Conflict Resolution in the 21st Century – Michelle Brenner

Conflict is part of life, it happens as part of the natural world, so how do we as people, groups and nations move from conflict to resolution?

Conflict Resolution is an approach, a perspective, a way of being in the world, it is part of peace making and peace building, so how do we cultivate that? That is a question that lies behind human society, whether it is a conflict within ourselves blocking well-being, or within a group causing dissonance or in a nation with identity disunity. Conflict Resolution was born after the second world war, when thinking people from all different fields of professional and religious affiliations, asked the question, what are the ways that lead us towards ending a particular conflict, when ending conflict must by its very nature mean no more conflict for all involved? Thus resolution includes the sense that underlying issues as well as surface issues are no longer in conflict. It is not a once and for all experience, but it is a ‘in this time and place reality’.

War, imprisonment, fault finding, and the win/lose justice paradigm leaves behind dissonance that creates in often cases new conflicts. The purpose of creating the paradigm of Conflict Resolution was to analyse conflict in such a way that all sides would be recognised and empowered to discover what and how resolution could take place.

In traditional indigenous cultures there has already been a process unlike our adversarial win/lose process for dealing with conflict, this is now called Restorative Justice. In this piece we will bring these together, Conflict Resolution being informed by Restorative Justice. Conflict resolution is a practical field, there is no value in theoretically resolving an issue when practically it still is in conflict. This field has developed its theories from working practices.

More than ever we are relying on technology to solve our problems and make our lives easier, so it is timely to consider the principles of Conflict Resolution in the 21st century.

These principles are present when we are approaching conflict with intent to resolving it. Principles:

  • Conflict is Natural
  • We have Choices
  • Tell Your Story
  • Listen to Others Stories
  • Respectful engagement

Another term for restorative justice is reintergrative shaming, or community conferencing. Cultures all over our planet have practiced ways of dealing with hurt and dissonance with the purpose of keeping and building community. Their common underlying attitude revolved around using peace to get to peace. Respectful engagement means using protocols, rules or rituals that everyone understands are the way to proceed.

In some cultures it means sitting in a circle on the ground, passing round a smoking pipe or sitting in silence until the leader feels that everyone is ready to listen. This is often the hardest of principles, hard because the hurt and pain of harm leads to shame, on all sides.

Shame cuts us off from others and our own dignity, our sense of worthiness. One of the keys to conflict resolution is guiding people towards healthy shame, how to acknowledge the pain, the hurt, the shame in a way that is constructive to human relationships. Behind the respectful engagement is the underlying principle that conflict is natural, that life and human life includes struggling, struggling within ourselves as well as struggles that happen between us and others. When we recognize that conflict is inevitable, that just as the sun rises and sets, and just as birth is painful and growth means change, we come to conflict with an attitude of curiosity and patience – curiosity around what is happening and where is this coming from, and patience to listen to the hints of wisdom on which direction to go.

Choices are sometimes hidden, less obvious and need support in bringing out. This is the power of having a facilitator, someone who is holding the paradigm of conflict resolution in place. Victor Frankl talks about avoidable suffering and unavoidable suffering. With unavoidable suffering the only choice may be within your own mind, the language you use to make sense of the experience.

Being able to tell your story, the story that makes sense to you, is one way of accessing ones power, the power to make sense. In making sense we can begin the journey of listening to others tell their story that makes their sense, and here we begin opening the sense making boundaries, opening up opportunities for making peaceful sense for the future. This all takes time, and it all takes space.

Conflict Resolution is a journey of context, concerns and compassion. The context is critical to understand what happened; the past. the relationships and the hidden meanings all need to be brought out in an environment that is conducive to resolution, this is where the protocols, the rules of engagement are just as critical as the content. When thought is put into setting the context for resolution, there is a power of support that can be harnessed. Context includes the hidden. less obvious surroundings that are just as critical to be noticed as the more obvious points that can be seen. Edward Hall, an Anthropologist and cross cultural researcher coined the phrases high context and low context to offer clarity in distinguishing cultural context in practice. In high context cultures the hidden links, history and surrounding influence holds more meaning to people than in low context cultures where what is said and written is where meaning is found and power is sought. In unravelling the context, the concerns can be highlighted, what is mattering to the people in conflict lies at the heart of the hurt and the pain. When what matters is brought out and recognised, there is an opportunity for transformation, for creative thinking to replace habitual mechanistic responses.

In fact one of the freedoms that we have in the 21st century is what Vannevar Bush, who was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for USA, wrote in As We May Think, published in 1945 in the Scientific journal, The Atlantic said,” the technological era enables man to be freed up from routine, to be more creative”. Vannevar Bush gave a clear vision of how the combination of 6,000 scientists, collaborating together to win the war, could now with the war ended, turn their attention to peace. Here we are. into the second decade of the 21st century, some 70 years later, and the freedom from routine is real.

Sherry Turkle Social Scientist, Clinical Psychologist and presently professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T however sees a concern that Bush was not aware of. Sherry Turkle has been researching the nexus between technology and communication for the last 30 years, and has found that to the extent that people are using technology to have their needs met, whether it is mechanical or informational, that is making life easier, the downside is a loss of ability to have empathy -the sense that someone gets how you feel, and you get how they feel. The capacity to have empathy is a sense, a sensitivity that lies at the heart of connecting. It is a sense like other inherent natural senses that can be developed or lie dormant underdeveloped or even blocked. Empathy is a core requirement to access concerns and then compassion. Without the felt sense of suffering in another, there is no desire or drive to ease that suffering.

Sherry Turkle is very concerned that our zest for artificial intelligence is leading to artificial intimacy. People prefer to talk to, to engage with and to relate to technology than to real people. It is easier, quicker and less confronting to click, tap and turn on and off technology without the unpredictability and possible conflicting issues that real human to human relating comes with.

Conflict Resolution came in to the world as a response to the second world war. Whilst some people advocated that conflict was a competition, people from a diversity of professions and religions advocated that conflict was also a puzzle, a puzzle that with the help of guidance and wisdom, could lead to a third reality.

We still have conflicts in our lives. However now we have technology to make conversations less painful, less difficult. Conflict Resolution has some principles, some skills and some wisdom that can enrich our lives with sensitivity. Sensitivity is a life capacity, a sense that can be developed and shared in a group to enhance the human condition. It will be our choice as individuals and as societies whether we develop our conflict resolution paradigm. A paradigm that requires face to face conversations that enables the healthy processing of harm, shame and restoration of human dignity or whether we develop robots and technology to avoid the human confrontation.

About Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution from Macquarie University within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full time mediator for an inner city Sydney council. She has consulted for the NSW Department of Education, the Federal Department of Immigration and the NSW Police Force.. She is one of the founding members of Holistic Practices Beyond Borders Inc. She has published 2 books, “Conscious Connectivity: Creating Dignity in Conversation”, and “Conversations on Compassion” both available at Prior to her career in Conflict Resolution, Michelle was a Natural Health Therapist. She has travelled extensively and lived in Hawaii, Japan, Indonesia, Israel, France New Zealand. Michelle lives in Sydney, Australia and is a qualified Nature Forest Therapy Guide with ANFT.


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