conflict resolution: Simple,
How are political problems solved, in general? I would like to focus on two aspects.
- Major positive changes are generally based on visions
previously considered naive and idealistic. These internet pages include many examples of such visions.
This implies that:
- Major positive changes generally involve conflicts. Visions can only be achieved if the associated conflicts are resolved.
- We who develop and promote political visions can never be sure that they will be implemented. We
must remain optimistic while at the same time being prepared for failure.
Principles of conflict resolution
increase our chances of success, we should carefully consider general
principles of conflict resolution, and try to apply them. If we had a
better understanding of those principles, and were more successful in
applying them, our political projects would have a higher success
Conflicts can often be peacefully resolved by applying following three simple rules:
Explain. Say simply and honestly what you want, if it is realistically possible.
Listen. Take your opponents' wishes seriously, if they are stated
simply and honestly.
Detach. Don't expect to get what you want. Be open for compromises.
People who do those three things also tend to do the
Focus. Having identified a problem,
don't dwell on it. Focus on solutions:
simple, realistic, creative strategies to solve both your own problems
and your opponent's problems. Then try to implement
Channel. Acknowledge and
take advantage of the emotion on both sides. Channel emotional energy
toward constructive rather than destructive behaviors.
Cooperate. Try to make decisions together - not separately.
Trust. In the absence of clear counterevidence, assume your opponent has
good intentions. Give your opponent reason to believe that your intentions are also good.
Personalize. Avoid accusations ("You did that to me"). Instead, say what you want ("I
would like...", "I need..."). Avoid presenting yourself as a victim ("I
can't...", "I don't know...") and instead focus on what you can do,
what you know, and what you want.
Apologize. Be open about your
contribution to the conflict and your responsibility for that. Allow
your opponent to address aspects of the conflict for which you are
responsible (because you can more easily change them).
Your opponent has universal rights, dignity, and integrity.
Unilaterally avoid violence of any kind, including verbal violence
manipulation, harassment, slander, gossip), and be careful when
addressing sensitive topics.
The first three points (explain, listen, detach) - often in conjuction
with the others - play a fundamental role in conflict resolution. Does
that mean we can use them to achieve political change? Consider the
Take global economics. The following
are all related: the global crash of 2008-2009, the rising wealth
gap, the tax havens, unemployment, and poverty (especially in
developing countries, where it kills millions of people every
year). If you talk to people who are suffering from injustices of this
kind, and ask them to say simply and honestly what they
will normally say they want more money. It follows that the solution to
unemployment problem is not to "create jobs". Technology is reducing
the amount of work that needs to be done, which was always our desire
and intention. We should be glad that this aim is being achieved. So
why "create jobs"? The problem is not about jobs - it is about wealth
and its distribution. If we take
this answer seriously, the only sustainable solution is
the wealth gap, and the easiest way to do that is to redistribute
wealth, like Robin Hood. If we apply these simple principles, we must
reject those complex,
abstract, controversial economic theories that pretend to solve the
asking the rich for anything: "trickle down" usually doesn't work, and
economic growth often has serious environmental consequences. Of course
economists must be free to
theorize, but they must also accept that the results can only be
applied if there is a broad expert consensus about their validity. The
solution, then, is to promote
simple, obvious ideas like wealth tax and unconditional basic income.
can avoid wealth tax by
moving their businesses or wealth from one country to
another, the solution is to promote a globally harmonized wealth tax.
Because countries differ so much in wealth, basic income will of course
depend on nationality, so it cannot (yet) be completely "unconditional".
Many people reading this will say: that's impossible. Don't be so
naive! The rich (or the corporations that they control) have too much
power, and they are never going to agree with either of those
proposals. Those who make such statements are making an important
they are also contradicting all three of the above main
points: explain, listen, detach. In general, if we want to
resolve our conflicts, we should say honestly and simply what we want,
expecting to get it; and we should respect others' attempts to do the
same. Of course the chances of a globally harmonized
wealth tax or an unconditional basic income in the near future are not
great, even considering the
massive success of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US in 2016.
But these ideas are
definitely possible. They are already implemented (or have been
implemented) in some countries, so
they could also be implemented globally.
It is not naive to talk about a practically possible idea; on the
contrary, it may show courage, leadership and foresight. These are the
obvious solutions, after all. Why not at least ask for them?
What I'm trying to say is: If you want something, ask for it. The main reason why
we don't have a globally harmonized
wealth tax or an unconditional basic income is not that the rich are
too powerful. The main reason is that not enough people are asking for
these things. It should be obvious that these things would serve the
best interests of everyone except the top 1%. So why aren't the 99%
asking for them? Having asked for what you want, it is important
to follow the other listed conflict-resolution strategies: explain
listen, detach, focus channel, cooperate, trust, personalize,
apologize, respect. But if you don't ask for what you want, the process
does not even get off the ground.
To check the generality of the conflict-resolution principles that I have listed, consider a totally different situation: romantic relationships.
Therapists are constantly talking to couples about their conflicts.
Their job would surely be easier if everyone focused on these
basic principles. If both partners said honestly and simply what
they wanted, and did not expect to get it, and if they took their
partners seriously when they said honestly and simply
what they wanted and did not expect to get it, relationship problems
would be relatively easy to solve. It would also be easier to
decide when it is time for a relationship to come to an end. The
partners would learn to make important decisions together rather than
separately; they would focus on realistic solutions rather than go
around in circles inside their problems; and they would learn always to
assume that the
other person had good intentions. I'm not a couple therapist, but if I
was, I would first spend some time with each partner individually,
finding out what they really want, and practising all the listed
conflict resolution strategies, before meeting with both partners at
the same time.
For another reality check, consider that old, latent conflict that has
been going on in all of academia for centuries between between humanities and sciences.
All academics are searching
for some kind of truth, it seems - however defined. Humanities
scholars say that truth is always relative to context (by which they
mean for example social, historic, or cultural context), whereas
scientists try to discover absolute truths, independent of
context. With such different attitudes, it is no wonder there is a
conflict. There is also an interesting taboo topic: subjectivity. When
humanities scholars talk among themselves, subjectivity is an
important issue, being one of the foundations and hallmarks of the
humanities. But if scientists talk about subjectivity in the
humanities, they may meet with an angry reaction, because the word has
such a negative connotation in everyday language, and many scientists
don't understand its essential positive function. If academics applied
the above principles of conflict resolution, the severity
of the conflict and associated misunderstandings would be greatly
reduced. Stated simply and honestly, humanities scholars want
scientists to consider the various contexts of their
research, while scientists want humanities scholars to speak
about their research in more direct, simple language (instead of
clouding it with linguistic sophistication). Of course individual
humanities scholars and scientists will disagree with me about that;
the key to conflict resolution at this, the highest academic level,
would be to survey their needs and develop strategies to meet them. If
they took each other
seriously in this kind of situation, humanities scholars and scientists
could move toward middle
ground and improve both the
quality of their work and the quality of their communication, while at
the same time maintaining their independent expertise and integrity.
Has anyone ever tried that?
Returning to politics, perhaps the most important conflict at the
highest level is the conflict between the political left and right.
If the people on
both sides of this conflict are honest
about what they want, it mainly boils down to money. The left has less
money than the right, which they feel is unfair, so they want more. The
right think they
are entitled to more money than the left, or they think they are being
forced by the government to give money to the left, which they feel is
unfair. If this discussion
is carried out honestly, it should lead to a negotiation about how big
the wealth gap should be, ideally, remembering that the
wealth gap is an important incentive to contribute positively to
society. It would be wonderful if such a discussion could be carried
openly and honestly until there was an agreement on the optimal size of
the wealth gap (expressed e.g. as the GINI coefficient; there is
evidently a lot of research on this which I should read). At least the
discipline of economics could try to reach a consensus about it. After
sides would agree to develop strategies to move society toward
the optimal wealth gap, and when it arrives to keep it there. In
most countries today, that would mean
increasing taxes that affect the rich, reducing taxes that affect the
poor, and improving social services.
this theory is correct, it should be easy to resolve any conflict,
and consequentially it should also be easy to achieve any reasonable
political goal that is supported by a majority of people in a
Just apply the principles, and bingo. Evidently, it is not that simple.
A possible explanation is that many
people suffer from victim mentality.
If we could raise awareness of this condition - its causes, symptoms,
and cures - there would be fewer conflicts and the world would be a
better place. We might also be in a better position to achieve positive
Another possible reason is harassment (mobbing), in
which a person or group is regularly attacked by another, more powerful
person or group with the intention of marginalising or destroying them.
Harassment is not a regular conflict, so regular principles of conflict
resolution may not work. The power differential in the
conflict between rich and poor or between sciences and humanities may
mean that different principles of conflict resolution apply.
Another issue is the time it takes to resolve a conflict, and the different stages of conflict resolution. Often, one or
both of the parties has behaved irresponsibly toward the other, with
lasting negative consequences. Under what circumstances should one
forgive another person or group? Forgiveness may
only be appropriate if the perpetrator does three things. S/he must
plausibly acknowledge the
seriousness of their behavior or crime, express regret, and
try to make up for it (pay their moral or financial debt). To forgive
who does not do these three things is to invite them to repeat similar
elsewhere, with the result that other people will suffer. It is fine to
forgive someone for your own peace of mind, but not if doing so puts
others at risk or undermines an important ethical principle. In an
ideal world, we would like to be on good terms with everyone, but the
world is not ideal. Political change is incomplete without lasting reconciliation, which can be a long and complex process.
A curious observation
My explanation of the conflict-resolution principles "explain", "listen", and "detach"
refers to itself in a recursive fashion. If a reader sent me a clear,
honest suggestion for improving this approach, and did not expect
that I would implement it, she would be realising the theory at the
same time as trying to improve it. If I assumed that her intentions
were good, took the suggestion seriously, and tried to implement
it, I would also be following the theory.
little essay is thus a metatext: an attempt to implement the
principles explained within itself. My aim is to honestly and
simply write what I want, namely some fundamental political changes -
without expecting to achieve them. Much the same applies to my other political essays.
If some readers took my ideas seriously and tried to implement them, it
would make the work seem worthwhile - but I have no control