The Info-letter of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute
Every month Attractors shares tips and tools
from human systems dynamics.
In this month's edition, Glenda Eoyang shares on
The Alchemy of Tomorrow: Turn Conflict Into Conversation
Over the past decade, talk of “conflict resolution” has shifted into “conflict transformation” and from there into the realm of “intractable conflict.” As the field becomes more realistic, it also becomes less hopeful. In the world of human systems dynamics (HSD), we believe there are three reasons for this evolution. We also believe that human systems dynamics’ iterative, pattern-based, systemic approach will help us find a place of realism and hope as we turn conflict into conversation. It is the key to the alchemy that turns conflict into productive, sustainable conversation.
We see three barriers between conflict and peaceful intercourse. While it is true to say that conversation could overcome all barriers to peace, experience tells us that dialogue works only sometimes and in some ways. This important alchemical transformation requires that other conditions be in place before conversation can emerge. What are those reasons and how do we approach them?
Reason 1. We treat conflict as a personal, rather than systemic, matter.
Yes, it is wonderful when any two enemies share a meal and a conversation, but they go home to persistent patterns of hatred and violence. Even two institutions or nations cannot establish a relationship that is strong enough to reform the wider, global patterns or neighborhood, family, or individual relationships. Until we are able to see, understand, and influence social patterns as complex systems, we will remain mired in conflict and dependent on interventions that make little difference in the long term.
HSD draws from complex adaptive systems theory and practice to conceive of social patterns as massively entangled, multi-leveled, and interdependent. Personal relationships can give clues to the wider systemic patterns of conflict because they shape and are shaped by them. But, the personal interactions emerge from intrapersonal dynamics of each individual’s emotional, cognitive, and physical patterns. Interactions also reflect cultural, institutional, and political patterns wider than the personal context that have emerged over time. Interventions that acknowledge multiple layers of complexity, from the deeply personal to the widely systemic, may leverage energy and possibility that would otherwise lie dormant.
My husband left the lid off the toothpaste again. I can choose to see this conflict as personal—he knows it drives me crazy. I could, instead, consider how his behavior is a result of patterns beyond his awareness or control. For example, internal patterns might shape his behavior—How can I help him break this habit? I could also consider the influence of his family of origin—What family patterns are reflected here, and how do they show up in charming, rather than irritating, ways?
Reason 2. We compete for a singular truth.
When my absolute truth comes face-to-face with your absolute truth, I give myself few options for action. I can choose to ignore, convert, or destroy you. None of those leads to patterns of sustainable peace.
What if we look more deeply at “truth?” In HSD we have learned from Habermas to acknowledge multiple kinds of absolute truth. Objective Truth is absolute when we have evidence that is unassailable. Normative Truth is absolute when all the players in a particular time, place, or effort agree to it. Subjective Truth is absolute when any individual holds it as reality. The fourth kind of truth is the key to the alchemy of conflict. It is Complex Truth, which asserts that all the other truths are absolutely true, and people have a choice of which to focus on in any given circumstance.
My neighbor has knocked over my trashcan again (Objective). I am afraid to talk to her because it didn’t go well last time (Subjective). The local laws define trespassing as moving more than two feet into personal property (Normative). The event happened. This is objective truth about which I can do nothing. But the Subjective and Normative Truths give me some options for action. I could change my attitude, move the can, or call City Hall, or make a request, or any number of other things that could shift the pattern for the future.
Reason 3. We depend on different methods of data collection, meaning making, and action taking at the local and global levels.
At a particular place and time of conflict, mediators set conditions for conversation that may lead to personal or group understanding. On a global scale, economists and experts in international relations describe macro trends that might lead to political or military intervention. Clearly action is required at both these scales, but unless information flows easily between the local and global, interventions may be disconnected (at best) or counterproductive (at worst).
HSD’s pattern-based language of the CDE Model provides a scale-free way to capture conditions of change at any scale of human interaction. What is the container (C)—what bounds the system at whatever scale? What are the differences (D) that make a difference at that particular scale? What exchanges (E) support or inhibit productive relationships in that container? When both the micro- and the macro-patterns are represented in this simple way, it is possible to explore connections and create synergies between and among dynamics at various levels.
My children fight all the time. While the fights can be about anything, I notice that the boys always line up against the girls. That tells me that gender is the difference that makes a difference for them. When I examine my relationship with my husband, the neighborhood and school activities, and TV shows they watch, I see gender differences generating conflict in all those places, as well. What can I do focus in and help them mediate and moderate this particular source of conflict wherever it occurs?
We cannot guarantee that these are the three and only three reasons why conflict emerges or why intractable conflicts persist. We can’t even guarantee that if these are the reasons, our responses will always work. What we can promise is that these three concepts open options that were not obvious before. And what we can hope is that Adaptive Action and its options for action might transform the lead of conflict into the gold of coherence in an alchemy that is more science than art.
I would love to hear your stories that confirm or challenge this theory and practice. On May 9, we will host a free webinar to explore this topic in more depth. Please find out more about the webinar and register here.
Glenda Eoyang, Ph.D.