Conflicts are a part of everyday life; which is why human beings, and animate life in general for that matter, are natural problem-solvers. Indeed, resolving conflict occurs multiple times every day, and most human conflicts are short lived. Of course, on the other hand, some conflicts last for years, seemingly unresolvable. One reason for the latter may be due to one or multiple of the parties perceiving the other party as the problem. On the contrary, we ought not view the party as the problem, but rather the conflict itself. In this frame, the other party can rather be seen as a creative ally in co-designing a solution to the conflict.

When the Party, Not the Conflict, Is Seen As the Problem

Do you remember the last time you were in a major conflict with someone (or perhaps you’re in one currently)? Do you remember thinking that the other person is the problem? That if only they would just change or submit or simply go away, then the problem would be gone as well? Well, maybe it’s true—that if they were different or simply went away, the problem would go away too—but that approach to resolving conflict and transforming a relationship does not often work very well, particularly for the other party. Simply believing the other party is wrong does not take into consideration their perspective; it essentially diminishes all respect for the other’s frame of reference, beliefs, and needs.

This conception is especially problematic in intractable, complex conflicts between large groups or nations. Entire cultures may learn to fear and/or hate one another, denying the other recognition as a people and believing that their own identity is under threat from the very existence of the other party. This is a worst case example of believing that the “other” is the problem; and we have seen this over and over throughout history.

Believing the other party is fundamentally the problem in a long-standing conflict almost inevitably shuts down any hope for peace. It places our side unequivocally in the right and the other side unequivocally in the wrong. This is an unfair, unbalanced, biased perspective of conflict that is hurtful and damaging to the other. Reaching peace is almost never possible from such a foundation.

Shifting Perception of the Conflict Cause

Now imagine for a moment that you could change your perception of the conflict. Imagine, if you’re willing, that the cause or problem in a long-standing conflict is not the other party, but rather the conflict itself. Simultaneously, imagine that the other party believes the same—that you are not their problem, but rather the conflict is the problem. In other words, the conflict is suddenly conceived as an external entity, not inherent to the relationship between you and the other, but something altogether separate.

This new paradigm dissolves any notion that something is wrong with either of you, that either of you are bad or inferior or crazy, that either of you must fundamentally change or compromise who you are. Suddenly, both of you deserve respect, both of your opinions are reasonable. Suddenly, you have become teammates in a joint problem-solving effort to tackle the problem—a conflict which is not intrinsically tied to either of you.

With this new perspective, you can get to work on solving the problem. You finally have a foundation of mutual respect and consideration from which to begin collaborative efforts. This is a much more productive conception of conflict. You are essentially proclaiming to the other party: “I recognize that you are not the problem; rather, the conflict itself is the problem. Let’s work together to solve it.”

Resolving Conflict Can Be Transformational Rather Than Destructive

When we can view the conflict as the problem, and the other party as our problem-solving partner in coming to a solution, we get on the same team. We reach an agreement that one another is not the obstacle. Only then can all parties involved put heads together, brainstorm creatively, and develop a productive alliance to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to the conflict. This alliance has the potential to transform the relationship, from one of opposition to one of reciprocal appreciation.