On Conflict Resolution: Toward the Transformation of Conflict

Belfast, N. Ireland

To conclude this small series on understanding conflict resolution, I want to move away from just the presentation of different perspectives in the field and offer my personal take on the issues discussed in post three: i.e., the debate between conflict resolution and conflict transformation.

WHAT’S THE TELOS?

When deciding which terminology to call upon, one must articulate the telos – or desired end – of constructive conflict engagement. Where is this all going? For me, the ultimate end is reconciliation. But what do I mean by reconciliation, a term so complex entire books have been written on how to best define it? Here, I will simply define it as my fellow ISE student Jon Hatch has said: that is, reconciliation is “learning to live together well.” Thus, to live together well we must move beyond the safeguards of tolerance and enter into a new dynamic of “relational mutuality.”[1] This can only be done through thorough, careful exploration into the deep roots of human estrangement.

CONSIDERING THE CONNOTATIONS

Therefore, the language of conflict transformation seems more in line with that telos than does conflict resolution. Granted, the definitions of CR given by folks like Ramsbotham, et al, are embraceable to be sure. Yet, while understanding CR as the canopy covering all other terms is helpful, I do not find it natural. In other words, resolution naturally calls forth ideas of finality and definitiveness, while transformation suggests an ongoing process, a perpetual journey. Because of this, adherents to conflict resolution explicitly include transformative language in their discussions of CR due to the organic imagery rooted in the term.[2] They want to talk about transformation without relinquishing CR’s familiarity. Thus, because both terms end up being defined quite similarly by their advocates, considering the terms’ connotations seems as worthwhile as analyzing their denotations.

THE GUIDING IDEAS

As Lederach observes, the guiding ideas behind the terms are different.[3] Resolution orients us toward ending something undesirable, putting a stop to the immediate problems affecting the crisis at hand. Transformation, on the other hand, orients us toward constructive change. It is concerned more with the relational dynamics of the conflict than the content or contested issues. For example, if a family constantly argues over doing menial household tasks, like cleaning the dishes, they might seek to “fix” this in essentially three ways: conflict settlement, resolution, or transformation. To settle the immediate conflict over the dishes, those in power (i.e. parents) could just decide that the kids do the dishes, and that’s the end of it. To resolve it, the parents and the children might settle the immediate confrontation but then sit down to discuss a plan for future conflicts over dishes (such as establishing a rotation schedule). To transform it, the family should do each of the above but must then evaluate the relational dynamics and friction between them that creates tension in the form of fights over kitchen patrol. Addressing the content is certainly important, and quite frankly, sometimes all there is time for. But in order to live together well, conflicting parties must address both the ways they relate to one another as well as the contested issues.

CONCLUSION

Conflict is a dynamic process.[4] Rarely, if ever, is it static. The elements and content of a conflict often change over time, producing deeper and deeper layers. Thus, approaches to resolving or transforming conflict must be correspondingly flexible and adaptable. Lederach advises the practitioner of conflict change to take advantage of “peripheral vision” and the gift of “serendipity.”[5] CR, Lederach might say, tends to have too much tunnel-vision; it identifies the content, prescribes the future solution, and then trains ahead unwaveringly as if following the light at the end of a tunnel through a mountain. Instead, practitioners must take off the blinders of tunnel-vision and embrace their peripheral vision, understanding that sometimes the best path forward may be one completely unexpected. It may very well just land in one’s lap. Conflict transformation, Lederach writes, can be visualized as a soccer match.[6] In order to score, you cannot simply make one attack plan and expect success. Instead, in order to advance the ball, players must sometimes kick it sideways or even backwards, always vigilant for that unexpected opening allowing for a shot at goal.

In the end, both terms can be defined in helpful productive ways. Thus, addressing the basis of the terms, their connotations, and organic imagery seems to be important in analyzing their value. In my mind, conflict transformation implies a deeper, more complex relational endeavor to address the root causes and dynamics of conflict, and in so doing, hopes to provide imaginative direction for pursuing constructive change.

Alas, infinitely more can be said, whether regarding conflict transformation, resolution, contemporary conflict, etc. These six posts have simply been a (likely terribly inadequate) introduction to some of the basic ideas and conversations that exist in the field of conflict resolution/transformation. I hope that this look at some of these surface issues has provided insight into the immense depths of conflict resolution/transformation’s waters. I hope to offer more musings on CR/CT as I explore their expanses more thoroughly.


[1] Lederach, Moral Imagination, 35.

[2] Ramsbotham, 7ff; Mayer, 108ff; Kelman, 112; Malan, 456.

[3] Lederach, “Connecting Resolution and Transformation,” in Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 28-33.

[4] Ramsbotham, 11.

[5] Lederach, “On Serendipity: The Gift of Accidental Sagacity,” in Moral Imagination, 113-129.

[6] Ibid., 121.

Works Cited

Kelman, Herbert C. “Reconciliation as Identity Change: A Social-Pscychological Perspective.” In From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation, by ed Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, 111-124. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Interocurse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

—. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Malan, Jannie. “Traditional and Local Conflict Resolution.” In People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society, by Paul van Tongeren, Malin Brenk, Marte Hellema, & Juliette, ed Verhoeven, 449-458. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2005.

Mayer, Bernard. The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.

3 Comments

  1. Very nice. I especially like the footy analogy. It is by far the most Aristotelian sport of ’em all. Glad to see you processing all this stuff. Well done!

    • mtmcray says:

      Thanks cdk. I really love Lederach’s analogy. Very helpful imagery when thinking about conflict transformation. Thanks for giving it a read. Your stuff is most insightful as well. Keep it up!

  1. […] In conflict transformation, though we might know where we eventually hope to get (i.e. coexistence, healing, reconciliation, justice, etc.), we may not know the best path to get us there. But we choose one and move forward. It would be foolish, though, to expect that we will never have to adjust our movement. Approaching conflict transformation with humility allows us the freedom to adapt and try new things, not crushed by the realization that our first path was not the best one long term. And we must be vigilant, aware that the best way forward may be one we didn’t see before or never expected. Lederach talks about this in the form of a soccer match (see previous post). […]

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