A Spiritual Approach to Conflict Resolution


CORVALLIS, Ore. – A method of conflict resolution that taps into human spirituality, as opposed to the rational tools of legal, economic or territorial give-and-take negotiation, may help address some of the world’s most persistent and seemingly hopeless conflicts, a new study suggests.

In a simplistic sense, the idea is to see spirituality, universal human themes, religion and God as part of the solution to conflicts, as opposed to part of the problem. The tools and mechanisms that emerge from centuries of spiritual quests may provide a basis for communication, understanding and ultimate agreement where legal haggles, arguments over “rights” and purely rational debates are clearly failing, experts say.

“A marriage of traditional conflict resolution approaches, along with the tools of our spiritual and religious heritage, could offer a whole new avenue to address very serious disputes,” said Aaron Wolf, (http://www.geo.oregonstate.edu/people/faculty/wolfa.htm) a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, and expert in both water resource issues and conflict resolution.

“This approach would be quite different than what we usually try now, and it may not always work,” Wolf said. “But given the severity of some of the conflicts and cultural clashes facing the world, if this approach does not work, I’m not sure what, if anything, will.”

Wolf outlines these concepts in an upcoming publication in the Journal of International Affairs, based on a study of conflicts all over the world and through thousands of years of history.

Wolf specializes in the study of water conflicts, but new approaches to conflict resolution could just as readily be applied to multiple other types of disputes, he said. The question is not so much what the dispute is about, as to how you can effectively get the opposing sides discussing it in terms of fairness, shared values, genuine needs and social equity – instead of historical rights, conflicting world views, legal positions, political demands or religious alienation.

That’s not easy to do.

“You look at some of the world’s most significant conflicts today, and what you really see are different worlds and cultures colliding,” Wolf said. “If we approach this with the attitude that we will show people where they are wrong and why they should adapt our world view, we’re going to fail. That’s what we too often have tried to do, and most of the traditional tools of negotiation don’t provide us with much help.”

Alternatively, Wolf said, answers might be found in the positive nature of human spirituality and the best parts of many world religions – what Abraham Lincoln once appealed to as common “bonds of affection” and “the better angels of our nature.”

Having conceded the difficulty of the task, Wolf outlines a number of approaches in his new study that provide usable tools, and most of them are based in the spiritual or religious teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Native American lore and others.

“Every spiritual tradition in the world is devoted to a very similar process, that is to guide individuals to move from thinking about their needs as individuals to addressing more of their obligations to society, humanity and other issues larger than themselves,” Wolf said in his journal article. “In this setting, conflict can be seen less as a displacement between rational sets of interests, and more as a rift in the fabric of community, with the attendant obligation for healing.”

There are references in many spiritual systems to “Four Worlds,” or planes of existence that view the way humans look at things – physical, emotional, knowing, and spiritual. Traditional conflict resolution approaches emphasize the physical and intellectual realities, while largely ignoring the emotional and spiritual realms, as if they are part of the problem.

In reality, Wolf said, tapping into the totality of human understanding can often form the basis for improved communication, a sense of shared life experiences, and an understanding of other values that ultimately can move opposing sides towards compassion, compromise, and a desire for equity, not victory. And this is more than just embracing philosophy, he says – there’s something about the spiritual nature of human consciousness that is more profound than mere morality or ethics.

If this all sounds a little mystical for the real world, Wolf points to a thick text on his desk – the “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Western Water Institutional Solutions Project.” It’s a water management and conflict resolution manual that is being adapted for use across the West, co-authored by Wolf, and it’s based on tools and principles largely borrowed from Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Asian spiritual traditions. Similar concepts also form most of the basis for a new “World Bank International Water Course,” published jointly by the World Bank and UNESCO.

“Truth be told, people don’t even have to know that the conflict resolution techniques they are using are based in our spiritual or religious heritage,” Wolf said. “All they care about is that it works.”

Wolf recently spent a sabbatical year learning more about the various spiritual tools available – the Jewish Kabbalah balance between justice and mercy, the Buddhist understanding of self and other, the Islamic processes for institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interaction, and tools such as “transformative listening.”

“I think part of the global concern here is a divide between West and North, versus South and East,” Wolf said. “That may be a reflection of the choice the West and North made towards separation of church and state in the Enlightenment of the 1700s. A focus on rationality clearly was felt needed at the time in order to achieve religious tolerance. But in the process we may have lost touch with the mechanisms that spirituality offers us to understand others, to bridge social divides and see beyond our own needs.”

Part of the problem is also economic, Wolf said. So long as every issue is broken down as a dollars-and-cents equation, it will be more difficult to achieve working solutions that both sides can live with.

“I really think there are some huge steps forward we can make with dispute resolution,” Wolf said. “But we need a new and more holistic tool kit to work with, and we may have to learn ways of talking to people that we’re unfamiliar with.”

The Hindus have a rich tradition of narrative, Wolf said, that’s an example of what can be tapped in formal negotiation settings. By having everyone introduce themselves by telling a story about their personal background, perhaps including a personal story about their relationship to a river, they set aside for the moment their titles, educational degrees and non-negotiable demands, and talk to each other in a context of shared human experience.

Only then does the dialogue begin.