Controversial or peaceful: which is the alternative?

There are no recipes for a way out of or a solution to conflicts; there are diverse strategies according to the dispute in question and the characteristics of the context.

Archivo IPS Cuba

In our day and age it is frequent to hear the idea of “it’s best to avoid problems” or to reject a person because she/he is considered “controversial”. But, really, is it possible to avoid conflicts, turn your back on them or ignore them? Conflicts form part of daily life and are present in all human activities.

It’s no secret that there are generational disputes between parents and children, differences among siblings, the couple, intolerance of the sexist culture, or exclusion for reasons of gender, race, religion and ethnicity, among others. The differences in values, lifestyles and ways of assuming the problems are manifested among relatives, bosses and subordinates, work comrades, politicians, partners and among the members of a community. These differences are the foundation of the origin and development of conflicts.

It is impossible to escape their influence; one tends to run into them every day. Conflicts are a constant of social life. They are present in all human activities and can be assumed in different ways, according to the interests, the needs, the positions and the relations of power of those implicated.

Then it is valid to ask: what is known about them? To what extent are we prepared to assume and face them?

Conflict and daily life

Throughout the centuries, different societies have described the conflict as immoral or reprehensible; in popular argot it was assigned the expressions of gossip, arguments, making trouble, and the conflict was used as the equivalent of a military aggression or confrontation, as a synonym of attacks and disputes. It was also associated to violence, destruction and irrationality, from a pathologic perspective, the cause for social disorders and war.

With the passing of the years a more dynamic vision has been assumed; the impact of conflicts is considered at different levels, which range from a family dispute on a microsocial scale, to class struggles and the war between nations. The existence of conflicts does not necessarily mean they will turn into a war; but war is inseparable from conflicts. They are also assessed as a possibility for change and positive transformation.

The conflict has been defined in numerous ways by the theoreticians on the subject, be it from a psychological, sociological, educational, cultural perspective, etc. In what there is agreement is in considering it as an antagonistic relationship, a disagreement between two or more actors due to the existence of incompatible activities. It is a tension that emerges when the aspirations, goals, values and interests between the parties are challenged or are excluding among each other.

The rapprochements to the conflict and the styles of intervention vary with the culture. They are manifested through reactions that range from aid, cooperation, altruism, to intimidation and aggressions. In almost all societies the tendency to deny or avoid conflicts is common, though some prefer direct and open confrontation. On the other hand, in others they resort to third parties to resolve the differences. Conflicts have historically been dealt with in multiple ways, through the advice of tribal elderly people, parliamentary and monarchic forms or democratic states.

The manifestation of conflicts has a very characteristic cultural connotation: vertical leadership styles, autocratic education, racial and sexual prejudices and inadequate gender focuses contribute abundant reasons for their manifestation.

They are expressed through differences in symbols, values and ideas, or through aggressive behaviours, physical as well as symbolic. Who has not been the victim of violence at some moment, and who has not also used it? Other forms of confronting them include the dialogue, which favours understanding and respect. These expressions are assimilated culturally and passed on from parents to children, from bosses to subordinates, in the family, labour and community sphere. Moreover, the forms in which they are seen to, managed or resolved are associated to legal, economic, political and ethical aspects, just to cite some.

The social conflict comes from society’s own structure; it is expressed when it goes beyond the individual. It is characterised because it is a process that occurs in the public sphere and involves collective actions, groups of persons with different values, perceptions or meanings. It has a temporary development and implies a dynamic of opposition, controversy, dispute or protest among actors.

In this way, there are conflicts in the schools, workplaces, in the family, with the couple, friends and also in the environmental sphere. The latter constitute a particular type of social conflict: they take place around the property or ownership over the resources that persons, communities and nations need to produce goods and services to satisfy their needs.

At present there is a tendency toward the increase of environmental conflicts. This situation is due to the fact that the environment is increasingly more deteriorated by intensive exploitation, excessive consumption, unequal access to resources, population growth, unequal distribution of incomes, shortage or absence of adequate public policies, among others.1

Neither better nor worse; just authentic

Traditionally, conflicts have been assessed as something negative due to the way they are usually resolved. This means a considerable use of energy and time. Moreover, the education received is not directed at facing them in a positive way, which is why there is a lack of tools and resources for this.

To transform conflicts into something positive one has to start by recognising that they are inevitable, inherent and necessary in human relations; they must be appreciated as an expression of needs, as an opportunity for personal development and for improving coexistence. In short, the problem is not the presence of conflicts, but rather what is dome when they appear, the response given to them.

Conflicts are not incompatible with peace, nor favourable nor prejudicial; they are a component of daily life. In the same manner, avoiding them to not cause confrontations is not a solution. Specialists refer to two fundamental ways of dealing with them:

1. Management of conflicts: when attention is centred on problems of communication that limit understanding and cooperation between the parties.
2. Transformation of the conflicts: deals with the power imbalances and the implications derived from this; oppression, injustice, discrimination, among others. The more equitable the power of a relation, the more stable and productive it will be, though at times the parties are not aware of their own power.

These means are not excluding, while at work one or the other can be privileged, according to the needs and characteristics of the case.

The way out for a conflict depends on the causes that led to it, what is implied and how important it is for each one of the involved parties.

Some actions that help favour understanding, consensual decision making and the transformation of the conflict into an opportunity for change include:

 Paying attention to communication, transparency, helping the dialogue to flow without aggressions, blaming others or assuming a false position, with deceit.
 Having the principal problems well defined, avoiding the mixing of issues.
 The actors’ commitment to participate in the solution of their problems.
 The power balance between the parties, so some of them do not benefit at the expense of the others.
 Empowering the actors through the access to information, creating the capacities and mechanisms of participation in decision making.
 Building the solutions based on the diversity of perceptions and interests of the actors themselves.

Components of the conflict: problem/process/actors

Conflicts originate from disagreements, different expectations and interpretations, when communication is deficient and there are diverse systems of values. In the majority of cases, the relations of power between the parties are not levelled, there are imbalances in the availability of material and human resources, or in the possession of political, economic or social power.

When analysing the structure of the conflict, three well-defined components are identified: problems, processes and actors.2

The problem is the situation, damage, shortage or point of view causing the incompatibilities and differences that separate persons. It is manifested in the different interests and needs. It becomes more acute in situations where there is bad communication, disinformation, wrong perception and stereotypes. It has a mutual influence on differences of opinions, decision-making power, the ability to grant resources, or differences of values and struggles for the possession of material goods.

The process expresses the route followed, it has to do with the transformation and the way out that is taken. Conflicts are born, grow and develop. They begin based on the moment in which the disagreement is identified; at this level, those involved collaborate. Later, as the clashes increase, the guilt and the reasons are sought, persons are attacked, and not the problem that separates them, which increases the confusion. The problems multiply, communication deteriorates, the problem is talked about, but not with whom it must be talked with, and it goes from antagonism to hostility.

The actors? Any group of persons, representative of a certain socioeconomic activity or inhabitant of a community is a direct or indirect, primary or secondary participant of a conflict: the forms in which the conflicts evolve, the way in which the actors manifest themselves, how they defend their interests and strengthen their positions throughout time is the object of educational work.

Tools to manage conflicts

The intervention in a conflict presupposes, as a starting point, the analysis of the problem, the context and the causes that determine it. These elements are concretised in the different perceptions of the problem. It is also necessary to assess what position the actors occupy, which are their interests, which are their needs and how their links to power are manifested. In short, the steps to intervene adequately in a conflict are based on:

1. Identifying the problem(s) that are the object of disagreements.
2. Clearly discerning the matters or different areas of incompatibility.
3. Levelling the needs to the indispensable, the minimum to satisfy an actor.
4. Clarifying the positions, how those implicated perceive their situation at a certain moment. The position that each actor defends is not debatable.
5. Making inquiries into the interests, which are the true motivations behind the positions and is really what is trying to be achieved.
6. Identifying the sources of power and the form in which it is used by the parties.
7. Discovering the essence of the problem, the issue that causes the discrepancy between the parties.

The treatment of conflicts is focused on two basic strategies: management and transformation. The idea is to seek an adequate communication that allows for building and understanding reality, as well as levelling out the power imbalances.

An adequate focus of the conflict requires:

1. Separating personal questions from problems. It is recommended to be gentle with persons, but forceful with the problem, avoid anger and blaming, listening empathetically, recognising and understanding the emotions of the other party, letting him/her get it off his/her chest and legitimising his/her interests.
2. Identifying interests. It is suggested that after each proposal it be asked why and why not, analysing the consequences of convening or refusing others’ position, seeking the multiple concerns. It is also recommended that a list of the concerns and suggestions be made to resolve them, legitimise the interests of each party and be flexible to help generate options that satisfy all.
3. Going from positions to interests. It is convenient to start by explaining your interests and asking about those of the others, explaining clearly where you would like to get, without looking down on the other party’s interests. Interests do not come out immediately; one has to look for the crux of the real motivations.
4. Generating solution alternatives. The idea is to combine the needs of the actors; some useful tools are ideas, using the differences to the benefit of both, enhancing the points of agreement, seeking attractive alternatives that are economic, feasible, creative and facilitating decision making, among others.

The assessment of conflicts has traditionally been carried out through ceding processes using legal means, in the courts; the consensual means are preferred at present; like the case of negotiations, mediation and the agreement for decision making.

Strategies for working with conflicts

A fundamental problem is the lack of training to work with conflicts. It is not an issue that forms part of the curriculum of the subjects in social sciences; in the study of law, communication and psychology some elements are given, but not an integral analysis. Thematically, they can be of interest to numerous professionals: psychologists, sociologists, social workers, environmental educators, cultural activists, environmentalists, protected area managers, journalists and community leaders. This is why they are dealt with from different perspectives, in the education sphere, the family, community and environmental context.

The assessment of conflicts, according to their sphere of influence, is materialised in the development of different initiatives, associated to pacifist groups opposed to war and committed to non violence, educational projects linked to training, also through community work and business management, as well as investigations, especially in the field of the resolution of conflicts.

The Centre for Peace Studies (CIP-Ecosocial), in Spain, emerged in 1984 as a space for reflection, meeting and debate, due to the threat represented by the Cold War. With the passage of the years, it has dealt with globalisation, the multilateral system, human rights, ecology, migrations, identities and education for peace and development.3

In the community context, diverse courses have been given in Panama about mediation directed at the community mediation regarding the problems that affect coexistence and good interpersonal relations,4 the magazine e-Mediación is published in Spain with information on conflicts and in Mexico there is a Mediation Institute that also works with this issue.

The International Development Research Centre in Canada promoted a process of exchange and training on a world level that culminated with an international workshop and the publication of the book Cultivating Peace (Buckles, 2000), which was a landmark in the development of the subject.5

It is almost impossible to establish a borderline between the environmental and the community context. This is the case of several initiatives in Latin America, associated to the development of research projects and the creation of capacities. The U.N. University for Peace, based in Costa Rica, has played a meritorious role in the creation of capacities. Another important aspect has been the work carried out by NGOs, especially the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (Chile), the Democratic Change Foundation (Argentina), the COLABORA Network in Honduras, in addition to the creation of the Mesoamerican Network of Management of Environmental Conflicts. In Ecuador, the Futuro Latinoamericano Foundation6 plays an outstanding role in the formation of capacities for the treatment of conflicts in the region.

In Cuba, the Félix Varela Centre has given diverse training courses on conflict management carried out by experts on the matter. These courses have dealt mainly with issues of mediation and concurrence. A book has also been published that systematises the experiences in mediation and concurrence in the provinces of Havana, Cienfuegos and Holguín (Bellón, de la Torre and Moleón, 2012). The work of the Culture of Peace Network, with a national reach, is coordinated from the centre.7

As can be seen in this sample of references, multiple and diverse strategies have been developed, according to the type of conflict and the characteristics of the context. There are no recipes. The actions to be undertaken are diverse: training the persons involved; raising awareness on the situation that causes the conflict; promoting an effective participation of the communities at a decision-making level; trying to empower the weakest; recognising the rights and duties of each party involved and respecting them, even when opinions are not shared; improving communication; assuming an attitude of empathy, are some of the means undertaken.

The labour, student and community organisations must not hide or avoid, nor fear recognising the existence of conflicts. It is not something that is denigrating, nor is it a stigma; the same can be said in the personal sphere. What’s important is to be prepared for a positive way out, since it is not a dishonour to say in the enterprise, the school or the home: “Yes, I have conflicts.” (2013)

*The author is a biologist and a researcher of the Villa Clara Centre for Environmental Studies and Services. She specialises in community work in protected areas and the management of conflicts.

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Correa, Hernán Darío; Rodríguez, Iokiñe: Encrucijadas ambientales en América Latina: entre el manejo y la transformación de conflictos por recursos naturales (Environmental crossroads in Latin America: between the management and transformation of conflicts over natural resources), Costa Rica, University for Peace, International Development Research Centre, Canada, 2005 http://www.upeace.org/cyc/libro/index.htm
2 Lederach, Juan Pablo: El análisis del conflicto (The analysis of the conflict). http://www.es-scribd.com/doc/7244000
3 Lobera, J., P. Arrojo, M. G. Rivera and García, E.: La conflictividad que viene (The approaching conflict). Selection of the Research Centre for Peace. Resources: CIP-Ecosocial, 2002, www.cip.fuhem.es
4 Mediación comunitaria (Community mediation). http://procuraduria-admon.gob.pa/mc-index.php.
5 Buckles, Daniel: Cultivating Peace: conflicts and collaboration in the management of natural resources, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2000, http://www.idrc.ca/openebooks/939-9/
6 Futuro Latinoamericano Foundation. http://www.ffla.net
7 Félix Varela Centre. http://www.cfv.org.cu

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