Conflict Resolution for a Sustainable World

By Eleanor Powell | 1990-04-01 12:00:00

PEACE ACTIVISTS often face a paradox. In seeking peace and justice, we challenge the status quo and confront others who wish to leave things as they are. In these challenges, debates sometimes become conflicts and escalate out of control. Afterwards, we ask ourselves: How did that happen?

There are adversarial and coopera-tive ways of engaging in conflict. Each way has both merits and drawbacks.


Often in my cohflict resolution workshops I ask participants to itemize how they feel about the word "enemy." Tensions rise: An enemy is subversive, threatening, spiteful, treacherous, belittling. Then I ask them to describe the attributes of an opponent whom they might appreciate. Sunlight breaks out. That is a different per-ception altogether! Such a person, they say, would be straightfor-ward and fair, well-informed and open-minded, challenging, crea-tive and strong! He or she might be tenacious in some circum-stances, flexible in others, always non-judgmental, always a good lis-tener, and always caring enough to see the matter through.

So I say, "If that is the type of oppo-nent you appreciate, then why don't you be like that?" This shows them a model of their own making to follow in fighting fair.

Adversarial methods are the norm on our culture. Demonstrations, boycotts, work-to-rule and strikes are all adver-sarial in nature. In the absence of other recourse, say, in oppressive regimes, these methods may be effective; the risks are shared and the common action bolsters courage. Protest is a respected element of democracy, which shows that the cause has support. But the most spectacular way to get attention is not necessarily the best possible solution to the problem. The alternative is the co-operative approach.


These are the assumptions underlying collaboration:

  1. All parties' needs and interests should be reveated, so that the solution may include them.
  2. The other person has values, too, and will respond to being treated with respect, as an equal.
  3. Mutual non-judgmental hearings can lead to effective exchange ofinfor-mati on.

Not all discussions over important matters have to be disputes. In some cases, the best possible outcome for all may be achieved without conflict, by sympathetic dialogue. This would keep matters at the lowest possible level of escalation and may be the optimal way to bring the matter to resolution.

Most issues can't be dealt with so easily, however. Sometimes we have trouble even getting a hearing. How can we present our view in such a way that it will be taken seriously? How can we exchange all the necessary information, and maximize the beneficial outcome for everyone?

Careful planning helps. Anticipate what each party has at stake. On what area may there be agreement already? How important are the relationships? How may a positive climate be set?

When contacting the other person, give your reason for meeting in neutral terms and invite voluntary participation. Certain ground rules for the dis-cussion may be agreed upon that will use the strengths and interests of both parties to best advantage.

Start the discussion by stating your concerns and how the other person might help. Listen atten-tively to the reply. It is very effective to reflect back the other speaker's important points and how it seems to be affecting him or her. This is active listening. The person will sense that you under-stand his or her point of view, while not necessarily agreeing with it. Ask non-blaming, non-judgmental, open questions that clarify the other's case. Often this process allows others to see their own biases. Then insist on equal time to explain your own needs. Remain firm on your essential goals, but flexible on how to achieve them. Recognize your emotions as important signals but don't react impulsively. Out of this process emerges greater under-standing of priorities, needs and inter-ests. You may soon find yourself and the other working together to address the problem.


But, you ask, what about the down-side of the collaborative approach? May I not be taken advantage of? There are two ways to meet this problem: by confrontation and by playing 'ju-jitsu." Confrontation in cooperative prob-lem solving is carried out in a context of caring and respect. Vague, aggressive or inconsistent behavior is brought firmly to the other's attention, by say-ing how you are perceiving it, how it affects you, and what might suit you better. You may stop the behavior by drawing attention to it. It helps if you affirm the person, but criticize the ac-tion. Take notes; refuse to yield to pres-sure; insist on objective standards. In your own mind distinguish between the personalities and the problems.

Ju-jitsu is a means of disarming the other person by using his or her own strength. If you are attacked or criti-cized, do not fight back! Instead, deflect the criticism from yourself to the problem. Check the accuracy of your perception, ask clarifying questions, paraphrase the comment into more neutral terms.

Suppose the other says, "You peace-niks would invite the Communists to take over our country if you had your way," you might reply, "Democratic principles are important to you. They are important to me, too. Let's maintain these principles without running the risk of a nuclear war."

Sometimes one's own drive and pas-sion can be so strong that the other is swept up in the current. Don't take no for an answer if you know your cause is just, and if you can gain the participation of the other.

If these tactics meet with continued hostility or double dealing withdraw gracefully. After all, the ground rules did state that participation is voluntary.


One can hope, however, that the dis-cussion will have gone more smoothiy, that misunderstandings have been worked out, and that the best option has been selected. Success will depend on how the agreements are expressed. Write them down, making sure that they are accepted without pressures of fatigue, time or coercion. Success will require their being perceived ulti-mately as fair. Maybe there is a need for another meeting, an interim agreement, or a re-evaluation in the future. Consult your sixth sense to see that what you've got is what is needed. Look after the other's interests and needs as carefully as your own. After all, the taskofbuild-mg a sustainable planet deserves everyone's full participation.


Conflict resolution cannot be learned solely from reading articles and books. The best way is through practical experience. Courses are held in a number of centres. I can recommend the Certificate Program in Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute, 4180 West 4th Avenue,Vancouver B.C. V6R 4J5 (604)228-9771 Local 311. Or write to the Network for Community Justice and Conflict Resolution 298 Frederick St., Kitchener, Ont. N2H 2N5

Victoria physician Elinor Powell leads conflict resolution workshops.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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