A designer on Conflict

Coming out of a lunch-webinar with Adam Kahane new book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, made me center back to some topics I would like to share, capital for my work as a designer and most importantly, to keep iterating what I mean by being human.

The story starts with one of the simplest and accesible reflections of the human experience, which is that at any situation we are somehow always able to chose between three options: to Force our way of how the situation ought to be, to Adapt to the ongoing forces shaping the situation, or to Exit the situation to another one.

I somehow see to Force, Adapt or Exit a situation as a refined rationalisation of the Fight, Freeze and Flight responses of our reptile brain. Here evolution has done its part and helped us to continuously chose between these 3 responses without much energy intake.

In my understanding could be the reason why is so hard and energy/attention consuming to be aware of how am I reacting at any given situation. This fact of passing the 3 choices through consciousness is been if not THE main learning of my adulthood, one of the top three with remembering to water plants and give first. More than tiring, has demanded me as a young, white, heterosexual, western man to completely reshape what a subtile but well stablished torrents of social order, also called the hetero-patriarchy, taught me on how to deal with myself (ego) and others.

At first I started by denying the ego and exclusively relating it to the Forcing attitude. With time one realises it’s not always the case, and led me to redefine the Forcing attitude, as of today at least, as just a maleable voice or will emerging at every moment which it can take shape of Force, Adapt or Exit. It also, indeed, led me to enjoy and learn the nuances of being in the Adapting attitude much more often, its beauties and its perils, to experiment when was the right moment to Exit, and finally, and here we come back to Adam’s book again, when to take the always possible middle way, in this case, to Collaborate.

He pointed the fact that we tend to associate Collaboration, people working together out a situation, as a good thing because is what will lead us to harmony. Harmony, of course, as the absence of conflict, harmony as the old modern idea of a bright future, perfect progress without war. In my understanding, this idea of collaborating as working out together a situation seems like integrating both a Forcing and Adapting attitude from the people involved in the situation. This usually tens to be seen under positive lens, but he also pointed to an less appreciative meaning of collaboration, which in Europe is still full of meaning — the ‘collaborators’ — as those who ‘collaborated with the evil’ back in the european wars of the beginning of the s.XX.

All this to say that the results of being in both a Forcing and Adapting attitude could be considered both harmonious and conflicting if we wish at the same time. That thus we shall bring, as Adam’s book basically argues, back the wisdoms around conflict at the centre of ‘working out together situations with the people we share them with’, specially as is not always the case that there is good predisposition to start collaborating.

Let’s pause here. So yes, the argument here is to bring back the culture of conflict to life. This I feel is pretty provoking, and I somehow love provocations, specially for a generation whose epistemology of the world is referenced in the worldview of our previous generation, the moderns, who responded to the horrors of WWI and II with an understanding of society that should excluded that horror, conflict, from the map of possible attitudes to dwell. This hypothesis from Angélique del Rey and Miguel Benasayag is basically saying that wars made us pretty dumb as postmoderns to deal with conflict before it gets into killing each other (in case we agree is nasty when it gets to that point). That’s why divorcing sky rocketed, we don’t live with parents at home and take care until they die, and so on and so forth. Because we can’t stand conflict and we chose Exit over the minimum existence of it.

One could argue that when living in conflict is denied good things happen like for example half of the population, a.k.a women, started saying fuck yourself and Exiting before accepting just Adaptation as an operating mode of being in the world, but that’s a pretty bold hypothesis for another day.

In sum, I (and maybe society at large?) seem to be ill equipped to understand and deal with conflict deeply, to integrate it as an existing reality of the human nature, and feel is utterly important now that a Forcing attitude is becoming more and more present. It would be great if all we had to do was to be able to create an attitude or way of being in the world that is integrative and dances with forcing and adapting looking for situations we all can live with just as stepping stones for our next dance, but until we are in situations where everybody involved is ready for this, we shall also deeply learn to dwell and transform conflict into collaboration.