A quick survey of the news on almost any day reveals the compelling need for a better way to deal with differences. How many people, organizations, and nations are stubbornly bargaining over positions? How much destructive escalation results in bitter family feuds, endless lawsuits, and wars without end? For lack of a good process, how many opportunities are being lost to find solutions that are better for both sides?
Conflict remains a growth industry. Indeed, the advent of the negotiation revolution has brought more conflict, not less. Hierarchies tend to bottle up conflict, which comes out into the open as hierarchies give way to networks. Democracies surface rather than suppress conflict, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian societies.
The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable—and useful—part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. Few injustices are addressed without serious conflict. In the form of business competition, conflict helps create prosperity. And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict, not less.
The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. It is to change the way we deal with our differences—from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem-solving. We should not underestimate the difficulty of this task, yet no task is more urgent in the world today. We are living in an age that future anthropologists might look back on and call the first human family reunion.
For the first time, the entire human family is in touch, thanks to the communications revolution. All fifteen thousand or so “tribes” or language communities on this planet are aware of one another around the globe. And as with many family reunions, it is not all peace and harmony, but marked by deep dissension and resentment of inequities and injustices.
More than ever, faced with the challenges of living together in a nuclear age on an increasingly crowded planet, for our own sake and the sake of future generations, we need to learn how to change the basic game of conflict.