Conflict management is an odd phrase. Instinctively, we think that when we have conflict, things are already out of control. How could one manage something that is already out of control? And so, on more than one occasion, I have heard otherwise very smart people talking about how to eliminate conflict. It is a silly thought. We can eliminate conflict no more than we can eliminate rain or sunshine. Nor do we want to eliminate conflict. It has its purposes. But I can sympathize with the idea that we don’t want to lose control.
So can you maintain at least some control even in the midst of a conflict? Yes. But to do that, you need to work on more than one issue at the same time. You need to maintain self-control and you need to maintain strategic control. It takes some practice to keep an eye on both at the same time. And even the most skilled negotiator loses it from time to time. Oops.
I won’t write about self-control issues here except to say that anger management is a skill set worth cultivating. I will write a bit more about strategy in conflict. Developing a working strategy to deal with conflict requires some decision making about what is critical. Why? Because while we may want to protect the crown jewels at all cost, we may not want to kill ourselves fighting for the fake earrings that Aunt Sally gave last Christmas (of if you are a male, perhaps that clip is not worth dying for). We tend to think of them instead as “bargaining chips”.
Ah!! Bargaining? Can one bargain one’s way out of conflict? Usually not until some of the heat goes out of the fire that is driving it. It is a mistake to try too early. And it is a mistake to further escalate (turn up the heat) assuming that the other side will eventually give up or plead for peace. That often produces the opposite reaction. And so what next? Further escalation? Sadly, yes.
Blight and Lang argue that we should take this lesson from the Cuban missile crisis and they have a point. I think the Vietnam war provides a similar lesson. US escalation after escalation produced more resolve rather than weakening. And perhaps this is a lesson that we should apply in Afghanistan. Turning up the heat against the taliban is not likely to break their will to fight. To achieve that, we want to turn down the heat so that they begin to see bargaining as a more attractive option.
So how do you turn down the heat? You turn down the heat by taking emotion out of the equation. This can be achieved in a number of ways. But you don’t achieve it by pushing the other side into a corner.
FOLLOW - Of course, the wars fought against Napoleon, the US civil war, and the two great wars of the 20th century produced final results after extreme escalation. Are these counter-examples, where turning up the heat broke the will of the other side?
Well, they are examples of how one can achieve military victory by turning up the heat. But military victory is not usually the goal in conflict management, rather it is a special case. And btw, this is why I do not think it is wise to use sports analogies in conflict management discussions. Sporting events are rather like military engagements in that they produce winners and losers, though with less pain and suffering.