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Influencing Intractable Conflicts
Peter T. Coleman, Nicholas Redding & Joshua Fisher
Editors’ Note: The final chapter of our complex-case trilogy describes techniques developed in recent years which promise greater effectiveness in the admittedly frustrating process of actually tackling an intractable conflict. It should be read not only in conjunction with Understanding Intractable Conflicts by the same authors and Getting in Sync by Coleman and Ricigliano, but also in conjunction with McDonald on Kashmir, in which a retired U.S. Ambassador describes what he actually did when drawn into working on the long-standing Kashmir problem.
In the previous chapter, we introduced dynamical systems theory (DST) as a paradigm for understanding intractable conflicts, and proposed a DST theory of practice for working with these conflicts constructively. We then described competencies and skills that allow one to prepare for engaging with these types of conflicts, before outlining approaches for comprehending systemic conflict dynamics. For the current chapter, we will continue our guideline series from Part One (see Figure 1), starting with approaches for engaging with intractable conflict systems. Systemic engagement is one of the least predictable and thus most challenging phases of nonlinear change processes. However, the study of complex systems of all types has provided important insights into this phase. The guidelines outlined in this stage focus on effectively entering the system, engaging levers for change, and conducting proximal change experiments.
Guideline #6: Entering Systems Mindfully
Begin Mindful of Initial Conditions
Research from three different conflict labs in the U.S. has come to the same conclusion: what happens at the onset of a conflict is critical. Studies conducted in Marcel Losada’s Capture Lab, which studied conflict in executive work teams, John Gottman’s Love Lab, which studies marital conflict and divorce, and Coleman and Kugler’s Moral Conflict Lab, which studies difficult moral disputes, have shown that what goes on in the first few minutes of a conflictual encounter has the most impact on everything that follows.
This is consistent with other research on nonlinear systems, which consistently shows that they tend to be particularly sensitive to the initial conditions of the system. Computer simulations of conflict dynamics suggest that even very slight differences in initial conditions can eventually, after a delay, make a big difference in the experiences of the parties (Liebovitch et al. 2008). The effects of these small differences may not be visible at first, but they can trigger other changes that trigger still others, cascading over time to culminate in major changes in the structure and....
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