The process toward reconciliation (2003)

Chapter in A. Chayes and M. Minow, Eds.: Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity after Violent Ethnic Conflict. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. Translated into Italian in Mediazione Familiare Sistemica, 1: 5-11, 2003, and into Spanish in Mediadores en Red 3(9):32-45, 2005

Author: Sluzki CE

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Chapter 2 in A Chayes and M. Minow, Eds., Imagine Coexistence:
Restoring Humanity after Violent Ethnic Conflict.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003 (pp.21-31)


Carlos E. Sluzki, MD

The winding pathway “between vengeance and forgiveness’ (Minow, 1999), between confrontational zero-sum and collaborative non-zero-sum games (Axelrod, 1984), may be paved with good intentions but is filled with countless obstacles.

To start with, that process of transformation is frustratingly slow, moving at a pace that may collide against the pressing hopes and needs of the parties involved, thereby increasing the chances of accusations of ill will toward the other party and risking a collapse of the process. In fact, studies of the real time estimate of postwar socioeconomic recovery indicate that it “typically requires at least two decades of sustained effort” (Kreimer et al., 2000, p.67). Second, while the threat of renewed conflict may loom on and off at different moments, its progress is extremely unstable. The evolution of a conflict is extremely sensitive to, if not contingent on, multiple variables. They may be relational – stemming from changes in the “spiral of reciprocal perspectives” (Laing, Phillipson and Lee, 1966) of the parties in terms of each one’s evolving perception of the other. The variables may be derived from contextual phenomena, suprarelational or extrarelational factors, be they “acts of God” such as a drought in the region or an economic collapse of a potential ally (or, in a couple in conflict, a disease in one of their children ). And they may depend on the internal vicissitudes of the parties, such as the need of a given government to galvanize public opinion so as to distract the population from internal foibles – an example being the out-of-the-blue engineering of the ill-fated 1982 Falkland Wars by the military junta in power in Argentina whose popularity waned as the country’s economy disintegrated. Third, the complex nature of human and political systems ensures that there will be some specific areas or sectors in which change, evolution and progress are more viable than in others, with grater or fewer opportunities for shifts from adversarial to collaborative activities. For instance, neighboring countries in conflict may be able to develop some minimal cooperation in the agricultural activities but not in an industrial sector (and a couple in conflict may be able to share a civilized conversation during dinner but not to engage in a tender sexual encounter or viceversa).

From confrontation to integration: a sequence of stages

A fourth and perhaps less discussed if not unrecognized variable is the fact that the process from open conflict to constructive collaboration is not a smooth continuum but rather is characterized by a set of discrete intermediary stepping stones, stages or stations. These stages constitute an evolutionary progression or sequencing (although, as noted, at any given moment in any complex scenario different stages may be expressed). Each stage depicts or is characteristic of a specific period of a given relationship in the process, and therefore gauges progress in the process of change. It should also be highlighted that several intermediary steps in the evolutionary sequence may in fact become desirable goals within the process, and even the end of the line.

The specific traits that characterize each of these configurations are, of course, contingent on the nature of the relationship being considered (are we talking about a marital couple in conflict, a management-labor dispute, an inter-ethnic escalation, or two countries at war?). They are also contingent on the nature of the conflict (is it about reciprocal responsibilities, about control of a territory, about saving face, about finances?), as well as on countless variables of context – be they cultural or circumstantial.

When analyzing the vicissitudes of this pathway, the transition between any two of these steps appears sometimes seamless and sometimes agonizingly complex. A poignant example of this assertion can be found in the detailed insider’s account of the Irish “Good Friday Agreement” that George Mitchell helped forge (Mitchell, 1999)

Moreover, two steps forward are sometimes followed by one – or more – steps back. However, the mere fact that progression toward constructive collaboration takes place one step at a time and in a predictable order or sequence indicates that we are in the presence of a normative process.

My presentation here aims at specifying the sequence of discrete steps or stances that characterize the long pathway from one extreme, open conflict, to the other extreme, full integration, and to explore some of the most salient traits of each of these stages. While each of these stages has been abundantly described to the point of becoming common knowledge, what is here proposed as a lens is an evolutionary model that, because of its sequential nature, may provide a framework for the design of Interventions and evaluation processes. It may also provide a frame to understand failures in processes of reconciliation: bypassing some of these steps in the planning and implementation of peace and reconciliation processes may decrease the probability of their success (see Table 2.1).

Conflict“Hostility is the only option”Contempt, hostility, elation
Coexistence“We are ready for hostile acts when needed”Resentment, anger
Collaboration“Hostilities are a fall-back option”Ambivalence
Cooperation“Hostilities would be a major disadvantage.”Cautious empathy
Interdependence“We need each other.”Acceptance of the past; cautious trust
Integration“We are one.”Solidarity, friendly trust

I. Conflict

This stage entails an active involvement in hostilities intending to damage the other party’s life, livelihood or wellbeing. Each party assumes and attributes ill intent to any act of the other. The basic tenets to establish or maintain a dialogue are broken, and communication is sometimes tentatively achieved only through the good offices of “neutral” third parties. The narrative that dominates and anchors this stage – that dominate conversations within each party as well as each group’s spokespersons or controlled media – could be summarized in the statement “Hostility is the only option.” The participants’ emotions include hostility, contempt for the opponent, and elation in the empowerment of the confrontation. The rules of engagement in this stage are unambiguously those of a zero-sum game: “Your loss is my gain.”

II. Coexistence

This stage is marked by the ability of the parties to coexist without open acts of violence. Sometimes they live side by side as two neighboring countries or two neighboring families; sometimes they live at a distance, such as a wife who takes refuge in a shelter after an act of physical abuse by the husband. This stage remains dominated by behaviors that denote an assumption of ill intent behind any act by the other. An example of these assumptions in action could be seen during the June 2002 escalation and deescalation phases of the confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, during which negative interpretations and open mistrust was expressed about what could otherwise be seen as conciliatory gestures displayed by both parties. The enactment of hostility is curtailed only by the presence of a real or virtual “neutral zone,” strongly pressured, patrolled or controlled by a powerful independent party (such as U.S. diplomacy or U.N. active physical separation, or the presence of a third family member in the case of marital conflicts with potential for violence, each of them examples of peacekeeping functions (Ury, 1999). The dominant narratives in this stage are variations of the motto “We are ready for hostile acts when needed.” The dominant emotions that sustain and are sustained by this stage are resentment – a re-sentiment characterized by rumination on past victimizations and old and new grudges – anger – kept active by those ruminations and at times by the media – and mistrust of the other party. The rules of engagement between the parties still follow the principles of zero-sum games.

III. Collaboration

While assumptions of ill intent still loom as a background, the scenario changes when some activities in common are initiated, joint projects such as share-cropping of neighboring boundary lands, re-building a bridge, re-establishing a railroad across boundary lines, or even sharing a river where women from the two parties wash clothes, each group using the opposite margin. The external regulatory presence of the third party becomes less visible, and its role may become one of witness or verifier of the process and occasionally acting as a cybernetic governor to minimize the deviations from the parameters of a given agreement. The cautionary banner that underlies the narratives that dominate this stage reads “Hostilities are a fall-back option” and a calmer ambivalence begins to reduce the clouds of mistrust as a dominant emotion. Some rules characteristic of non-zero sum games can begin to be noticed in the processes between the parties – as this is a stage in which the first inklings of a civil society appear (or reappear).

IV. Cooperation

The planning of certain activities in common (co-operation), such as designing a dam to facilitate irrigation in both territories, is accompanied by a shift in the dominant assumption toward an attribution of neutral intent (“They may not be our friends, but they aren’t acting like our foes. The interests they are pursuing fit our own”). The presence of the external buffer is no longer necessary, and those forces are experienced as an almost inconvenient reminder of past hostilities. At this stage, emergency relief agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) complete their withdrawal from the field, being replaced by self-reliance. In fact, the motto underlying narratives at this stage seems to evolve toward “Hostilities would be a major disadvantage for both of us. Peace is desirable.” The relational field moves toward the enactment of non-zero sum rules of partnership and the dominant emotions appear to shift away from ambivalence toward the possibility of a cautious empathy.

V. Interdependence

In this stage the materialization of the common goals overshadow the remnants of assumptions of ill intent as the parties engage in joint planning and actions toward the collective good. The dominant narratives display a consensus that “We need each other. Hostility would be foolish,” and the constructive nature of the relationship is carefully maintained and signaled again and again in an active display of non-zero sum ritual reminders. The dominant emotions may include acceptance of the past and even forgiveness for prior misdeeds, with cautious trust and open attachment.

VI. Integration

At this end of the spectrum all relational moves are based on an implicit assumption of good intent attributed to any act of the other, as well as an active involvement in planning and actions toward the common good (full non-zero sum.) Furthermore, conflict management strategies and systems are built into the relational infrastructure, so as problems arise, and they do, they are reformulated, attributing positive intent to the other party. Moreover, each party supports the other’s growth. Narratives are inspired by the banner “We are one. Hostilities do not even enter into consideration.” The dominant emotions are solidarity, friendly trust, and perhaps even love. Achieving this step, which occurs occasionally in interpersonal relations and much more rarely in larger systems, entails a second-order (qualitative) change in the relationship.

                 V. VI.    

This sequence of stages is normative, i.e., most conflictive relations can be predicted to move through these six configurations. The process can stagnate at any stage, as well as deteriorate toward more conflictive stages if not enticed in the opposite direction by circumstances, best interests, or leadership. Equally important, it is sequential: these stages tend not to be skipped, one follows the other, and each contains experiences that when consolidated constitute the seed of the next one. However, the evolution from one evolutionary stage to the next is hard; slippage is frequent and may lead to a tumbling back to a previous stage. In addition, the reward for active efforts toward reaching the “top” appears to be, as in any mountain climbing during the ascend, far away. And what is more disheartening to many participants, a long-range view is not possible until reaching the vicinities of the final summit.

Movement and Equilibrium

Each stage has not only distinctive traits but also its own inertia. Complex systems do not evolve linearly but by stages, alternating qualitative changes with unsteady but stable stages (what von Foerster, 1976, called the eigenvalues of a system), with complex processes that tend to keep the system operating within specific thresholds. However, no unstable-but-steady system remains indefinitely I any given stage. In fact, the unstable nature of any complex processes may lead in the long run to increasing (quantitative) oscillations, which may override their established threshold. When that happens, fitting Gladwell’s (2000) notion of “tipping points”, the whole system shifts to a new and qualitatively different level of equilibrium, where again the system coalesces until new oscillations will again destabilized it. This evolutionary process of fluctuations that at a given moment pass a threshold after which new baselines – new values, new rules of the game – are established has been described as characteristic of all complex systems in unstable equilibrium.

The value of understanding these processes, from open conflict to reconciliation, from a systemic perspective – and following an optic of unstable steady states, lies in the possibility of assuming that qualitative changes occur following unstable processes of any given stage. Further, seeds of the next stage can be sown at any given stage but cannot be imposed as complex systems follow these quantitative-qualitative dynamics. At the same time, random (in the sense of unpredictable) contextual variables introduce multiple perturbations that affect the future processes and actions of the system, reducing the precision in timetables for these evolutionary changes.

Confrontation and integration as attractors

Each end of the proposed sequence operates as a “powerful attractor,” in that processes near that sphere of influence tend to be pulled in its direction. And as stated earlier, although intermediary stages can acquire stability through consistent practices, they are comparatively unstable. In addition, the climb toward interdependence is time- consuming and the parties frequently experienced the process as extremely slow, with low level of gratification – unlike the moves toward conflict, which are potentially quicker and therefore tempting in their potential for immediate gratification. This explains the risk of short circuits in the evolutionary process and the danger of the dreaded “slippery slope”.

At one end of the spectrum, the fumes of conflict have an intoxicating effect (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells…of victory!”). “ As William Ury (1999) states, “War is contagious.” In fact, in the beginning, conflict:

  • Reaffirms the self (“They see us, therefore we exist”)
  • Expands the self (generates a sense of power and righteousness)
  • Creates affiliation (fosters a sense of togetherness: “Il fascio”)
  • Gives meaning to life (creates a story of optimism and protagonism)
  • Creates hope (open an alternative future)
  • Fosters business (generates micro-economies, black markets, bartering, reconstruction)

However, in the long run, if persistent, it has a toxic effect (“The horror! The horror!”) as it exhausts resources and fosters hopelessness, an experience that unravels the prior process. As Mitchell (1999, p.xii) observed in reference to the Irish public opinion after years of protracted conflict, “The people long for peace. They are sick of war, weary of anxiety and fear. They still have differences, but they want to settle them through democratic dialogue.”

In turn, the pole of integration attracts, for it enhances:

  • Predictability and prospection (planning can be done with some degree of certainty)
  • Civility (the rules of interpersonal and institutional relations are guaranteed by collectively enacted behaviors and collectively agreed-on enforcement agencies)
  • Personal and relational well-being (in contrast with the exhausting stress stemming from violence.)

If the integration persistent, however, the sense of commitment to the collective, foregrounded during the crisis, may risk moving into the background, at least until external crisis reactivates that need and that experience.

Some final comments on narratives

As briefly pointed out, each stage is characterized by a set of narratives, by stories that people tell about the situation (“the good guys and the bad guys”, the protagonists and their foils, the parties with noble and ignoble intentions, the ultimate motivations and hidden intents of the others, and so forth). And each set of stories will tend to reconstitute (that is, to solidify and anchor) their respective stage. Thus, the whole process toward reconciliation entails, and may even be centrally focused in, a progressive shift of dominant narratives, from stories of victimization to stories of evolution and empowerment. This process of shifting dominant narratives (and therefore facilitating changes toward more developed stages) is difficult because dominant stories get entrenched over time, anchored in (and anchoring) the individual and collective identity. That is why the passage between stages toward constructive collaboration becomes more viable when changes are simultaneously enacted and anchored by activities at multiple levels, such as the economics, education, sports, and artistic domains that contribute (unequally) to building a civil society.

Subsequent steps in the development of this model may include further specifying the traits (“symptoms”) that characterize each stage, in order to be able to identify (“diagnose”) more accurately the locus of the evolutionary stalemate in different situations of malaise or conflict. For the time being, we will have to rely on intuition in order to pinpoint, with some degree of approximation, the specific stage in which a given process may be stuck.

One valuable and perhaps key task of a mediator, facilitator or consultant consists in destabilizing and transforming the story brought forth by the parties in favor of a “better” one and facilitating its adoption by all the parties. An example of a desirable shift in the transformations of stories is the passage from a passive to an active stance (from people as powerless recipients of acts by others toward people as agents of change.) However – and this is the reason why it is highlighted here – this shift has the potential of becoming a double-edged sword, as the early incorporation of agency (that is, of people as active protagonists in their own story) into a narrative previously characterized by passive victimization may push the participants toward violent revenge rather than toward constructive collaboration. In clinical psychiatry, if the physical passivity that accompanies depression is neutralized with medications before the patient’s mood improves, the risk of suicide increases!

Embedded in this discussion lies another important issue: stories live in the interpersonal space (in addition to the iconic space of symbols and rituals). Hence the minimal unit of analysis should not be the individual but the “social network” as a key interpersonal space of daily life – including but not limited to the family, affinity groups, community organizations, and interest-related aggregates – where old and new stories circulate and are reconstituted, and then either reconfirmed and anchored, or changed. Needless to say, many highly structured networks (such as armies, political parties, and religious groups) may be invested in self-sustaining narratives that may push toward conflict, and that may be difficult to challenge because of the dense and homogeneous nature of the collective.

“Narratives,” it may be clear by now, are both the dominant stories and the daily practices that intertwine and support each other, both within each party in a conflict and between parties, in the vicious cycle of conflict as well as in the virtuous cycle toward reconciliation. Hence the difficult task of destabilizing the rather entrenched dominant stories of the parties in conflict may start by challenging and changing those practices that are rooted in the dominant conflict-sustaining narratives and contribute to further anchor them: a project done in common may make possible the development of stories of commonality, and viceversa. In fact, attempting to determine a sequential order in a shift in stories and in action may be more a need of the observer than a pragmatic reality: they are two sides of the same process of mediation, where conflict-based narratives as well as daily practices are destabilized and transformed, in an effort to nudge the conflict system toward constructive coexistence.

It is hoped that the map introduced here will provide a useful orientation for planning this complex journey.


  • Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
  • Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness (Robert Kimbrook, Ed., 3d. Edition), New York-London: Norton, 1988. (Originally published in 1899)
  • Foerster, H. v. “Objects: Tokens for (eigen-) behaviors.” Cybernetic Forum 8 (3 & 4), p.91-96, 1976. Also in H.v.Foerster. Observing Systems. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1981. The original in French was included as a chapter in B.Inhelder, R.Garcia and J.Voneche, Eds.: Epistemologie Genetique et Equilibration. Neuchatel: Delachaux et Nistle, 1978.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little Brown Co, 2000.
  • Kreimer, Alcira; Paul Collier; Colin S. Scott and Margaret Arnold. Uganda: Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Washington, DC: The World Bank (Country Case Study Series), 2000
  • Laing, R.D, H. Phillipson and A.R. Lee. Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research. London: Tavistock, 1966.
  • Minow, Martha. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston, Beacon, 1998.
  • Mitchell, George J. Making Peace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. (New edition, 2000)
  • Prigogine, Ilya; and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
  • Ury, William. The Third Side (First published as Getting to Peace). New York, Penguin, 1999 (New edition, 2000)
  • Dr. Sluzki is Research professor, School of Public Policy and Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University; and Clinical professor of Psychiatry, George Washington University Medical School, Washington DC.


  1. As conflict scenarios range from the interpersonal to the intercontinental, from relations between individual people to relations between blocks of nations, examples will be provided that sometimes refer to couples (such as a marriage on the rocks) and sometimes to socio-economic and ethno-political entities (such as countries in dispute or disputes within countries.)
  2. Prigoyine and Stengers (1984) assert the universality of these processes, defining them as the essence of all (co)evolutionary dynamics. Complex systems, they assert, pass through periods of stability or equilibrium within fixed parameters but they evolve toward parametric fluctuations that progressively push the system away from equilibrium until they reach a threshold or “point of bifurcation,” where new baselines are set, where the cycle repeats itself, but at a different evolutionary stage.
  3. As joyfully exclaimed a military commander in the middle of a violent carnage, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, with screenplay by John Milius and Francis Coppola.
  4. Utterance murmured in despair by the burned out, doomed, suicidal colonel Kurtz, also in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” , inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” in which a homonymous character mumbles those same words (Conrad, 1988, p.72)
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