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A Complex Conflict Analysis of ‘Resolution’

There are three topics that I approach with caution in conflict resolution training, because they push the students’ hot buttons and my responses are counterintuitive to what the students think ought to be. The big one is credentials (I adamantly refuse to get ‘credentialed’). Next comes the issue of neutrality (no one is neutral). Third is the contentious discussion of whether the mediator should be invested in whether or not the conflict being mediated resolves. After all, is resolution not what we are paid to achieve? Does resolution not bear witness to our ‘success rate’ as mediators? Won’t our evaluations depend to some extent on outcomes? How can we prove we know what we’re doing if we don’t resolve conflicts? The students have all the arguments in favour of the question being answered in the affirmative.

Theory informs mediator interest in resolution

There is such a growing body of literature dealing with models and theories of mediation that it is coming to resemble a canon: that is, “a set of religious writings regarded as authentic and definitive and forming a religion’s body of scripture”. Whatever theory of mediation is ascribed to will influence the mediator style and mediation objective. Evaluative mediators, for example, may focus on settlement. Facilitative mediators give extra attention to relationships. Transformative mediators emphasize empowerment and recognition. And so on through narrative mediation, insight mediation and others.

Since I ascribe to the theories of complexity science, it was only a matter of time before I was challenged to write what complexity scientists might say about mediation outcomes and mediators’ investment in same. That time came when Michael, a reader, responded to my previous article and asked, “even if there is no particular outcome in mind, does the very act of mediating, i.e. being in the position, influence observations?” His point is valid and set me thinking about complexity science principles that might inform the email exchange he and I were having. This is my first attempt to write a complexity science approach to mediation outcomes. It may be that someone points out the flaws and oversights in my reasoning, which I would welcome.

Michael began his message by directing my thinking to the space that mediation opens, which brings the parties to sit in the same room to talk or at computers if it is online conflict resolution. What is that space for? Some mediators, inspired by settlement theories, would say the space is available for the resolution; others, adhering to more transformative theories, might say it is there for the relationship. What if it is for neither? What would it look like if we analyze a mediation session as just one of a series of events in an ongoing complex adaptive conflict system?

A complexity science conflict analysis of ‘resolution’

Conflict analysis, with all its many approaches, is a technique for looking at the aggregate of individual interactions and actions within their existing context and divergent histories. History is a powerful analytical tool that reflects the minds, perceptions, potential solutions, meanings and motives of the parties to a conflict (Lederach 1999). Ignoring the history of a conflict is like ignoring a fault line under a city (Tidwell 1998). The complexity science perspective of history is that past events contribute to present occurrences because complex adaptive system are sensitively dependent on their initial conditions.

Sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that where a nonlinear system ends up depends on where it started and what happened to it along the way. Nonlinearity means that cause is not necessarily in proportion or directly connected to effect. Small perturbations inputted into a nonlinear system can unbalance it from where it looked like it was going and what its potential future might have been when it was first observed. Over time, a perturbation can amplify until the system becomes something other than was anticipated. An input into a nonlinear system may have surprising, often unforeseeable, consequences with larger, smaller or simply different effects than one might have predicted.

The concepts of nonlinearity, sensitive dependence on initial conditions and amplification contribute to the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (Lorenz 1993). The analogy Lorenz used was a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico that can cause a tidal wave in Japan, or a storm in Chicago. Hollywood has dined on the Butterfly Effect through many movies: the hero goes back in time, changes one miniscule thing in the past, then returns to find that his entire life or even the history of the world are vastly different than he had known in his own timeline.

One of my favourite movies that plays with the concepts is Sliding Doors, which demonstrates the difference one fraction of a second of action can have on our future life. It is a brilliant depiction of our heroine’s two possible future lives if, in one timeline she caught the train, and in the other timeline she missed the train by a nanosecond. Feel free to ignore the love story and watch it for the complexity science principles as I did. The movie Butterfly Effect also had an interesting premise. Its two main characters discovered through many iterations of their lives that their mere interaction with each other, even as observers, could radically change their futures. If you rent the DVD, watch the alternative ending that is included as a special feature. It was likely voted as too bleak by the focus group, so moviegoers wound up with a happier but less powerful ending.

That is the theme of the Butterfly Effect, both the complexity science concept and the movie of the same name: almost any system input could affect which future will be the one that unfolds. Each act in a time series of events is a wild card that could be the input to create the conditions for a conflict system cascade, where once one thing happens more things are likely to happen (Watts 2003). We cannot predict with certainty what input will be the one that might drive a conflict system over the edge into chaos, back into stability, or into or from mediation.

Since conflicts follow complexity science principles, what we see for the hours we are mediating is little more than a few points in a long time series of events that started before and will continue after we became involved in the conflict system. The parties’ histories exist within the boundaries, which complexity science calls attractors, of the conflict system. When we ask the parties to tell the story of the conflict they select the data to relate. They delineate the geographic and temporal attractors of the conflict because the entire conflict system from initial conditions to the possible futures could be too cumbersome to recount or remember. They give the conflict a frame bordered by attractors and the mediator accepts it as representative of the whole conflict system.

Does the history of the conflict begin when the parties met, when they entered into a contract of some sort, when they began to diverge in their interpretations of what the contract meant, or when the insults and lawyers’ letters began? Is it sensitive to or depend on the initial conditions of their particular personalities and risk tolerances? If multinational organizations are involved but the conflict is local, are the parent companies in the attractor basin? If many parties had influence over the decision-making are they all included in the attractor of history?

In deciding how to tell the story of the conflict at the opening of the mediation, the parties, in collusion with the mediator, set the attractors of the conflict to decide when it began, over how much and what landscape it wanders and who is involved. What we hear in the session is decided by those who tell the story or influence its telling, which are artificial temporal and geographic boundaries around the conflict system. Some First Nations and other peoples, who have a different concept of storytelling, take as long as is needed for everyone to say what has to be said to put everything in context. More commonly, attractors are deliberately constrained to make the conflict system history fit within the time set aside for the express purpose of a mediation session, often as little as two hours. Those imposed attractors constraining the conflict system determine how much of the data is brought into the room for discussion.

This is where a complexity science conflict analysis illuminates the issue. Consider the consequences if the mediation session is just one input in a time series of events. If the mediation ends with no ‘resolution’ that we can identify as something to reduce to writing, that mediation remains as an input into the complex adaptive conflict system that, because the system is nonlinear, can amplify into something else. If it does end in a resolution, that mediation remains as an input into the complex adaptive conflict system that, because the system is nonlinear, can amplify into something else. In other words, just like the movie Sliding Doors, the system can end up almost anywhere no matter what the mediation resolved, because the mediation is an input in a continually evolving system that depends on the conditions and inputs.

In a complexity science frame, the hours spent in the mediation are neither the beginning nor the end of the conflict relationship system. The mediation is merely one point in time that we as mediators construct as something special and apply influence to and possibly power over. We perturb the conflict system simply by observing and commenting on it to the parties. However it ends, what the parties learned during the mediation has the potential to amplify or dampen inputs in the conflict system as it goes forward. The mere fact that the mediation happened is an input that can change something outside the attractors of the session (they were artificial anyway), whether there was a resolution in the room or not.


If the mediation is approached as just an input into a complex adaptive conflict system, the temporal and geographic attractors of the conflict become more natural. The attractors that contain the conflict system can start when and where the conflict began and end when it is over, not when the mediator says. Therefore, resolution of a conflict within the walls of the mediation room – or not – becomes a mere data point in the overall time series of the conflict system. The parties entering and exiting the mediation room write their history and the mediation narrative. Whatever the outcome, the mediation itself is one input in their larger contexts and histories. Their work on the outcome of the mediation session and lives apart from the conflict continue in the complex adaptive conflict system after the mediator closes the file. It is in our frame as mediators that the session is the main event. In summary, Michael, the answer to your question is ‘yes’. Thank you for asking it.


Lederach, J. P. (1999). The Journey Toward Reconciliation. Waterloo, ON, Herald Press.

Lorenz, E. (1993). The Essence of Chaos. Seattle, Wash, University of Washington Press.

Tidwell, A. C. (1998). Conflict Resolved? a Critical Assessment of Conflict Resolution. London and New York, Pinter.

Watts, D. J. (2003). Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company.


Deborah Sword

L. Deborah Sword has been a conflict manager, trainer, writer and speaker since 1991. Her other musings about conflict analysis, management and resolution appear on her website: MORE >

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