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How Positive Psychology Can Benefit Conflict Resolution

For more than 30 years, my focus has  been on conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  I’ve mostly been an educator – teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels – but have also worked  as  a mediator and facilitator.  I started my career as a lawyer which led me to divorce and custody mediation in the early 1990s. Here, I experienced how new hope can be offered to family relationships because of mediation.   I then had the opportunity to help establish a community mediation program. This led me to recognize the value that mediation has for local and diverse communities.

Throughout by career, I’ve emphasized with clients, parties in dispute, and students, the need to seek positive, constructive, and sustainable outcomes.  Rather than musing on past difficulties and challenges, I’ve stressed the need to recognize the power we have in ourselves to create the future we wish by tapping into our personal strengths and abilities.

When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to the power of appreciative inquiry and the work of David Cooperrider to assist those during change.  I’ve frequently used the 4D method – discovery, dream, design, destiny –  with clients and students in helping them navigate and embrace change.

As my work pivoted to supporting those seeking career change and improving their work environments, I learned about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his theory of optimal experience, commonly referred to as flow.  I came to recognize that in my own professional life the elements of flow – complete concentration on the task; clarity of goals and reward; transformation of time; an experience intrinsically rewarding; effortlessness and ease; balance between challenge and skills; losing self-conscious; and a feeling of control – frequently characterized my work, especially when assisting individuals through conflict, teaching, or helping someone consider a professional change.  To be in flow is to be “in the zone.”  I’m often there.

More recently, I learned that I was using tools associated with the emerging  field of positive psychology, so named by Martin Seligman in 1998. I recognized that my approach to work, my clients, and my students already aligned with its tenets. At its core, positive psychology is about flourishing and helping individuals find conditions for themselves that help them to thrive.    Professionals in the field focus on studying the strengths and virtues that enable one to live meaningful lives.  More intrigued and embracing that learning is life-long, in 2022 I earned a graduate certificate in the field.

Conflict engagement demands seeking a pathway to positive change.   John Paul Lederach has urged moving from violent and destructive patterns toward creative, constructive, and nonviolent capacities to deal with human conflict.  This is accomplished by looking at personal,  relational, structural, and cultural modes to foster conflict transformation.

In conflict transformation we look to find potential in  relationships of those in conflict and pursue approaches for a positive future where hopes are met, individuals who previously where hostile can live in  peace, and full potential is actualized. In seeking a need for re-humanization in a time of fragmentation, he has argued for the need to nurture compassion by looking at flourishing.

In my early professional life as divorce mediator working with couples often with children, I encouraged them to create a future that allowed for the greatest prospects for them, and their children.  Frequently, I would ask the parties to picture the future and what they would like their world and that of their children to look like.   This is a technique found in appreciative inquiry, where parties are asked to “dream” about the future.   Often, I would find that parents’ long-term vision for their children included healthy relationships with both parents, as well as the existence of the full range of opportunities that caring parents can provide. Focusing on the future allows individuals to wish, hope, and vision tomorrow’s possibilities.

For the practitioner, the application of positive psychology strategies to conflict intervention is much more than merely assuring someone that “everything will be Okay”, or “just be positive.”  It requires helping clients to often reconsider situations and their impact on their lives.   The adage of looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty is apt here.  But positive psychology means more than merely looking at the glass, but also developing attitudes and actions that follow to implement a better outlook. 

The field of positive psychology has attracted adherents from a range of fields including business and industry, human relations, and social work. Positive psychology focuses much on healthy living and emphasizes forgiveness, resilience, and gratitude.  All values applied conflict resolution.  Used well, positive psychology can lead to a growth mindset , as advanced by Carol Dweck. The growth mindset fosters the ability to change and learn, countering a fixed mindset many experience – including many dealing with conflict.

Improving conflict resolution outcomes can be enhanced by incorporating positive psychology approaches to our work.  This in turn can improve the effectiveness of our efforts in building peaceful futures.

author

David Smith

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He teaches part-time at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian… MORE

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