We all experience conflict to varying degrees in various social spaces, including work, school, home and other contexts in which we might find people. The trouble is that too many of these conflicts have ended badly, leading to deeper and more inflamed conflict, destructive relations and often, damage to our psycho-social wellbeing.
We’ve probably all experienced a time when we had only limited power or no power at all, to effect change when we’ve been in conflict with someone at work or home. Maybe it was that we came against someone with different goals with which our goals were incompatible, or maybe we simply had different ways of achieving the same goal. These incompatible goals will either contain the substance of great harm, or alternatively, the potential for the transformation of a conflict into something positive for all parties involved, if handled well.
So we do seem to have this underlying sense that conflict can be good and beneficial, but all too often it creates injury instead of gain. The injurious effects of conflict are vast, including, anxiety and depression, anger and aggression, fracturing of relations, deterioration of communication and self-destructive behaviour or acts of violence. But why does conflict so often lead to injury?
The trouble is, it’s very difficult to come to conflict without the baggage associated with our individualised histories and experiences, including our hang ups, insecurities, fears and unique personality traits. And unfortunately, even if we trust our own ability to settle a conflict, the other party may not receive our efforts particularly well, harming the potential for collective gain.
At this point we may throw our hands up in the air and say it’s pointless, and then withdraw physically and maybe emotionally and psychologically from difficult relations, or alternatively we may seek to stand and fight while trying to impose our wills on the other party or parties to the conflict.
The first type of response may allow us an escape route. Yet, with the dispute remaining unaddressed, it is possible that we will simply internalise our hurt and anger, possibly leading to depression or misplaced outbursts of aggression at others who may have had nothing to do with the original conflict.
The second type of response, to fight, may initially lead to a positive outcome for us because we have been able to bend the will of the other party or parties who have now capitulated to our will. Yet, how long can we expect our positive outcome to last if the other party hasn’t taken ownership of the outcome, instead continuing to disagree with the course of action they have been forced to take?
The withdrawal or fight response to conflict can become very bleak indeed if it leads to direct acts of violence, whether it be verbal abuse, physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse or any combination of the three.
The challenge here is in trying to understand what the conflict is about and the difference between the symptoms of the conflict, often reflected in the direct acts of violence, and its causes. One quite old, but particularly good way of making distinctions between the two, symptoms and causes, is by envisioning a tree with its branches, trunk and root system, as in the picture below.
It is quite easy to see and analyse what is in the branches of the tree, but much harder to see and analyse, not least understand, its complex system of roots, which gives nourishment and life to the rest of the observable parts of the tree. The roots causes of a conflict can, in this picture, be likened to the difficulty of seeing and understanding the dynamic root system of a tree.
The causes lie under the surface, concealed from view and therefore often remaining unexamined and unaddressed. Yet, it is these root causes that, more often than not, provide life and nourishment to the conflict. The challenge in all conflicts is in gently uprooting the causes so that they can be examined, analysed, understood and hopefully transformed. If we seek to simply address the symptoms of a conflict we will be only providing short term remedies at best. This is like putting a bandaid over a wound, while not addressing the underlying disease causing the wound to appear and reappear.
Using a medical analogy may quickly make us exclaim, “Of course, we can never just deal with symptoms.” Yet, often this is because we are relatively medically literate given our high level of medical care and health programs, in Australia at least. If we have a cough, we’ve been taught that it may be caused by various things, including the flu or a virus, or worse, bronchitis or pneumonia. We then cease taking our throat lozenges and seek to address the cause through more acute remedies.
The same doesn’t appear true with conflict. We simply seek to address the symptoms of our conflict because the symptoms are the conflicts most observable manifestation. We see someone getting slapped, hit or verbally or sexually assaulted and we cry, “that has to stop!” And by this we mean that the person who abused or assaulted the other needs to be constrained or removed from the situation. Constraint or removal is often our quick fix to conflicts, in the school, in home or the workplace. It could be a physical constraint when we are involved in pulling apart a fight, or a threat designed to gag the person and prevent future verbal abuse. In the case of very serious abuse the constraint may be a prison sentence.
So it is here that we often try our best to prevent the most obvious expression of conflict, and often without concern for the cause. I sense that we do this because we often think that the symptoms signify the violence in the conflict and it is this violence that we want to prevent (much more can be said about violence, which I will return to in my next blog. For now I want us to simply focus on the difference between causes and symptoms of a conflict).
In our analogy of the tree above, it would be prudent not just to analyse and understand the manipulation, isolation and emotional abuse apparent in the branches of our tree. To create a more durably peaceful outcome to the conflict, we would need to look at the culture imbibed by the family, workplace or school, the possible fears that are influencing behaviour, the power dynamics between the parties involved in the dispute and several other possible causes, depending on the conflict.
This particular blog may appear rudimentary, perhaps even banal, and yet its point is easy to forget. It’s amazing how often we continue to simply address the symptoms of our conflicts without concern or thought for the deeper underlying issues, the causes.
Seeking to differentiate between the symptoms and causes in a conflict is a good place to begin understanding the dynamics of our conflicts before we begin talking about its remedies. If we don’t understand the difference there is greater likelihood that we will apply the wrong remedy and the conflict will remain or get worse.
As such, far from being a bad start for the development of a peace architecture, conflict holds the potential fruits of transformation that can benefit our relationships. Learning to distinguish between the symptoms and causes of a conflict marks the beginning of our ability to build this peace architecture in all of our social institutions that help to shape and lend meaning to our lives.