Conflict is Neutral
When most people think of “conflict,” words like “fighting,” “yelling,” “arguing” or “war” come to mind. Most people have a negative concept of conflict. However, our belief is that conflict itself is a completely neutral thing. It’s how we respond to the conflict that gives it a good or bad outcome.
Therefore, things like fighting or yelling are not conflicts, but they are things that happen when you mismanage a conflict. Depending on our responses to conflict, things like lessons learned or a strengthened relationship can also be an outcome of conflict.
At the heart of nonviolence is about learning to respond to conflict in ways that leads to positive transformation.
Conflict has History
In order to properly respond to conflict, we need to first understand it and its root causes. In society, we tend to look only at the moment that the conflict erupted into violence to try to understand what happened. “Why did the person pull the trigger?”
In Kingian Nonviolence, we recognize that all conflicts have history, and it is almost always the accumulation of unresolved conflicts that piles up on top of one another that leads to the escalation of conflict.
We may witness a shooting in our community. We see the argument, and we see the trigger being pulled. Based on what we see or hear, we may assume that the argument was over one person calling the other a name. What we don’t see is the deeper history of that conflict. Perhaps the history is between those two people. Perhaps they had been arguing back and forth for months or maybe even years, and it escalated to that moment. Or perhaps the history is not between those two at all, perhaps the two were strangers. Perhaps the history is with the shooter, and the lifetime of violence and poverty they had grown up around, and the unresolved internal violence that they were carrying. Perhaps they were carrying so much conflict from another relationship, and they carried that conflict into this relationship.
In social conflicts, the history may be generations in the making. The conflicts that are rooted in poverty did not happen overnight. An individual act of racism, at its root, has hundreds of years of racism that it is built on.
Big or small, all conflict has history, and we need to try to understand that history to understand how it escalated. Without that information, we are only responding to the symptoms of the problem.
Types of Conflict*
Pathway Conflict: Same Overall Goals, Different Ways of Reaching Them
Example: Two people wanting to go to the store. One wants to walk while the other wants to take the bus. This could start an argument about the best way to get to the store. Or, they could compromise and walk there and bus back. By doing so, the one that always takes the bus to the store may discover something new along their route.
Keep in Mind: If you identify that you are in a pathway conflict, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you are both trying to achieve the same thing. You are both on the same team.
Mutually Exclusive Conflict: Different Goals, Choose to Function Together
Example: A business meeting. One person may care about the health of the company, while another may only cares about getting promoted, while yet another may just want the meeting to be over as soon as possible so they can get home to watch the game. If each person focuses only on their individual goal, the team could fall apart. But if they choose to function together, they can help each other accomplish their individual goals.
Keep in Mind: Despite having different goals, there is some mutual benefit to everyone functioning together as a unit. Articulate what that mutual benefit is, and focus on that.
Distributive Conflict: Not Enough Resources to Go Around
Example: Not enough pizzas for everyone. Rather than fighting over the pizzas, you might cut the slices into smaller pieces so each person could get a piece.
Keep in Mind: Most often with distributive conflicts, especially distributive conflicts at the social level, the conflict is not real. It is the perception that’s created that there is not enough to go around. It is often times the inequitable distribution of resources that creates this perception (compare the budget of the US military to that of a school in a low-income neighborhood). Try rethinking the way something is distributed, or rethinking our concept of what is “enough.”
Values Conflict: Different Values, Different Vision
Example: Eye contact. In some cultures, we value looking at each other’s eyes during a conversation, while in other cultures, direct eye contact can be considered disrespectful. These are based on different cultural values. Rather than assuming someone is disrespectful, if we pause and have dialogue and try to understand each other’s perspectives, cultural values and visions, we may learn something new about another person or their culture.
Keep in Mind: Values conflict is the most common type of conflict in society, since there is always an element of a values conflict present in all conflict. In the example above of a pathway conflict, someone has to value walking to the store for the conflict to escalate. Gay marriage, conflict over religions, federal budgeting priorities, etc. are all examples of values based conflict. Even if you disagree with another person’s belief system, don’t assume you have the only correct perspective, and try to understand the opposing view, their needs and fears, and their value systems. You may be surprised to find out how much you have in common.
Levels of Conflict
Normal conflicts are things that everyone experiences each and every day. Waking up later than you wanted. Waking up to find you’re out of cereal. Finding a parking ticket on your car. Missing the bus. Having to attend a meeting or class you don’t want to go to. These normal conflicts are unavoidable, but you can usually get through them by taking a deep breath.
Response: You can prevent these conflicts from escalating by taking a deep breath, thinking of something nice, talking to a friend, etc. You can help others by offering a smile or a hug, asking them about their day, acknowledging their frustration.
However if these conflicts continue to pile up without getting resolved, they escalate to…
At the pervasive level, you begin to see and hear the conflict escalating, and you can feel the tension rising. For each person and each culture, these warning signs are different, but it is often times characterized by changes in tone, volume, language, body posture, etc. Once a conflict gets to this level, there is almost always something deeper at the root as this is a sign that smaller conflicts have accumulated. It is therefore important to identify the history of the conflict and to be able to articulate its root cause.
Response: Intervention is necessary at this level in order to keep the conflict from getting out of control. Often times the intervention may come from a third party, since at this stage it is difficult for the people involved in the conflict to genuinely listen to each other. While there is no magic-wand solution to de-escalate pervasive conflict, you can often times get the people involved to do the opposite of the warning signs of escalating conflict. For example, if someone starts to yell, talk to them calmly. If someone stops talking, ask them questions and try to get them to open up. If someone starts to call you names, call them by their real name or ask them what their name is.
At this point, the conflict has come into full bloom, and it is carried out often times with an intent to harm. This may be physical or emotional. Again, it may seem like the conflict has become overt as the result of a minor incident, but it is the accumulation of multiple conflicts that have gone unresolved.
Response: Managing an overt conflict can be tricky and risky. After all, Dr. King was assassinated for trying to respond to the overt levels of racism and injustice in this country. In this stage, you may be called on to raise your own voice or even use some physical force to separate two parties. However, the goal is not to harm anyone, but to temporarily separate the parties so that you can deescalate it back down to the pervasive level, then to the normal level so you can use dialogue to peacefully resolve the conflict.
* Adapted from a series of training manuals published by the National Drug Abuse Center for Training & Resource Development (1978) and funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse