Alma Jadallah Discusses Conflict Resolution Techniques at Al-Hewar Center

On May 23, 2001, Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C., hosted a discussion with Conflict Resolution Specialist Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah about methods for solving personal and social conflicts. Jadallah recently earned her Masters Degree in Conflict Resolution from George Mason University and is currently working on her Ph.D. She specializes in the organizational aspect of conflict resolution. The event was moderated by Al-Hewar Center Executive Director Mr. Sobhi Ghandour.

Conflict resolution is a broad subject informed by many different disciplines, said Jadallah. In the brief time allotted, she limited her discussion to a few key points: Why are we interested in the field of conflict resolution? Why is it important? She also discussed the origins of the field in the West and presented some of the theoretical models that help us understand social conflict.

We are faced today with very complex issues, she said. In fact, in the 20th century there have been more war-related deaths than in all previous centuries combined. From 1900-1990, 107.8 million lives were lost due to war, aggression and violence. And there were many different types of war between 1860 and 1980: 67 interstate wars, 51 imperial wars, 106 civil wars... Some people argue that the numbers are so high because now there is better global communication – more information and documentation; however, the statistics, said Jadallah, support the theory that we are living in a time of great insecurity.

Despite technological and other advances, individuals still feel a significant amount of personal insecurity. This is a serious problem, said Jadallah. Many people feel alienated by the system, at the individual, group, and community levels, and a lot of societal systems are not meeting the needs of the different people involved. The Unabomber is an extreme example, but the frustrations expressed in his Manifesto about how our institutions are run and even about the difficulties of day to day life reflect the feelings of many average people. And in the international arena, she said, none of the proposals put before the Palestinians as a resolution to the Middle East conflict, meet their needs as individuals.

A new approach is clearly needed, she said, and the West has developed its own system of conflict resolution in response to this need. There have been many leaders in the field, for example John Burton, who has had a lot of influence on the George Mason University program. He wrote extensively about civil societies and world systems and their failures. As an international relations scholar, he recognized that the old models were not meeting the needs of the people. Another influential scholar is Norwegian Johan Galtung who has over 1000 publications and books to his credit. Galtung has written in a very interesting way about the sources of conflict, said Jadallah.

Conflict resolution is such a large field that it has been broadened to encompass many other disciplines, including human relations, law, psychology, sociology, mathematics, and games theory, to name a few. Conflict resolution specialists must try to understand the unit of analysis involved in the particular conflict they are exploring. For example, are they studying the individual (encompassing psychology or psychoanalysis), communities and societies (sociology); or relationships between states (international relations)?

There are many theories about the source of conflict. One theory argues that social conflict is based on our genetic makeup and posits that people are violent by nature. However, this theory was challenged in the 1980s, when UNESCO convened a group of scholars and scientists to study whether humans really are violent and aggressive by nature. The interesting conclusion, issued in UNESCO’s Seville Statement, is that war is actually a learned trait reflected in cultural heritage.

Another theory, “frustration aggression,” argues that humans are very goal-oriented, and whenever they are prevented from reaching a goal, frustration and negative energy are created which generate aggressive action on their part. In examining how societies are structured, we see that a lot of frustration experienced by people in their daily life is manifested in violence, for example, people who, without warning, open fire on their co-workers. This is also evident when minority groups sue their workplace for discriminatory behavior. This is all a result of frustration within the system.

Another perspective, the “psycho-analytical theory,” is something which immigrant communities, in particular, experience. This theory examines the psychology of conflict. How do people form stereotypes? Images of ourselves versus others, are based on images of an “enemy” or someone who is not like us.  We try to understand the psychology of people involved in a conflict – what do they see in the other person? Why do people often arrive so easily at de-humanizing or de-valuing others? There has been some very interesting research on certain forms of cultural violence in which a culture teaches its members that they are better than everyone else and puts other people on lower levels, said Jadallah.

Another theory that is particularly applicable to current events in Palestine is that of “relative deprivation.” This is a very useful theory for analyzing social conflict, because it argues that there is a major gap between what one wants to happen and how fast it is happening. In academic language, this is called the gap between the “value expectation” and the “value capabilities” (i.e. what an individual is personally capable of achieving). For example, when there are peace proposals or negotiations or any attempt at reconciliation, things often don’t progress as fast as stated in the written agreement, and this can cause conflict. Managing expectations is, thus, a very important component of resolving this type of conflict.

Another example of relative deprivation can be found in the workplace. Institutions often promise their employees more than they can deliver. Peoples expectations rise: they want promotions, they want authority, they want to enjoy power, but the institution does not always meet those needs. This causes conflict because there are differences between the employees’ capabilities and what they are being allowed to do.

Johan Galtung argues that there are aspects of structures or systems that exacerbate the relative deprivation gap. Whereas individuals can often resolve their differences, structures or systems (i.e. environments) are often set up in a way that does not allow resolution to occur. Galtung uses the phrase “structural violence” to describe how the structure becomes – or causes the individual or the group to become – violent. He has written very daringly as a scholar about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this context, said Jadallah.

Another major theory is called “Basic Human Needs.” Maslow’s theories of the hierarchy of needs states that we all have needs that must be met, and we put them in a hierarchy. Some of them must be met immediately, some can wait. But these needs are not always standard across cultures, societies or even individuals. Burton argues that social conflict often occurs when there is a frustration of needs, such as security and identity. Israeli rhetoric, for example, is always about security. There is debate about whether or not this is true, but the feeling of security is a very subjective thing. Burton states that if people’s security is threatened, then their basic human needs are not being met. This case can be argued on any level. For example, it could be argued that, globally, women have not been a dominant and empowered group and so the lack of security may be a basic need that is not being met for them. Burton also argues that people will pursue their basic needs at any cost; so every time the system suppresses them, for example groups like the Red Brigade or the militias in the US, if they are not legitimized, if their identity is not acknowledged, if their security is not acknowledged, then they will keep fighting.

“Identity formation” is another related theory. There are many theories about how people identify themselves. What does a group membership say about who you are? For example, a lot of Arabs say “I am more of a Muslim than I am an Arab.” Others say, “No, I am a pan-Arabist and my identity as an Arab is much higher than my religious identity.” This dialectic around identity is very important, because conflict sometimes brings out certain identities in people that have been suppressed or hidden. We may identify with someone as a human being, as a colleague, or as an individual. But if there is a crisis with his group, we may coalesce around this person, based on our mutual group membership. How the parties understand and define themselves is a very important part of designing a conflict intervention.

There are many other theories used to understand and resolve conflict, including the “world view” theory, which is how people understand the world, their culture, their images and metaphors, and how they speak about themselves.

It is important to recognize that conflict is not necessarily always bad, said Jadallah. It can encourage people to engage in discussions around ideas and concepts. In this context, conflict is positive because it allows the creation of a new shared understanding. It also allows people to legitimize their interests. It can present opportunities for people to express their needs, positions or interests, which otherwise have remained unexpressed. Conflict might also strengthen group identity by presenting situations around which people can coalesce. Of course, conflict can also polarize people and resolution attempts can fail.

Conflict becomes negative when it becomes violent, said Jadallah. Violence can take several forms. A classic example is the person who feels he cannot get his point across verbally and begins hitting another person. Aggressive driving or road rage is another manifestation, as is verbal or psychological abuse in families – including abandonment. When conflict becomes coercive, or violent, then steps must be taken to stop the violence. Certain aspects of violence cannot be tolerated.

Before any action is taken, a conflict resolution specialist will make an assessment, which they have become quite good at, said Jadallah. As the layers of a conflict are peeled back, they usually find that it runs much deeper than how the parties initially presented it. In assessing a situation, practitioners ask specific questions based on the research methodology, and they listen for the stories and metaphors – how the parties describe their situation. Are stereotypes involved? Is it because of group membership? Ethnicity? Gender? Socio-economic class? All of the factors that could be causing the conflict must be examined. Conflict resolution specialists must ask, verify, reframe, and rephrase the questions in order to gain an understanding of what the conflict means to the different parties.

Third parties (mediators, etc.) are also very useful. In studying group dynamics, interpersonal behavior, and human relations behavior, it has been discovered that bringing a third party into a conflict changes the dynamics. This person can sometimes encourage the weaker party to express his issues or help the stronger party reframe his issues. From a Western perspective, the third party should be objective and should have no vested interest in the outcome; however sometimes conflict resolution practitioners must factor culture into the process. In the Middle East, for example, the parties often ask family members to serve as mediators, and obviously, those family members do have an interest in the outcome of the problem.

Conflict resolution specialists try to tackle the deep-seated issues in the hope that the conflict can be resolved for every party involved, said Jadallah. These processes are sometimes criticized because they take a long time, but the goal is to find permanent resolutions so that the conflict does not keep resurfacing. They also try to educate people on ways to resolve their own conflicts.

After the presentation, the floor was opened for a discussion with the audience, including a workshop for resolving specific conflict situations.

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