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Want Peace? Remind Opponent that People Change

Quick! Name a conflict that will never be resolved.

You chose the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right? Or perhaps it was a simmering conflict closer to home? Having just marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Americans might think of the seemingly endless fighting in Afghanistan.

Now think Islamofascism – a term that conflates the religion of 1.5 billion people with a political doctrine so odious that its very name is synonymous with absolute evil. The non-hyphenated Islamofascist is a hologram of a conflict that cannot be resolved. Because you can’t negotiate – or even talk – with the devil. And though you may know some very nice Muslims and have never met an Islamofascist, you’d know him if you saw him. And the one thing you wouldn’t be doing is negotiating because negotiating presumes compromise.

And you don’t compromise with Satan.

The conflict implied by the corrosive Islamofascist mash-up is one the social scientists call intractable. The dictionary definition of intractable is “difficult or stubborn” but you and I know it means impossible to resolve.

You can tell a conflict is intractable when you ask the parties to say something nice about the other and all you get is a stream of invective. Try this over dinner with relatives from the opposite political party.

Say something good about

a. Barack Obama.

b. Michelle Bachmann.

Give up? You’re not alone.

Discouraged? Don’t be.

Hope that Conflict Can Be Resolved Helps People Resolve Conflict

Researchers have demonstrated that “simply reading a few sentences about the successful resolutions of historic conflicts elsewhere made Israelis and Palestinians more amenable to compromise.”

Instead of arguing with study participants that the other side might change its views (impossible!) the researchers asked Palestinians and Jewish and Arab Israelis to read a few paragraphs about historic conflicts containing one of two paragraphs, either

a. that [s]tudies conducted among humans found that groups perceived as extreme or violent towards other groups and nations changed their behavior significantly when their leaders were replaced; or,

b. that those studies found changes in leadership did not change [group] behavior at all.

“There are positive pieces of information that the parties could absorb, that could lead to a change in positions,” said the primary researcher, “but people in almost every group involved in a conflict are not willing to hear it. But if you try to go more indirectly … to talk in a general way, you hope they will apply these beliefs to the other group, and this is what our results show.”

If You’ve Demonized the Opposition, Recall the Resolution of Conflicts with Greater Evildoers

When I mediate a dispute, even one that seems as “unemotional” as a commercial lawsuit between two major corporate entities – say Broadcom and Qualcomm – the primary obstacle to brainstorming a mutually beneficial business resolution is often the demonization created by the adversarial system.

Listen, it often takes me hours just to get the parties’ representatives to sit in the same room with one another.

Not knowing about this research, I often reflexively tell the parties about conflicts I have helped others resolve that are far more difficult to negotiate than the dispute in which they are engaged. I rarely try to “sell” the parties on the humanity of the other side. Once I get them in the same room, the small talk in which they engage does more to alter their view of one another than any persuasive speech I might mount.

Pick Up the Telephone and Talk About the End of Hostilities in Northern Ireland

Then compare your dispute that that.

If you’re engaged in a conflict that has become so toxic that you think of your potential negotiation partner as the very definition of evil, remind yourself that we’re at peace with Germany and Japan and that you’re considering taking a trip to Hanoi, a geographic locale once so associated with evil that one woman’s journey there tainted her reputation for the remainder of her life (so far).

Remember that yesterday’s foes are today’s allies and that you often find yourself dining in their restaurants. Your great-grandparents may not have been willing to drive German cars, but the next generation got over that without much fuss. If war is god’s way of teaching Americans geography, the cessation of war is god’s way of introducing Americans to foreign cuisine and high performance vehicles.

If recalling worldwide conflict doesn’t help, remind yourself of conflicts you personally resolved that you once believed were impenetrable to change.

Then pick up the telephone and ask your adversary how ’bout those Dodgers? Take yourself and your “side” just a little less seriously. Tell a joke. Ask about the kids. Breathe. Relax.

If the Palestinians and Israelis can sit in the same room and discuss possible compromise, the rest of us have no excuse whatsoever.


Managing Editor In business since 1996, is the world’s leading mediation and dispute resolution website with over 7 million annual site visitors. serves as a bridge between professionals offering dispute resolution services and individuals and businesses needing those services. was awarded the 2010 American Bar Association Institutional Problem Solver of… MORE >

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