Universal Human Capacities for Conflict Resolution: A Search for Reliable Cross-Cultural Peacemaker Tools

Social behavior is in all species a blend of inborn tendencies, experience, and intelligent decision making.
— Frans De Waal

This post and associated full length paper will explore the question: What are the universal human core capacities, desires, and innate abilities people in conflict possess that cross-cultural peacemakers can always count on to help parties resolve conflicts? The purpose of answering this question is to help peacemakers develop a clear idea of how parties from different cultures can be guided through conflict resolution processes. I believe that conflict intervention strategies and processes must largely center on the parties’ common core abilities to resolve conflict. Although several categories of human universals will be explored here, the focus of this literature review and research is to examine the current theories that surround the human ability to resolve conflict. Some questions have naturally emerged from this study: Do we know how to resolve conflicts at birth or is it a learned skill? Are there aspects of our innate abilities that predispose us to resolve conflicts without violence? What are those innate abilities and how can we as conflict managers use them to help keep the peace?

Humans must be equipped biologically to function effectively in many social situations without undue reliance on cognitive processes.
— ML Hoffman

Building a foundation for non-violent conflict resolution in humans must focus, I believe, on our commonalities first and our differences last. Over a vast amount of time, humans have developed a tremendous natural capacity to resolve conflicts. Ignoring those abilities may slow the conflict resolution process at best, and at worse it may impede the entire process. As various cultures around the world interact at a quicker pace, and a more entrenched level than ever before, there will be an ever-increasing demand for cross-cultural conflict management and resolution systems to deal with the inherent conflicts. There are many books, papers, and classes that focus on the differences in cultures, especially when considering how to deal with two or more cultures in conflict. Those cultural differences are important to be aware of and work with as even the best designed conflict resolution strategy can be undermined when the differences are not tended to. I believe, however, that the commonalities humans possess are also critical and when those common-ground natural capacities are ignored or marginalized, the strategy for helping people move beyond conflict is compromised. The final product of this paper and research will be a useful, basic exploration for cross-cultural peacemakers looking for reliable and predictable commonalities in their clients. The goal is to engage today’s peacemakers in diverse thinking, so they can enhance their conflict resolution strategies.

Continue reading the entire work here...
(The length and depth of this paper make it a better read via PDF format)

Pressed for time? Here's the Executive Summary / Conclusion

It is quite clear from the literature reviewed so far that humans are hard-wired to resolve conflicts non-violently. Even without the argument that we are innately capable, it is hard to argue that we do not have at least the natural ability to learn very quickly how to approach and deal with conflict in a positive way. This project set out to answer the question, what are the universal human core capacities, desires, and innate abilities people in conflict possess that cross-cultural peacemakers can always count on to help parties resolve conflicts? I believe that the five underlying emotional and cognitive capacities outlined in this paper: reconciliation, cooperation, forgiveness, relationships, and empathy, are powerful underpinnings for resolving conflicts in a non-violent way and do start to answer the project question. Reconciliation behavior allows us to repair wounds, heal, and make-up with a former enemy. Understanding the need for cooperation has the potential to set up a future looking scenario for people in dispute with a focus on what they can accomplish together and to see what they cannot accomplish without one another. Forgiveness is that powerful ability to let go of a past harm and acts as a true foundation for a real and long-term reconciliation processes. Understanding the need for relationships forces us to consider the other person’s point of view for the benefit of both. And, finally, empathy is a window into another person’s mind, which allows us to feel what he or she feels and understand why they do what they do. The peacemaker survey results and comments indicate that conflict managers are experiencing the five core capacities in most of their clients in one fashion or another during conflict and these survey results support the view in the current literature that says these capabilities are common, and universal in most humans.

Building a solid foundation in cross-cultural conflict management strategies has never been so important as it is at this very moment in time. If we can be certain that these abilities are within most every human, the question then becomes how can we use this knowledge to help resolve conflicts, especially as we turn our attention to conflicts that run across cultures? This cultural layer is where the answers presented in this paper can become blurred and masked by differences that are hard to see beyond. Are there tools or methods peacemakers would use more if they knew that everyone in the room had some access to the same core capacities? Would they choose to boldly model specific behaviors or create exercises that blatantly elicit these capacities? Are there tools they would decide to use later in the process, rather than early? Does the conflict system in front of them change with the knowledge that everyone has something in common that they cannot ignore because it is part of them? The five core capacities are in many cases intertwined with one another and can be enhanced or diminished with experience and environmental input. This learning element, and the identification of the core capacities could also help guide child and adult learning programs that focus on teaching conflict resolution.

Since no strategy for managing conflict can be based on an assumption, some may find these findings too cloudy to be helpful. Others may find further proof here for ideas they already felt had merit in their practices. Still others may be sparked to take on further research in these areas. There is a need for more research in this important base area of conflict resolution and peacemaking. Because the literature reviewed here is almost entirely limited to Western researchers and sources and the underlying questions being posed involve cross-cultural conflicts, the need to expand the literature review, personal interviews, and surveys to more parts of the world is important. If similar conclusions are drawn in an expanded, beyond Western study, a further step may be to embark upon quantitative research that will help to reinforce the ideas presented in this paper. Phase two of this research should be embarked upon with vigor.