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Peaceful conflict resolution teachable Nine steps provide the key to resolving disputes peacefully


Last month, two teen-agers, one from Baltimore's Northern High School, the other from Washington's Wilson High School - were slain in unrelated street attacks.

Wayne Martin Rabb Jr., 15, of Baltimore was shot to death and Delonte Hicks, 16, of Washington was stabbed. The dead youths leave behind grieving families wondering how and why these tragedies happened.

In both cases, teen-age suspects were arrested. Even if they are convicted, they will become nothing more than symbols of a failed punitive justice system.We have a better option, instead of intervening after acts of violence, we can try to prevent them. When people kill to resolve a dispute, presumably they're acting the only way they know. But did they know anything about nonviolent conflict resolution? Not likely.

Since 1982, I have been teaching high school, college and law students the methods of nonviolent conflict resolution. I have learned two realities from having taught some 5,000 students: Nonviolence is teachable and, second, the young are hungry to learn the skills.

No nation has so vast a literature on nonviolence than America. Yet, judging from our history of wars, our high rates of homicide, spouse and child abuse, abortions, the killing of animals for food, our death row executions, it's as if the art of resolving conflicts nonviolently was like learning astro-biophysics in Urdu.

It isn't that hard. The following steps are among the well-tested methods of decreasing or ending violence - whether the disputes are among or within nations, companies, school kids or families:

Define the conflict. If defined objectively, rather than subjectively, which is how most of us do it, conflict means only this: We need a new way of doing things, the old way has failed.

Sociologists report that in as many as 75 percent of husband-wife fights, the combatants are battling over different issues. The husband may be enraged over what his wife said or did that morning. The wife is out of control over what her husband said or did 10 weeks ago. They can't settle their conflict because they don't know what it's about. It's this to him, that to her.

This dynamic is seen among warring nations, not only battling couples. In 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and President George Bush, leaders of two governments long accustomed to solving conflicts by killing people, defined their dispute differently. For Hussein, it was a property issue: Land under Kuwait's control really belonged to Iraq. Bush defined it several ways. First, it was oil. Then it was the threat to the industrialized world. Finally, it was that old standby: stopping naked aggression.

Here were two politicians, as self-righteous and self-deluded as a warring husband and wife, unwilling to define the essence of the conflict. If two sides can define what they are fighting about, the chances increase that misperceptions will be clarified.

It's not you against me, it's you and me against the problem. The problem is the problem. Most people - and nations - go into battle convinced, I'm right, you're wrong; I'm good, you're evil; I'm wise, you're foolish; I'm going to win, you're going to lose. Even if one side does win, the first reaction of the loser is, I want a rematch: I'll come back with meaner words, harder fists and bigger bombs. Then you'll learn, then you'll be good and then we'll have peace forever.

This is an illusion, but few can give it up. By focusing on the problem, and not the person with the problem, a climate of cooperation, not competition, is enhanced.

List the relationship's many shared concerns and needs, as against one shared separation. In Ernest Hemingway's novel, "A Farewell To Arms," the most soulful of his stories, as against his usual chest-thumping books, a character is described in a hauntingly beautiful phrase: "He was strong in the broken places." All of us have been, are being or will be broken by life. If we are strong in the broken places, chances for mending increase. They'll increase if the strengths of the relationship - the shared concerns and needs - are given more attention than the lone unshared separation.

When people have fought, don't ask what happened. This is an irrelevant question. They will answer with their version of what happened, almost always self-justifying. The better question is, "What did you do?" This elicits facts, not opinions. Misperceptions are clarified, not prolonged.

Skilled trial layers, whether in civil or criminal cases, don't ask people on the stand what happened. Instead, it's what did you do? Juries decide or are told to decide on the relevance of factual information.

Work on active listening, not passive hearing. Conflicts escalate when partners try to talk more than listen and then only listen as a timeout for verbal rearming. Listening well is an act of caring. If you are a good listener, you have many friends. If you are a poor listener, you have many acquaintances. Anatomically, we are made to listen more than speak, which is why we have two ears and one mouth.

Choose a place to resolve the conflict, not the battleground itself. Armies tend to sign peace treaties far from the war zones. Too many emotions are there.

In some schools around the country where progressive faculties are teaching, peace rooms are in place. Anyone who was fighting - in the schoolyard, the halls, the bus - automatically knows to go to the peace room at the time set, say every Friday morning from 9 to noon. Who will be there? Mediators: classmates who have been trained in the essentials of nonviolent conflict resolution. Principals and psychologists in schools that have peace rooms see the results in lower rates of violence.

Start with what's doable. Restoration of peace can't be done quickly. If it took a long time for the dispute to begin, it will take time to end it.

Work on one small doable rather than many large undoables. Almost always, it's a laughably small wound that causes the first hurt in a relationship. But then, ignoring the smallness takes on a size of its own. Ignoring the problem becomes larger than the original problem.

Develop forgiveness skills. Many people of large minds are willing to say after the conflict, "I'm going to bury the hatchet." To themselves, they add: "But I'm going to mark exactly where I bury it, just in case I need to dig it up for the next fight."

Forgiveness looks forward, vengeance looks backward. Again, it's anatomy: we have eyes in the front of our heads, not the back.

Purify our hearts. This is merely an elegant way of telling ourselves, "I need to get my own messy life in order before I can instruct others how to live."

The United States - President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and others - have been busy preaching to Saddam Hussein about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, while the United States has the largest arsenal of such weapons in the history of the planet.

Why not send in the heralded United Nations inspection team to tell the world where America's weapons of mass destruction are located - and how many, and how much money was spent on them that could have gone to schools, health care and road repair.

Purifying America's heart would involve facing the unpleasant reality that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of April 4, 1967, in his anti-war speech at Riverside Church in New York: "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government. ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Do these nine steps of nonviolent conflict resolution always work? No. Sometimes the conflict partners are so emotionally wounded or ideologically hidebound, that nothing can stop the violence. But large numbers of conflicts can be resolved without killing or wounding the other side, provided the strategies for peacemaking are known. If they aren't known, start to teach them: In the world's schools, in religious institutions - they all claim to want peace.

Gandhi routinely said, don't bring your opponents to their knees, bring them to their senses. Nonviolence means prevention before the crisis; violence says the opposite: intervention after. Intervention with fists, guns, bombs and armies.

With 28,000 high schools in the United States, 78,000 elementary schools and 3,000 colleges, few other opportunities for decreasing violence are greater than peace education: systematically teaching the literature of peace and techniques of conflict resolution, in every grade in every school.

Wishful thinking - yes, let us hope for peace - won't do it. Serious thinking will.

Colman McCarthy, a pacifist, is director of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness St., Washington, D.C. 20016.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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