Charting the Principles – Garry Smith

For the record I really find Erik’s 12 Principles of Conflict Management an excellent piece. Equally Rory’s exploration of the deeper reaches of each principle certainly moves us forward as we develop our understanding. It is really important that we do this as CRGI was never established so we could all pat each other on the back and tell each other how wonderful we are, how clever. The search for the truth often leads us up blind alleys and sometimes we end up travelling the long way round to get there when there was a quicker more direct route all along, we just did not see it. The thing is sometimes what we see on the journey is as important as arriving at the destination.

When I read Rory’s article I thought it resembled a trip to the opticians for an eye test, where you wear or look through some contraption that they drop different lenses into whilst you read off a chart. So looking through different lenses allows Rory to tease out the pros and cons of each of the 12 principles Erik rightly identifies, it works well. However, as we debated this prior to finishing our articles something did not click for me. I felt a slight intellectual discomfort with how, rather than what, Rory was presenting. When critiquing a list it makes sense to follow the list, I get it, it works. However, I felt that there was the need for a simpler more abstract presentation to sit alongside both Erik and Rory’s articles, splendid though they are.

When I first read Rory’s response to Erik I got a strange picture in my head, (not an unusual experience).  This is it.

Neville Chamberlain returning from meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich bearing aloft the piece of paper that guaranteed ‘peace in our time’, the rest, of course, is history.

My problem was why was this picture in my head, well the term appeasement jumped out at me from Rory’s article along with the use of force as kind of polar opposites of managing conflicts. I began to see a continuum for conflict management with two polar ends, one being unmitigated enforcement of a settlement at one end and abject appeasement at the other,  this leaves every possible variation on the line in-between, neat. Well let us see.

Once you take each of the 12 principle and observe and explain its deeper context, lets extend the eye test metaphor here and looking now through a microscope, we begin to see in each the multiplicity of variables that may or may not be present in a conflict what happens when we overlay one principle with another, and another and it was this thought that gave me a feeling of information overload. Each one is explored and explained clearly enough, each one is massively open ended.   What Rory does is open up each principle so that we can see more, but the deeper we probe the more we reveal and, this is the big one for us all, how can we use this list to assess the effectiveness of conflict management or the ineffectiveness of conflict mismanagement?

Well the obvious answer is lists can be checked against events to see if what they described was present or absent, we can then evaluate how this may have contributed to the outcome, then we can judge whether this was intended or not and how effective. That seems like a logical process to me but we all know that variables interact and the complexity involved in any given situation or conflict will produce, even using this logical sequence of analysis, a best guess result based on interpretation and perspective, nobody is claiming any different as far as I can see. Nobody has attempted to claim the mantle of expert, indeed we all reject it for obvious reasons.

The thing is we do need to develop useful tools to measure conflict management techniques, responses and strategies, call them what you may, as well as the flip side of conflict mismanagement as it is often here that most productive learning takes place.

Now I love the list and I love the critique but as I began to suffer from a little conceptual overload. I did what I normally do, I shut it down and went for a walk with the dog, let the subconscious work on this whilst I had a little fun.  

A day or so later I decided it was time to let my thoughts pop out of my head and I drew myself a diagram, here is my diagram.

Garry image
OK it is not a replacement for either of the afore mentioned articles, rather it is an aid to understanding. A framework that allowed me to get to grips with some of the complexity, a simple(ish) model, let me explain.

Underlying most of what Rory looks at is the fair assessment that successful conflict management is achieved by many strategies and tactics and is never simple or straightforward, however, I am pretty sure that if we can use a continuum that ranges from enforcement at one end to appeasement at the other we capture everything in between, (that’s the neat thing about continua). Apply the right strategy/tactics with the right balance between enforcement and appeasement and everything is cool, we hope.

The flip side is true of conflict mis-management, choosing the wrong approach strategy and tactics to manage a conflict and you are quickly in trouble.  

Each situation will have its own dynamic, each situation will have multiple variables. It is the possibly infinite ways these variables combine that make the subject of conflict management so interesting and so challenging if not downright confusing.

The degree of negotiation provides us with a scale to help contextualise the continuum, if you can simply impose enforcement then no negotiation is really necessary, the alternative at the other extreme is what Rory calls begging, I think this is where I got the Neville Chamberlain thought, with no power or will to back up your intention you simply cave in, you are dictated to, you will have to negotiate like hell because that is all you have. It is a crude method of measurement and is a work in progress not a solution.

In fact the whole model is crude, I am not trying to be sophisticated, I am keeping it simple (stupid), remember that. The model is simple and you can use it as a backdrop to your thinking, like this if I take one of Rory’s points at almost random. ” Negotiation only works, negotiation doesn’t even exist, except for the threat of what will happen if negotiation fails. You never do hostage negotiations without a tactical response on standby and a country without an army may make themselves feel important by mediating a treaty… but negotiation without an alternative is begging”

The problem for me is not just the range of variables, legal, cultural, linguistics, environmental etc, the things we can see/hear/smell even, the empirical evidence, that may be present in a conflict management situation, but the things we cannot see and often can only guess at, motivations, morals, feelings and emotions, these are powerful drivers for all the actors engaged in a conflict. The list can never be expanded to encompass all possible components of any given conflict. We would need a much more powerful analytical tool or toolbox to help us to achieve that, this is what fires the agency of the actors involved.

So we can place conflict management strategies and tactics on the continuum as they are applied and then watch them move around the diagram as variables and agency collide and produce a unique recipe for each conflict we see, no two dishes will be exactly the same even if we try to use the same recipe.

My simplistic diagram is not an answer, for me it is a starting point in conceptualising a grand theory of conflict management if that is not too ambitious and outrageous thing to aim for. Can I do this on my own, I sincerely doubt it, can I add to a debate with informed and insightful others, Erik, Rory, YOU, to perhaps help us shuffle along towards such a thing together? I hope so. Maybe these three articles are the first tiny steps that start a big, big journey.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *