Much of my work and writing focuses, naturally, on conflict transformation or resolution, emphasizing strategies that take parties at odds into a constructive process. However, when we hear about conflict in society, or read about it in the newspapers, it often sounds far beyond the reach of a mediator’s typical toolbox. What are the differences at play? This post is about acknowledging and understanding social conflicts that come to be understood as intractable.
The concept of intractability is, itself, controversial. Some people in the conflict resolution community feel it is simply too negative, designating some conflicts as impossible and thus discouraging people from investing in the hard work of transformation. However, there is wide consensus, as Guy and Heidi Burgess describe on the resource page Beyond Intractability, that certain conflicts present themselves as particularly entrenched and challenging. They offer a descriptive list that expands on the meaning of intractability, including adjectives such as protracted, destructive, deep-rooted, grid-locked, identity-based, complex, and malignant. Examples today abound around us, unfortunately, from political issues in the United States such as abortion or race relations, to long-running international conflicts such as the Israel/Palestine gridlock. The recent flares in Ukraine constitute a prominent escalation of potentially intractable conflict.
One of the defining characteristics of intractable conflicts is that they tend to constitute social conflicts. Social conflicts go beyond the individuals involved, and frequently deal with clashes of religious, political, and economic philosophies. They are fueled by distrust and dislike of “others” based on differences in attitudes, values, and beliefs. These conflicts are unlikely to confront you over a meal with your family, but they can emerge as underlying issues in situations of individual conflict that would otherwise be more simply resolved.
Intractable conflicts have a self-reinforcing nature. Not only are they destructive, but as the destructive exchanges continue they tend to become increasingly more difficult to resolve with dialogue. While there may have initially been productive communication, rich reasoning and exchange is progressively replaced with slogans, simple answers, and defensive discourse.
Intractable conflicts cannot be simply resolved through mediation, and they often come to fuel themselves and take on a life of their own.
One of the most destructive tendencies in intractable conflict is the process by which parties to the conflict perceive and construct one another into an “other.” As the conflict picks up heat, the humanity of the other side drains away among the strategic efforts to further one’s own group interests. Parties frequently engage in general labeling and categorization of the “other,” as infidels, perverts, criminals, or even sub-human.
As mentioned, many readers are unlikely to directly confront the challenge of mediating a major intractable social conflict. However, these types of conflicts are threaded through society, and we may be surprised to find them surfacing in smaller doses in our work places or even personal relationships.
It’s important to be aware of the tendency to “other” in intractable conflicts. Demonizing one another and attributing group characteristics to individuals doesn’t foster communication or constructive exchange.
Nonviolent communication can aid in managing intractable conflict. Nonviolent communication explicitly rejects the use of force, including threats or judgment, and embraces the centrality of exercising compassion for all participants. Language and perspectives from nonviolent communication can prevent escalation and discourage “othering.”
Silence is also an important strategy to draw on when faced with situations of intractable conflict. Agreeing to disagree, or to take a hiatus from communicating in the name of reflection and understanding, can prevent destructive escalation.
To add to your strategies for confronting intractable conflicts, consider reviewing this list by Columbia associate professor of psychology and education Peter T. Coleman published in Forbes.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.