Teaching principles of peacemaking is based on three ideas: Awareness, choice, and action.

Much conflict stems from automatic, reactive behavior. We, as humans, are hard wired to protect our personal identities. Consequently, our brains generally interpret ambiguous social situations as attacks on our identity. Since this is a genetically endowed predisposition, we are not conscious of the automatic negative judgments we constantly make. As a result, conflicts can escalate quickly as we act and react to the social situation confronting us. Fortunately, we can take control of our automatic behaviors by exercising our consciousness. Awareness is the process of bringing information from our pre-conscious to our conscious state so that we can re-evaluate it.

Awareness at the simplest level means being aware of how we are responding to conflict. Thus, awareness may start with a simple realization that we are in conflict with someone else. We can also become aware of our feelings and assess whether they are justified or appropriate. At the next level, awareness requires us to be sensitive to how the other person is responding to conflict. This is more difficult because it is an abstract process. We cannot actually know or experience what the other person is feeling, so we have to guess at it. Accurate guessing requires empathy, which is an untaught social skill. Empathic accuracy depends on the amount of awareness brought to the situation.

At a yet higher level of awareness, training and experience allows us to recognize typical conflict patterns. At this level, we understand not only what the conflict is about, but also how it started, the escalation processes it went through, and the potential range of outcomes available to the parties. This awareness level is analytical, objective, and detached. Professionals engaged in peacemaking master this level of awareness as part of their training.

The first step in learning peacemaking, then, is to ask the question, "What is going on here?" Once we have awareness, we can see our choices.

The second idea to be taught in peacemaking is choice. As conscious beings, we have the unique ability to choose between alternatives and to project the effect of our choice into the future. This forward thinking ability is one of the unique characteristics of the human neo-cortex. Planning and projecting, along with symbolic communication, is a dominant distinction between humans and other animals.

In conflict, we always face choices. Usually, the choices boil down to escalating the conflict through confrontation, de-escalating the conflict through empathic communication, or avoiding the conflict. In Darwinian terms, we can choose to approach or defend. Our defensive choices are to flee, freeze, or fight. Because we are hard wired for self-protection, our default choice is to flee or fight. Thus, if we consciously choose to approach, we must override our default choice. This takes effort, which is why conflicts often persist. We find it easier to allow the default flee or fight choice to control than to expend the effort necessary to override it. The point in peacemaking training is that we do have a choice and are not locked into our evolutionary default mode. In peacemaking training, we consciously choose whether to approach or defend. Sometimes approaching is appropriate; sometimes defending is appropriate. The key is to make a deliberate choice rather than to be reactive.

Once we have made our choice, we have to act. Thus, the third idea of peacemaking is action. Assuming that we have chosen to approach rather than defend, we must control our actions to be consistent with our choice. Consequently, we must learn to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of conflict. Again, this requires effort. When the heavy emotional currents generated by the conflict are swirling around us, we are easily knocked off center and sucked into the maelstrom. We must use concentration and discipline to remain centered and non-anxious. Despite the five alarms sounding in our pre-conscious brains ("Fight! Flee! Warning! Danger! Uncertainty!"), we can learn to ignore them and focus objectively on what is taking place around us. By maintaining a non-anxious presence, we become non-reactive to the conflict. As we become non-reactive, we become more aware, which allows us to make better choices, which allows us to act in a more peaceful way. The cycle of peace slowly replaces the cycle of conflict.

Why is this so difficult? First, survival is our prime imperative. Ambiguous or challenging social situations trigger our survival reactions without our conscious awareness. Typically, because of the processing time required by our cortex, we are reacting to a situation ¾’s of a second before we are even aware of the situation itself . Thus, we can be escalated into a conflict very quickly without being conscious of what we are doing. Second, our default choice leads to behaviors that escalate conflicts rather than de-escalate them. Generally speaking, the default choice to flee or fight will make matters worse, not better. Third, taking aggressive action feels better than maintaining a calm, non-anxious presence. Shouting, fighting, threatening, or seeing a lawyer all relieve anxiety quickly, if temporarily. Peacemaking is difficult because we must act against our inherent tendencies. We must expend effort to become aware. We must expend effort to make choices,. We must expend effort to act according to our choices. If we are tired, frustrated, or angry, the effort will simply seem like too much work. As a result, we will be in conflict rather than in peace.

Teaching people about peacemaking is consequently teaching people about awareness, choice, and action. Conflict persists when we allow ourselves to be reactive. Peace occurs when we are able to override our default choices through the exercise of consciousness. 

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By Doug Noll

Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). He can be reached at doug@nollassociates.com.