Conflict is inevitable. We can try to avoid it, but we can never eliminate it. Fortunately there is a way to manage conflicts and mitigate the damage.
With just a little training, the average person can go a long way toward resolving his or her own conflict. All it takes is a little know-how.
Naming the Problem: The First Step in the Conflict Resolution Process
One of the first steps in the dispute resolution process is figuring out what the fight is all about, which means uncovering the underlying factors–the actions, words, emotions, motivations, and influences that led to the conflict in the first place.
That’s easier said than done. Conflicts are a bit like icebergs: we see only the tip. Under the surface lies the bulk of the problem: a mosaic of hidden motivations, unexpressed emotions, and covert influences, each of which makes the task of understanding the dispute more difficult.
That being said, we have to start somewhere. Thankfully there are helpful tools for assessing conflict. One great place to start is by understanding a few common types of conflict. Once we identify the type of conflict, we can then dig deeper and figure out what particular web of influences make our conflict unique.
At the most basic level, most disputes fall into a few broad categories:
– Clashing Identities: Conflicts Over Who We Are
– Clashing Needs: Conflicts Over What We Have
– Clashing Interests: Conflicts Over What We Do
Since each category deserves its own post, we’ll cover one per week. Let’s start with the first category.
Clashing Identities: Conflicts Over Who We Are
We all know the most prominent examples, the ones that scream at us from the headlines: ethnic wars, genocides, race riots. One group sets out to destroy or demean another group based on their identity. Whatever lies at the heart of the violence—prejudice, revenge, claims of victimhood—the agressor targets his victim based solely on one or two defining characteristics, be it religion or ethnicity.
Of course not all identity conflicts are that pernicious. There are plenty of examples closer to home. Indeed, most of us have some experience with identity conflict. We hear it often from teenagers: “My parents won’t let me be who I want to be. They don’t understand me.” There are countless other fault-lines. Whether it’s our political affiliation, nationality, race, creed, occupation, or even clothing style, the point is that someone objects to who we are or wants to stop us from being who we want to be.
Identity conflicts tend to be among the most bitter and intractable. Perhaps that’s because identity appears to be all-important. Identity speaks to the core of our being. We are our identity. When someone attacks our identity, they attack our very being. In other words, our identity concerns our self-image and the image of self we want others to accept.
The Problem with Identity
One problem is that people value different aspects of their “identity.” Some people identify primarily with their ethnic group, others with their political party, still others with their occupation.
Once upon a time, and in some places today, the social group, be it tribe or community or state, defined a person’s identity. Blood ties, marriage contracts, and social strata were all pre-defined for the person. In modern and particularly postmodern societies in the Western world, it’s become the fashion to create designer identities: each person defines the aspect of their being they choose to emphasize.
In either case, we’re dealing with a conflict over someone’s definition of who they are at their core. So how does one deal with a concept so vague, so amorphous, as identity?
Franciscan Peacemaking: Handling Identity Conflicts
One answer is to look at the problem from the viewpoint of modern sociologists. We may try to reconcile the differences between groups who have been placed or place themselves in easily defined categories. There are benefits to this approach. By using such categories, we not only touch upon the most salient issue, but we also address people on terms they can understand, terms which fit into their own reality.
Unfortunately, there are also problems with the sociological approach. One is that it fails to deal with deeper aspects of reality. The other is that the sociological strategy can (and has) become a tool in the hands of those who seek to create conflict by dividing people based on arbitrary attributes. In other words, it’s the perfect handmaiden of the divide-and-conquer strategy.
Which is why the other answer, the one we prefer, is to look at identity from a deeper standpoint, from the point of view of Saint Francis. When Saint Francis looked at another human, he saw first and foremost not arbitrary categories or labels, but that spark of divine nature that resides within each and every person.
Indeed, for a Franciscan peacemaker, there’s something deeper than identity. Only when we dig underneath self-made and socially imposed identities do we discover who we really are. And at the core of who we are is a being made in the image and likeness of God. Thus a Franciscan, and therefore a Christian approach to peacemaking recognizes the ultimate destiny of each human being as a child of God, all the while recognizing diversity within the human family.
Franciscan peacemaking doesn’t discount identities; it doesn’t say they’re irrelevant or imaginary. It merely says that those identities represent neither the whole truth nor the most fundamental truth. Sociological identities don’t address reality at its deepest level. They cannot, therefore, be the primary bases on which to build a lasting peace.
That’s what made Saint Francis’ approach to peace different than so many of the quick, technocratic fixes we see today, fixes that often exacerbate rather than alleviate conflict. It’s what defines the Taming approach—not ignoring the identities that make up our personalities, but also not letting them define who we are as human beings. To see the divine in another is to understand who and what they are at the deepest level.
We will, of course, still have to address the very real differences that separate us, as Francis sought to deal with the differences that separated him from the Sultan of Egypt, but we do so with a clear view that what we’re dealing with is not first and foremost a “Russian” or a “teenager” or a “drug abuser,” but with another child of God. Only when we start from that point of common ground do we see the true path to peace open up before us.