Pedagogy of Conflict – The X-Factor

by Pushpa Iyer, Director

Most newcomers to the field of conflict resolution are consumed with ideas of ‘doing good’. They convince themselves that if they could only learn a few skills, they would able to go out into the world and resolve conflicts; they would contribute to peace. There is no question that they come with sincere motives of making the world a better place for all.

How hard it is, then, to be told on their very first day of study that many skills in this field cannot be taught, that skills (some natural of course) usually come from practice and that in order to be a strong practitioner, one must spend time learning the philosophy of the field, that is, what lies behind the theory and concepts of conflict resolution. Even harder to hear is that one is not in this field only because they are ‘do-gooders’, morally and naturally superior to those who are engaged in conflicts. Rather, they have entered the field to be the resolvers because they come with agendas; agendas that they can only unpack when they dig deep into their own motives and interests. Agendas can be mundane and practical, such as the need to have a job or the goal to earn money or the desire to travel to a certain part of the world where conflict is happening. There are also non-altruistic agendas where conflict resolvers are in the field to achieve fame as a ‘good’ and ‘peaceful’ individual who stops people from ‘fighting’. Agendas can also be insidious in the sense that conflict resolvers have strong beliefs and values, which they then want to force upon the conflict parties in order to end the conflict. Then there are the privileged agendas, which turn conflict resolvers into idealistic and emotionally charged individuals who are outraged by conflict and suffering and who would pursue the ‘bad’ guys (and gals) in order to expose them.

If agendas can be mundane, non-altruistic, insidious, idealistic, and emotional, then why does the potential conflict resolver come in with such an air of self-righteousness? Where does that sense of superiority come from given that their skills (barring some natural ones) still need to be fine tuned and practiced over a lifetime in real conflict situations?

It comes from the fact that these agendas have not been unpacked. As a starting point, for anyone who wants to be a part of this field, it is important to become aware of their beliefs, values, biases, and prejudices – the agendas that drive their motives for being in this field. This can be done through self-reflection exercises like journals or by engaging in honest dialogue about any given conflict situation or conflict parties with which the potential conflict resolver is involved or hopes to be involved.

Agendas need not be disclosed or made explicit. It is only the conflict resolvers themselves who need to identify and be aware of their agendas. As agendas come to the forefront, it defines conflict resolvers as humble instead of superior. It makes conflict resolvers understand that they are flawed human beings just like the conflict parties whose conflict they want to go resolve. When potential conflict resolvers recognize that they are not superior to the conflict parties, it makes them both scared and nervous or makes the role of a conflict resolver unattractive. For, I suspect, when stripped of the feeling of superiority, they no longer find the field fulfilling. Would it not be more attractive to be a savior in some under-developed part of the world or an expert who catches the ‘evil terrorists’?

But the most important result of the unpacking of agendas is the fact that it helps potential conflict resolvers discover and display, this time publicly, if they posses that extra quality, the X-Factor, that will justify their title as conflict resolvers. The X-Factor that conflict resolvers carry is not something that can be taught, learnt, or improved with experience. It is something that those committed to resolving conflict must inherently possess. Conflict resolvers with the X-Factor are ones that seek to bring positive change on equal footing with others, including those who are in the midst of conflict.

The X-Factor includes the ability and the commitment to remain involved in conflicts (as long as one remains meaningful) despite how difficult the situation turns out to be. This X-factor demands that the conflict resolver not be afraid of conflicts and of emotions displayed by conflict parties, and has the ability to challenge themself and others. It could involve creating newer conflicts in order to challenge status quos that prevent societies from becoming peaceful. It requires courage and constant fine-tuning of skills that the conflict resolver possesses and has learnt.

Most importantly, this X-Factor provides the conflict resolver with the ability to accept and work with all the mundane, practical, non-altruistic, insidious, emotional, and privileged agendas that they, like everyone else, carry.

Discovering whether one posses the X-Factor or not at the very early stages of entering the field facilitates making career choices and significantly reduces the number of people who are in the field just to ‘do-good’. Unpacking agendas of potential conflict resolvers should therefore become a key teaching goal in any conflict resolution classroom.

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