Conflict is complex. No doubt about it. One of its complexities is the way it can quickly turn in on itself, seducing us all, even the experts, into its destructive ways.
I’m grateful to my friend and book designer Ayd Instone, for bringing this article to my attention.
It tells the story of an Israeli conflict resolution speaker and expert who had been due to speak at a Manchester NHS event until he was cancelled because of the Trade Union Unison’s objections.
On first reading I was taken by the irony of such an expert being banned because he was deemed to be a part of the “Enemy” camp; the union, Unison, it is alleged, support a full ban on Israeli bodies in their stated policy support for the Palestinian People.
I had a sense though that the article would soon reveal more complex lessons about conflict. And it does. Let me list the ways.
1. Polarisation, the good guys and the baddies.
The most obvious conflict dynamic is the incredibly crude, but often prevalent tendency to polarise between the good guys and the bad. This dynamic is often seen and rarely helpful other than to steel resolve and allegiance to one camp or the other. It is the “If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem” or “If you are not with us then you are against us.” rhetoric. It is the Cowboys and Indians mentality and even as I write that it feels offensive, such is the prejudicial impact of such polarisation. It ought to be a thing of the past.
We have little hope of being able to effectively engage in conflict and disputes when such crude rhetoric is employed.
Instead we should be vigilant. When it emerges then we ought to find ways of calling it out and asking ourselves “What attitudes does this indicate and what are the alternative approaches?”
2. The drama triangle
An extension of the good guys bad guys dynamic is the drama triangle. Here we have an added role. The drama triangle sees villains, victims and rescuers.
Try it. How do the protagonists and camps fare in this light? Where would you position the Israeli speaker, the palestinian people and the union? Who is victim, villain and rescuer? Now how sure are you of that?
The great thing about the drama triangle is that our positions within this map are never fixed and instead we all shift around, creating a vortex, a whirlpool of relationship and uncertainty.
The union appears to have adopted the rescuer role. But have they spilled over into villain by cancelling this speaker and denying him not only his appointment and speaker’s fee, but also even the possibility that he could have something to offer?
Is the speaker himself, Moty Cristal, villain as a part of the Israeli machine, as the union seem to infer or is he victimised by this as the article tries to depict?
Perhaps he has fallen into the expert’s trap of trying to play the rescuer? Consider part of his response to the cancellation;
“I am confident that the only way to resolve conflicts, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian one, is through effective communication and constructive dialogue, rather than violence or boycotts.” Very helpful Mr Cristal. But conflict is complex. Now consider the full quote provided by the article;
“Values-wise, unlike you, I am confident that the only way to resolve conflicts, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian one, is through effective communication and constructive dialogue, rather than violence or boycotts.” – my emphasis. See how that “Unlike you” comment shapes the dynamic? What kind of name calling has happened here? Two things being points 3 and 4.
3. Seduced by conflict
Conflict sucks us in and we end up playing by its rules. I suggest that has happened here. The “Unlike you” comment comes across to my eyes as indulgent and, I suspect, irresistable to Mr Cristal. For all of his expertise, which I do not doubt, we see that he has been seduced by conflict into some specific conflict type patterns. There is a name for this particular pattern.
We attribute malevolent, unattractive characteristics against those we find ourselves in conflict with and attribute noble righteous characteristics for ourselves.
We see this in play with the “Unlike you” comment. It is not clear what evidence Mr Cristal has based this upon and in many ways the presence of evidence or otherwise is irrelevant. Once we attribute a characteristic, or in this example, assert the lack of a characteristic that Mr Cristal claims for himself we make dialogue less, not more likely.
There are other attributions in play.
The oppression of the palestinian people is seemingly attributed against all Israelis.
The Israeli embassy has attributed motives for the decision. It is a “Racist policy in every way…” and the decision is also referred to as being “shameful.” There is more within the very same paragraph.
A characteristic of incompetence is attributed against the decision makers;
” It seems that those who canceled it are in urgent need of such training.”
5. Resistance to resolution
Conflict is resilient at very adept at negating attempts to resolve it.
We can see this here. The speaker’s possible contribution and expertise is roundly dismissed as an irrelevance to “The working relationships within a local NHS trust”
His appointment is rendered “Inappropriate” and we can see our final dynamic emerge also…
6. “…and another thing!”
We have all played this one. If we are in a conflict or argument make sure you win it. If that means that you scramble around for extra justifications to support your point, any justification, then do so.
The Union’s final quoted objected draws upon the “Inappropriateness of funding an international speaker at times of such austerity, when front line staff in the Trust are at risk of redundancy.”
This is a clear “…and another thing!” justification. Given more time we could probably come up with others.
Thank you once again to Ayd Instone for such rich source material.
Let me know if you have seen yourself palying out any of these dynamics. They are entirely natural and predictable. they are not raised here by way of criticism, merely by way of observation.
The problem is then when they creep into dialogue and relationships then we greatly prejudice one another, ourselves and the prospects of effective dialogue.
As you read this there will be a temptation on your part – which side am I on? that itself is a complex conflict dynamic. I may have fallen unwittingly into my own conflict patterns. Please do feel free to point that out if so.