NELSON MANDELA AND THE ART OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION
“Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.” (From Nelson Mandela’s speech to European Parliament, 1990.)
As I write this post, we are in the middle of South Africa’s 10-day mourning period for Nelson Mandela. Although I myself have never set foot in South Africa, I, along with millions of Americans, and millions more around the world, find our hearts merging with those of his country’s citizens. It is, of course, a period of remembrance of a man who learned to forgive his oppressors; a man who in his later years developed a smile full of wisdom and kindness; a man who could fill up Yankee Stadium with thrilling cheers; a man deeply respected.
For me, Nelson Mandela provided us an enduring inspirational lesson on conflict resolution.
Nelson Mandela and Conflict
When we attempt to come up with a brief description of a conflict, it helps to have a good definition of “conflict” at hand. On this blog, we have been using a definition derived from the DIG Conflict Model.
A conflict exists whenever the following three conditions exist:
- Party A desires an act will occur.
- Party A perceives that another party is likely to act in a manner that interferes with the desire.
- Party A perceives that the other party would be guilty of doing something wrong if he or she carries out the interfering act.
Notice that each of the three conditions has a key word italicized—desire for the first condition, interferes for the second, and guilty for the third. If we take the first letter of each of these key words and put them together, they spell DIG; hence the DIG Conflict Model’s name.
Party A, in the above definition, indicates the individual who is theoretically engaged in a conflict and from whose perspective the conflict will first be described.
The large majority of people living in South Africa desired to have basic civil rights but interfering with this was the government’s apartheid laws and policies. The majority of the people felt that those supporting the laws and policies of apartheid were, and would continue to be, guilty of doing a terrible wrong.
Many of the people who participated in the conflict experienced its guilt condition as so large that their attention was focused mostly on that particular condition, and it became hard to focus their attention on solving the desire-interfering problem. To understand this better, we have to take a couple of minutes to see how each of the three conditions of a conflict can vary in size and how that affects efforts to resolve a conflict.
The Three Conflict Conditions Can Vary in Size
The three conditions of a conflict (desire, interference and guilt) are not just present. Each of these conditions, like the sides of a triangle, can vary in size.
Over the course of a few months, Juliet meets four young suitors at different times. First she meets Tom, spends an hour with him at a nice café, and the next day she has no desire to ever see him again. A few weeks later she meets Dick at a play, and the next day she has a small but not overwhelming desire to see him. The following week, during a stroll through a lush park, she is introduced to Harry. The next day she finds that she wants to see him even more then she wants to see Dick. And then she meets Romeo. Juliet’s passion leads her to follow Romeo through the gates of death.
Let’s say twenty-four hours after each of these four meetings, Juliet is asked to rate on a zero to ten-point scale how much she wants to see each. Zero indicates she has no desire to see the guy, and ten indicates the greatest desire she can imagine. For Tom, she provides a rating of zero; for Dick, a three; for Harry, a six; and for Romeo, a ten.
Once a person desires something a certain amount, over time it can change. We all know cases in which both the bride and groom swear at their wedding that they desire to be together for the rest of their lives, and then after a few years, they have no desire to be with one another for another minute, let alone for the rest of their lives.
The process of asking people to rate from one to ten how much they desire something allows us to measure this kind of variability. A similar process can be used to measure the other two conditions for a conflict—interfering and guilt.
The Variability of Interfering Acts. Recall that in a conflict an interfering act refers to a party doing something that gets in the way of Party A’s desire. With that in mind, consider the following scenarios:
Juliet wants to marry Romeo. Her father gives his blessing and says, “Marry him whenever you want.” Juliet is asked to rate on a zero to ten- point scale the degree she perceives that her father will act in a manner that is interfering with what she wants. Zero indicates “not at all interfering.” Ten indicates “completely interfering.” With a delightful smile, she indicates a zero.
Let’s change the scenario a bit. Juliet wants to marry Romeo. Her father says she can see him as much as she wants six days a week. He goes on to say that on Fridays she can also see Romeo as much as she wants, but only during the day. From suppertime to bedtime on Fridays she will meet some other eligible men in the city. If after three months of this plan, Juliet still wants to marry Romeo, her father tells her he will give his blessing. Although Juliet wants to marry Romeo right away, she indicates that it appears to her that her father’s plan will not be completely interfering with what she wants by giving it a rating of three.
How about this scenario? Juliet wants to marry Romeo. Her father forbids her from ever seeing Romeo and has hired some thugs to kidnap and transport him to Australia, thousands of miles away. Juliet indicates that it appears to her that her father’s interfering act is a ten.
These three scenarios illustrate that, like desires, interfering activities can be perceived as varying on a scale from zero to ten. So too can the guilt condition.
The Variability of Guilt. Like the desires and incompatibility conditions of conflicts, people don’t perceive guilt as just present or absent, but rather they perceive varying degrees of it. For example, let’s say Juliet passionately desires to marry Romeo, but discovers that the prince has ordered that anyone marrying Romeo will be beheaded, along with all of her family. Under this set of circumstances, Juliet may not blame her father at all if he refuses to give her his permission.
What about a different set of circumstances? Juliet passionately wants to marry Romeo. In this case, the prince is not involved. Juliet’s father earns a meager living running a grocery store in town. Many of his customers hate Romeo. If they were to hear that Juliet’s father gave his permission for her to marry Romeo, they would stop shopping at his store.
The whole family depends on the income from the store. Juliet believes her family would somehow survive, but they would lose the house that they love and have to make other major sacrifices. In this case, Juliet may blame her father for refusing to give his permission for her to get married, but perhaps just a little bit.
In our final example, Juliet’s father refuses to give her his permission to marry even though everyone in town likes Romeo and thinks he would make a great husband for her. When Juliet asks her father for an explanation for his refusal, he replies, “Because I said so!”
Under this set of circumstances, Juliet may believe her father is completely to blame for his interfering act. In the case of so large a guilt condition, Juliet may begin to focus on doing something terrible to make him “pay” for his guilt. Her angry emotions can make it difficult to think rationally and creatively.
Back to the Mandela Conflict
In 1980, when Nelson Mandela was still in prison, I spoke for over an hour to a person of color about his views on South Africa’s apartheid policies. The entire time he was very angry and he spoke about all of the awful things that those supporting apartheid were guilty of doing. Each time I tried to get him to discuss what the country can do to move forward in order to achieve his desire to obtain civil rights for all of the people of South Africa, he would begin to answer me, but before he could finish his first sentence, he switched back to talking about another set of actions that supporters of South Africa were guilty of.
I believe this type of discussion was typical of many of those embroiled in this conflict until Mandela was finally released after 27 years in prison. Mandela spoke with authority when he modeled for his people a very different form of discussion, a form of discussion that was less angry, less blaming of who did what, and more on how to achieve the desire for civil rights and how to end the interfering acts of apartheid supporters. He spoke with authority in part because the people knew that if Mandela could forgive after how he suffered in prison for so long, perhaps they could find a way to do so as well.
Oh, there were those who wanted revenge despite hearing Mandela’s approach. Would have more violence bred even more violence?
In the end, the South African people decided overwhelmingly that Mandela’s approach was the wiser of the two paths that laid before them. Yes, there remains many serious problems that remain for the South African people to solve. But the people have spoken, and there are many signs that exist to say they were right. Today, according to a recent Gallup poll:
“His enduring power is that he showed us that there is truth and freedom in forgiveness and in the mental and emotional discipline to live in the present and think of the future.”
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.