But some conflicts – approximately one out of twenty of the more serious ones we face – are different. Like some malignant forms of cancer, they are pathologies that grow and spread and are unresponsive to most known forms of treatment. They can wreak havoc on the lives of those involved,and instill a sense of dread and despair. It is to these conflicts that we have turned our attention for over a decade, and discovered that they require us to think different.
Our new understanding of these problems is both complex and simple. It is complex because it is mindful of the facts that: 1) all such conflicts are unique, 2) they usually involve a whole host of distinct sub-problems that are interacting and influencing each other in weird ways, and that 3) they are always changing and therefore hard to nail-down, diagnose and resolve effectively. However, our view of the 5% is also simple because it suggests that no matter what the issues are or how they got started or who is involved, at some point they are really about how their dynamics – that they become very tightly-coupled, closed systems that spread, are self-perpetuating, and that become impervious to outside influence.
This book offers a few basic principles and practices that can help us understand these conflicts differently, more accurately, and ultimately make a difference. We have found that the destructive conflict dynamics that we have seen operating in Kashmir, Mozambique, Cyprus, and Israel-Palestine are similar to those functioning in protracted disputes within families, businesses, and communities around the globe. But more importantly,even in the most hopeless and violent of these settings like in Mozambique and South Africa in the 1980s, we have also found that more positive latent patterns, peace traps, quietly await their turn to capture the dynamics of these systems. This is the moral of our story. Intractable conflicts can erupt anywhere, and so can peace.