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Thinking Peace

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be won, through understanding.” Albert Einstein

Just why is “waging conflict” so common, while “waging peace” isn’t even in our vocabulary? It isn’t because humanity doesn’t know better. We’re all well aware of the high costs of conflict. We’re also aware that there are much better methods to resolve differences. Still, something is holding humanity back from making the peaceful negotiation of differences our primary choice for resolving differences.

The following story told by R. Buckminster Fuller (Audio interview, Around the World with R. Buckminster Fuller, New Dimensions Foundation) sheds light on how language impacts our perception of reality. While Fuller was a visiting scholar at MIT, he was asked to address the faculty club as part of a lecture series. He began by asking for a show of hands: How many of those present see the sun set in the evening and rise in the morning? As you can imagine, most hands were raised.

Fuller then exclaimed that he was shocked by this response. He stated that the faculty at one of the most prestigious universities in the world had just demonstrated that they were willfully ignorant. He went on to explain that scientists have known for at least 500 years that the sun does not rise or set. The sun is stationary relative to the earth. The earth’s rotation is what exposes and eclipses the sun.

Fuller’s point was that humanity was using inaccurate language to describe its experience of reality. This may seem like petty semantics, but Fuller felt that the accurate use of language was a key for helping humanity unlock its potential for success. Use of language is an outward expression of a person’s inner understanding of reality. This inner understanding has a profound effect on how a person acts and interacts in the world. Using language that inaccurately expresses the truth is to risk getting stuck in thinking that is at the very least ineffective, and perhaps even harmful.

Like the terms sunrise and sunset, the common usage of the terms conflict and peace indicate underlying beliefs that are not an accurate representation of reality. If humanity is to have any hope for improving the ways that people negotiate their differences, we need to begin by changing our thinking about conflict and peace.

Conflict and Peace

The definitions of peace and conflict found in most dictionaries are a good place to begin. If you look up the term conflict, you will find that it comes from two roots: con, meaning “together,” and fligere meaning, “to strike.” So, conflict means “to strike together.” This makes sense and is certainly an appropriate image, for conflict is the state of competition between opposing forces.

Peace, on the other hand, is defined as “freedom from conflict, the absence of conflict,” and “the time when conflict ends.” What is noteworthy is that peace is defined as the absence of conflict, yet conflict is not defined as the absence of peace.

Making the definition of peace dependent on conflict suggests that conflict is a process and peace is its product. These definitions point to the mistaken belief, held by many people, that waging conflict is an effective way to realize peace. Yet, history demonstrates that this is not the case.

Instead of viewing peace as the product of conflict, I suggest that we redefine peace and conflict as different states of relationship. Conflict is a state of relationship that is the product of specific actions. Peace is also a state of relationship and is the product of different actions. The only way to experience peace is to take the specific actions that produce peace.

Peace Is Not Passive

A myth that naturally arises from believing that peace is a product of conflict is that people actively wage conflict to passively experience peace. True peace is not a passive state. In fact, the actions that produce a state of peace are often more proactive than those leading to a state of conflict. Passively waiting for peace is a sure way to assure that it will not be realized. To achieve peace an individual needs to actively wage peace.

Conflict and Differences

Another set of misunderstandings becomes evident when we examine the statement, “Humanity needs to learn to resolve its conflicts peacefully.” On the surface this statement seems straightforward. Most readers probably nod their heads in approval and say, “That’s for sure!” Yet, by looking a little deeper, there are some troubling beliefs revealed in how the term conflict is used in this statement.

There are at least four interpretations of how the term conflict is used in this statement The first possibility is that conflict refers to having differences with others. All negotiation begins with some difference between people. Having differences is an inherent fact of relationship. Any time one person is in a relationship with another, there will be differences of interests, values, beliefs, and positions. This is equally true for groups, communities, and nations.

Having differences is a natural, normal, and desirable part of human relationship. Differences are sources of progress, innovation, creativity, and beauty. Having differences makes life more interesting and productive. Resolving differences through peaceful means can be the source of personal transformation and growth. If anything, humanity needs more differences, not less.

This is not the case with conflict. Conflict by its very nature is destructive. Conflict rarely leaves the participants better for the experience, seldom achieves optimal results, and almost always damages the relationships. Most often, even the “winners” of a conflict end up feeling that they have lost. The last thing humanity needs is more conflict.

Fortunately, differences can be resolved through means other than conflict. In fact, the resolution of differences through peaceful negotiation is far more common than resolution through conflict. Everyone resolves many differences with others on any given day. When these go smoothly, most people don’t even notice that they’ve just resolved their differences. The peaceful resolution of differences is so natural and normal that it seldom even registers in most people’s awareness. Conflict seems common only because people are acutely aware of the times that the negotiation of differences results in one.

When the term conflict is used to refer to situations in which an individual has differences with another party, it indicates the false belief that having differences inherently means being in conflict. Nothing is farther from the truth. The factor that determines the state of a relationship is not whether there are differences, but rather how those differences are resolved.

Conflict is the state of relationship in which differences are resolved competitively. Peace is the state of relationship in which differences are resolved collaboratively. The constant is having differences. The variable is how differences are resolved. Returning to the above statement, it would be more accurate to say, “Humanity needs to learn to resolve its differences peacefully.”

Conflicts of Interest

It is also possible that the term conflict in the statement refers to the specific type of difference known as a conflict of interest. An interest is the need a party is attempting to satisfy through negotiation. When a party satisfies an interest, he or she realizes some benefit.

Interests are in conflict when an increase in the ability to satisfying one party’s needs means a corresponding decrease in the ability to satisfy the other party’s needs. For example, paying a low price for an item increases one party’s ability to satisfy his needs, but decreases the seller’s ability to satisfy hers. The seller and the buyer have conflicting interests.

The statement is accurate if the use of the term conflict is referring to conflicting interests. Yet, to avoid confusion it would better to specifically say conflicting interests, as in “Humanity needs to learn to resolve its conflicting interests peacefully.” Not doing so is to run the risk of not recognizing that engaging in conflict is not the only strategy available for resolving conflicting interests.


Another type of difference is an issue. An issue is the problem that needs to be resolved to satisfy interests. For example, the buyer must resolve the issue of price in order to satisfy his interests. Issues naturally arise whenever individuals with competing interests come into relationship. “Humanity needs to learn to resolve its issues peacefully” is a better choice of words because it acknowledges that a party has choice in how he or she resolves an issue.

Being in Conflict

The last possibility is that the term conflict is referring to a state of conflict. A relationship is in a state of conflict when differing positions are negotiated competitively. A person’s position is where he or she stands in relation to an issue. It is a direct reflection of the person’s interests, values, and beliefs. A person’s position is often a proposed strategy for how he or she would like to resolve an issue. For example, the buyer’s position might be that paying a low price for an item is the best way to satisfy his interests, while the seller’s position might be that receiving a high price is the best way to satisfy her interests.

The difference in positions is what is negotiated to reach agreement. Reaching agreement simply means to move from differing positions to a common one. In other words, agreement is reached when both parties settle on the same proposed solution for how to solve the issues that prevent interest satisfaction.

Right Usage

Conflict is an appropriate word choice only when referring to situations in which a relationship is in a state of conflict because the parties are engaged in the competitive negotiation of opposing positions. Conflict should not be used to refer to situations in which differences, issues, or conflicting interests simply exist.

The misuse of the term conflict in all four of the cases presented indicates underlying beliefs that hinder parties from achieving a peaceful resolution. If we believe that we are in a state of conflict every time we have differing interests, issues, or positions, then we are likely to create conditions that hold the greatest potential for conflict.

One reason why conflict is so common is that many people don’t realize they have choices in how they resolve their differences. Until individuals recognize that they have choices for how they resolve differences, the cycles of conflict that have plagued humanity will continue. Making a clear distinction in our language helps others recognize that there are other strategies besides waging conflict for resolving differences. Changing our usage of the terms conflict and peace to reflect right reality–that we do have choice–is a small but important step towards bringing peace into life and the world.


Hugh Young

Hugh Young is a conflict consultant, mediator, and Aikido teacher living in Salida, Colorado. Hugh has over 20 years of experience as an Aikido teacher and has studied with many of the world’s finest Aikido teachers including intensive study at Aikido World Headquarters in Tokyo. He is also active as… MORE >

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