Cartesian Conflict Theory
By Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer
In the study of conflict management, the process itself complicates the ways in which we deal with conflict. Human beings are wired with an instinct for self-preservation and if that is absent then there is a mental problem there. Now this instinct for self-preservation varies from person to person, in fact there is quite a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, we have the xenophobe who is agoraphobic- this person stays in an area that they can control and only associates with people whom they are comfortable with, reducing risk greatly; on the other end of the spectrum we have the adrenaline junkie with the devil-may-care attitude who takes measured risks for the thrill of it. Both action sets are managed by the same concept. The person from the first example creates a feeling of safety because they cater to their risk management, the person from the second example gets the thrill by challenging their risk management. However in both cases there is a common thread, that the self is central to their story line. The agoraphobic stays safe because they are protecting the key factor in their story and the adrenaline junkie gets their thrill by putting the key factor in their story at risk.
Cartesian Conflict Theory posits that each person is central to their own story and that once you realize this you are more able to “map out” the conflict so that it can be effectively managed. All too often, conflict management professionals maintain the illusion that they are the core feature in each story they interact with, that because they are the mediator they have a key role in the conflict management process. Ideally, the conflict management professional has as little a footprint in a persons story as possible. This means that as conflict management professionals we succeed the most when no one remembers us in their stories. When we realize this, we become much more effective as we become, quite simply, part of the process.
To accept Cartesian Conflict Theory, there are a few truisms that someone must accept. First, a person’s life is made up of stories and processes. Many people from the conflict management field will be able to accept that stories make up a major part of people’s lives because it is the core concept of narrative mediation; however, the idea that processes are parts of our lives is something that many people reject. We reject this concept because we are trained to think we are not predictable, when in most cases we are. This rejection is a Western concept, the Eastern concept of continuous improvement embraces the constant improving of processes in your life. Individually speaking, think of your day. What do you do each day, every day? Do you take time to improve your process, to make it more efficient or have you found a level that you are comfortable with? Each of us have our own process. And when we combine this with our stories we have our life.
The relationship between stories and life, however, is at the core of Cartesian Conflict Theory. Stories are, for the most part, the deviations from our normal pattern. Most of us go through life doing the same things over and over, improving them when we can, to get through the day. I would be willing to bet that I can name the pattern for 90% of people reading this of wake up, go to work, come home, relax go to sleep with only minor deviations each day. One person may read a book to relax, another may watch TV, a third may go to a bar but the same basic concept is there; we do the same basic pattern each day. For those of you that say “I have bowling league” or “I have book club”, this just shows your extended pattern, your bowling league meets each week or your book club meets each month. The stories of our lives arise when we do something different and step outside of the pattern.
The question now arises as to how this relates to conflict management. In our stories we are the main actors (parents may share the “main” concept with their children). As conflict management professionals, we need to understand that this not only applies to us but also to the people we work for. Our natural instinct is that we should cater to the “I” in a conflict because “we” are resolving the conflict. The parties resolve the conflict, whether you are a judge or a mediator your guidance just helps them along. If the parties refuse to resolve, the conflict is still there festering under an artificial “resolution” just festering and waiting to explode. However, if we take a procedural role- a role beyond the self, then we have the ability to help others help themselves and actually manage their conflict. This is the core concept of Cartesian Conflict Theory, that the conflict management professional makes their footprint on the map as small as possible.
Now I assume many of you are already thinking “I already do this in my practice, I make a point to be confidential, impartial and neutral.” Good for you. There is no claim that this is a new process, in fact there are very few processes in the world that have not been tried before. Cartesian Conflict Theory is designed to help you embrace your role as a conflict resolution professional. In being a smaller part in other people’s stories, we have the ability to increase the efficacy of our process and thus make conflict management part of our process. We become beacons of peace in the world.
If we look back through history, we can see beacons of peace and conflict throughout time. Christ, Buddha, Confucius and other leaders have proposed ways to make the world a much better place, and if we look we see that they empty themselves of forcing themselves on other peoples lives. More accurately they all become light in the lives of others, something that is ethereal and indistinguishable but is still there to help. Conversely, we have beacons of conflict throughout history such as Hitler, Bin Laden and Pol Pot. These are people who interjected themselves into the lives of others in such an epic way that they destroyed lives, ended stories and forced their procedures on the lives of others. They were far from ethereal and devastated people far and wide. The majority of humanity falls somewhere in-between, and this is where we operate as conflict management professionals.
Overall, Cartesian Conflict Theory builds conflict maps of individual conflicts which we are helping to manage. When we start with the parties, then expand the map to aggravating and mitigating factors, we can start to see how the conflict arose. In knowing the genesis of a conflict, we are better able to manage the conflict. It is akin to knowing where an infection entered a system or where a pollutant entered a stream. Once we know the cause, we can often offer a solution. Conflict mapping is an internal process, but it is also an important process that, with the advent of more advanced computer software, we now have the ability to do in real-time while we are managing conflicts. This process can make us more effective and help us deal with the problems that plague the world today.