Thursday, September 20, 2007

Spontaneous Conflict and Deliberate Restraint

Abstract: Conflict emerges spontaneously whenever three conditions are present: 1) contention, 2) first person viewpoint, and 3) sources of power. Each of these conditions is a human universal. No wonder conflict is ubiquitous, and violence is such a prominent condition of human existence. However, humans also have the capacity for cognitive choice and deliberate restraint. The only alterative to conflict is choosing: 1) not to contend, or 2) to adopt alternative viewpoints, or 3) to exercise power only constructively.

Human conflict is spontaneous, ubiquitous, and often violent. Siblings squabble; co-workers and associates bicker, betray, and sabotage each other, bullies abuse their victims, lovers quarrel, couples fight and divorce bitterly. Gang violence, rape, and murder occur constantly. The violence of war and genocide are nearly constant somewhere on our planet.

We contend for a wide variety of scarce resources. Shortages of earth’s land, forests, sea, fresh water, clean air, vistas, coast line, inhabitable regions, food sources, minerals, and other natural resources make tragedies of the commons all too common. When there is a shortage of food or water, a few get what they need, and many others don’t. Even when we have adequate water, food, and shelter, humans contend over many other scarce resources. We contend for territory, social rank, and sexual access to the most desirable mates. Siblings rival for parent’s attention; workers contend for the best assignments, the boss’s attention, the biggest raise, and the next promotion. We want to be the first on our block to own an iPhone, take the best vacation, own the biggest house, have an ocean view, drive the newest car, tell the most interesting story, and send the kids to the best summer camp and college. Even when physiological needs are fully met, we contend for attention, respect, acceptance, status, and image. We contend to meet our psychological needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness that are poorly understood and rarely met. Money has been called the root of all evil, but we fight just as viscously even when no money or material goods are at stake.

Each of us has our unique first-person viewpoint. No one else sees what we see, hears what we hear, knows what we know, and thinks what we think. Nothing anyone could say or do can become as vivid a reality as our own point of view. First person viewpoint is the fundamental asymmetry of humanity. Each of us sincerely believes our own perceptions, judgments, decisions, and opinions are the most reliable. We are intrinsically self-centered. We expect others to be reasonable; do it my way.

Power is an asymmetrical relationship; the more powerful experience each interaction differently than the less powerful do. The one-down envies the one-up. Power arises from any one of three fundamental stances: the ability to harm, the ability to help, and the ability to influence.

Dominance is the ability to harm, and humans use their creativity to unleash the primitive concept of fighting and extend their ability to harm others in a remarkable variety of ways. These include visual and vocal threats, ridicule, teasing, accusing, blaming, insulting, criticizing, and other forms of humiliation. Positional authority and hierarchical organization structures formalize dominance hierarchies in many organizations. Alliances may form to balance formal power structures. Deceit, cheating, sabotage, and snares damage our colleagues and associates. Shouting, hitting, bullying, and fist fights routinely inflict their harm. Road rage is almost fashionable. Control and use of weapons and other technologies escalates violence on a massive scale.

Dominance triggers fear and leads quickly to insult, anger, humiliation, hate, and vengeance—the passionate desire for revenge. These powerful forces perpetuate destructive cycles.

Stature is the ability to help others, and it is a more difficult form of power to attain. But the rich, famous, talented, or dedicated can have an enormous impact. Philanthropists contribute money to help millions, dedicated scientists and doctors work to cure disease, social workers and activists help the less fortunate, and musicians give charity concerts, as others who could help only squander their wealth, fame, fortune, and talent.

The emotions of pride, shame, envy, gloating, and contempt fuel our quest for stature.

Influence is the ability to alter the belief of others. It is a subtle and insidious source of power. Billions of dollars depend on choosing Coke over Pepsi, and choosing to drink soda instead of water. More billions depend on the decision to smoke, drink, gamble, abuse drugs, buy the latest fashions, indulge our temptations, or succumb to the latest fad. Retail prescription drug marketing has increased sales by billions. Religions gain converts by influencing parishioners; political candidates gain office by influencing voters. Lobbyists get favorable legislation by influencing politicians. Public opinion determines winners and losers and even starts and sustains wars.

Conflict results whenever the asymmetry of power combines with the first-person viewpoint to contend for resources. Because these simple conditions are ever-present, conflict is spontaneous.

Yet somehow civilization emerges from this barbarism. Humans have remarkable capacities for comprehension, planning, imagination, foresight, and compassion. We can choose to avoid conflict by how we decide to allocate resources, understanding other viewpoints, and restraining power.

Stewardship of earth’s scarce natural resources can conserve what we have and preserve adequate fresh air, fresh water, and food sources. Allocation agreements that ensure everyone has enough before anyone gets too much can meet the physiological needs of every person. Focusing on authentic stature rather than image and status symbols can reduce much of the contention for the first, biggest, and best. Choose to value peace of mind, integrity, giving and gaining the respect of others, tranquility, clean air, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, meaningful work, authentic experiences, reciprocity, respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education, fun, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others. Know that there is enough to go around. Do your best; others do not have to lose so that you can win.

Engage in dialogue to fully understand other’s viewpoints. Listen with empathy, suspend judgment, act with respect, form your own carefully considered opinions, and only then speak your voice and act. Employ the fundamental principles of reciprocity and symmetry to attain a viewpoint that can be replicated and sustained. Constantly challenge your own first-person viewpoint by recognizing it is fundamentally self-centered. Challenge other’s self-centered viewpoints. Find an integrating point of view that accommodates all other fragmented viewpoints. Attain a viewpoint that sustains and advances all humanity.

Choose to exercise power only constructively; to help others, never to destroy and hurt.

Only through relentless restraint can we overcome spontaneous conflict and escape the prisons of fear, hate, violence, and humiliation.

How can you change another person?

Q: How can you change another person?
A: You cannot change another person, however there are things you can do to assist someone who has asked you to help them change. The techniques of motivational interviewing can help someone resolve their ambivalence, uncertainty, and indecision about change, set a new and clear direction, increase their commitment to change, help them plan the steps they need to take, and give them confidence to make the changes they have decided on. The book Motivational Interviewing, by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick describes the technique in detail.

If someone has decided to make a change in their life, they may invite or request your assistance. Certainly you can help them. Before acting to help another person change it is important to preserve their autonomy, help them act consistently with their values, and overcome their inevitable urges to indulge impulses. Consider the example of a friend who asks you to help them stop smoking. Begin by agreeing on your role—what it is they want you to do and don’t want you to do. Who announces their plan for quitting smoking? If you see them smoking, or smell smoke, or see cigarettes or ashes around their house, what do they want you do? If they beg you to “let them have just one cigarette today and that will be all for the week” how should you respond? Understand and do what they actually want, not what you think they want or what you want for them. You can always encourage them to change for the better, but avoid nagging, coercing, patronizing, indulging, enabling, extorting, or coercing them.

Keep in mind that pleasing someone may not be helping them. You can please someone by assisting them in satisfying an impulse. But you may be indulging them rather than helping them. To help someone you have to assist them in acting consistently with their values. That may be much more difficult. This is the distinction between short-term pleasure and long-term gratification. Understand this distinction, and how the person you are offering to help wants you to do handle this inevitable conflict.

You can provide incentives to help someone make a positive change in their lives. For example, parents may offer money to a student for getting good grades. But in planning this approach it is important to understand the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Use the money briefly only to focus on a goal of helping the student discover effective study habits and the intrinsic joys of learning, discovering, and achieving. These can provide life-long benefits. If instead the transaction degenerates into the narrow deal “no money, no work” then when the money stops, the studying stops, and the student has learned only greed, instrumental behavior, and dependency. The play stops when the pay stops.

Influence causes change. People are remarkably susceptible to influence. We buy the latest fashions, prefer Pepsi over Coke, listen to the music that is most cleverly promoted, submit to many forms of peer pressure, and go along with the crowd, even if that requires becoming the rebel. Influence—achieving belief—is a powerful approach to changing what people believe, think, and do. It is effective, nearly invisible, and ubiquitous. Some influences, for example choosing an excellent role model, are constructive. Many influences, such as the ones that cause you to start smoking because you think it will make you cool, are destructive. Pay attention to the influences in your life, and make decisions based on your own well thought-out core values, not on today’s fads.

You can describe how you would like the person to change, why you believe it would be beneficial, and ask them to change. Engage them in a dialogue about the benefits of the change. Perhaps they will agree with your thinking and grant your request.

How you treat another person certainly affects how they behave, and how they treat you. When you treat someone respectfully as an intelligent peer, they are likely to respond similarly to you. If you treat them disrespectfully, they are likely to retaliate in some way. Both parties participate in each relationship. Perhaps the best way to get someone to change is to change how you treat them.

Coercion changes immediate behavior but often at the cost of long term resentment and anxiety. It causes people to act out of fear, or to select from a smaller set of alternatives. Coercive threats, ranging from “share your candy with me or I won’t be your best friend” to “Give me your money or I’ll shoot” are fast acting and long lasting. But they still depend on the free will of the victim. Gandhi said “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” People resent coercion, the vindictive passions run strong, they rarely ever forget, and they are passionate about revenge and retaliation. Coercion relies on fear and unleashes anger, hatred, and the destructive cycle of revenge. It is a short sighted expediency with long-term costs.

Because you cannot change another person, you may decide that the best way to move forward with your life is to disengage from theirs. If they don’t understand their freedom ends where yours begins then it may be best to keep them at a distance. They have no right to trespass on your privacy, time, space, or attention. The intent in disengaging is to protect yourself so you can move forward with your life. It is not to punish them, teach them a lesson, or to ensure they get what they deserve. It may be helpful to discuss with them your reasons for the separation.

It is always helpful to keep in mind what you can change and what you cannot. It helps to attain the wisdom to know the difference. Certainly you cannot change the past, human nature, personality, or the laws of mathematics and physics. You can only change another person if they truly want to change and have requested your help in making the change.