Photo by Aurélien — Wild Spot on Unsplash

Zen and the art of Peacemaking: Problems in the space between domains

What I am trying to do with my work is to create maps that will help people have productive and peaceful relationships at work. There’s a fundamental problem with this endeavour: the reason people go to war with each other is that they disagree about how the map should be drawn. The key to peacemaking is to be able to navigate without a map.

If the key to peacemaking is to be able to navigate without a map, then it’s difficult to draw maps which help with peacemaking. Because sooner or later, the map is going to be irrelevant and wrong: otherwise, you’re not actually peacemaking, you’re just doing something that resembles peacemaking. It’s not until you’re lost and confused that you’re in the space where peacemaking becomes possible.

One of the best maps of peacemaking is the TV show Derry Girls, which is the story of a group of girls growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The first episode begins with the trip to school being delayed, because there might be a bomb on the road leading to the school. This is not the defining moment that the audience might expect: everyone in the story regards it as an annoying inconvenience, nothing more.

It’s not until season 2 episode 1 that Derry Girls explicitly examines the peace process (this paragraph and the next describe the plot of the episode): the characters from the Catholic girls school spend a weekend with new characters from the Protestant boys school. A specialist mediator has a set of carefully-designed activities (including abseiling, of course) that are intended to bring everyone together. These activities were doomed from the start, and they fail.

It all comes to a head in the meeting where they are finally going to tackle the issues head on. Asked what Catholics and Protestants have in common, the Catholics reply “Protestants have more money” and the Protestants reply “Catholics worship statues.” It’s only when things have broken down completely that one of the students realizes that both sides do have something important in common.

It’s easy to interpret the episode as a criticism of a specific method of peacemaking: the fact that success is achieved despite the method shows clearly that the method doesn’t work. I think the episode demonstrates a deeper problem: that predefined methods in general don’t work. Despite our best efforts, we simply cannot guarantee success in peacemaking no matter how good the method.

It doesn’t matter how good the road is: if nobody walks on it, you have not achieved movement.

However, a really good road can make movement much easier. And a really good peacemaking map can facilitate peace. Even better is a collection of maps, so that you have an understanding of how things might vary from one place to another.

Stress inoculation

One of the peacemaking maps that everyone should have is ‘stress inoculation’ map. When the military teaches someone to swim, they tell them that the water will be cold and wet, and that they won’t be able to breathe with their head underwater. When the student gets into the water, they’re unlikely to enjoy the coldness and wetness, and that they can’t breathe underwater. They are, at least, not surprised: some of the difficulty was reduced.

So here are some things to expect when you embark on a peacemaking exercise:

  • You’re going to use your best habits, and they’re going to fail
  • You’re going to be tempted by your bad habits, and they won’t work either
  • The person opposite you is going to say things as if they were obvious, and they’re not going to make any sense at all
  • You’re going to be forced to say things that should be perfectly obvious, and the person opposite you will completely fail to understand
  • You’re going to experience intense emotional states
  • You’re going to have to say things that will hurt to say
  • You’re going to have to hear things that will hurt to hear

A problem to look out for

There are five layers of conversation you can have, and therefore five types of disagreement that can arise:

5) Why are we doing this?

4) What general outcomes are we looking for?

3) What specific things will we try to get?

2) What process will we use to get there?

1) What will we do at some specific point?

If the conversation has come to a halt and you’re just butting heads, then try moving the conversation to a different layer. (If you and the person opposite both understand the concept of cognitive layers, you might even say “Which layer do you think we should be talking at?”)

If you’re not sure which layer to use, then layer 4 is the integration layer, the layer that sits outside any domain. It’s the layer of language, and of working out what to say.

Understand the limits of theory

Peacemaking is only really needed when the theories have failed. Walking the length of the pier will not teach you to swim. The value in peacemaking isn’t in the words, it’s in the working out what to say. I hope this view of the lake proves useful.

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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