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Develop the capacity to pose
The energies of conflict as dilemmas
I tend to link two ideas with the phrases “and at the same time.” This is not just a quirk in my writing; it has become part of my way of thinking and formulating perspective. It reflects my effort to shift my thinking from an either/or to a both/and frame of reference. This is what I would call the art and discipline of posing conflicts as dilemmas.
This approach initially emerged for me in settings of deeply rooted, violent conflict. Very difficult issues were demanding immediate attention and choices. The decisions we faced seemed to pose outright contradictions as framed by the people involved and even by ourselves as practitioners. For example, those of us working in relief and aid agencies in Somalia in the early 1990s struggled daily with overwhelming decisions in the middle of a disastrous war, drought, and famine. We were faced with choices about where to put our energies and responses when none of the apparent options seemed adequate. Should we send in food and relief aid even though we knew armed groups took advantage of it to continue the war, which was itself one of the key reasons why a famine existed and relief was needed? Or should we not send food, in order to avoid unintentionally contributing to the fighting, and instead work on peace initiatives, knowing that we would feel helpless about the enormous humanitarian plight? Far too often the way we posed our questions limited our strategies.
When we changed our way of framing questions to “both and,” our thinking shifted. We learned to recognize the legitimacy of different, but not incompatible, goals and energies within the conflict setting. Rather than accepting a frame of reference that placed our situation as choosing between competing energies, we reframed the questions to hold both at the same time. How can we build capacities for peace in this setting and at the same time create responsive mechanisms for the delivery of humanitarian aid? The very formulation of the question creates a capacity to recognize the underlying energies and to develop integrative processes and responses that hold them together.
When we embrace dilemmas and paradoxes, there is the possibility that in conflict we are not dealing with outright incompatibilities. Rather, we are faced with recognizing and responding to different but interdependent aspects of a complex situation. We are not able to handle complexity well if we understand our choices in rigid either/or and contradictory terms. Complexity requires that we develop the capacity to identify the key energies in a situation and hold them up together
A simple formula provides us entry into the world of dilemmas and paradoxes. Its application in real time and real-life situations requires a great deal of discipline, repetition, and creativity. The formula is this: How can we address “A” and at the same time build “B”?
The ability to position situations as dilemmas, the capacity to live with apparent contradictions and paradoxes, lies at the heart of transformation. The art of dilemma-posing creates a simple way to see the bigger picture and to move us toward specific action.
Dilemmas imply complexity. This view suggests the ability to live with and to see the value of complexity. Further, it requires us to resist the push to resolve everything rationally into neat, logically consistent packages. This suggests another capacity that often needs to be cultivated.
Develop a capacity to make
Complexity a friend, not a foe
In conflicts, especially when there has been a long history of patterns and episodes that were not constructively addressed, people feel overwhelmed. You hear phrases like, “This situation is such a mess. It is just too complicated. There are too many things going on to even try to explain it.” These are the signs and voices of complexity raising its head. The challenge to conflict transformation is how to make complexity a friend rather than a foe.
The capacity to live with apparent contradictions and paradoxes
Lies at the heart of transformation.
At times of escalated conflict, complexity describes a situation in which we feel forced to live with multiple and competing frames of reference about what things mean. We are faced with a lot happening at multiple levels between different sets of people, all at the same time. Complexity suggests multiplicity and simultaneity. By its very nature, complexity in conflict creates an atmosphere of rising ambiguity and uncertainty. Things are not clear. We feel insecure about the meaning of all that is happening, we are not sure where it is going, and we feel as if we have little or no control over what happens. No wonder we see complexity as a foe creating an interminable headache. No wonder we often believe that simplifying the issues or resolving the contradictions will bring remedy.
We all have a certain tolerance for complexity but we all reach our point of saturation. When saturated, some of us cope by leaving, by getting out. Others of us stay but try to find a quick fix or solution that makes the complexity go away. Still others of us try to reduce the impact by ignoring the multiple meanings and faces. We settle on a single explanation about what is going on, then hold onto it doggedly and rigidly. Complexity becomes the enemy.
Paradoxically as Abraham Lincoln observed, “The only way to truly get rid of an enemy is to make him your friend.” While complexity can create a sense that there is too much to consider, it also provides untold possibilities for building desired and constructive change. One of the great advantages of complexity is that change is not tied exclusively to one thing, one action, one option. In fact, complexity can create the feeling of being a kid in a candy store: we are not limited by having too few options but by our own inability to experience the wide range of potentials afforded by all the available choices.
The key to this fourth practice is to trust and pursue but never to be rigid. First, we must trust the capacity of systems to generate options and avenues for change and moving forward. Second, we must pursue those that appear to hold the greatest promise for constructive change. Third, we must not lock rigidly onto one idea or avenue.
Complexity often brings a multiplicity of options to the surface. If we pay careful attention to those options, we can often create new ways to look at old patterns.
Develop a capacity to hear and engage
The voices of identity
I have repeatedly suggested that we should look for and see the patterns in the context underpinning the presenting situation, in the epicenter of the conflict. But what do we look and listen for? I have consistently found that most essential is hearing and engaging the struggling, sometimes lost, voices of identity within the loud static of the conflictive environment. In my experience, issues of identity are at the root of most conflicts. Thus a capacity to understand and respect the role of identity is essential to understanding the epicenter of conflict.
Issues of identity are fundamental in protecting a sense of self and group survival, and they become particularly important during conflicts. Identity shapes and moves an expression of conflict, often in terms of deeply felt demands and preferred outcomes, to presenting issues. At the deepest level, identity is lodged in the narratives of how people see themselves, who they are, where they have come from, and what they fear they will become or lose. Thus, identity is deeply rooted in a person's or a group’s sense of how that person or group is in relationship with others and what effect that relationship has on its participants' sense of self and group. Identity matters are fundamental to conflict, yet they are rarely explicitly addressed in the conflict.
Identity is not a rigid, static phenomenon. Rather, identity is dynamic and under constant definition and redefinition, especially during times of conflict. Identity is also best understood as relational. If we had no other color in the world than the color blue, then blue would be colorless. To distinguish blue we need a matrix of colors; then “blue” in relationship has identity and makes sense.
This creates a challenge for a transformational process: how do we create spaces and processes that encourage people to address and articulate a positive sense of identity in relationship to other people and groups, but not in reaction to them? In the middle of conflict, when people are often filled with great fears and unknowns, the challenge is to lower the level of reactivity and blame, while at the same time increasing a capacity to express a clear sense of self and place.
What are the disciplines that make such a practice possible?
First, we need to develop a capacity to see and hear “identity” when it appears. Be attentive to language, metaphors, and expressions that signal the distresses of identity. Sometimes these are vague: “Five years ago, not one teacher in this school would have thought of proposing such a course. What are we coming to?” Sometimes it is named by “insider” metaphor and language: “The Pioneer Street people no longer even have a voice in this church.” (Pioneer Street is where the church is located, but it is also the inside label for the first-generation members of the church). Sometimes it is explicit and mobilized: “The very survival of the Hmong community is under threat by the actions of this Police Chief.” In all cases, pay attention to the concern behind the voice. It is an appeal to a sense of self, to identity, and to how a relationship is being experienced and defined. It is an appeal to take the discourse from the content to the core. You cannot touch the epicenter if you do not hear the voice. The first step: be attentive to the voice of identity.
Second, move toward, not away from, the appeals to identity. Acknowledge that the conflict requires us to address our understandings of identity and relationship. This does not take the place of a process which needs to be designed to address the specific issues and content that surfaced the conflict. Both processes are needed. Generating solutions to specific problems can alleviate anxiety temporarily, but it rarely addresses deeper identity and relational concerns directly.
Processes designed to explore these deeper issues will need to have a goal of creating spaces for exchange and dialogue, rather than the goal of creating an immediate negotiated solution. Also, in working with identity-based concerns it is important not to assume that the work is primarily that of direct inter-identity exchange. Often the most critical parts of the process are the cultivation of internal, self, or intra-group spaces, where safe and deep reflection about the nature of the situation, responsibility, hopes, and fears can be pursued.
Pushing inappropriately for inter-identity exchange without a framework of preparation and adequate support can be counterproductive and even destructive. When working with identity, I can suggest three guiding principles that should characterize the process: honesty, iterative learning, and appropriate exchange.
Honesty can never be forced. We can, however, work toward the creation of process and spaces where people feel safe enough to be deeply honest with themselves and with others about their fears and hopes, hurts and responsibilities. Cycles and episodes of escalated conflict create and reinforce an environment of insecurity that threatens identity. In turn, a threat to identity creates a tendency toward self-protection, which, while not the enemy of honesty, tends to diminish self-reflective honesty in favor of other-reflective honesty: I see clearly and honestly what is wrong with you. I cannot see so clearly and honestly my own responsibility. Deep honesty comes hand in hand with safety and trust. Give constant attention to how the processes are creating and assuring spaces with these characteristics.
The phrase “iterative learning” suggests an idea of going around. To iterate is to repeat. It requires rounds of interaction. This is especially true for issues of identity.
The questions “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” are foundational for understanding life and community. Yet speaking deeply about self, group, and relationship is never easy or elemental. Nor is identity rigid and fixed. Understanding and defining identity requires rounds of interaction and inner action. The development, negotiation, and definition of identity require processes of interaction with others, as well as inner reflection about self. The whole undertaking is a learning process. And the pace of learning can be very different from one person to the next. This is important because we must recognize that identity work is not a one-time decision-making process. It is an iterative process of learning, and it is done in relationship to others.
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