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Connecting Resolution and Transformation
We have explored transformation as a perspective on conflict and change. How, then, do the ideas become applicable? We cannot leave the conceptual level completely as we move toward the practical. We must develop an image of our purpose—the “big picture.”
Using other terms, we need a strategic vision in order to assess and develop specific plans and responses. The big picture helps us see purpose and direction. Without it, we can easily find ourselves responding to a myriad of issues, crises, and energy-filled anxieties. We may end up moving with a great sense of urgency but without a clear understanding of what our responses add up to. We may solve lots of immediate problems without necessarily creating any significant constructive social change.
Part of creating the big picture is identifying and analyzing our guiding metaphors. A good place to start is by comparing the metaphors of resolution and transformation.
I have said that conflict transformation provides a perspective on conflict that is different than that of conflict resolution. I believe this is a reorientation so fundamental that it changes the very way we look at and respond to social conflict. We must analyze this because of its implications for practice.
To move toward transformation and away from resolution means we are changing or expanding our guiding idea. The language of resolution has until now largely provided the framing structure for our interpretations and actions.
Conflict resolution is a well-known and widely accepted term in both practitioner and research communities. It has defined a field for more than a half a century. Within that field are many approaches, understandings, and definitions, some of which are close to the way I am defining a transformational perspective. However, in this particular discussion I am not so interested in the definitions of resolution and transformation as terms. I am interested in the meaning or implications suggested by the ideas they represent.
At its most basic, the language of resolution implies finding a solution to a problem. It guides our thinking toward bringing some set of events or issues, usually experienced as very painful, to an end. There is a definitiveness and finality created in the language when we add “re” to “solution:” We seek a conclusion. Resolution's guiding question is this: How do we end something that is not desired?
Transformation directs us toward change, to how things move from one shape to a different one. The change process is fundamental to this guiding language. By its nature, when we add "trans" to “form” we must contemplate both the presenting situation and a new one. Transformation's guiding question is this: How do we end something not desired and build something we do desire?
Resolution often focuses our attention on the presenting problems. Given its emphasis on immediate solutions, it tends to concentrate on the substance and content of the problem. This may explain why there has been such a predominance of literature on negotiation technique within the field of conflict resolution—from popular airport bookstands to the halls of major research institutes. In short, resolution is content-centered.
Transformation, on the other hand, includes the concern for content, but centers its attention on the context of relationship patterns. It sees conflict as embedded in the web and system of relational patterns.
Transformation's guiding question is this: How do we end something not desired and build something we do desire?
We can take this a step further. Both resolution and transformation claim to be process-oriented. Resolution, however, sees the development of process as centered on the immediacy of the relationship where the symptoms of crisis and disruption take place. Transformation envisions the presenting problem as an opportunity to engage a broader context, to explore and understand the system of relationships and patterns that gave birth to the crisis. It seeks to address both the immediate issues and the system of relational patterns.
This requires longer-term vision that goes beyond the anxieties of immediate needs. Transformation actively pursues a crisis-responsive approach rather than one that is crisis-driven. The impulse to resolve leads toward providing short-term relief to pain and anxiety by negotiating answers to presenting problems. Those answers may or may not deal with the deeper context and patterns of relationships which caused the problems.
Finally, each perspective has an accompanying view of conflict. Resolution has tended to focus primarily on methods for de-escalating. Transformation involves both de-escalating and engaging conflict, even escalating in pursuit of constructive change. Constructive change requires a variety of roles, functions, and processes, some of which may push conflict out into the open.
In summary, transformation includes, but is not bound by, the contributions and approaches proposed by resolution-based language. It goes beyond a process focused on the resolution of a particular problem or episode of conflict to seek the epicenter of conflict.
An episode of conflict is the visible expression of conflict rising within the relationship or system, usually within a distinct time frame. It generates attention and energy around a particular set of issues that need response. The epicenter of conflict is the web of relational patterns, often providing a history of lived episodes, from which new episodes and issues emerge. If the episode releases conflict energy in the relationship, the epicenter is where the energy is produced.
A focus on the epicenter provides a core set of questions. What is the bigger picture of relationships and patterns within which the problem rises? What are the potential and needed change processes that can respond to the immediate issues, as well as the broader setting that creates the crisis? What longer-term vision can we hope to build from the seeds and potential in the current crisis?
The idea of transformation offers an expanded view of time. It situates issues and crises within a framework of relationships and social context. It creates a lens for viewing both solutions and ongoing change processes. The key to creative solutions, transformation suggests, lies in designing a responsive and adaptive platform for constructive change that is made possible by the crisis and the presenting issues. The episode of conflict becomes an opportunity to address the epicenter of conflict.
Creating a Map of Conflict
The “big picture” of conflict transformation suggested in the previous chapter can be visualized as a map or diagram (Figure 1). It is comprised of three main components, each representing a point of inquiry in the development of strategy and response to conflict. We begin with the first point of inquiry, the Presenting Situation.
The presenting situation
Figure 1 visualizes the Presenting Situation as a set of embedded spheres shown here as ellipses. A sphere is a useful metaphor that helps us think about spaces of exploration, meaning, and action. As opposed to a circle, a sphere has somewhat looser boundaries, as in the phrase, “a sphere of activity.” A sphere invites us into an evolving space.
Here the sphere of immediate issues is embedded in the sphere of patterns, which in turn is embedded in the sphere of history. This reminds us that the immediate issues are rooted in a context—in patterns of relationships and structures, all with a history.
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