The pathway between conflict and reconciliation: Coexistence as an evolutionary process (2010)

Transcultural Psychiatry, 47(1): 55-69

Author: Sluzki CE

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Transcultural Psychiatry, 47(1): 55-69, 2010

An earlier version of this article was published as a chapter in A. Chayes and M. Minow, Eds. (2003): Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity after Violent Ethnic Conflict. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

The Pathway Between Conflict And Reconciliation:
Coexistence As An Evolutionary Process

Carlos E. Sluzki


A normative sequence of stages is proposed in the fragile and slow evolution from open conflict toward harmonious coexistence as well at its devolution from the latter to the former.

A one end of the spectrum, confrontation assumes ill intent on any act of the other, active hostility and intent to damage the other's life, livelihood or well being. It is dominated by emotions of elation, contempt, and hostility. Truce or Freeze is characterized by assumptions of ill intent on any act of the other, while acts of hostility are curtailed by a real or virtual "neutral zone" controlled by powerful third parties. The dominant emotions are resentment, anger, mistrust. Collaboration (etymologically “Sharing labor”) retains some assumptions of ill intent while certain activities in common are carried out. The third party looses visibility, and the dominant emotions include ambivalence and a modicum of mistrust. Cooperation (etymologically “Sharing operations”) entails assumption of neutral intent on self and the other, while activities in common are planned and carried out. Key emotions are a mitigated ambivalence and cautious compassion for the other. Interdependence (literally: “Reciprocal dependence”) shows common goals overshadowing most assumptions of ill intent, and is characterized by active involvement in plan and act toward the common good. The dominant emotions are trust and forgiveness. At the other extreme of the spectrum, (differentiated) integration entails assumption of good intent in any act of the other and active involvement in programs aimed at the common good. Each supports the other's growth. The dominant emotions are solidarity and a friendly trust.

Each stage constitutes an amalgam of practices, narratives and prevalent emotions, a relational “game” that tends to resist change. The systemic cohesion of each stage constitutes the main challenge, and the promise of a similar cohesion en the next set the main hope, for professionals aiming at facilitating evolutionary change, be it in interpersonal or in international relations.

The winding pathway “between vengeance and forgiveness” (Minow, 1999) may be paved with good intentions and the hopes of the surrounding communities, and sometimes even of the parties in conflict, but is filled with countless obstacles. Regardless of how novel the notion of peace may be in human history (cf. Howard 2001), and much as harmony and coexistence tends to be defined in most cultures as more desirable than confrontation and mayhem, the road from the latter to the former is unstable, uphill, and difficult to transit. In fact, the overwhelming experience about conflicts between nations, regions, communities, ethnic groups, organizations with competing interests, neighborhoods, neighbors, families and couples, that is, within both macro- to micro-social systems, allows to affirm that conflicts tend to linger, that violence re-emerges easily, that mistrust is pervasive and difficult to eradicate, and that the dissolution of conflicts, or even their transformation into workable disputes, is far from easy.

To start with, those transformative processes are frustratingly slow, a pace that may collide against hopes and needs of the parties involved, thus increasing the changes of accusations of ill will toward the other party and a collapse of the process. Real time estimate of post-war socioeconomic recovery indicate that it “typically requires at least two decades of sustained effort” (Kreimer et al., 2000, p.67). This slowness may be tied to the fact that each stage of the process from open conflict to unambiguous interdependency is qualitatively different from the next, and any shift takes place following complex processes affecting many levels, each of which requiring time to stabilize.

Secondly, the progress of the process of reconciliation is extremely unstable and sensitive to, if not contingent upon, many uncontrollable variables. Some of these variables are relational – stemming from the differences in the “punctuation of the sequence of events” of a given shared history. In fact, the corollaries of any given shared story can shift dramatically according to how it is “punctuated”, that is, by the way each party chooses to define which is defined as the first step of a given interactional sequence. The quarrel “I withdraw because you nag”, “No, I nag because you withdraw” is a paradigmatic example of a difference in punctuation, central in order to determine who is victim and who is perpetrator, who is right and who is wrong (Watzlawick et al., 1967.) Throughout these quarrels, each party struggles to place him/herself in the socially stronger position of victim and the other in the socially weaker position of the perpetrator, as the position of victim helps to legitimize any previous or subsequent act of aggression or ill will 1.

For instance, the harshness against Germany of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI – even though many of its clauses, such as war reparations by Germany, were never enforced nor carried out – was used by the National Socialist party as an argument to polarize the German public opinion in its favor, and to justify many of the acts of aggression of Nazi Germany as vindications of those iniquities.

And some of the variables derive from contextual phenomena, from supra- or extra-relational factors, be they “acts of God” such as a drought in the region, the style of an emerging leader, added regional instability, or the economic collapse of a potential ally or, in a marital couple in conflict, a disease in one of their children. A variety of culture-informed roles and routines may facilitate or interfere with reconciliation processes, including variations about expected responses to victimization and styles of reciprocation or retaliation.

As an example, “forgiveness” (as it appears more frequently within the Judeo-Christian tradition) is a process centered in the victim – and it is totally his/her prerogative to grant it, regardless of whether it is requested by the perpetrator or not – while “atonement” (that may be more dominant in the Jewish and Muslim tradition) is a process centered in the perpetrator – regardless of whether the victim requests it or not.

And there are variables contingent upon the internal vicissitudes of one of the parties, if not both, such as a shift in personal or organizational.

For instance, a given government may need to galvanize the Country’s public opinion in order to distract the population from internal foibles, such as the out-of-the-blue engineering of the ill-fated 1982 Falkland Wars by the Military Junta in power in Argentina while their hold of power was waning as that country’s economy became chaotic; or, in a couple in conflict, the confrontation may recede as a result of an offer of a better job to one of the members, requiring a geographic move.

In fact, as a rule, internal political pressures deriving from collective socioeconomic suffering may make renewed conflict a preferable solution than a lingering truce for an embattled government wanting to retain power.

Thirdly, these processes occur simultaneously at multiple levels. This has two meanings. On the one hand, each stage is characterized by dominant themes that in turn churns and is supported by collective emotions, which in turn energize and provide sense to some actions, which in turn, recursively, reconstitute and sustain those stories – “The enemies of the fatherland”, “A new dawn for the country”, “You parents are invading our space.” On the other hand, social processes take place at multiple levels of activity, and possible acts of collaboration – or of hostility, for the matter – can occur at different pace in each of these different social/relational levels. The complex nature of human and political systems assures that there will be some specific areas or sectors in which change, evolution and progress is more viable than in others, with more or less opportunities for shifts from adversarial to collaborative activities. For instance, neighboring countries in a reciprocal relation of armed truce may be able to develop some minimal cooperation in the agricultural activities but not in an industrial sector (and a couple involved in a conflict may be able to share a civilized conversation during dinner but not to engage in a tender sexual encounter…or vice-versa).

From confrontation to integration: a sequence of stages

A fourth, perhaps less discussed if not occasionally forgotten trait is that the process from conflict to interdependence, rather than constituting a binary switch-like, process or even a smooth continuum, is characterized by a probabilistic sequence of discrete intermediary stepping stones, stages or stations, that is, is normative, and it takes place one step at the time in a predictable order or sequence, that is, it is “path dependent”. Each of those stages corresponds to a specific period of a given relationship in progress, and has traits of its own – which allow to operationally evaluating the progression of the process of change. It should also be highlighted that, while in an evolutionary sequence these steps may be defined as intermediary, they may be not only desirable provisional goal within a process, but even a desirable end in itself.

This article aims at specifying the sequence of discrete steps or stances that characterize the 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. What is proposed here as a lens is an evolutionary model that, because of its sequential nature, may provide a viable framework for the design of Interventions and evaluation processes. It may also provide a frame to understand failures in processes toward a fruitful, constructive coexistence: bypassing some of these steps in the planning and implementation of peace and reconciliation processes may decrease the probability of their success.2

The process is defined as normative, in the sense that specific steps can be assumed to occur following a pre-determined order – useful information to guide these processes, to allow for recommendation of actions that would have maximal probability of success, and to reduce the frustration, when the best intentions are met with the reality of a slow evolving process.

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 contributed to forge (Mitchell, 1999).

Not surprisingly, each stage is sustained by – and in turn reconstitutes – a set of rather specific dominant themes for narratives or stories. They appear as dominant presentation of the news by the media, as discourses by the political leaders, and as everyday life conversation in the street and at home. Narratives may present with a variety of specific contents – contingent upon the nature of the relationship being considered (are we referring to a marital couple in conflict, a management-labor dispute, and inter-ethnic escalation, two countries at war?), and the nature of the conflict (is it about reciprocal responsibilities, about control of a territory, about sexual practices, about saving face, about finances?) However, they tend to be variations of specific meta-narratives or themes. As stages are described below, dominant themes will be specified.

In turn, each stage resonates with – is both portrayed and supported by – a specific set of emotions experienced and/or displayed by the actors – be they politicians, leaders, or the common person – and expressed or permeated through their actions. In turn, those actions reconstitute – remind, represent – those emotions and therefore anchor them. In fact, if the process remains unchanged, dominant emotions may show shifts within their own range. Such is the case of a transformation of “hot emotion” such as anger, fear, rage and humiliation, into a more uncomfortable “cold emotion” such as unforgiveness (Worthington, 1998) – that only pushes the process “backwards”, toward confrontation.

What follow is the sequence of stages being discussed:

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

Fig. 1: Stages, themes and emotions

I. Confrontation: This stage entails an active involvement in hostilities intending to damage the other party’s life, livelihood or well being. In turn, 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 third, “neutral” parties. The narrative that dominate conversations within each party as well as their spokespersons or their controlled media, and anchors this stage can be summarized in the statement “Hostility is the only option.” The emotional correlates that dominate the participants are:

  • Elation – the empowerment of the confrontation,
  • Contempt – a denigrating perception of the other contendent, and
  • Hostility.

The rules of engagement in this stage are unambiguously those of a zero-sum game: “Your loss is my gain.”

II. Truce: While the parties co-exist without open acts of violence – sometimes side by side such as two neighboring countries, or neighboring families in a lull of a violent dispute, sometimes at the distance, or a couple in which the women took 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 on any act of the other.

An example of these assumptions in action could be seen during the June 2002 escalation and de-escalation phases of the alarming confrontation between India and Pakistan about the disputed Kashmir territory, during which negative interpretations and open mistrust was expressed about what could otherwise be seen as conciliatory gestures displayed by each of the two parties.

The enactment of hostility is only curtailed during that stage by the presence of a real or virtual “neutral zone,” strongly patrolled or controlled by a powerful independent party.

Examples may be the United States carrot-and-sticks diplomacy to curtail the 2002 risky conflagration between India and Pakistan, or the active presence of United Nations contingents in the recent confrontations in East Timor or Kosovo, or an active physical separation or the active presence of a third family member – one of her parents, for instance – in the case of marital conflicts with potential for violence, each of them examples of peacekeeping functions (Ury, 1999). The issue of the third party will be further discussed below.

The dominant narratives in this stage are variations of the motto “We are ready for hostile acts whenever needed.” The dominant emotions that sustain and, recursively, are sustained by this stage are:

  • Resentment – re-sentiment characterized by repetitive rumination of past victimizations and of old and new grudges,
  • Anger – maintained active by those ruminations and, in the appropriate scenario, by the media, and
  • Mistrust of the other party.

The “hot” emotion of anger, of feeling wronged, of humiliation, is ruminated and “cooled” in this stage into an experience of unforgiveness – an unpleasant emotion that leads to attempts at relieving it through seeking punitive justice, or through revenge. 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, co-labor such as share-cropping of neighboring lands, or re-building a bridge, or 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. Issues of personal restitution, aimed in part at reducing the esteem of those defined as perpetrators by public admissions of wrongdoings, asking of forgiveness in witnessed ceremonies, or more subjective beliefs in Divine justice – in which God will balance the scale, or in Karma, unremitting justice in the long run – are kept alive but in a more muted way. 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 (re) appear.

IV. Cooperation: The development of some planning of activities in common (co-operation), such as designing a dam to facilitate irrigation in both territories, is accompanied by a shift of the dominant assumption toward an attribution of neutral intent on the other (“They may not be our friends, but they don’t behave as our foes. While they pursue their own interest, those interests fit our own.”) The presence of the external buffer is no longer necessary, and the presence of third-party forces is experienced as an inconvenient reminder of past hostilities. At this stage emergency relief agencies such as UNHCR and WFP complete their withdrawal from the field, replaced by self-reliant local organizations. 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 dominant emotions appear to shift away from ambivalence toward the possibility of a cautious empathy and the relational field moves toward the enactment of non-zero sum rules of partnership.3

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 definitively foolish,” and the constructive nature of the relationship is carefully maintained and signaled once and over again, in an active display of non-zero sum ritual reminders (cf. figure 2). The dominant emotions include acceptance of the past and even forgiveness for prior misdeeds, with cautious trust and open attachment. Reaching this stage entails that a second-order (qualitative) change has taken place in the relationship: Peace and harmony has been attained.

VI. Integration: In this end of the spectrum (which occurs occasionally in interpersonal relations and very occasionally in other larger systems) 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, following the characteristics of full non-zero sum processes. Furthermore, there are conflict management strategies/systems built into the relational infrastructure, so as problems arise, and they do, they are re-formulated, attributing positive intent to the other. Additionally, while maintaining differentiation, each supports the other’s growth. Narratives are inspired by the banner: “We are one. We take for granted that each move is for the collective benefit.” There is a full relational reconciliation. The dominant emotions are solidarity, empathy, friendly trust, humility of self and, perhaps even love.

Zero-sum Games
Non-zero-sum Games

Fig. 2: Stages and dominance of “Prisoner Dilemma” logic

As already stated, this sequence of stages is proposed as NORMATIVE, i.e., most conflictive relations can be predicted to move through those 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, i.e., these stages tend not to be skipped, but one follows the other, and each contains experiences that, when consolidated, constitute the seed of the next one.

Equilibrium and Change

The evolution (the “climbing”) 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 evolutionary reward for the 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 (cf. Figure 3).

Stating it differently, each end of the proposed sequence operates as a “powerful attractor” – processes near their sphere of influence tend to be pulled in its direction. And, as stated above, while early intermediary stages can acquire stability through consistent practices, they are comparatively unstable. In addition, the climb towards interdependence is time consuming and the process is frequently experienced by the parties not only as extremely slow but with a low level of immediate gratification, as happens with any long-term goal – unlike the moves toward conflict, that are potentially quicker and therefore tempting due to their immediate gratification. Hence the reasonable risk of the dreaded “slippery slope.”

           IV               VI

Fig.3: The fist steps of the pathway toward integration is hard to climb

At one end of the spectrum, the fumes of confrontation have an intoxicating effect.4 As William Ury (1999) states, “War is contagious.” In fact, in the beginning, conflict:

  • reaffirms the collective self (“they see us, therefore we exist”)
  • expands the self of the participants (generates a sense of power and righteousness)
  • creates affiliation (fosters a sense of togetherness)5
  • gives meaning to life (creates a story of optimism and protagonism)
  • creates hope (open alternative future)
  • fosters business (generate micro-economies, black markets, bartering, pillage, overpricing)

However, in the long run, if persistent, it has a toxic effect6, as chronic confrontation 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 has its own attraction, as it enhances:

  • predictability and prospection (planning can be done with some degree of certainty as the context is stable)
  • civility (the rules of interpersonal and institutional relations are guaranteed by collectively enacted behaviors and collectively agreed-upon enforcement agencies – the rule of law and of good will)
  • personal and relational well-being (in contrast with the exhausting stress stemming from violence.)

However, adding a sad but realistic note, one of the frequent long term effects of a stable integration seems to be that the collective commitment to the common good, foregrounded during the crisis, disappears slowly into the background, and, when taken for granted, may be overridden by individual interests, risking the reversal of the process.

Returning to the issue of the “powerful attractors”, this is an attribute that is not exclusive of the two extreme ends of the spectrum. In fact, each stage has its own systemic inertia: complex systems, when reaching equilibrium of one sort or another, tend to keep on operating within those specific thresholds (von Foerster, 1976, refers to this equilibrium or steady state achieved by a system as the Eigen value of the system.7) The stages of the process between open conflict and integration described here have this characteristic of Eigen values, of temporarily harmonious steady states, with as many forces pulling toward not changing while other interests and parties militate for change. And when they evolve, complex systems – human systems in conflict included – don’t do it linearly, but alternating long-lasting stable periods with shifts, sometimes slow in coming and sometimes abrupt, into another qualitatively different stage in the normative sequence. Stating it differently, unstable-but-steady systems seldom if ever remain indefinitely in any given stage: the unstable nature of any complex system – from couples to corporations to the world economy – may lead in the long run to increasing (quantitative) oscillations, which at a given moment may override their established threshold. When that happens – fitting both Prigoyine and Stengers’ (1984) model of “order through fluctuation”8 as well as Gladwell’s (2000) notion of “tipping points”, the whole system shifts to a new, qualitatively different level of equilibrium, around which again the system coalesces ... until new oscillations will begin the potential process of destabilization. In sum, this evolutionary process of increasing fluctuations within the whole system until it passes a threshold that is followed by a new (unstable) period of equilibrium, with new baselines, new values, and new rules of the game is established, is characteristic of all complex systems.

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

The function of the Third Party

The presence of a third party plays a central role during the first stages of the process from open conflict to integration.

The presence of the Blue Casks of the UNMIK acts as deterrent from inter-ethnic violence in Kosova as much as the presence of a witnessing adult or even a child may function to deter from violence in many couples.9

In many cultures, especially those where strong family interdependence if not enmeshment is the norm, the extended family tends to operate as a buffer against interpersonal violence, as well as an established venue for the management of conflicts – under the watchful eye of a patriarch of an extended Latino family or of the boss of a Cosa Nostra Sicilian “family” or of a sheik of a Bedouin clan, to mention just a few.

“The service is yours, the blood is ours.”, is the ritual statement of a traditional Kosovar Muslim father when delivering a newlywed daughter into the household of her husband where she will live from then on. It signals to the receiving family that any mistreatment of the daughter will be considered as an attack on her parents’ family (Sluzki and Agani, 2003)

At a different level of processes, the prime example of the failure of the international community to step up to the role of enforcing Third Party to prevent the Rwandan genocide, while the signs of its imminence were escalating.

In 2004, during the tenth anniversary of that atrocity, Rwandan president Paul Kagame explicitly accused France of having relinquished that role by supporting the Hutu-dominated government and armed forces precisely during the period in which the rhetoric of the government-controlled radio was inciting the populace toward carrying on that massacre (NYT, 4/8/04). In turn, the pitiful role of the international community, and, specifically, of the United Nations armed forces located in Rwanda during that period, has been the subject of a dramatic description by Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda, who warned the UN about the pending genocide to no avail, and requested without success support to main world powers (Dellaire, 2003)

Some closing comments on narratives

As pointed up above, each stage is characterized by a set of narratives or dominant themes, that is, by the stories that people tell about the situation (who are the “good guys and bad guys”, the protagonists and deuteragonists, those with noble and ignoble intentions, the ultimate motivations and hidden intents of the others, et cetera). And each set of stories will reconstitute (that is, to solidify and anchor) their respective stage. Hence, 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 in multiple levels – such as the economics, education, sports, artistic domains that contribute (with unequal weight, indeed) to build a civil society

Subsequent steps in the development of this model may include to further specify 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, perhaps key, task of a mediator/facilitator/consultant consists in destabilizing and transforming the story brought forth by the parties in favor of a “better” one, and facilitating the consensual adoption of it 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 that 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 (i.e., of people as active protagonists of their own story) into a narrative previously characterized by passive victimization may push the participants toward violent revenge rather than fostering constructive collaboration [in clinical psychiatry, if the physical passivity that accompanies many depressions is neutralized with medications before the mood changes, 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 daily life interpersonal space – included but not limited to the family, affinity groups, community organizations, interest-related aggregates – where old and new stories circulate and are reconstituted, reconfirmed and anchored, or changed. Needless to say, many highly structured networks (such as armies, political parties, 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 both are rooted in the dominant conflict-sustaining narratives and contribute to further anchor them: the development of some doing in common may make possible the development of some stories of commonality as much as vice-versa. In fact, to attempt 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 system in conflict toward constructive coexistence.

Hopefully, the map introduced here will provide a useful orientation for planning this complex journey.


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  1. As conflict scenarios range from the interpersonal to the intercontinental, the examples provided in this article refer sometimes to couples, such as a marriage in the rocks, and sometimes to socio-economic and ethno-political entities, such as disputes within countries, or countries in dispute.
  2. As with any other model, the one proposed here has the merit of organizing complexity while courting the risk of oversimplifying it.
  3. Two-person activities that require reciprocity, cooperation, and trust entail for the participants the ability to infer each other’s mental states. This can not only be inferred from the resulting actions but, at the neurobiological level, is reflected in activity in the prefrontal, integrative, region of the brain, a phenomenon absent when subjects are dealing with non-cooperative, or merely probabilistic (such as a person-computer), interaction (McCabe et al, 2001.)
  4. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells…of victory!” joyfully exclaims 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.
  5. The Fascist movement that elevated rather violently Mussolini into power in Italy in 1922 had as symbol of the party the fasces, “a bundle of rods bound around a projecting axe-head“(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition, 2000).
  6. “The horror! The horror!”, murmurs in despair 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)
  7. A very elementary example of this complex notion (from the German “Eigen”, namely “own,”) is the proposition “This sentence has XX letters,” which has only two eigen values in the English language, namely two possible “correct” answers, where content and form fit with each other, namely 31 and 33 (“This sentence has thirty-one letters” has 31 letters, and “This sentence has thirty-three letters” has 33 letters), while the proposition “This sentence is composed by XX letter” has no eigen value at all and therefore dissolves easily (v.Foerster, 1976.)
  8. Prigoyine and Stengers (1984) described the universality of these processes, defining them as the core of all (co)evolutionary dynamics. Complex systems, they assert, pass through periods of stability within fixed parameters but they evolve toward parametric fluctuations that progressively push the system away from equilibrium until reaching a threshold or “point of bifurcation,” where new baselines are set, and the cycle repeats itself, but at a different evolutionary stage.
  9. When it does not, that is, when spousal violence occurs in the presence of their children, the experience leaves strong marks in those offspring – they will experience the world as terrifying and extremely unreliable, and themselves as lacking any weight or agency. The opposite scenario in which a child becomes the main deterrent against parental violence places him or her in an equally damaging situation, that of becoming a prisoner of their own household, fearing what may happen without their buffering presence; it may also force the child to take sides between parents or to become a referee for issues beyond their maturational grasp, or even to acquiesce to extreme alternatives – accepting, for instance, an incestuous seduction that reduces open violence between the parents. Not surprisingly, the more socially isolated a family, the more the likelihood of violent behavior (Cobb, 1976; Gelles and Straus, 1998; House, 1981; Mitchell and Hodson, 1983; Thompson et al., 2000)
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