Peaceful conflict resolution teachable Nine steps provide the key to resolving disputes peacefully

March 15, 1998|By COLMAN McCARTHY

Last month, two teen-agers, one from Baltimore's Northern High School, the other from Washington's Wilson High School - were slain in unrelated street attacks.

Wayne Martin Rabb Jr., 15, of Baltimore was shot to death and Delonte Hicks, 16, of Washington was stabbed. The dead youths leave behind grieving families wondering how and why these tragedies happened.

In both cases, teen-age suspects were arrested. Even if they are convicted, they will become nothing more than symbols of a failed punitive justice system.We have a better option, instead of intervening after acts of violence, we can try to prevent them. When people kill to resolve a dispute, presumably they're acting the only way they know. But did they know anything about nonviolent conflict resolution? Not likely.

Since 1982, I have been teaching high school, college and law students the methods of nonviolent conflict resolution. I have learned two realities from having taught some 5,000 students: Nonviolence is teachable and, second, the young are hungry to learn the skills.

No nation has so vast a literature on nonviolence than America. Yet, judging from our history of wars, our high rates of homicide, spouse and child abuse, abortions, the killing of animals for food, our death row executions, it's as if the art of resolving conflicts nonviolently was like learning astro-biophysics in Urdu.

It isn't that hard. The following steps are among the well-tested methods of decreasing or ending violence - whether the disputes are among or within nations, companies, school kids or families:

Define the conflict. If defined objectively, rather than subjectively, which is how most of us do it, conflict means only this: We need a new way of doing things, the old way has failed.

Sociologists report that in as many as 75 percent of husband-wife fights, the combatants are battling over different issues. The husband may be enraged over what his wife said or did that morning. The wife is out of control over what her husband said or did 10 weeks ago. They can't settle their conflict because they don't know what it's about. It's this to him, that to her.

This dynamic is seen among warring nations, not only battling couples. In 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and President George Bush, leaders of two governments long accustomed to solving conflicts by killing people, defined their dispute differently. For Hussein, it was a property issue: Land under Kuwait's control really belonged to Iraq. Bush defined it several ways. First, it was oil. Then it was the threat to the industrialized world. Finally, it was that old standby: stopping naked aggression.

Here were two politicians, as self-righteous and self-deluded as a warring husband and wife, unwilling to define the essence of the conflict. If two sides can define what they are fighting about, the chances increase that misperceptions will be clarified.

It's not you against me, it's you and me against the problem. The problem is the problem. Most people - and nations - go into battle convinced, I'm right, you're wrong; I'm good, you're evil; I'm wise, you're foolish; I'm going to win, you're going to lose. Even if one side does win, the first reaction of the loser is, I want a rematch: I'll come back with meaner words, harder fists and bigger bombs. Then you'll learn, then you'll be good and then we'll have peace forever.

This is an illusion, but few can give it up. By focusing on the problem, and not the person with the problem, a climate of cooperation, not competition, is enhanced.

List the relationship's many shared concerns and needs, as against one shared separation. In Ernest Hemingway's novel, "A Farewell To Arms," the most soulful of his stories, as against his usual chest-thumping books, a character is described in a hauntingly beautiful phrase: "He was strong in the broken places." All of us have been, are being or will be broken by life. If we are strong in the broken places, chances for mending increase. They'll increase if the strengths of the relationship - the shared concerns and needs - are given more attention than the lone unshared separation.

When people have fought, don't ask what happened. This is an irrelevant question. They will answer with their version of what happened, almost always self-justifying. The better question is, "What did you do?" This elicits facts, not opinions. Misperceptions are clarified, not prolonged.

Skilled trial layers, whether in civil or criminal cases, don't ask people on the stand what happened. Instead, it's what did you do? Juries decide or are told to decide on the relevance of factual information.

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