Understanding Conflict & Cooperation
To understand conflict, we actually have to understand cooperation because they are both two sides of the same coin. In other words, if we’re not in one state, we’re in the other. At all times, we are internally either in conflict or cooperation with ourselves; similarly, we are at all times in conflict or cooperation externally with our environments. That means we’re always either in one state or the other with any other individual with whom we cross paths. And sometimes we can be in a mixed state, cooperatively dealing with a conflict, which is essentially how conflict management is defined. Even a seemingly neutral state, in which two strangers pass by on the street and just ignore each other, is still cooperatively attained. Both parties have to cooperatively agree to ignore each other. This is quite fascinating, if you think about it. It’s actually abnormal in the animal kingdom, because most predatory animals will react in conflict (fight or flight) to any strangers of the same species they come across. But somewhere along our ancestral line, we developed a social psychology, and through that psychology we cooperate with strange, other humans, even ignore them and not feel threatened by their presence. We have very special brains in this respect.
Because of this social-psychological evolution, every human being is born with an innate understanding of how to cooperate with and how to aggress against both known and strange individuals. It’s part of our evolved psychology, part of our DNA. So we’re all born with virtually similar potentials for cooperation or conflict, with some exceptions due to genetic conditions or disorders. Plus, each of us individually learns particular strategies as to how to cooperate and aggress as part of a developmental psychology — the world views learned via environmental conditions that teaches each of us, during the course of our lifetimes, what particular situations threaten or satisfy our fundamental needs. Certain people are traumatized, for instance, by an event or circumstances that occurred when they were younger, and then that memory, maybe for the rest of their lives, serves to alert them when they might be in danger again. A certain phrase or type of look might trigger that memory and set someone off, whereas it would be totally benign to another person.
So this conditioned psychology each individual develops can make it pretty difficult to predict what someone might interpret as a threat and how aggressively they’re going react to that interpretation. But the good news is that because we’re all born with fundamentally similar human brains and bodies, even though our psychologies differ based on our life histories, we all share the same fundamental human needs and can approach an understanding of conflict and cooperation from this universal relationship.
How Human Needs Factor into Conflict
There are a lot of definitions used by scholars to delineate a conflict. But we’re going to use a common definition, simplified a bit, using the concept of fundamental human needs to describe cooperation and conflict: Cooperation is an interaction between 2 or more parties, wherein each party feels they are sufficiently getting their needs met; and a Conflict is an interaction between 2 or more parties, wherein at least one party perceives another as threatening or preventing its needs from getting met.
So, when a conflict does arise, we can take a needs-based approach to understand what needs I have, which I might perceive as not being met, or what needs the other person might have that he or she doesn’t feel are being met or perceives as being threatened. We can then use some needs-based strategies to try to quickly get our own needs met if necessary, and to get the other person’s needs met, or at least restore perception that needs aren’t being threatened, so that we can get back to a state of cooperation and hence peace.
Relating to each other on this very basic human level, regardless of our individual histories, can help us get from a state of conflict to a state of cooperation. This state illuminates our ultimate goal, and here it is: All conflict resolution has a goal of getting back to a state of cooperation, in other words getting all parties’ needs met as best we can and thus ultimately entering a state of mutual peace.
This goal often requires a recalibration of what we believe winning a conflict looks like. The goal is always peace, not conflict. So the only WIN is actually peace. We’ve been so conditioned by the media, violent movies, video games, maybe volatile relationships in our lives, that aggression is often perceived as somehow okay, even desired, as long as we win the conflict. But this is not what conflict resolution is about at all. We have to realize that even if we get into a physical fight and win, it’s not actually winning — we still lose. There are so many repercussions on both sides of the conflict, no matter who wins, that the costs almost always outweigh any benefits from a violent or aggressive interaction. The only time this isn’t true is when we survive a life-or-death attack because surviving at any cost is arguably worth the repercussions. But that type of situation is extremely rare over the population. So again, we truly WIN ONLY when the outcome is a peaceful or cooperative conclusion. That’s our goal when we practice conflict resolution.