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Understanding Conflict
as a (Missed) Opportunity
for Social Development

Ib Ravn

In the literature on conflict management, conflict is usually defined in terms of incompatible goals and activities. In contrast, Thomas (1992), making no reference to such incompatibilities, defines conflict as a process that begins when one party feels negatively affected by another. This paper modifies and extends Thomasí definition thus: One party is in conflict with another when he or she 1. experiences psychological or physical pain, 2. holds the other party to be responsible for this pain, and 3. does not accept this situation. This definition is nested in a theoretical perspective that sees pain as a signal that something is wrong and needs to be changed. Pain represents an opportunity to learn and develop--personally, organizationally, socially. When the cause of the pain is projected onto another party and conflict appears, the opportunity for social development may be seized and the parties may learn and grow, or it may be missed--lost in suppression, projections, fear, etc. Conflict is thus seen, not as an outcome of regrettably incompatible goals or activities, but as an active potential for learning and development. Some implications for conflict resolution practice are outlined.

Paper presented to the International Association for Conflict Management Annual Conference, June 7-10, 1998, University of Maryland, USA.

Under review for the International Journal of Conflict Management.

See shorter version in Danish.


Since the 1950ís, most writers on conflict management have defined conflict as resulting from an incompatibility of goals or interests, including behaviors that impede othersí pursuits of their goals (Mack and Snyder 1957, Boulding 1962, Schmidt and Kochan 1972, Deutsch 1973, Rahim 1985, Hocker and Wilmot 1985). For example, a conflict is "a situation in which at least two actors, or their representatives, try to pursue their perceptions of mutually incompatible goals by undermining, directly or indirectly, the goal-seeking capability of one another" (Sandole 1993, p. 6).

It may seem obviously true that conflicts result from goals or behaviors that are incompatible (whether really incompatible or only perceived to be incompatible, as a common distinction goes). However, today, more than forty years after its introduction, we may appreciate that this formulation is not at all obvious but derives from particular intellectual traditions in the social sciences that are now being challenged by other perspectives.

The behavioral sciences, as they were often called then, placed heavy emphasis on precisely the goals and behaviors of systems. Goals were important in promising new disciplines like cybernetics (Wiener 1948), systems theory (Buckley 1968) and game theory (Luce and Raiffa 1957, von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944). Observable behavior was of course the sine qua non of scholarly disciplines attempting to establish themselves as truly scientific. No wonder these perspectives were seized by early conflict theorists.

Since then, goals and behaviors have been supplemented by other organizing ideas that are now proving themselves useful in the study of people, organizations and society, such as cognitions (Gardner 1985), interpretations (Berger & Luckmann 1966) and constructions (Gergen 1982).

The interpretive turn entails a shift in attention from observable behavior to the meanings people attach to human actions. Despite its widespread acceptance in many of the social sciences, the interpretive turn has yet to play a major role in the study of conflict. However, the role of interpretation is evident in the development of the mutual-gains approach in negotiation (Fisher & Ury 1981), which is based on the view that the parties to a conflict may re-interpret their goals and turn ("incompatible") positions into (potentially compatible) interests and needs. In the conflict management literature, there is similarly an increased emphasis on the partiesí perceptions of differing interests as being constitutive of conflict, whether or not there is overt conflict behavior (Rubin Pruitt & Kim 1994, 5). Likewise, the renewed interest in the constructive use of conflict (Tjosvold 1991, De Dreu and Van de Vliert 1997) calls for a concept of conflict that focuses on how parties interpret the conflict they are engaged in. It would appear that there is little in the incompatibility approach that helps the parties or the analyst interpret the conflict in such a way as to bring out its potentials for change, learning and development. To rectify this problem, the present paper explores an alternative to the incompatibility approach. But let us first examine the standard view.

The Chessboard View of Conflict

How do we define the phenomenon we call conflict? Conflict analysts may think the answer is obvious: "Well, thatís when two parties hold incompatible goals, and each engages in activities that obstruct the other partyís pursuit of his of her goals." But this statement is, of course, a interpretation that relies significantlly on a specific theoretical perspective. It is not likely to appear spontaneously on the lips of unschooled parties to a conflict.

If the scene of the conflict is conceived as a chessboard and the actors chess players, each pursuing the goal of winning and thus contemplating various courses of action, one of which may be taken at specific points in time, the notion of incompatibility clearly makes sense.

However, we may ask: If an incompatibility of goals or behaviors defines conflict, how do we know if such incompatibilities obtain in a particular situation? In the chessboard world, this can be established quite easily: one piece knocks another off the board. Both players want to occupy the same square but cannot. Whene need make no appeal to the emotions, experiences or thoughts of the players, because their behaviors tell the full story of their conflict.

However, if the clean chessborad metaphor is abandoned and the messy world of subjective human experience is introduced more directly, another perspective is required. In the human world it is rarely possible to draw such unambiguous inferences from behavior. Let us assume that I know my colleague wants the corner office, and so do I. I then behave in a way that clearly reduces his chances of getting the office and he knows this, but to my surprise he doesnít mind. We have incompatible goals and an incompatible behavior on my part. Are we in conflict? No.

It may be argued that of course my colleague has to mind for there to be conflict. But then the important term becomes "he minds," not the postulated incompatibility of goals or behaviors. What is important about the incompatibility is the fact that someone perceives it and is bothered by it. Indeed, how does one determine that there is an incompatibility of goals or behaviors? Is there some objective means by which this can be done? Only in the metaphorical chess world, where discrete positions and moves can be ascertained. What chessborad theorists refer to as incompatibilites result--subjectively and phenomenologically--when someone is bothered by what someone else does or is believed to do.

Conflict: Feeling Negatively Affected by the Other

The apparently redundant notion of goals is disposed with in Thomasí (1992) definition of conflict. This definition makes no reference to incompatibilities of goals. He states a conflict is "the process that begins when one party perceives that the other has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affect, something that he or she cares about (p. 653)." In this unusual definition, emphasis is placed on the subjectís perception of something unpleasant caused by another party, regardless of what goals they may pursue.

It may be argued that in using the phrase "something that he or she cares about," Thomas means to refer to goals. Indeed, an earlier version of this handbook chapter from which this quote is taken (Thomas 1976) was more explicit about the frustration of oneís concerns as the defining element of conflict.

However, when "goal" is generalized to "something one cares about" and this is set in the context of "feeling negatively affected," the redundancy of the former phrase becomes apparent. If the issue at hand is something I donít care about, you canít affect me negatively about it in the first place. For example, if I am not at all concerned about the plight of small rodents in suburban Canberra, nothing that anyone can do about these animals will affect me negatively, for I simply donít care. Hence, I will not become involved in any conflict over them. To affect me negatively, you must aim at something I care about, by definition.

In other words, once we introduce the notion of being negatively affected (being bothered, minding) there is no need to speak of goals. Goals recede from view when we focus on the subjective experience of feeling negatively affected by others. If I am bothered by what someone else does, this bother does not rely on my having identified any particular goals that may be obstructed by any particular behaviors of theirs.

I may interpret the situation so as to make a goal appear in view: "Hey, I donít like it when my next-door neighbor plays loud music" (I feel negatively affected by him) "...because... because... my goal is to live in this apartment in peace and quiet" (I state the conflict in terms of incompatible goals). But this is clearly a formulation informed by theory (as is, of course, the present argument that feeling negatively affected is key. Cf. below. No argument is theory-free.)

Sometimes a goals formulation suits the issue at hand, as when two countries argue and fight about fishing rights: their goals are a large catch, and both may engage in activities--such as corridor politics and direct action at sea--that hinder the other in reaching their goal. At other times, the goals formulation seems inappropriate, as in victim-offender mediation: Was it the victimís goal not to have her home burglarized and wrecked? The destruction of furniture and belongings--was that a goal the offender pursued? What actions did the parties take to obstruct each otherís pursuit of their goals?

The more reality looks like the metaphor, the better the fit, of course. Some real-life situations lend themselves to chessboard interpretations, others do not fit the mold so easily. The chessboard definition of conflict features goals, but a definition without goals is equally possible. Compare with the contractions of Thomasí definition used by other writers that leave out the phrase "that he or she is cares about": "Conflict occurs when an individual or group feels negatively affected by another individual or group" (De Dreu and Van de Vliert 1997, p. 1.) Thus truncated, the definition has left the chessboard metaphor behind completely.

Thus, what remains central to conflict, according to Thomasí definition, is that a party feels negatively affected by another party. I wish to tease out two elements of this definition: The negative-feeling element, and the belief that this feeling is caused by a particular other party. These elements often appear together, as in this case: The production manager discovers a rush order on his desk and mutters under his breath: "Damn Bob (the sales manager), heís done it again!" The sales manager has given a customer a delivery date the production department canít possibly meet. The production manager feels negatively affected, and there is no doubt in his mind as to who is responsible: Bob, the sales manager. Heís really irritated; he is in conflict with Bob.

However, in other cases the two elements do not present themselves at the same time. The source of the negative feeling may not be obvious; it may require considerable analysis or diagnosis by the subejct. "When I walk through my inner-city neighborhood, what exactly am I afraid of?" "Why is everybody in such a foul mood at work today?" "Why is my country falling behind in economic indicators?" Only after some thought may an answer present itself: "Maybe itís those guys loitering over there," "Itís probably Lisa, the assistant manager!" or "Itís because countries X and Y are blocking our entry into the Eurepean Union."

Let us rename these elements. First, the negative feeling will be called "the experience of physical or psychological pain." By this is meant every unpleasant sensation experienced by the subject in question, ranging from the mild disquiet felt when someone uses a word one doesnít understand, through the minding and being bothered mentioned previously, to being worried, annoyed, scared and all the way to severely traumatized psychologically. On the physical side is included the range discomforts and pains from the unpleasant push to being shoved, mugged, assaulted, maimed, as well as pains arising from hunger, cold, acute or chronic disease and other physical deprivations. Pain suffered by others or expected, realistically or not, in the future is included in so far as it bothers the subject now. No clear distinction between physical and psychological pain is implied; on the contrary, they intermingle profoundly. Compare the term "to hurt," which refers to both psychological and physical suffering.

Second, consider the feeling negatively affected by another. The belief that the pain is caused by some other party will be referred to as "causal projection." The subject projects the cause of his or her pain onto another person or collectivity of persons. The projection may be entirely reasonable: The neighbor who doesnít return the power tool you lent him is an obvious target for the causal projection of your irritation the Sunday morning you need it and heís gone for the weekend. Usually the subject who does the projecting feels justified in doing so; other observers may have alternative interpretations of the situation. Your spouse may tell you you inadvertently led him to believe it was a gift, hence, you must bear the responsibility.

For conflict to occur, both elements or conditions must obtain. There must be a subject who experiences psychological or physical pain, and the subject must hold another party responsible. First, without pain, there is no conflict. If A does not mind that B performs a particular action, A has no conflict with B, no matter how much Bís actions counter Aís stated or imputed goals. Conflicts are had by people that suffer some measure of pain.

Second, if the source of the pain is not attributed to another person or collectivity of persons, the word "conflict" is inappropriate. If the subject considers him- or herself to be the cause of the pain, there is no conflict with anyone. Also, we would not say we are in conflict with the various impersonal forces which, we believe, are responsible for our pain, such as biological processes (underlying cancer, for example), physical conditions (such as lightning), animals (bird droppings on my car), the gods (thought to cause floods to occur), fate and misfortune (personal handicaps) etc. Or, if we do see ourselves to be in conflict with them, it is because we personalize them: a personal God, the sly fox, evil spirits.

One further--exclusive--condition for conflict to appear is required. There are plenty cases in which pain is suffered and the cause projected, but there is no conflict. These cases must be excluded; cases in which the subject somehow accepts the situation, maybe only provisionally and under the circumstances; and the fact that another party has caused this pain seems acceptable, too.

For example: My dentist causes me pain, but thatís okay. I prefer that to the much greater pain involved in later toothaches. I am in fact responsible here, so we are not in conflict, despite the pain and the spontaneous causal projection. Or: the city council put a community center next to my house and the youngsters play loud music every night, but thatís okay, Iíll get used to it. I was bothered at first, but in the long term Iíll resign myself to it. Or: My son wrecked my new car. This would normally aggravate me and increase the tension between us. However, I am so relieved that he escaped serious injury that I forgive him for totalling the car.

In other words, when the pain experience and the causal projection are accompanied by acceptance, resignation or forgiveness, there is no conflict. Briefly put, for conflict to occur there must be a certain non-acceptance of the whole situation. Let us call it situational non-acceptance. As we shall see below, this condition makes all the difference between conflict used constructively and destructively.

Defining Conflict

Summarizing the three conditions mentioned above, a conflict requires...

1. The experience of physical or psychological pain
2. A causal projection onto another party
3. Situational non-acceptance

These three conditions involve a subject who experiences, projects and does not accept. Compare with the fact that conflicts are had by people, subjects. There are no objective conflicts, only conflicts involving subjects who experience the world in particular ways.

As the definition relates conflicts to subjects, or collectivities of subjects, we may restate the definition by referring to a subject A. A is in conflict with B when...

1. A experiences pain,
2. A projects its cause onto B,
3. and A doesnít accept the whole situation.

Even more briefly and personally: I am in conflict with someone when...

1. I hurt,
2. I hold them responsible,
3. and itís not okay.

A few examples will make the definition clear.

a. Two business partners, a sofware programmer and an investor, are at odds with each other. The programmer has written a piece of software that the investor objected to spending time on to begin with. The programmer now wants to sell the program on his own, since he spent a considerable amount of his spare time on it. The investor feels betrayed, since the program was written on company computers using the programmerís valuable creative energies. (If the story seems familiar: it is the Hacker-Star negotiation led by Roger Fisher in a demonstration videotape from the Harvard Program on Negotiation). There are feelings of being overruled on a new idea, being betrayed, being threatened with a lawsuit, losing a professional friendship: plenty of pain experiences (condition 1). Their causes are amply projected: "You did this when you knew I didnít like it, itís your fault, etc., etc." (condition 2). It appears clearly from the videotape that the partners do not enjoy the whole situation (condition 3). They are in conflict.

b. In a Western European capital, groups of adolescent, second-generation immigrants have repeated skirmishes with the police. They assualt individual policemen on the beat, throw bricks through police station windows, etc. Inside observers say the young men feel walled in, they have nowhere to hang out, they have no opportunities and they feel intimidated by the inexperienced police officers broght in to handle the unrest. In our terms, there is pain felt by the young men (condition 1), the police are convenient targets for their dissatisfaction (condition 2) and they only enjoy their situation as long as they get to express themselves violently, because this is better than the distress of a life without prospects (condition 3). The other party to the conflict, the police and the city council, are also pained by the unrest (condition 1), and the cause is obvious, these awful youngsters (condition 2). Theyíd wish the whole thing would go away (condition 3).

c. An African country is ruled by a minority of whites. The other races feel oppressed and consequently rebel. Members of both the minority and the majority experience substantial pain (condition 1), and they hold each other responsible (condition 2). The white minority surely wishes things would go back to normal (condition 3), and the rebellious groups also long for peace. They are in conflict.

As these examples illustrate, the definition proposed is so general as to include conflicts in all interpersonal domains, from dyadic to global. Usefully excluded are intrapsychic conflicts, as no person other than the subject is involved.

The definition further has the advantage of referring to terms very different from the one defined. "Pain," "causal projection" and "situational acceptance" are alle different from "conflict". We are not tempted to ask: "Well, what is pain, or what is it to project causes?" and then answer: "Well, look at a conflict and youíll see." In contrast, the incompatibility definition comes close to being tautological whenever we wish to inquire deeper into the constituent terms: Outside of the chessboard, how do we know which goals are incompatible? "Well, of course, those that lead to conflict."

It is also worth noting that the definition makes no reference to overt behavior. One may well distinguish between the ways in which and the degrees to which a conflict expresses itself, such as gossiping, verbal abuse, physical violence, armed hostilites etc. At a more detailed level such distinctions and typologies are necessary and useful. For here, suffice it to say that all conflicts have a mental or experiential component: a party experiences pain, projects its cause and dislikes it. Many conflicts express themselves behaviorally, but some donít. Aís expectation or belief, maybe unjustified, that B has harmed or will harm A in ways A cannot accept is enough for A to be in conflict with B. Some examples:

The son who believes his stepbrother has taken his place in his motherís favors may well be so negatively disposed towards him that it seems reasonable to say he is in conflict with him. The office worker who expects that her co-worker will be promoted instead of herself may well experience so much pain and jealousy that we would say she is in conflict with her co-worker, although not a single word or unfriendly gesture has been expressed to that effect. The guerilla leader who thinks a great injustice has been done to his men will plan his actions accordingly. Wouldnít we say the conflict emerges the moment this thought forms in his mind, rather than when his outward behavior begins to reflect it? As the UNESCO (1989) phrase goes, "War starts in the minds of men...." A definition that starts there, too, seems to make sense. (It does not follow that efforts to manage conflicts must start in the mind, too, e.g., by such means as attitude change. Behavioral interventions may well be more succesful and lead to attitude change later (Rubin 1991, 3)).

A Wider Theoretical Context for Conflict

Defining a term is like focusing the bright light of theory on it and making it stand out sharper in this light. A theory singles out certains aspects of reality for attention and thus establishes a perspective. The perspective appropriate for the definition proposed may be introduced by way of identifying a strong trend in conflict studies: the idea that conflict is not all bad and can indeed be used constructively. Conflicts may be used not merely to sharpen the stability of an organism-like system (Coser 1956, Pondy 1992), but to encourage change and learning among the parties to the conflict and in the embedding system (De Dreu 1997, Tjosvold 1997, Putnam 1995, Jehn 1997). For example, contributions to a recent collection (De Dreu and Van de Vliert 1997) documents the benefits to be derived from the optimal handling of conflict in organizations.

We may generalize this notion and propose that properly used, conflicts can contribute to individual as well as organizational and even societal learning and development. Let us call these forms of development "social development", by which is meant not merely an increase in living standards, but an increase in the quality of peopleís lives (Ackoff 1974) or in the satisfaction of human needs (Burton 1990). Similar meanings of the term are found in "community development" and in the UN "Human Development" report. Extending the notion of development, we may put conflict in the service of attempts to create the good life in the good society. In other words, development is that which moves people towards this unobtainable end in a process where every small step counts.

The fact that "development," let alone "good," defies easy elucidation makes neither concept meaningless. To take a related term from educational theory , "creativity" is crucial to the understanding of childrenís play and learning. But what is it exactly? For starters, it must imply changes for the better (Gardner 1993). As regards childrenís activites, everyone has an intuitive sense of what changes for the "better" are, as opposed to changes for the worse. For want of space, appeal is made to this intuitive sense here (but see Baburoglu and Ravn 1992, Ravn 1988, 1991). Refer also to the emerging school of transformative mediation, which sees the growth and moral development of the parties involved to be the issue of primary concern in mediation (Folger and Bush 1995, also Lederach 1995, Rupesinghe 1995).

Although good cannot be defined in positive terms, its meaning can be approximated negatively. In human experience, and a the most primitive level, what indicates the absence of good? Pain does. Pain can be seen as a signal that something is wrong, or not good. It is a crude signal that is far from infallible, but its very unpleasantness harbors a great potential for learning and development.

Baby touches a hot saucepan and a pain tells him to let go or continue frying. Headaches at work are a sign that something is wrong--the computer, the demanding boss, the deadlines? The pain experienced by a people suffering from malnutrition, and the frustration and anger of its leaders are signals that something is very wrong--harvesting methods, land ownership patterns, deprivation caused by past enemies, what is it?

None of this pain or suffering is pleasant or should be put up with any longer than necessary. However, given their occurrence something can be learnt from them. The baby learns not to touch saucepans fresh off the stove. The office worker reaches a new understanding with his boss and besides learns not to accept unrealistic deadlines. The people experiment with new harvesting methods and renegotiate regional boundaries to obtain more arable land. All have learnt and developed, satisfied their needs more fully and improved the quality of their lives.

Less happy reactions to pain are common, too, far more common, indeed. Pain may be suppressed and its message about the current, non-optimal state of affairs ignored. The burnt-out executive may ignore his hypertension and chest pains and pursue his stressful lifestyle until cardiac arrest kills him. The city council may suppress the troubling reports of social unrest among the cityís underprivileged for so long that a regular riot erupts, killing hundreds of innocent people. Governments may suppress for years the unpleasant news of rising fascism in a neighboring country and end up with a world war on their hands. In these cases, there is no learing or development, or it came too late and was more costly than had the pain and the unpleasant signals been heeded earlier.

Pain Challenges Habits and Established Worldviews

Being attentive to pain and trying to discover what message it is sending is difficult, for pain represents a challenge to our worldview and our ways of doing things. A popular way of evading this challenge is to project the source of the pain so far away from ourselves that we cannot really be expected to do anything about it. We may find the cause of the pain in the will of God, in chance, in forces beyond our control. Or we may find it in the actions of other people. "It is his fault. Iíve done nothing wrong. He must change." In this latter case there is conflict: "I feel pain. I hold X responsible, and I donít forgive him!"

In both cases, pain suppression and conflict, we are declining the invitation to develop. In the case if supression we say: "Well, there really isnít any problem, letís just keep going the same old way." In the case of conflict we say: "Well, my pain is caused by this other guy, so Iím really not the one who must change."

This is not to say that the responsible attitude to conflict is for each of us to assume responsibility for everything. Regardless of whose fault it is--and this is notoriously difficult to sort out in most social situations anyway--both parties may chip in when it comes to bettering the situation. Pain experienced in a social context is an opportunity for the whole system to develop, and you are invited to help your opponent develop, too. No matter how appropriate the causal projection seems to be (everything points to the other person being responsible for your pain), the challenge is for you to do whatever you can to help the situation improve, including helping your opponent learn not to harm you.

In the case of the business partners mentioned above, the conflict has reached a stage where it is hard to ignore or suppress the pain involved. The unpleasant prospects of a lost friendship, lost profits and a lawsuit may be reluctantly endured and suffered, most likely resulting in the break-up of their company. Or they may be taken, proactivley, as a challenge to their relationship which, if the conflict is tackled properly, may be strengthened as a result. In the video, Roger Fisher presents this challenge to the programmer by helping him see his partnerís point of view and reaching an agreement with him. Although one can never ascertain conclusively whether development has taken place, at the end of the negotiation the partners certainly seem pleased that they have sorted out their problems without splitting up or resorting to litigation.

As regards the example of the youngs immigrants, the police commissioner and the mayor may ignore or activley suppress the increasing unrest and dissatisaction, for example, by incarcerating individual offenders, hoping the problems will go away. Or they can face their own uneasiness and see the situation as an opportunity to learn about this population group and its desires for respect in the community. If this attitude prevails, the police may invite the young people to a meeting with local police and community leaders to sort out the issues and find space and recognition for the young people. If succesful, such dialog may make the community a richer and more diverse place, where the locals and the immigrants learn about each other, gain new friends and expand their perspectives on the world.

In the minority-ruled African country, the pain involved was suppressed by the majority for decades or centuries, but was increasingly recognized as a challenge to be dealt with. This expressed itself in increasing social unrest, which in turn was ignored by the ruling whites. When the pain is heeded, the situation may erupt in revolution and bloodshed, or in a more peaceful transition, as in sosuth Africa. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is very much concerned with bringing out the pain and suffering endured under the white rule, in a manner as nonconfrontative as possible. No longer ignored, the pain could well have been dealt with by suppressing and retaliating against the white minority responsible for it, but a saner and more development-oriented course seems to be taken in South Africa.

An Opportunity to Engage in Social Development

We may call the approach to conflict advocated here the "developmental approach." This approach involves tapping the situation for its potential for learning and development. The attitude towards conflict is positive from the outset, while the conflict is still young, not yet escalated. If the two first conditions for conflict obtain ("I feel pain, and I hold you responsible"), the developmental attitude pertains to the third condition ("and itís not okay") and reverses it: "It is indeed okay that you happen to be causing me some pain--for I intend to use the situation to learn and develop."

An example of this constructive attitude is found in the professor who calls a departmental seminar to present work in progress. When a colleague points to a serious flaw in his research, the professor is embarrassed; losing face is painful. If she is ready to use the pain as an invitation to develop she will endure the embarrassment and then go to work on the flaw. Maybe the research will be the better for it, and she has learned and developed. However, an equally common reaction to the colleagueís objection is to contest it: "Itís not a flaw, Iíve done nothing wrong, youíre nitpicking, youíre trying to make me look like a fool, youíre threatening my role as director of this research project"--and the scene is set for academic politics as we know it, with conflicts galore.

Whoever accepts or explicitly asks for critique, feedback or evaluation demonstrates a developmental attitude. He or she realizes that despite the initial embarrassment and pain, it is generally useful to hear opinions and judgements different from oneís own. Liberal democracies cherish this idea, and the freedom of the press certainly does seem to contribute to social development--at least if we compare with regimes where dissent is squashed. Many professionals, performers, teachers or practitioners of any kind probably find that the pain involved in getting critiqued is worth it, after all, as it can be a tremendous help to further professional and personal development. Likewise, organizations that learn (Senge 1990) are those whose members can tolerate the pain involved in paying attention to mistakes and know how to learn from them.

A Missed Opportunity for Development

If students of conflict find the constructive, developmental attitude hopelessly rare in conflicts, the reason is that conflict is precisely the situation that obtains when this attitude does not prevail. Before a situation turns into a conflict, there may be a short phase during which the injured party could have addressed the pain, refrained from blaming and used the pain for developmental action instead. If either party fails to do this, or if the opportunity does not present itself in their minds at all, there is conflict.

Let us call the situation when conditions 1 and 2 obtain for pre-conflict ("I feel pain and I hold you responsible"). If this situation is accepted and used as a startingpoint for shared efforts to change the situation so as to reduce the pain, a developmental attitude prevails and development is attempted. If, on the contrary, the situation is not accepted, condition 3 kicks in ("and itís not okay") and conflict appears.

Thus, the opportunity for development presents itself most clearly when only conditions 1 and 2 obtain (the experience of pain and the awareness of other actors and their roles in my welfare) and especially if non-3 holds, too: that is, when the parties actively accept the pain, as a prerequisite for dealing with the problems it points to. If condition 3 obtains, the opportunity for social development recedes as conflict emerges. Conflicts are, strictly speaking, missed opportunities for social development. If the conflict had been nipped in the bud development could have taken place.

The more the conflict escalates, the harder it is to engage in shared social development. Accordingly, many conflict resolution efforts are wisely directed at deescalating the conflict to a level where the parties may better understand their own and each othersí situations so as to try to learn from them. Warring parties are not likely to want to engage in any attempts to co-develop. Only when deescalated or otherwise transformed significantly will a conflict become amenable to development efforts of the kind mentioned.

Many authors point out that conflicts may be used productively (e.g., several of the contributors to De Dreu and Van de Vliert 1997, as well as Tjosvold, e.g., 1991). In light of the definition proposed, one may clarify this proposition by pointing out that the potential resides in conditions 1 and 2, called pre-conflict above, but that condition 3 ("and itís not okay"), which is a necessary condition for conflict, is irrelevant, or even detrimental, to the productive use of conflict.

Hence, for an organization or a system to remain flexible and developmentoriented, what should be fostered is not conflict per se, but the experience of pain and discomfort (condition 1) as well as the idea that others are involved in the generation of this pain (so that the pain and its causes are not completely internalized (blaming oneself) but acknowledged in their social context) (condition 2). In fact, condition non-3 should be encouraged: "It is okay that we feel pain and that X is involved in causing it." Accepting the pain and its cause is a prerequisite for dealing with it effectively. Indeed, the advice on how to learn from conflict listed by Tjosvold (1995, p. 24) is essentially about accepting that there is conflict so that one may make the best of it.

Only when the painful situation is accepted for what it is does it become possible for the parties to see the situation as an opportunity, instead of an obstacle or a threat. Instinctively, spontaneously, by what metaphor does one perceive a situation of conflict? In terms of a chess game, contested goals, obstructions, stalemates--and pain to be avoided at all costs? Or in terms of challenges and invitations to development, opportunities to expand into unknown territory and encompass the Other, that which was excluded from oneís world? It takes a shift in perception and interpretation to seek an end to conflict, as Zartman (1997, 2) puts it, not through "the push of a mutually hurting stalemate, but instead through the pull of an attractive outcome.... an opportunity for improvement... a mutually enticing opportunity."

Implications for Conflict Resolution Practice

When considering what implications for practical conflict resolution may flow from a developmental approach, one is struck by the fact that the current practice of conflict resolution seems to be much more consonant with this approach than with the older theoretical work on the chessboard view of conflict. Thus, if some of the recommendations for practice presented below strikes the reader as familiar, this probably only indicates that the practice of conflict resolution has deemphasized the chessboard approach and implicitly embraced another set of assumptions, according to which the essence of conflict is not the struggle to overcome obstacles and opponents in pursuit of an exclusive goal, but the opportunity to engage in shared learning and development.

1. Acknowledge the Pain
The anger, anxiety or other unpleasant emotion endured by either party must be brought out and acknowledged. It is often difficult to admit to oneself that one has been hurt, but a degree of emotional cleansing may be required for the more reason-driven phases of mediation or conflict resolution to work. Recognizing openly, whether only to oneself or to the other party as well, that one has been hurt serves to eliminate the notion, sometimes entertained by an injured party, that the offending action was an objective wrong, the perpetrator of which must of course punished. There is not always something evidently wrong with the offending action--but it did happen to hurt you, and that is important. A major purpose of the South African Truth and Reconcilation Commission is to identify and publicly acknowledge the pain suffered by the black community.

2. Interpret the Pain
Pain is not a poison or an evil to be avoided at all costs. It is a messenger sending a signal that something is wrong. Pay attention to it. What message does it hold for you? What problems in your existence or social context does it point to? Conflict resolution efforts must seek to reduce pain and suffering to tolerable levels, not eradicate it altogether. Pain reduced to a manageable level is an important resource in that it points to problem areas where development can take place. Intense pain requires relief, but a low-level, non-physical pain or discomfort can be exploited for developmental purposes and should not be eliminated for the sake of it.

3. Deal With the Pain
Sometimes the pain inflicted is the major issue, and healing the wound is the primary concern. A case of date rape presents a conflict if the victim still feels pain, holds the rapist responsible and does not accept the situation. Reconcilliation may not be relevant at all, but the victim needs to try to come to terms with her pain, integrate it as much as possible and get on with her life. In the workplace, insults and humiliation inadvertantly inflicted on colleagues need to be recognized for how they were experienced and dealt with accordingly--by empathy, apology, reparations or the like. Internationally, relief aid provided to victims of ethnic or national conflict is of course an attempt to deal with the physical suffering of the people involved. Dealing with this suffering is an important part of the peace process without which the parties are unlikely to engage in constructive peacebuilding. In sum, the experience of pain must be recognized in conflict resolution and given its due.

4. Consider Your Causal Projection
Do not attempt to find the "real" cause of the pain, because in all but the simplest cases, such diagnostic efforts tend to recede backwards and dissolve in a web of interpretations and misunderstood intentions. This point is of course commonplace in mediation, but it contradicts the chessboard view, according to which the past consists of a series of knowable moves (strategic decisions) made by the players. If the world featured such observable behavior, why not retrace the moves made by the parties and sort out exactly what happened? Well, because the human world is built from interpretations, and moves are neither discrete nor knowable, not even to the actors themselves. In a developmental approach, the process by which an injured party identifies a culprit is, therefore, singled out for attention. Hence, do consider your causal projections (but leave it to your opponent to consider theirs). Once your anger or frustation has been given their due, is it really fair to blame the person who first came to mind? Consider our primeval urge to find culprits we can hold responsible for our own shortcomings. Are there more complex, systemic forces at work than the actions of the one party in view? Are there any antecedents to your opponentís actions that should be considered?

5. Explore Your Opponentís Interpretations
Given that your opponentís conflict with you is based on his or her pain experiences and projections of responsibility, what may those be? Unlike chessboard moves, your actions and motives are not at all transparent to your opponent and only appear in his or her mind after extensive interpretation. Seek information from the other party that throws light on your actions as seen through their eyes. Pay attention to the aspects that are salient to your opponent. Donít they actually make sense? Donít do this out of charity, but so as to appreciate what the reality of the case is--that is, the diverging interpretations of the situation in which you both find yourselves.

6. Seek Information and Expand Your Horizons
Your opponentís view of the situation represents a blind spot in your own field of vision. The fact that conflict has arisen over a particular blind spot suggests that, psychologically, it is also a sore spot. One may ignore or suppress the blind spots in oneís field of vision, or one may use them to learn more about oneself and the world. Oneís opponent is an excellent resource for learning more about the ignored or suppressed aspects of oneís view of things. A mediation or other conflict resolution effort is usually so difficult to complete that the parties and the mediator are happy to leave the room with a urbane agreement signed. Granted, in most cases a third party should not press for more, but some benign conflicts with otherwise friendly or mature parties (business partners, neighbors, etc.) just may be handled in such a way that the parties learn more from each other than is normally the case in a mediation. What was once an enemy might become a source of information about perspectives on the world radically different from oneís own. Why shouldnít there be room in a mediation for extending oneís horizons in such a way as to prevent future conflicts from erupting?

7. See Opportunities Instead of Obstacles or Threats
Conflict need not be a hurdle that blocks your path. See it as a forking of the road that presents new options. In the chessboard paradigm, with the strategic goal fixed, tolerating deviations from the plotted course of action is difficult, and distractions are unwelcome. Taking a more open-ended approach that acknowledges the diversity of human existence and the fallibility of the best laid plans, we are more likely to be able to see interruptions and contradictions, such as those presented by conflict, as challenges that may be turned into something productive, if properly managed. Insecurity and anxiety lead us to fixate on specific values and goals and to be defensive and reactive when they are challenged. But when conflict occurs among people that are not subject to physical violence or major threats to their sanity, there is scope for an approach that seeks to unravel and grasp the opportunities for development inherent in any conflict.

8. Goal Pursuit vs. Development
Our goals are the future, desired positions that we can articulate and place before us as rationalizations of our actions. When we shift the perspective from the strategic pursuit of goals to human development towards a good life in a good society, more fundamental concerns are brought into focus. Goal pursuit is to development what position-based bargaining is to interest- or needs-based bargaining. Positions and goals are the surface manifestations we are tempted to fix upon, and interests and needs are the deeper layers of humanity that need to be served.

These eight implications for practice are obviously offered not as any kind of methodology, not even as practical steps towards conflict resolution. They are tentative suggestions for the kind of perspective that is likely to inform the conflict resolution practice of someone pursuing a more development-oriented approach. It must be reemphaized that the developmental approach is not presented here for its practical interest (because in this it may not differ greatly from many extant conflict resolution practices), but for its theoretical content.


In the scholary field of conflict management the forty-year-old definition of conflict as the result of incompatible goals seems to lead a life of its own. It is mentioned in textbooks and introductions and then largely ignored. It draws heavily on a chessboard metaphor of rational goal pursuit that no longer plays any significant role intellectually. It is rarely used as a springboard for conflict resolution practice; indeed, the influential mutual gains school undercuts its main premise (that the goals involved in a conflict are incompatible) and directs attention to something else entirely, viz., that which may not be incompatible (interests, needs).

Kenneth W. Thomasí 1992 definition of conflict as the proces that starts when one party feels negatively affected by another drives a wedge into this chiasm between, on the one hand, the chessborad definition of conflict and, on the other, a current research literature and conflict resolution practice largely uninformed by it. By calling attention to the pain experience and the subjective construction of the causes of pain, this definition shifts the focus from objective behavior and strategic goal pursuit to personal experience and interpretation. It points to a view of conflict more immediately meaningful to those that deal with the psychological realities of people in conflict--or at least more meaningful in a modern intellectual climate that is likely to be more receptive to the importance of interpretations and constructions than to the idea of rational actors pursuing strategic objectives.

A conflict may thus be seen as the result of human constructions. If constructed differently, both in individual experience and in social organization, conflicts may take on another guise than the intensely unpleasant one known by most of us in everyday life and tacitly reinforced by the chessboard view: conflict arises from obstructions. Obstruction is negative; and so is conflict. Alternatively conceived, obstructions are challenges to the status quo that we may seek to circumnavigate or seize to exploit for their full developmental potential. Conflict is obviously not good per se, but once it presents itself and once its excesses--physical pain and mental suffering--have been reduced to tolerable levels, it may become a source of learning and change.


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Note: I am grateful to Susan Ciccantelli for encouraging me to undertake this work and to Søren Viemose, Vibeke Vindeløv, Tarja Väyrynen and Peter Brorsen for constructive comments.