Introduction to the Formal Theory or Behavior
Conflict is part of life. While we cannot eliminate conflict, we can learn how to better deal with it, optimizing our ability to resolve. This program is a guide to learning about how conflict resolution works, how we individually resolve conflict, and ways to improve our ability to successfully deal with conflict.
Conflict is an experience that leads us out of our comfort zone. On the other hand, resolution is an experience of coming to terms with conflict, regaining our sense of balance, and expanding our comfort zone. Miraculously, most of the time we are able to overcome our conflicts. From discovering how to tie our shoes to learning how to tie the knot of marriage, we are typically able to engage with the challenge at hand, come up with our version of the right answer, and grow through the experience.
The process that connects these states of being is what we call the unconscious. The unconscious is an automatic response mechanism that processes stress, helping us negotiate the shift from conflict to resolution. The unconscious provides us with the software to resolve conflict. As a way to better understand the way this software works, it is useful to borrow from physics.
One of the most basic concepts in physics is the pendulum. When displaced from its position of equilibrium, the weight swings back and forth proportionally until it eventually settles back to the position of equilibrium. The pendulum’s displacement is very much like our experience of conflict. Our unconscious responds proportionately to the degree to which we feel emotional displacement.
While everyone has an inherent need to resolve conflict, differences about the way of resolving conflict are one of the primary differences between people. For example, some people might react to the arrival of a new person by offering a handshake while others might avoid any interaction. Physics again is helpful in conceptualizing these alternative ways of resolving conflict.
The principles of balance help identify the unique ways that transformation is achieved. There are three ways of responding when an initial weight is placed on a scale to restore balance. The first is reciprocity – adding an equal weight on the other tray, the second is negation – removing the weight, and the third is correlation – shifting the weight on the fulcrum.
Placing a weight on the scale’s other tray corresponds to doing the reciprocal behavior of what caused the initial disturbance, using activity to offset passivity. Removing the initial weight from the weighted down tray corresponds to the opposite behavior, turning antagonism to cooperation. Shifting the weight on the fulcrum of the scale corresponds to changing one’s attitude from feeling alienated to experiencing mutual respect, being respectful and reconciled with adversity.
These three techniques allow us the ability to monitor how different people resolve conflict in different ways. These three transformations may be identified through examining what triggers the particular change, identifying what happened before and what happened after. This dialectical pattern is what we call the Conflict Resolution Process and consists of the following six states: stress, response, anxiety, defense, reversal, and compromise.
The initial conflict, Stress, is a passivity state that generates an emotional force, leading to a Response, an activity state proportional and opposite to the initial deviation. Anxiety is a passivity state based on the sense that one has done too much or too little, which leads to Defense, an active state in which one attempts to reinforce one’s responsive action. Reversal, another passivity state, is countered by Compromise, the final active state, in which one makes inner concessions or attitude changes that lead to finally resolving the conflict.
Through 30 years of research, we have identified that people’s techniques for resolving conflict differ primarily in regards to two variables, dominance/submissiveness and cooperation/antagonism, qualities that seem to be consistent across relational context. Someone that is too dominant may struggle with anxiety, worrying about her role of leadership, while someone that is too submissive may suffer from depression, not being confident in sharing his feelings. Someone that is too cooperative may be unable to stick up for himself, while someone that is too antagonistic may be hostile, intolerant or too critical of others to have friends. These alternative patterns have strengths and weakness and can be improved through becoming conscious of the unconscious.
Integrating this research, we have systematized an emotional education program that helps people gain the skills to improve their ability to resolve conflict and understand themselves. This program, The Conflict Analysis Battery, combines a personality inventory with a set of interactive creativity tasks. While the inventory clarifies one’s relational pattern, the creativity tasks identify how one’s pattern unfolds along the six-role conflict resolution process. As a way to help process this information, the Conflict Analysis Battery automatically provides detailed feedback based upon one’s own responses, writings, and reflections. The Conflict Analysis Battery allows us to become readily conscious of our unconscious, gaining the critical insight about how to optimize how we resolve conflict.
This research has broad cultural implications. Our social norms facilitate conflict resolution, maintain order, and inspire communality. While these norms are societally useful, they also have limitations. As cultures collide and religious wars rage on it has become essential to be able to understand the common structure that underpins our different narratives. Our theoretical method provides a tool to understand how our societies resolve conflict, bringing scientific clarity to the domain of politics and moral values.