Political conflict resolution: Simple, quasi-universal principles

Richard Parncutt

May 2016


How are political problems solved, in general? I would like to focus on two aspects.
This implies that:
Principles of conflict resolution

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 following:

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 them.
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).
Respect. Your opponent has universal rights, dignity, and integrity. Unilaterally avoid violence of any kind, including verbal violence (sarcasm, 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 following examples.


Take global economics. The following massive problems 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 want, they will normally say they want more money. It follows that the solution to the 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 to reduce 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 problem without 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. Because people 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 point, but 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, without 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 simp
ly 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 out 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 that, both 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.

Other issues

If 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 democratic context. Just apply the principles, and bingo. Evidently, it is not that simple. Why not?

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 political change.

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 someone who does not do these three things is to invite them to repeat similar behavior 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.

This 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 over that. 

The opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
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