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Negative Peace, Positive Peace: What kind do you want?

“I don’t want to resolve this conflict,” said the professor, looking me squarely in the eye and leaning forward in his seat. “I want to exacerbate it.” The word exacerbate was pronounced with each syllable clipped and exaggerated to highlight his point. “It’s a conflict that needs to be done thoroughly, fearlessly, and with zest.”

I’ve described that professor and his colleagues to my conflict resolution students over the years, asking them, “How does a mediator help best in this situation?” Invariably, the majority want to settle things down, help the faculty colleagues talk to each other in nicer ways, see if they can find some things to agree on, and de-escalate the hostility in the faculty department.

The mediator that does that will have missed both the point and the opportunity. The point is that good mediators don’t smooth in the name of resolution and settlement. The opportunity for these faculty colleagues is real dialogue, even if it’s messy. Smoothing and rushing to resolution thwart real dialogue.

It’s the difference between positive and negative peace. Mediators can inadvertently interfere with the former with too much zealousness for the latter. While studying for my doctorate many moons ago, Birgit Brock-Utne’s Feminist Perspectives on Peace and Peace Education rocked my world by differentiating negative peace, the cessation of overt hostilities, from positive peace, the state achieved when underlying conditions causing the hostilities are truly addressed.

Negative peace-making is the act of reducing nastiness, back-stabbing, violence. Positive peace-building is the restoration of relationship, the creation of family and organizational systems that address injustice and/or other underlying causes of the conflict

I was reminded of that college professor and Brock-Utne’s book when I read peace-builder Ashok Panikkar’s guest post on the the New York Peace Institute blog. Panikkar, Executive Director of the Indian organizational conflict resolution service Meta-Culture, takes mediators and other conflict resolvers to task for being too neutral in some of the wrong places and putting real dialogue in jeopardy, saying,

The price of silencing the voices that make us uncomfortable is that we kill the spirit of a people, one voice at a time, and finally lose whatever space we have left for honest expression. Why should this worry mediators and peace builders? Well, for one, without honest expression, there is no dialogue. Without honest dialogue, conflict transformation is not possible. Such consequences should be seriously disconcerting to those of us who love this work, and believe in its power to transform conflicts and societies.

Well said.

It’s a good post worth reading. And it is, to my mind, right thinking. It means peace-builders and conflict resolution professionals like myself need to have the courage to look conflict in the face and not be cowed by it. It means we need to have great mastery of our craft so that we can build positive peace, particularly for clients who need or want to be in continued relationship, without subjecting them to harm, a delicate balance sometimes.

What do you think? What kind of peace do you build?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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