Traditional individually-oriented psychology sees conflict as arising from individual problems, and therefore conflict is a function of individual pathology (bad behavior explains tension in a relationship). The thinking is linear. Something upsetting happens in a family, community or social group and we quickly look at how A (the problem) ⇒ B (conflict). We use blame thinking where we identify a perpetrator and a victim. We may also identify a rescuer who has inadvertently made the situation worse. We debate how ‘bad’ the other was and seek to change the guilty party(s). We may demand/expect apologies from the ‘perpetrator’ in order to make-right the relationship. The victim deserves sympathy and attention.

Systems theory, on the other hand, sees interpersonal conflict as far more complicated with many more variables at play. There is less focus on the “bad apple”, and more focus on multiple relationships (including relationship history) that led to this moment. After all, sometimes an apple goes bad merely because it was sitting there next to another “bad apple”. When conflict emerges, and continues in a family, community, or social group, anxiety is flowing through the system in a domino fashion governing the dance of the family, community, or nation. The free-flowing anxiety is of utmost importance. Some individuals may become more symptomatic (in body, mind or spirit), but the problem is in the whole system, not an individual. ‘Blame’ language tends to generate more dependency in the system for others to change while I am free to remain the same. The goal of systems thinking is not to coax others to change, but to identify ways I can strengthen myself so as to extricate myself from the anxiety that is shaping relationships systems; not to blame others for ‘irresponsibility’, but to move forward by accenting my own responsibility.

An example may be identified in Martin Luther King’s effort to support the civil rights movement. King had every reason to fear white racists, and ‘blame’ them for the horror of Jim Crow laws. But he also became aware of how many “good” white Christians were willing to ignore the evil of segregation. He also had to face a cadre of black brothers and sisters who did not want to get involved in the turbulent civil rights movement. He also found himself in tension with more militant black leaders (Black Panthers, Malcom X) who saw King as an Uncle Tom. He also experienced conflict with his closest friends on issues of Viet Nam, marching in the North, and changing the focus from racial integration to economic justice. In short, he could have easily gotten caught up in a cycle of blame. Such focus on blaming others, however, did not promise a better day for the greater whole.

Through it all, King worked hard to keep his focus on his own core values (principles) and did his level best to ignore the dynamics of how people ‘felt’ about him. Keeping his eyes on the prize meant focusing on how he might best apply his values in a world that was largely driven by emotional reactivity, which was behind segregation and all the above problems. King’s values came from his faith and the highest achievements he saw in his nation’s history (the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.) To say the least, it was hard work to focus on his best thinking and action when there was so much temptation to react to the hatred or apathy of others (having bricks thrown at him or simply being ignored). Said another way, King did his best to focus on the strength he found within as opposed to the weakness he saw in the reactivity of others. Jesus himself pointed out the weakness of focusing on the speck in the other’s eye as opposed to the two-by-four in our own eye.

An illustration of systems theory can also be seen in the debate between Louis Pasteur and his friend, Claude Bernard. Pasteur became famous for discovering “germ theory.” Germ theory identified that it was microorganisms (germs) invading our bodies that caused disease. (No one was aware at this time how important it is for all of us to retain a healthy microbiome) If “germs” are the problem, then vaccines (killing germs) is the answer. Go after the ‘invading germs’ and we will be well. Germ theory created a new pharmacological industry that ‘saved’ some lives, and made many others quite rich. Germ theory was based on the dominant view that A ⇒ B in medicine. Figure out a way to manipulate ‘A’, and gain the outcome of ‘B’. However, Pasteur could not explain why it was that many people are exposed to certain microorganisms but only a few get sick; even fewer will die. Nevertheless, this medical approach to disease (whether we focus on “germs” or “irregular cells” (such as cancer) dominated 20th century medicine.

Pasteur’s friend, Claude Bernard, put forth a different explanation of disease known as terrain theory. Bernard did not argue with the fact that some microorganisms can be toxic, but they do not “cause” disease. Terrain theory explains why some people get sick while others, when exposed to the same pathogens, are fine. What is critical in good health is the terrain; that is, the overall health of the entire body and mind. A given virus or irregular cell can be fatal in one person while having no negative impact in another. What is the difference? The terrain. Bernard taughtthat the ‘terrain’ of the human body was more important than pathogens. Nevertheless, it was Pasteur who still ‘won’ the public battle, and modern medicine has focused on germ theory for over a century. Interestingly, however, it is reported that on his deathbed Pasteur admitted, “Bernard was right: the pathogen is nothing, the terrain is everything.”

In agriculture, there is the given danger of soil erosion (diseased soil), the emergence of new pests (pathogens), and a lack of food to feed the world. There has been a great deal of focus on the “A” that will bring about the positive outcome of “B”. Find the new ‘seed’, the better ‘fertilizer’, the more powerful ‘pesticide’ (or plastic). Conversely, permaculture focuses not on the seed or chemical additive, but on the soil. The hope is not in the seed, fertilizer, or pesticide, but the comprehensive health of the soil.

When painful conflict is aroused in a relationship system, there emerges this reductionistic impulse to find the ‘one’ pathogen (germ) that has infected the system. This is supposed to explain everything. In the early 50’s (after a second World War brought the number of deaths to 80 million) Joseph McCarthy put forth his explanation for the absence of peace in America: “a silent conspiracy of communists ruining the nation.” Great harm was done by McCarthy in his witch hunt for American communists, but eventually the terrain responded well by denouncing McCarthy and ending his five minutes of infamy. Arguably, what is so polarizing in American Politics today is not a few “crazies” (like Margorie Taylor Green), but the terrain that is unwilling to enforce civil behavior.

When conflict becomes a constant (in the family, community, or social group), it is not because a perpetrator is so bad, a victim is so victimized, or a rescuer is so misguided, but because the terrain is weak. The inherent strength of the system, functioning like an immune system, does not emerge putting an end to the cycle of blame and shame. The relationship focus is not on enduring principles, but on personalities (How bad this person is, or how that person needs to change). The focus is not on the strength of enduring convictions, but the professed weakness of individual behavior.

A less mature system is always governed, to a large degree, by emotional reactivity in the system. It’s a battle between agitated people. A more mature system, on the other hand, is governed by well-thought-out life-convictions as some stand firm with positive leadership. In healthy systems, the effort is not on changing the other, but on promoting the best thinking and acting on core values. Admittedly, it is hard to sustain principled thinking. All too often the slip into name calling gets everyone into a more reactive place where the effort is not to be principled, but to ‘call out’ others (perhaps force an apology.) Linear thinking focuses on quick cause and effect thinking. Terrain (systems) thinking, on the other hand, examines all the variables (including the part I am playing) and identifies a “higher road” that is the way forward.

Systems thinking invites leaders who will seek, find, and activate stronger ways to respond to conflict. Conflict is never going away, but how we respond to conflict can tone down levels of reactivity in the system by choosing to follow principled thinking. The more we try to change others, the more they are likely to stay the same. The more we are open to changing ourselves, especially in the ways we respond to conflict with principled thinking and action, the more we will be strengthening the terrain.

Brief notes on Changing Self

1. An important caveat of systems work is that changing others is not the focus. Rather, the more we work to enrich the terrain by accenting and affirming our strengths, the more likely we will experience positive change unfolding in a system that is not as inflamed by emotional reactivity. In fact, this is how evolution happens. A small number of organisms find a way to adapt positively to the environment, and the species as a whole benefits.

2. In a general sense there are two forms of stress; one can be life-giving while the other is often life-impairing. The first is called acute stress and under normal circumstances is challenging, but can lead to growth. Learning to play the piano, completing an education, and learning vocational skills can be difficult, but they are doable and often lead to greater personal strength. Chronic stress, on the other hand, has to do with those interpersonal relationships in which stress takes on a life of its own, and is not being resolved. The focus is not on developing personal strength, but assigning blame. The human body and mind is simply not made for chronic stress.
Chronic stress may become active in an individual, but is a function of the system. What is meant by this is that while it is unfortunate when an individual becomes chronically reactive, it is reactivity in the entire system that is so debilitating. If the terrain is relatively healthy (because it is being driven by largely principled thinking), then the emergence of reactivity in individuals will be well managed. On the other hand, if the terrain is itself in a state of emotional reactivity, then troubled persons are less likely to recover. So again, the emotional balance of the terrain is key.

3. When the terrain is in an elevated state of chronic stress, there is a common theme of “opposing sides” working to change the “other side”. More often than not, the perspective is taken that the “other” is either ‘wrong’ in its thinking, or ‘immoral’ in its actions. A certain stalemate is established such that progress is not possible. A world of ultimatums emerges. Since the entire focus is on the other, the entire system stagnates.

4. Since some measure of conflict is inevitable in all relationships, a primary focus may be made on how we respond to conflict. Will we perceive this conflict as a personal threat and become defensive (freeze, fight, or flee), or will we find a way to proactively assert one’s own values without reacting to the emotional tension. Can we respond to others with well-thought-out principles?

5. Emotional reactivity is about much more than the drama of yelling or crying. Reactivity can be evident in our becoming very quiet, or in an effort to change the subject. Reactivity may unfold by talking to a third person about our difficulty with another instead of addressing the ‘threat’ head on. Reactivity may become present in automatic personality traits: trying to be perfect, trying to control the situation, trying to please others, becoming more of an individualist, and a host of other traits. The point here is that we all learn (very early in life) some automatic ways to respond to stress. This unconscious, reflexive response is a product of emotional learning, not careful reflection.

6. More often than not we are very sensitive to the automatic reactions of others, but do not see our own reactivity. When we are a bit more passionate in our own response, we will often defend our position believing it to be ‘right’ – not seeing our own intense reactivity. All the more reason to carefully think through a disagreement, and review the exchange after the fact. Most golfers grip the golf club too tightly, which injects tension into the entire swing. They just aren’t aware of their tight ‘grip’.

7. How can we know when we (or others) are beginning to get dominated by emotional stimuli as opposed to principled thinking? Primary emotional responses have a common thread; emotional behavior (including speech) intends to effect a more immediate reaction in others. A more principled approach, on the other hand, is not concerned about bringing a quick response in others. The focus is on the clarity of my statement (and action); not any kind of immediate change in others.
Further, when we are engaged in greater emotional intensity we often walk away from the conversation with some measure of frustration. Why so? Because we wanted (or needed) some more immediate response from the ‘other’, but did not get it. This freezes us in a more dependent position. Conversely, when we are making a more reason-based assertion, we will often leave the conversation with a satisfied feeling. Why so? Because our goal was not to get some change in others, but to clearly state our point of view.

8. Conflict management is popularly measured by some “resolution” in terms of people coming to some important agreement (often a compromise). If there is no agreement, then it is asserted that the ‘conflict’ is unchanged. Systems thinking does not seek to bring about a quick – or even quicker – consensus, but seeks a new sense of balance within the system such that at least one key player is just as involved as everyone else, but has been able to extricate him, her, or their self from the emotional chain reaction. The terrain becomes healthier because at least one person (or small group) remains emotionally connected to the system, but is no longer engaged in the emotional ‘domino’ reactivity that ‘got us here’. When one person (or one segment) of the system sustains a less reactive position, the system will slowly calm down.

9. Arguably, the Civil Rights Movement was largely about one man (or small group) responding to the racism of Jim Crow in a very different way. To be sure, there was great emotion in these civil rights workers, but their behavior was driven by well-thought-out principles. The point can be made that it took a decade before the nation, as a whole, began to respond well to these efforts. It may also be asserted that the assassination of King disrupted the movement. Was it all worth it? Yes, when a system is able to achieve some higher level of functioning, the gain is never lost. The positive behavior becomes woven into the DNA of the species.

10. Some neurologists suggest that we need to repeat a behavior at least 32 times before it becomes ingrained into our psyche. This is understood at an unconscious level in all of us. Therefore, it is a foregone conclusion that if we begin to reinvent ourselves, it is going to be a slow process. In fact, there is a 100% chance that some important person in the system will work to undermine our best efforts. Genuine change is always resisted. In fact, Ed Friedman used to say that real change doesn’t happen unless everyone (at first) refuses to accept the change. In this sense, it is again, not intellect that brings change, but a willingness to stick-to-it over a protracted period.

11. There are some seasons in life when conflict is more resistant to positive change. Stated simply, the terrain is especially unhealthy. What makes it unhealthy is not its level of intellect, or its ability to make moral choices, but the fact that all players, for all practical reasons, have moved into this reactive mode. Strength is non-existent since all players are working to quash the weakness of others. Arguably, at this point, change is not possible until the pain of present relations is greater than the pain of making systemic change. America may be in the midst of such a regressive era.

Summary: In our individually-oriented society we often reduce conflict to ‘bad actions’ conducted by individuals, and then we work to change their behavior. We do not see how vulnerable we all are, in our daily mindset, and are caught in an us vs them mindset. We see others acting out us vs. them, but we do not see the reactivity in ourselves. Yes, it is true. Some people act in horrific ways. Lynchings conducted by the KKK were tragic and unthinkable. And yet, as King and others pointed out, it was the silence of a greater number of white Christians that truly enabled this enduring conflict. Reactivity in the African American population also contributed to a larger social stalemate. Yet history also records gifted individuals who were able to extricate themselves from the near universal in-fighting, and initiate a new way of being that was carefully thought out and implemented as a foundation of daily life. Clear thinking is a great gift, but ultimately it is only action that redeems an individual or a system. As St. Francis has been quoted to say, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”.