The anatomy of a conflict: winners and losers

Conflicts have some basic commonalities – from ordinary workplace disagreements to Middle East peace talks the same basic, human dynamics play out time and again. The one which I will deal with here is the desire to win.

I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Occasionally, silly journalists would run stories about how 99.9% of the population wanted peace, according to some survey they had commissioned. And equally when I meet people in organisations 99.9% of them (if not 100%) want an end to conflicts in the workplace.

However the important question which was not asked, and which is crucial, is: Is it more important for you to win, than to have peace? This is a more difficult question, because it brings up the question of peace at what cost. President Nixon immortalised this with regards to Vietnam, as ‘peace with honour’; honour being an elusive concept in that case.

The problem in Northern Ireland, is that whilst most of the population wanted peace, many wanted it on their terms. They wanted to win. The problem with winning, is that there are losers, and generally they’re not too happy being the losers and so the problems continue in a cycle, as they did in Northern Ireland, and as they do in many organisations until key protagonists leave.

Today there is a lot written about win-win solutions, made famous by writers such as Steven Covey. I hear many in organisations who sound like they have ingested whole his book and regurgitate it to others. Often, however they are still trying to win, and are using his language to aid their process. They have misunderstood the concept and used the win part of win-win to hold on to their definition of winning, and ask the other to do all the adaptation.

And the reason why this happens? When we are in conflict with others we have our truths, which we believe are right. These truths make us right and the other person wrong. Generally those truths fall into a basic pattern: “I am the heroic victim battling against this malicious / insensitive / incompetent (choose which ever most applies for you) person / team / organisation / religious grouping / country (again choose which most applies).”

I have worked in organisations quite extensively around issues of conflict, and on both sides of all the conflicts the stories fall into that pattern. In Northern Ireland both sides had stories of how their culture / lives / livelihood were being threatened by the others – stories of victimhood and heroism tied together in a compelling cultural narrative. You can see the same stories on both sides of the Middle East divide, and in the US’s response to 9/11.

It is a common cultural story, and I often warn people in workshops, that when we find ourselves living in that story, we should be very careful because, whilst it feels very personal, it is such a universal story that it is a sure sign we have lost our perspective and our ability to work for a resolution to conflict, or peace.

A resolution of conflict cannot be gained by someone living in their story, their truth, where they are the righteous heroic victim, and the other side is bad and wrong. Inevitably there is fault, victimhood, misunderstanding and confusion on both sides. Living in our story of righteousness the answer is simple – the problem is over there. This keeps us from inquiring into the fault on both sides, the confusion, misunderstanding; and seeing and acknowledging the victimhood of both sides.

Rationally we all know that conflicts are more complex than this righteous story, but it’s much more difficult to really do this when it comes to our own conflicts. I remember running a workshop in one organisation, where someone said that they completely agreed with everything that I said, and that they saw how it related to societal conflicts, to conflicts around them, and even to prior conflicts in their own life. But with this conflict they were currently dealing with it was different; this person was genuinely evil and out to get them. It is so easy to have our anger blind us, and make us unable to see anything other than our story.

The first step in resolving a conflict (or even getting to a win-win solution) has to be the ability to give up our own righteousness. To admit that we do not know the pain of another, their and our misunderstandings and confusions, and to be willing to inquire here. This is painful and difficult work, but without giving up our righteousness we hold on to conflict. So the question we need to ask ourselves, is whether we would prefer to be right or be at peace? Ask yourself that question honestly, and you may be surprised at your own response.

Giving up righteousness even on one side of a conflict, defuses it. If we are pushing against each other and I stop pushing back and move out of the way, or even move around behind you to see the world from your point of view, then what have you got to push against. It takes two people to fight, but one person can end it. If I choose to try and understand you, your pain, your misunderstandings and confusions, in that process you will inevitably come to understand me differently – it will be hard to hold on to your righteous story of me as bad and wrong, when I make this effort to understand you.

Moving past righteousness to understanding involves sitting in the fire of conflict. Many of us are afraid to do this – we want to insist on order, but conflict is messy and difficult. As Arnold Mindell (in his wonderful book, Sitting in the Fire) writes:

“Yet enforcing order does not stop riots, hinder war or reduce world problems. It may even kindle the fire of group chaos. If we don’t permit hostilities a legitimate outlet, they are bound to take illegitimate routes.

… engaging in heated conflict, instead of running away from it, is one of the best way to deal with the divisiveness that prevails on every level of society – in personal relationships, business and the world.

… The fire that burns in the social, psychological and spiritual dimensions of humanity can ruin the world. Or this fire can transform trouble into community. It’s up to us. We can avoid contention, or we can fearlessly sit in the fire, intervene and prevent world history’s most painful errors from being repeated.”


An addendum on triumphalism

This is inspired, in no small measure, by the current pictures of cheering triumphant Americans celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden. We were all sickened when just after the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11, there were pictures of cheering celebrating young people from countries in the Middle East. Equally too, we should be sickened by the equivalent cheering of young Americans.

Some may argue that it is not equivalent. That the lives of innocents in the US cannot be compared to the life of Osama bin Laden. That’s a rationalism that neatly avoids the reality and pain of death. Martin Luther King Jr., put it well when he said:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Osama bin Laden stood for a belief that Islam and Western democracy and values were fundamentally opposed and were at war with each other. With the recent rise of revolutions in the Middle East against dictatorships (that the West in many cases supported), Osama bin Laden would have been saddened that these were not revolutions to develop fundamentalist Islamic states, but rather to develop democratic states, albeit that the final picture has yet to emerge.

This, more than anything else, points to the fundamental error of Osama bin Laden’s doctrine – the incompatibility of democracy and Islam. In his world view the West was bad and wrong, and was exporting immoral values in a form of cultural imperialism. And he was righteous about his world view. Triumphalism about his death is also based upon an equivalent righteous world view and gives something for his supporters to push against. It propagates and continues conflict.

The celebrations over a death in conflict is more likely to inflame and inspire more conflict. It is triumphalism and history is littered with examples of where triumphalism in victory has inspired more uprising and violence.

I see the same in organisations when I work with them. Triumphalism in an acquisition by the acquiring company (“We won!”). Triumphalism after winning a competition for a job. Triumphalism in tribunals and court cases. Triumphalism in turf wars and competing projects. In every case, it gets stored away by the loser, as another validation of their righteous story of heroic victimhood battling the evil oppressor, and leads to further conflict.

Another option would be a painful and difficult inquiry into the West’s role in creating inequality, in propping up dictatorships in return for oil, in acting as the world’s policeman against some regimes, and in acting without awareness of the values of those it is impacting through its actions. It would require looking at fault, confusion, misunderstanding and victimhood on all sides and would inevitably go back a long way in history. Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow, beautifully articulates this in her Huffington Post blog, entitled, ‘Today Is Not a Day of Celebration for Me’.

It’s easier to stay inside our simple righteous story of good and evil, but we have to ask ourselves again, do we want to be right, or to be at peace?


6:02 pm | by Pete_Hamill

2 Responses to “The anatomy of a conflict: winners and losers”

  1. Eva Koudela says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  2. Well said Pete and with compassion too. I too, have felt really awkward about this whole thing.

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