Understanding perception is an important part of understanding conflict. What we think is truth changes based upon our perspective. Therefore, understanding how we perceive reality is critical to understanding how to turn conflict into peace.
To illustrate this point, imagine a conference table. What color is it? If you say that it is brown, are you really correct? If you look at a conference table carefully, you'll see that it has various shades based on how the light plays on its surface. Under some circumstances the surface may reflect light so bright the brown is completely washed out. As you move around the table, the color changes. What if the shadow of an adjoining building falls on the table? In that case the table might appear to be black rather than brown. What happens to the color of the table if you put on tinted glasses? Again the color will change from brown to something else. Thus, can we really say that the table is brown? Can't we make a logical argument that each of these other perceptions is likewise truthful?
To take this analysis further, consider the table's shape. Do you say that the conference table is rectangular? From one end of the table, however it looks as if it narrows in the distance. This is a polyhedron, not a rectangle! In fact, no matter where you stand around the table, the table never appears to be rectangular. The point of this is that we infer qualities of a conference table quite differently from how the table actually appears. We do this by drawing inferences and by making generalizations based upon common experience.
Most of the time, inferences, differences of perspective and generalizations are not a problem. They are very useful time-saving tools that allow us to navigate a complex environment with relative ease. We don't often consider whether our view of the world is the same as those around us because there is enough common agreement to transact business. We both put our papers on the conference room table and don't really worry if we both see a brown rectangle or something else. Nevertheless, different inferences and perspectives can become serious points of contention.
Imagine what happens in conflict. My inference or perspective becomes the only correct way of seeing things because that's the way that I see it! Since what I see is reality to me, any other perspective is not real. What is not real is not the truth. Since your perspective is not my reality and because my reality is the truth (for me), you must be lying.
When you enter this logic, conflict erupts. And the more deeply your belief is held, the more intractable the conflict becomes. As the conflict escalates, you begin to associate your identity with your beliefs. This makes the ability to see another perspective very difficult. This is a root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as many other ethnic and religious conflicts.
My task as the peacemaker is not to decide which perspective, inference or generalization is more correct. Instead, my role is to teach you and your opposite to hold different realities in your minds at the same time. As you both are able to accept the possibility that there may be more than one reality to the conflict, a new perspective is generated. This perspective is almost always more complex, detailed and full than any of the individual perspectives. Not surprisingly, this new perspective often contains more truth.
Sharing perspectives consequently becomes a critical part of the peacemaking process. Yet sitting across the table and listening to another's reality is probably the most difficult part of the peacemaking process. Your brain screams with protest, outrage and anger as it hears a story so radically different from what you know to be the truth. You want to shout and maybe walk out of the session because of the insult you are taking by gracing this pack of lies with your presence.
By listening to the other perspective carefully and with compassion, some interesting things start to happen. First, you learn that your identity will not dissolve around you. Your brain's fear response system has lied to you again. Where it saw danger was real opportunity for profit. Second, you will gain valuable information you have never had before. Imagine being told exactly what your opponent's needs are? Didn't you say that knowledge is power in the business world? Third, you will gain understanding about the other's reality and in that process, heighten understanding about how your reality has been created. With this new understanding, you will be able to put aside your need to crush the other side, and begin to collaborate. Thus, the peacemaking process moves you from the limited possibilities of contention and compromise to the greater possibilities of collaboration and reconciliation.
Noll is an attorney and law professor trained as a peacemaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Web site www.manageconflict.com.