Guest Post: How Far Apart Are People In Conflict?

My friend Ken Cloke wrote the piece below about the shifting sands between North and South Korea. But the piece is so much bigger. His question, “how far apart are people in conflict?” unravels my stuck thinking.


Reflections on North and South Korea

By Kenneth Cloke

As I write these words, a meeting is being organized in Singapore between the US and North Korea, and it is worth reflecting for a moment on how it happened that the world suddenly changed, and we shifted from mutual animosity, personal insults, and threats of impending nuclear annihilation to a series of agreements between North and South Korea, pledges of a nuclear-free zone, release of prisoners, and genuine dialogue.

If there is a Nobel Prize in this, it might be given not only to Kim, and especially to Moon, for breaking the ice and taking the first small steps toward each other, but also to Kim’s sister, to the athletes on both sides at the Winter Olympics, and to the North Korean cheerleaders, whose positive presence and willingness to participate together in a global sporting competition demonstrated something essential that is often overlooked in nearly every conflict.

If we ask the question: how far apart are people in conflict, I believe there are three correct answers:

  1. They are an infinite distance from one another, because the gap between them seems unbridgeable, and there appears to be no clear way of overcoming the hostility, intractability and impasse that divides them;
  2. They are no distance apart at all, because they are inseparable in their conflict, and bound together by it; and
  3. They are exactly one step apart, because either side can move unilaterally to end the hostility, intractability and impasse on their side, and invite the other side to do the same.

We can remember now, in hindsight, all the US government, TV pundit and press descriptions of Kim Jung Un as “crazy,” “insane,” “aggressive,” “threatening,” etc., and are able to ask:

  1. Are these not also descriptions the other side might reasonably have made of us?
  2. Are they not descriptions that each side commonly makes of the other side in nearly every conflict?
  3. What happened to those descriptions? What eliminated or changed them? And,
  4. How might we shift all the descriptions we use to portray our opponents in any conflict in a more positive and affirming direction, without ever losing sight of the differences between us, but allow us to invite them into honest dialogue, creative problem solving, collaborative negotiation, mediation, and similar conflict resolution processes?

While the rhetoric of war has shifted now regarding North Korea, it has increased with respect to Iran, and can easily escalate in all our conflicts – in part because our choice of language creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perceiving the other side as aggressive and unreasonable leads us to act in ways that cause them to respond aggressively and unreasonably, thereby “backwards engineering” our justifications for causing them harm in the first place, and seeking their destruction through violence. Notice three things that apply to all our conflicts:

  1. Resort to hostility, violence and war appears reasonable and acceptable only if the other side can be shown to deserve it, by reason of their innate evil or insanity or hostility or ill will toward us;
  2. It is far easier to convince ourselves and others to fear people who are different from us and disagree with our actions than it is to trust them, or be willing to talk openly, equally and honestly with them about our differences, and how we might work together to resolve them; and
  3. For these reasons, it is often both possible and necessary for third parties to act as mediators, searchers for common ground, promoters of empathy, designers of conversations, reframers of language, and facilitators of the creation of collaborative solutions.

If the world can shift in the space of a few months from impending nuclear war and a willingness to slaughter millions of innocent civilians to conversations that include collaborative negotiation, dialogue and problem solving, so can everyone in every conflict. All it takes, as we have seen, is a little openness, a little courage, and a little cheerleading.

Ken’s words open something for me. If I map them onto the misunderstanding I just had with my daughter or the climate change sparring that threatens to flatten me, something shifts. Like a kaleidoscope, with a slight twist of the wrist all the colors rearrange themselves and I am given an entirely new view of the state of things.


Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, facilitator, coach, consultant and trainer, specializing in communication, negotiation, and resolving complex multi-party disputes. 



2 comments on “Guest Post: How Far Apart Are People In Conflict?

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this thoughtful article. False dichotomies that reflect all or nothing thinking, harm our ability to realize we share one planet and all have responsibilities to clean up these messes.

  2. I once had a boss 20 years my junior who advised all of her direct reports to “assume positive intent.” It was the greatest advice I ever received and re-framed my thinking in many ways. Ken’s thoughts are directly in line with this way of viewing the world. What a refreshing perspective in these trying times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *