That is already alive. We bring it out in the open,
Where it can be seen and dealt with.”
Martin Luther King
1.Sometimes a destructive drain on human potential; sometimes a constructive stimulus for growth: Such is conflict—conflict between individuals, between groups, between nations. Consider the following instances of each.
2. Between individuals: Warren Peace and his roommate are hardly speaking to one another. Apart from a few snide allusions to "the lousy socks on the floor" and "that loud, distracting music” they have each settled into a quiet smolder. The longer silence prevails, the more Warren assumes his roommate feels hostile, and the more hostile Warren feels in return. Where will it lead? Will they split? Or will they somehow reach a new understanding that restores the friendship they once enjoyed?
3. Between groups: Workers at the Acme Manufacturing Company are out on strike. Disgruntled over low pay and minimal benefits, they insist they'll not return without a significant boost in their compensation. The company's reply: "Given your high absenteeism and low productivity, we simply can't afford to meet your demands.” Where will it end? Will the strike force the company into bankruptcy and the workers out of their jobs? Or might it be possible to recast the current employer-employee relationship, making possible both higher productivity and profits for the company and higher wages for the workers?
4. Between nations: There is a speech that has been spoken in many languages, by the leaders of many countries. It goes like this: "The intentions of our country are entirely peaceful. Yet, we are also aware of the world's unrest, and of the threat that other nations, with their new weapons, pose to us. Thus we would be remiss not to take adequate steps to increase our ability to defend against attack. By so doing, we shall help protect our way of life and preserve the peace" (L. F. Richardson, 1969). Almost every nation claims concern only for peace but, mistrusting other nations, arms itself in self-defense. The end result: a world in which there is 1 soldier for every 250 people, 1 doctor for every 3700; a world in which every nine hours humanity spends as much on arms as it does annually on the United Nations.
5.As suggested in these examples, conflict varies. It is at times minimal, at times immense; at times hidden, at times open; at times destructive, at times constructive. Despite such variation, this much can be said for sure: Any time people, or groups, are so bound together that their actions affect one another, conflict is natural and inevitable. Granted, it may be suppressed. But unless the two parties have identical needs and desires, their wishes will sometimes clash. A relationship or an organization without conflict is likely an apathetic one. So conflict is not inherently evil. Rather, it signifies people's involvement, commitment, and caring; if understood, if recognized, it can stimulate renewed and improved human relations. Without conflict, problems seldom are faced and resolved.
6.Let's clarify our terms. Conflict is a perceived incompatibility of actions or goals. Whether their perceptions are accurate or inaccurate, people in conflict sense that one side's gain is the other's loss. "I'd like the music off." "I'd like it on." "We want more pay." "We can't give it to you." "We want peace and security." "So do we, but you threaten us."
7.Peace, in its most positive sense, is more than the suppression of open conflict, more than a tense, fragile, surface calmness. Peace is the outcome of a creatively managed conflict, one in which the parties reconcile their perceived differences and reach genuine accord. "We got our increased pay. You got your increased profit. Now we're helping each other achieve our aspirations.”
8.But what kindles conflicts? And what steps can be taken to help transform closed fists into open arms? Social-psychological studies have identified several ingredients of conflict. What's striking (and what simplifies our task considerably) is that these social-psychological ingredients are common to all levels of social conflict, whether interpersonal conflicts or more complex intergroup or international conflicts.
9.Many social problems arise as people pursue their individual self-interests, to their common detriment. Two laboratory games, the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Commons Dilemma, capture this clash of individual versus communal well-being. In each game, the participants choose whether to pursue their immediate interests or to cooperate for their common betterment. Ironically and tragically, each game often traps well-meaning participants into decisions that shrink their common pie. In real life, as in laboratory experiments, such traps can be avoided by establishing rules that regulate self-serving behavior; by keeping social groups small so that people feel responsibility for one another; by enabling people to communicate, thus reducing mistrust; by changing payoffs to make exploitation less and cooperation more rewarding; and by invoking altruistic norms.
10.When people compete for scarce resources, human relations can sink into prejudice and hostility. In a famous series of experiments, Muzafer Sherif found that win-lose competition quickly made strangers into enemies, triggering outright warfare even among normally upstanding boys.
11.Conflicts are also kindled when people feel unjustly treated. According to equity theory, people define justice as equity—the distribution of rewards in proportion to people's contributions. Conflicts occur when people disagree on the extent of their contributions and thus on the equity of their outcomes. Other theorists argue that people sometimes define justice not as equity, but as equality, or even in terms of people's needs.
12.Conflicts frequently contain a small core of truly incompatible goals, surrounded by a thick layer of misperceptions of the adversary's motives and goals. Often, conflicting parties have mirror-image perceptions—each attributing the same virtues to themselves and vices to the other. When both sides believe "We are peace-loving, they are hostile," each may treat the other in ways that provoke confirmation of their expectations. International conflicts are also fed by a blacktop illusion: One's enemy's leaders are perceived as evil and coercive, its people as more innocent or even as sympathetic to one's own point of view. Such perceptions of our antagonists easily adjust themselves as conflicts wax and wane.
13.Conflicts are readily kindled and fueled by these ingredients, but fortunately some equally powerful forces can transform hostility into harmony.
14.Might putting people into close contact reduce their hostilities? There are good reasons to think so. Yet, despite some encouraging early studies of desegregation, more recent studies in the U.S. show that mere desegregation of schools has little effect upon racial attitudes. However, in most schools, interracial contact is seldom prolonged or intimate. When it is, and when it is structured to convey equal status, hostilities often lessen.
15.Conflicting parties can also seek to resolve their differences by bargaining either directly with one another or through a third-party mediator. When a pie of fixed size is to be divided, adopting a tough negotiating stance tends to gain one a larger piece (for example, a better price). When the pie can vary in size toughness more often backfires. Third-party mediators can help by prodding the antagonists to replace their competitive win-lose view of their conflict with a more cooperative win-win orientation. Mediators can also structure communications that will peel away misperceptions and increase mutual understanding and trust.
16.Sometimes tensions run so high that genuine communication is impossible. In such times, small conciliatory gestures by one party may elicit reciprocal conciliatory acts by the other party. Thus tension may be reduced to a level where communication can occur. One such conciliatory strategy, Graduated and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension-reduction, aims to alleviate tense international situations.
17.Those who mediate tense labor-management and international conflicts sometimes use one other peacemaking strategy. They instruct the participants, in the dynamics of conflict and peacemaking. The hope is that understanding—understanding how conflicts are fed by social traps, perceived injustice, competition, and misperceptions, and understanding how conflicts can be resolved through equal-status contact, cooperation, communication, and conciliation—can help us as we seek to establish and enjoy peaceful, rewarding relationships.