a disruption in the natural flow of our relationships. We notice or feel that something is not right. Suddenly we find ourselves more attentive to things we had taken for granted. The relationship becomes complicated, not as easy and smooth as it once was.
No longer do we take things at face value. Instead, we spend time and energy interpreting and re-interpreting what things mean. Our communication becomes difficult, requiring more intentional effort. We find it harder to really hear what others are saying—unless of course, they agree with us. We cannot easily comprehend what the other person is up to.
Our very physiology changes as our feelings translate from uneasiness to anxiety to even outright pain. In such a situation we often experience a growing sense of urgency leading to deeper and deeper frustration as the conflict progresses, especially if no end is in sight.
If someone uninvolved in the situation asks, “What is the conflict about?” we can translate our explanations into a kind of conflict “topography,” a relief map of the peaks and valleys of our conflict. The peaks are what we see as the significant challenges in the conflict, often with an emphasis on the most recent, the one we are now climbing. Often we identify this mountain we are currently climbing as the primary issue or issues we are dealing with, the content of the conflict. The valleys represent failures, the inability to negotiate adequate solutions. And the whole of the mountain range—the overall picture of our relational patterns—often seems vague and distant, just as it is difficult to see the whole of a mountain range when you are climbing a specific peak.
This topographical conflict map illustrates our tendency to view conflict by focusing on the immediate “presenting” problems. We give our energy to reducing anxiety and pain by looking for a solution to the presenting problems without seeing the bigger map of the conflict itself. We also tend to view the conflict as a series of challenges and failures— peaks and valleys—without a real sense of the underlying causes and forces in the conflict.
The purpose of this book is to ask how a transformational approach addresses these tendencies and how that might be different from a conflict resolution or management perspective. What does conflict transformation look for and what does it see as the basis for developing a response to conflict?
As a starting point, let us explore the differences between the terms look and see. To look is to draw attention or to pay attention to something. In everyday language we often say, “Would you look over here please!” or “Look at that!” In other words, looking requires lenses that draw attention and help us become aware. To see, on the other hand, is to look beyond and deeper. Seeing seeks insight and understanding. In everyday language we say, “Do you see what I mean?” Understanding is the process of creating meaning. Meaning requires that we bring something into sharper focus.
Conflict transformation is more than a set of specific techniques; it is a way of looking as well as seeing. Looking and seeing both require lenses. So conflict transformation suggests a set of lenses through which we view social conflict.
We might think of these lenses as a set of specialized eyeglasses. For the first time in my life, I am wearing progressive lenses; in these eyeglasses I have three different lens types within the same lens. Each has its own function. One lens or lens segment helps bring into focus things at a great distance that would otherwise be a blur. A second brings into clarity things that are mid-range, like the computer screen. The final one, the reading or magnifying lens, helps me read a book or thread a fish line through a hook. This lens metaphor suggests several implications for the transformational approach to understanding conflict.
First, if I try to use the reading segment of the lens to see at a distance, the lens is useless. Each lens or lens segment has its function, and that is to bring into focus a specific aspect of reality. When it brings that piece of reality into focus, other aspects blur. If you look through a camera with a telephoto lens or a microscope at a slide of bacteria, you find this happening in dramatic fashion: as one layer of reality is brought into focus other layers are blurred. The out-of-focus layers of reality are still present, but they are not clear. Likewise, the lenses we use to view conflict will clarify certain layers or aspects of reality while blurring others. We cannot expect a single lens to do more than it was intended to do, and we cannot assume that what it brings into focus is the whole picture.
Since no one lens is capable of bringing everything into focus, we need multiple lenses to see different aspects of a complex reality. This recalls the old adage, “If all you have is a hammer, all you see are nails.” We cannot expect a single lens to bring into focus all of the dimensions and implications of a conflict.
My three lenses are held together in a single frame. Each lens is different, but each must be in relationship with the others if the various dimensions of reality are to be held together as a whole. I need each lens to see a particular portion of reality, and I need them to be in relationship to see the whole. This is the usefulness of finding lenses that help us address specific aspects of conflicts, while at the same time providing a means to envision the whole picture.
The whole picture is somewhat like a map: it helps us to see a broad set of items located in different places and to see how they might be connected. In this book I suggest three lenses that help create a map of the whole. First, we need a lens to see the immediate situation. Second, we need a lens to see beyond the presenting problems toward the deeper patterns of relationship, including the context
in which the conflict finds expression. Third, we need a conceptual framework that holds these perspectives together, one that permits us to connect the presenting problems with the deeper relational patterns. Such a framework can provide an overall understanding of the conflict, while creating a platform to address both the presenting issues and the changes needed at the level of the deeper relational patterns.
Let me give an example. Our family at home sometimes has lively arguments over household tasks, like doing dishes. We can have some good fights that seem to come out of nowhere over something terribly mundane. The conflict focuses on something concrete and specific: that pile of dirty dishes. However, the energy evoked suggests something far deeper is at play. In fact, at stake in this dispute is much more than who will wash the dishes. We are negotiating the nature and quality of our relationship, our expectations of each other, our interpretations of our identity as individuals and as a family, our sense of self-worth and care for each other, and the nature of power and decision-making in our relationship. Yes, all that is in the pile of dirty dishes.
Those concerns are implicit in the questions we ask: "Who's washing them tonight? Who's washed them in the past? Who'll wash them in the future?" You see, it is not just a matter of dirty dishes. The dishes cause a struggle because they show us things about our relationship— if we can see beyond or behind the dishes to the underlying or ongoing patterns and issues.
We could just address the question, "So who does the dishes tonight?" If we find an answer, our problem is solved. And on many occasions, given the lack of time or interest in going deeper, that is exactly what we do: we identify a quick solution to a problem. However, that fast resolution does not probe the deeper significance of what is happening in our relationship and in our family. And if this deeper level remains untouched, it creates energy that crops up in the next episode of dirty dishes, the next pile of laundry, or those shoes that just lie there in the middle of the floor.
Conflict transformation lenses suggest we look beyond the dishes to see the context of the relationship that is involved, and then look back again at the pile. Not satisfied with a quick solution that may seem to solve the immediate problem, transformation seeks to create a framework to address the content, the context, and the structure of the relationship. Transformation as an approach aspires to create constructive change processes through conflict. Those processes provide opportunity to learn about patterns and to address relationship structures
while providing concrete solutions to presenting issues. Facetious example? Yes, if all we see is dishes. No, if dishes are a window permitting us to look into life, growth, relationship, and understanding.
How do we create these lenses? We will begin by defining more clearly what we mean by the term conflict transformation. We will explore how that approach understands conflict and change. We shall return then to the more practical task of how to develop and apply a transformational framework to social conflict.
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