We have been bombarded with news of human conflict lately, from road rage to police shootings to wars ravaging the Muslim world. It appears as if we are losing our human decency, but the fact is human beings have been conflicted from the beginning of our existence as a species. The particular reasons for conflicts vary over time and space, but they typically boil down to different beliefs or interests colliding. Each of us has our own worldview shaped by our unique journey through this thing we call life. When we encounter a person with a divergently different worldview, conflict ensues. Each side believes it is right and seeks to emerge from the conflict victorious. Of course, that means the other party must be wrong and lose. When they don’t get their own way, the parties escalate the conflict, often by threatening each other.
Unfortunately, threats only make the conflict worse. Once we feel threatened, we go into a defensive mode that I think of as the 4Fs:
Friend or Foe? Fight or Flight?
First, we have to decide whether this conflict is with a friend or an enemy. For example, we may have a disagreement with our spouse about how to spend our monthly income, but we strive to maintain our relationship by searching for a mutually acceptable outcome through dialogue. Conversely, if a strange man comes up to us on a dark night and demands money, we instinctively take him as a potentially threatening foe.
Once we have surmised the nature of the threat, we must then decide whether to stand and fight it, or to flee as fast as we can in the opposite direction. This is a complex calculation, with much risk for error. We may stand and fight a bigger foe and get our butts handed to us. We may flee from a flea and give it the power to dominate us. Many times, the risk of a wrong response causes us to do nothing, thereby hoping to avoid the threat altogether. In my work as a human resource consultant to organizations,
I help people find a third way to resolve their conflicts – negotiation. It requires a willingness to engage in dialogue and find a mutually agreeable solution with the help of a third party. I try for a win-win solution in which both sides believe they are getting the best deal they can live with. Sometimes, it involves meeting halfway in a compromise. Other times it means coming up with an entirely new solution that neither party had identified initially, but both can embrace. It does not always work out amicably. The two parties may be so far apart and the actors so stubborn, no middle ground can be located upon which to build a win-win solution.
As complicated as this is on an individual level, it becomes infinitely more so when societies and nations are collectively involved. As a nation faces a perceived threat, it must also weigh the same 4Fs in determining its response. We use diplomacy to resolve conflicts with friends. We flee conflicts in which we have no compelling interest or don’t think we can win by avoiding involvement from the start. When we decide to fight, we use military and economic weapons to attack our foes. This has been true throughout human history.
Yet, our sense that human conflict is worsening rings true. What has changed is not the nature of conflict itself, but the negative consequences of our fight and flight responses. When nations respond incorrectly to perceived threats, the results can be horrifyingly destructive. Our sophistication in killing human life has reached a point where governments have thousands of methods at their disposal. Whereas in the past, a gentlemen’s duel might have ended two lives at most, we now slaughter life by the thousands. Thus, many more innocents are affected by today’s conflicts. The other factor that will only become more pronounced in the future is the sheer volume of conflicts that are occurring. As humans from diverse backgrounds come into contact more frequently, the chances for conflicts increase. These are fanned by modern media, which report on them around the globe in real time and provoke others to join the fray. In our global society, we simply cannot avoid people who are different than we are, with competing belief systems and interests. This could lead to a spiral of conflict and a state of permanent war that renews the threat of an all-out nuclear conflagration wiping out life on earth.
Instead of proceeding down a path of mutually assured destruction, we must find a better alternative. We need to respect and tolerate our differences and work out our conflicts peacefully as global citizens through negotiation. We must learn to find in our enormous diversity the source of our own humanity. So if nations want to avoid the destructive consequences of conflict, they should stop seeing each other as enemies. Friends resolve their differences through peaceful negotiation; foes resort to war. We share one planet. It belongs to all of us. Get over trying to conquer it. That’s so 20h century.
After the police beating of Rodney King sparked the worst riots in Los Angeles’ history, he famously challenged us with a simple question: “Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently not, at least until we learn to negotiate our conflicts.