Why Disagreement is Not Conflict

The best definition of conflict that I have ever heard was provided by Dr. Ariane David. I attended a training she gave on the topic of Non-Positional Thinking. She said, “You know you are involved in destructive conflict when you start feeling defensive.”

It is the feeling that you are personally being attacked that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from a disagreement. It is this emotional content that turns a disagreement into a conflict. If you can walk away from a disagreement without it affecting you, without suffering any negative consequences, then you are not involved in a conflict.

Everybody is different. We have different thoughts, ideas, identities, experiences, politics, and ideologies. We like different types of food and different kinds of movies and have different hobbies than our spouses and siblings and friends. We disagree with people daily without engaging in conflict.

My wife and I disagree about what to have for dinner almost daily. We typically have to discuss, at length, our reasons for wanting or not wanting a particular type of food: we already had that for lunch today, or we ate that the other night. We work it out. We don’t always come to the most satisfying agreements; we do have enough options to come to some mutually pleasing, if occasionally suboptimal, agreement.

A disagreement over something simple like dinner can remind you of other issues that are bothering you. These small disagreements can remind us of, or lead to, anger and hurt and pain about issues that are not even being discussed at that moment. It is these emotions, the angers and hurts and pains, that lead us down the path to conflict.

It pays to remember that you can easily walk away from a disagreement. The consequences of a disagreement mean little to you. You can let the other party have their way without risking a loss or hurt. When you start getting emotional about the possible (even if they are improbable) consequences of a disagreement, you are spiraling into a conflict.

What is Conflict Resolution?

Conflict resolution is relatively easy to define. A conflict is a serious disagreement powered by the idea that one has something to lose. The threat of loss is sometimes real. In many cases the threat of loss is a perception of  the parties and is powered by the emotional content of the disagreement, rather than being an actual threat of loss. Resolution describes the actions taken to end said such disagreements.

Conflict and its Resolution

In reality, conflict resolution is difficult. Conflict resolution is the sum of the knowledge and practices that allow a person to assertively and confidently deal with the conflicts they face and to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Some people seem to have these skills innately. Most of us, however, will have to put in some effort to master these skills.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there are many possible responses to any given disagreement. Each response will lead to a unique outcome. Some responses will resolve the disagreement. Some responses will spark conflict. Other responses will create no change at all. Any response on the spectrum of good to bad can possibly lead to additional problems. So, how does one decide what to do?

There is some basic knowledge that enables people to make the right choices toward resolving conflict. The most important is self-awareness. Understanding what your interests are and what you are attempting to achieve will make it easier to navigate your disagreements without them spiraling into conflict. Knowledge of your competitor’s values and goals can also make it easier to achieve your aspirations.

Types of Conflict

It is important to understand that there are different types of conflict. Cognitive conflict, sometimes called task or team conflict, is about how something gets done. Primarily, it is conflict around ideas and processes and plans; things that participants might take seriously, but they do not take personally.

Affective conflict is a conflict where a person’s emotions get involved in resolving, or not, the conflict. In affective conflict people are taking the conflict personally and attacking each other rather than the problem. As a result, they often lose sight of how the conflict got started. People definitely lose sight of their own interests when caught up in this type of conflict.

I could list business, social, and personal as types of conflict. In my opinion, these are not types of conflict as much as they are the milieu, or context, of the conflict. These help define the stakes of the conflict. The primary difference between business, social, and personal conflicts are the scope and scale; the number of people affected, how they are affected, and how much it costs to resolve, or not resolve, the problem. The cost of conflict to people and organizations is time and money spent, loss of opportunities, and damage to relationships.

Purposes of Conflict Resolution

There are two main purposes to conflict resolution. The first is to avoid turning disagreement into conflict where and when possible. Second, to attempt to resolve conflicts with a minimum of damage to all parties involved. I use the word attempt because not all conflicts are resolvable. With knowledge of yourself and your goals, along with vigilance against getting emotional about your disagreements, you can learn to assertively, confidently, and effectively navigate your conflicts.

Information Asymmetries and Pragmatic Nonviolence

Background

I first learned about information asymmetries in the 2001 when I read a newspaper article about George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz winning a Nobel prize for their work on the subject. At the time the idea angered me, that one party might use another party’s lack of information against them. Not only did it seem pretty obvious; it confirmed, for me, an idea that I had that the Nobel Prize in economics was handed to researchers whose work best protected the status quo.

Though I was aware that information asymmetries existed over the next several years, I did not have much use for them. I almost forgot about them. Then, while I was taking the capstone course for my bachelors degree in Public Administration, we were given an assignment to write a twenty-page paper on the subject of our choice.

I chose to write about Mohamed Bouazizi and the Arab Spring. Bouazizi is the Tunisian man who set himself aflame in December of 2010 who is credited with starting the Tunisian revolution and touching off the larger Arab Spring movement that led to numerous protests and the overthrowing of several governments. I was interested in the Arab Spring because I understood that many of its large-scale actions were coordinated by text messages and social media applications. Bouazizi’s story only got out of Tunisia because the Al-Jazeera news network found it on Facebook. Not only did I find the entire story fascinating, the implications for public administrators were obvious.

Originally my idea was that technology, in the form of smart phones (which are essentially hand-held computers), text messaging, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) would allow citizens to overcome information asymmetries that exist because governments and large institutional powers typically held a monopoly on the transmission of information because of their ability to broadcast. These technologies essentially put the power to broadcast a message in the hands of anybody with a phone.

I wrote my report, got my grade, and kept on researching the subject. I started a blog to write about it in March of 2012. I rediscovered information asymmetries and found the ideas of adverse selection, structural violence, and information warfare. Along the way I decided that, for my purposes, information asymmetries are tantamount to power asymmetries.

Berghof Article

I read Véronique Dudouet’s (2011) Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. I was drawn to this particular article for a couple of reasons. I had been doing a lot of reading about nonviolence once I began my graduate studies. Also, learning how to overcome power asymmetries was an objective of the research I was doing.

I believe that nonviolence is a strategy of paramount importance in any movement that hopes to bring change to society. I do not think it is an appropriate tactic in all situations. I also understand the efficacy of violence. There are few things that work better in the short run than violence. However, I know that no matter how good any entity is at using violence to obtain its objectives, it will always encounter someone or something better at waging violence. This, of course, will lead to defeat and the collapse of whatever it is that has been built to that point.

I was pleasantly surprised that Dudouet (2011) wrote, “In extremely asymmetrical situations, particularly acute in ethnic conflicts, nonviolent strategies might not have sufficient leverage to bring about necessary changes (p. 253).”  The subtext of this is that there are certain adversaries who are more than willing to use violence against a group of nonviolent protestors, despite the consequences of any such action. I think this supports my position that nonviolence does not work in all situations.

Another reason I enjoyed reading this article is that Dudouet (2011) breaks down nonviolence into two camps: principled, or Gandhian, nonviolence which she defines as nonviolence “by conviction rather than expediency (p 242),” and practical, or Sharpian, nonviolence; she writes, “… Gene Sharp embodies the pragmatic, strategic, or technique-oriented approach to [nonviolent resistance]… (p 243).” Most of the material I have read sits squarely in the principled camp of nonviolence. I found it comforting that it is possible to view nonviolence as a tactic to be used when appropriate rather than an ideological panacea.

I like fact that Dudouet (2011) works not just as a treatise on nonviolence, but also on a policy level as well. Dudouet, in defining NVR (nonviolent resistance), writes:

… the authority of any ruler rests on the continued voluntary obedience of its subjects. Therefore, the essence of NVR rests on withdrawing this consent through non-cooperation or civil disobedience towards unjust laws (e.g. boycott, strikes, tax resistance), so that governments can no longer operate (p. 240).

Most of what I have read about nonviolence has focused on the spiritual and philosophical reasons for adopting nonviolence. Essentially, the idea is that we should adopt nonviolence because it is the right thing to do. Dudouet (2011) (and by extension, Gene Sharp) provides the idea that nonviolence might be adopted because it is a practical thing to do:

According to the pragmatic school of nonviolent action, empirical evidence shows that in most registered cases of NVR in recent history, the protagonists were not motivated by a principled commitment to the avoidance of bloodshed. Instead, they selected this strategy in order to defeat a particular opponent with the most effective and least costly means at hand, or for the lack of better alternatives, because a viable military option was not available (p 243).

Before I read this article I was growing bored with the idea of nonviolence. It was not that I failed to see the value of nonviolence; I was turned off by the preachiness of some (many) of its practitioners. I had heard of Gene Sharp prior to reading the Dudouet (2011) article, but I had no idea of his real significance until Dudouet pointed it out to me. In at least this aspect, reading this article was a great benefit to me. It gave me new avenues to explore, within the realm of nonviolence, more in line with my pragmatism.

References

Dudouet, V. (2011). Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. In B. Austin, M. Fishcer, H.J. Giessmann (eds.). Advancing conflict transformation: The berghof handbook II. Opladen/Framington Hills: Barbara Budrich Publishers.