Negative peace, positive peace: What kind do you want?

spiral“I don’t want to resolve this conflict,” said the professor, looking me squarely in the eye and leaning forward in his seat. “I want to exacerbate it.” The word exacerbate was pronounced with each syllable clipped and exaggerated to highlight his point. “It’s a conflict that needs to be done thoroughly, fearlessly, and with zest.”

I’ve described that professor and his colleagues to my conflict resolution students over the years, asking them, “How does a mediator help best in this situation?” Invariably, the majority want to settle things down, help the faculty colleagues talk to each other in nicer ways, see if they can find some things to agree on, and de-escalate the hostility in the faculty department.

The mediator that does that will have missed both the point and the opportunity. The point is that good mediators don’t smooth in the name of resolution and settlement. The opportunity for these faculty colleagues is real dialogue, even if it’s messy. Smoothing and rushing to resolution thwart real dialogue.

It’s the difference between positive and negative peace. Mediators can inadvertently interfere with the former with too much zealousness for the latter. While studying for my doctorate many moons ago, Birgit Brock-Utne’s Feminist Perspectives on Peace and Peace Education rocked my world by differentiating negative peace, the cessation of overt hostilities, from positive peace, the state achieved when underlying conditions causing the hostilities are truly addressed.

Negative peace-making is the act of reducing nastiness, back-stabbing, violence. Positive peace-building is the restoration of relationship, the creation of family and organizational systems that address injustice and/or other underlying causes of the conflict

I was reminded of that college professor and Brock-Utne’s book when I read peace-builder Ashok Panikkar’s guest post on the the New York Peace Institute blog. Panikkar, Executive Director of the Indian organizational conflict resolution service Meta-Culture, takes mediators and other conflict resolvers to task for being too neutral in some of the wrong places and putting real dialogue in jeopardy, saying,

The price of silencing the voices that make us uncomfortable is that we kill the spirit of a people, one voice at a time, and finally lose whatever space we have left for honest expression. Why should this worry mediators and peace builders? Well, for one, without honest expression, there is no dialogue. Without honest dialogue, conflict transformation is not possible. Such consequences should be seriously disconcerting to those of us who love this work, and believe in its power to transform conflicts and societies.

Well said.

It’s a good post worth reading. And it is, to my mind, right thinking. It means peace-builders and conflict resolution professionals like myself need to have the courage to look conflict in the face and not be cowed by it. It means we need to have great mastery of our craft so that we can build positive peace, particularly for clients who need or want to be in continued relationship, without subjecting them to harm, a delicate balance sometimes.

What do you think? What kind of peace do you build?

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  1. says

    What a wonderful distinction you make here, Tammy. It can be a scary and difficult process to bring about constructive (and often messy) dialogue in the face of conflict, but really should be the goal. Thanks for reminding me of that.

    • says

      Robin, you’re right — constructive dialogue is often messy when people start from different places. The good news for folks scared by the prospect of that messiness (I call it the groan zone) is that there are folks like us who have the skills to help them so it doesn’t have to be any more difficult than necessary. It’s one of the reasons I love conflict resolution work — I’m comfy in the messiness of it and it makes my day to untangle that mess!

  2. David Balmer-Cribb says

    A good reminder that Conflict (must stop spelling it with a capital letter) is ok, its how we resolve it that is important.

    Thank you Tammy, its a hard ask not to rush for the fire extinguisher, but one I am going to focus on.

    • says

      David, thanks for the afternoon chuckle — loved your fire extinguisher remark. It IS hard not to rush for the extinguisher, you’re right, and kudos to you for working on resisting the urge until the extinguisher is truly needed. Appreciate you stopping in and commenting!

  3. says

    Wow. I’ve never heard this distinction before.

    Your post has stirred things inside me, and helped me question (in the good way) my own practice.

    Sincere thanks!

    • Tammy Lenski says

      Andrew, your words meant a lot to me — thank you for that.

      I recall sitting in class while in grad school and hearing that distinction for the first time. It was simply arresting. And I think the idea has really helped shape me and my work ever since.

  4. Joan Sampson says

    “Get comfortable being uncomfortable!” That’s an excerpt from a quote by a very wise person…yes, until the emotional issues have been explored (and mediators need to be okay in the “uncomfortable” space this opens up) to the point of acknowledgment, acceptance, apology, etc., no real transformational process can happen. Once the heart of the matter has been dealt with, then people can move on to real positive peace. A counseling doctorate student once told me after her father’s death when she was 10, she was able to sit with people in their pain. That’s what a mediator is fearless in–sitting with people in their pain…so they can champion the space to work through it with the other party. Thanks for this article!

  5. says

    Great post – we hear the phase “having your day in court” – individuals want to be heard and have thier pain communicated, it is vital that this is listened to. Trying to pretend that we should all forgive and forget does not come into play. All parties must be fully heard difficult as it maybe before resolution can even be discussed.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Tammy Lenski says

      I like your point about “having your day in court” being so much, for the plaintiff, about being heard and the impact on them understood. Good point and thanks for stopping in.

  6. Gerry Andrews says

    Tammy, the professor wasn’t Bernie Mayer by any chance? His book on ‘Staying with Conflict’ also urges mediators to look beyond ‘resolution’. But I love the distinction between negative and positive peace. Reminds me of an article I read where a priest describes forgiveness as being not so much “letting someone off” as “taking someone one”.
    Thanks for the insights!
    Regards, Gerry

    • Tammy Lenski says

      Gerry, no, it wasn’t Bernie. It was an ethics prof in the mid 80s, before Bernie was producing his terrific books.