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Social & Political Conflict – Understanding the Sources

This module was created by Ken Cloke and Duncan Autrey. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to:

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Embrace helpful attitudes and  beliefs about conflict
  • Create basic frameworks for understanding conflict
  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Build awareness of physical and emotional responses to conflict
  • Cultivate empathy and compassion

Defining Politics and Understanding Political and Social Conflict

Politics is essentially a system for social solving problems, making decisions and resolving conflicts within a given society or community. The reason that politics-as-problem-solving seems so distant from our experience is due to a cultural tendency to focus on solutions that are based on who holds power (power-based) or who is "right" in the eyes of the law (rights-based). The standard political approach, which creates winners and losers, tends to lead to ever deeper polarization. The possibility of "losing" when profoundly important issues are at stake is intolerable, which means that the need to "win" becomes ever more important. These approaches create aggression and division.

There is a way out of this cycle, however, and it is rooted in finding systems of political communication that embrace nuance and address underlying needs and interests. These interest-based systems would take an omnipartial (partial toward everyone), win-win approach to decision making. Interest-based approaches would be led by an attitude of curiosity, creativity, empathy, unity, and collaboration while also embracing differences and diverse perspectives.

Politics as a Social Decision Making Process

Here are some interest-based ways of defining politics. These ways of understanding of politics discourage domination and point to the necessary and potentially positive role of politics:

  1. Politics is a social problem-solving process. As a result, a diversity of views about the nature of the problem and multiple, alternative ways of solving it will predictably result in better, more sustainable solutions.
  2. Politics is a large group decision-making process. As a result, the greater the consensus, the stronger the democracy, the more apt people are to agree with a decision and the more likely it is to be effective.
  3. Politics is a conflict resolution process.  As a result, the amount of chronic, on-going, systemic conflict can be dramatically reduced by assuming that there is more than one correct answer, by adopting a complex, egalitarian, interest-based approach to conflict resolution, and by allowing no one to lose just so that others can win.

The Components of Political and Social Conflicts

Why do potentially productive political disagreements about important social issues often turn into unproductive conflicts?

There are three basic sub-components and necessary characteristics of any political or social conflict. These can be used to create conflicts, OR they can show us how to dismantle them.

  1. Diversity: In the first place, there must be two or more distinct individuals or groups of people, each with diverse perspectives, beliefs, ideas, opinions, needs, values and interests.  Diversity of perspectives and experiences is the strength of any society or democratic political system, and it is an essential ingredient to disagreement and conflict.
  2. Inequality: In the second place, there must be an inequality in power between these individuals or groups, reflecting their ability to implement their diverse beliefs, ideas, opinions, values, etc.  Politics is essentially about distributing the power to affect change in a society, and it is the element of inequality in a society that makes a conflict be political.
  3. Adversarial, win/lose process: In the third place, there must be an adversarial, win/lose process for decision-making or problem solving that pits diverse individuals and groups against each other, allowing someone to "win" and someone to "lose." Adversarial processes that try to create fixed outcomes based on power and rights will lead to polarization and chronic conflict.

Some seek to reduce the level of political/social conflict by decreasing diversity and boosting respect for accepted or conventional ideas and buttressing established authority.
Some seek to reduce the level of political/social conflict by increasing equality, championing the freedom to dissent, articulate, argue for and implement diverse perspectives.
Few focus on changing the adversarial win/lose nature of the process. Many can't imagine or don't know that effective processes exist where diversity and inequality do not regularly result in social division and political polarization.

The belief that politics and social issues must be adversarial is overly simplistic. It focuses only in a win/lose process does not adequately take into account the ways that inclusive, consensus building, collaborative and interest-based processes are able to “expand the pie” and generate new options by listening, assessing criteria, brainstorming creative alternatives, building consensus, soothing injured feelings, resolving underlying disputes and maximizing positive outcomes.

Elements of Social & Political Decision-Making

There are three distinct elements that form the basis of effective political analyses, social problem-solving, conflict resolution and decision-making.

To have effective social and political decision-making, one must cultivate these three elements.

  1. Content: The substance or content of the problem must be successfully identified, discussed, addressed, and resolved.
  2. Relationship: Everyone who is impacted by a problem must be involved, and the relationship between the people who trying to solve or make decisions about it, must be respectful, constructive, trusting, and collaborative.
  3. Process: The process of solving problems and making decisions must be inclusive, transparent, effective, and fair.

Analyzing Political and Social Conflict: Are the Elements in Balance?

  • Is the content of the problem successfully identified and addressed and the relationship constructive, but the process is ineffective and unfair?
  • Is the content clear and addressed and the process effective, but the relationship is competitive, adversarial and untrusting?
  • Or is the relationship strong and the process effective, but it there is a lack of clarity or agreement about the content of the discussion?

In any case where there is an imbalance between the elements of effective decision-making, chronic conflicts will arise that can prevent even the best solutions from being implemented.

While discussing political and social issues it is most common to focus on content. Many try to convince others their perspective by sharing more evidence, facts, data and information. By itself this strategy rarely is successful.

Generally, little attention is devoted to improving either the processes or the relationships in a political decision making process.

When in doubt, focus on improving process and relationships. "First connection, then content."

While these three elements are intricately interconnected, it is important to periodically set aside disagreements over content in order to focus attention exclusively on improving processes and relationships. Doing so makes it possible to achieve content goals far more effectively in the long run by learning to act fairly, repair trust, and work constructively, even when there are disagreements over content.

This is especially important in political and social conflicts, where nearly everyone is focused on the content of the debate, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice processes and relationships entirely. By allowing deeply desired ends to justify the use of undesirable means, without realizing that by using hostile, adversarial means we routinely produce hostile, adversarial ends. It is precisely our willingness to achieve results at the expense of fairness in processes and trust in relationships that fuels most political conflicts.

See below for strategies for balancing the elements of content, relationship and process.

Go to the Foundations for Building Conflict Literacy module of this Conflict Literacy Framework to learn tools for building relationships and creating a deeper understanding of content.

To learn effective processes for decision-making in diverse groups go to these modules of the Conflict Literacy Framework:

Political Polarization: Product and Cause of Chronic Conflict

The members of a society, or political constituents, are interdependent and mutually connected. Essentially everyone wins or everyone loses.

When political disagreements are poorly managed through adversarial processes, they can lead to political polarization.The division of society into opposing sides can be a profound source of chronic conflict. Polarization itself can be a self-generating cause of conflict, leading to deeper division and distortion of relationships.

Why Polarization Is Attractive

A primary reason for polarization in politics is that division seems like the most simple solution. The complexity of social problem solving and political decision-making gives rise to a desire for simplistic, adversarial solutions.

"Our minds have a tendency to oversimplify in order to navigate the complexity of life, to find factors or ways of knowing that are more relevant or productive than others. Furthermore, having two options gives us things to not only be clearly FOR but also to be clearly AGAINST, supporting the kind of conflict-centered life dramas that engage our attention – us against them, my way or the highway, pro-and-con.  Two are better than one, and simpler than three, and so much more comprehensible than eighty-seven – or infinite – interconnections and possibilities!"
-Tom Atlee, Co-Intelligence Institute and creator of the Wise Democracy Pattern Language. "Polarization, Conversation, and Collective Intelligence."

Factors that Cause of Polarization

While polarization is a natural dichotomizing impulse, there are also a number of additional factors is U.S. political culture that contribute to polarization:

  • The majoritarian system itself.
  • The culture and techniques of debate.
  • The use of expert public manipulation.
  • The feedback dynamics of schismogenesis (decreasing the exposure of each side to the arguments and people on the other side.)
  • The divisive impact of injustice, inequity, and insecurity
  • Scarcity
  • Exaggeration (choosing emotional accuracy over factual accuracy)

Read about these factors in more detail here: "Polarization, Conversation, and Collective Intelligence."

Polarization Distorts Our Perceptions

Polarization and division in politics can lead to a deeply distorted understanding of each other's political views (Perception Gap.)

We are not as politically divided as we seem to believe that we are. Research shows that there is “remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states." ( “A Not So Divided America”, 2014)
Nonetheless, people with "opposing" political views perceive each other to be far more extreme than they actually are. Those who are more politically involved and who consume more media tend to have increasingly distorted perceptions of those with "opposing" political views.
This is a serious problem because "the larger a person’s Perception Gap, the more negative their views are of the other side. People with large Perception Gaps are more likely to describe their opponents as ‘hateful,’ ‘ignorant,’ and ‘bigoted.’" (More In Common)

(Read more about the Perception Gap by More In Commonat perceptiongap.us.)

Polarization within organizations

This tendency for polarization and division isn't just a problem that affects the left-right political macro scale. The tendency to organize political discussions into right/wrong or us/them can also be found within political and social organizations, in interpersonal relationships, and within the individual self. Like all political conversations, these questions strike a deep emotional chord, because they touch on existential needs and deeply held values. If there is a perception that there are only win/lose solutions available than these issues can lead to powerful conflict and division.

Examples of polarizing questions that commonly affect political and social organizations include:

  • Should we do things the old way or a new way
  • Should our leadership be centralized or decentralized?
  • Are the needs of the individual or the group more important?
  • Should we focus on diversity or equality?
  • Should we prepare or should we act?
  • Should we participate in the system or resist it
  • Should we confront our "enemies" or negotiate with them?
  • What's more important, forgiveness or justice?

Note: Each of the above appear to be a choice, but they are actually interdependent polarities, which give each other meaning. They cannot be resolved and can only managed. Attempts to resolve theses polarities by choosing one or the other is a common source of divisive and chronic conflict in an organization.

See below for strategies for managing polarities.


Politics is a system for managing social decision making in a diverse group. In that sense politics is a conflict management system. The experience of conflict in politics as painful is due to the fact that the content of political conflict is about the most fundamentally important human needs and values. It is currently ineffective because rather than using decision-making systems based on needs and interests, it uses systems based on power and rights. The use of systems that create win/lose outcomes leads to polarization, chronic conflict, and undermined relationships. Interest-based conflict resolution processes offer opportunities to deepen trust and relationships and to address the underlying interests of the people involved.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to Understand the Sources of Political and Social Conflict

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • Scope:
    • What is the scope of the issue?
    • How many people are affected? Who are the stakeholders?
    • How long has it been/will it be important? How far into the past and future does the conversation reach?
    • Does the decision-making process reflect the desired outcome?
  • Content
    • What is the fundamental questions that need to be addressed in a given situation?
    • Is your focus on a specific solution, or are you focused on resolving a situation and open to creative solutions that you haven't thought of yet?
    • Are you more focused on what you want to have happen (strategy) or on how you want to decide what happens (process)
  • Relationships
    • Is everyone who is involved in the problem also involved in the decision-making process?
    • If not, who is missing from the conversation and why?
    • If so, what is the quality of the relationships
    • What voices are being marginalized? How can the process be more inclusive?
  • Process:
    • What process are you using? Is there a clear path to collaborative decision making?
    • Does your approach to addressing a conflict lead to winners and losers?
    • Are the participants empowered to make decisions about topics they care about?


Shifting from Power & Rights to Interests

Humans have resolved disputes in three fundamentally divergent ways: power, rights, and interests.

The Problem of Power and Rights Based Approaches

Power contests are ones where the most powerful are the victors. Power-based approaches to conflict rely on war, violence, force, or duress. These will inevitably produce winners and losers, destroy important relationships, and generate "collateral damage.” Power encourages corruption in those who use it, and blind obedience, resistance, and revolt in those it is used against. Power-based solutions routinely lead to future disputes and make it difficult to sustainably change, adapt, or evolve.

Rights-based processes resolve conflicts by deciding who is most "right" according to laws or established principles. When based on rights conflicts are resolved using legislation, litigation, adversarial forms of negotiation, bureaucratic coercion, rules and regulations, contractual agreements, and policies and procedures. Rights are limitations on the exercise of power, yet depend on power for their enforcement. Rights are correctly perceived by those in power as reducing their exclusive and otherwise unlimited control and authority. Rights-based processes also generate winners and losers, undermine relationships, and result in collateral damage, but less so than power-based solutions. Since rights rely on legally interpreted and enforced rules, change is discouraged, and nothing significant or systemic is transformed or transcended without the approval of people in positions of power or authority.

Because both power- and rights-based approaches require winners and losers, they distribute social status, economic wealth and political power hierarchically, competitively and disproportionately. Usually the most goes to the smallest number at the top, and the least goes to the greatest number at the bottom.

While power-based processes rest on hierarchy, operate by command and result in obedience, rights-based processes rest on bureaucracy, operate by control and result in compliance. Power-based approaches encourage attitudes of domination, resulting in personal arrogance, elitism and contempt. Rights-based approaches encourage attitudes of social alienation, resulting in cynicism, apathy and uncaring. Neither seeks to prevent or transcend chronic conflicts or evolve by dismantling them at their systemic source.

Chronic social, economic and political conflicts commonly flow from the win/lose, competitive, hierarchical allocation of status, wealth and power.

Alternatively, conflicts can be resolved using an interest-based approach…

Interest-Based Approaches

The way to see beyond these divisions is interest-based language, creativity, and an attitude of empathy and collaboration, which are fundamental elements in dialogue and mediation.  Interests reflect not merely what people want, but why they want it. Consequently, this approach encourages informal problem-solving, facilitation, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, consensus building and mediation. Moreover, interest-based processes are “win/win” games that are better able to prevent, resolve, transform, and transcend chronic conflicts by addressing them at their systemic source, and to support collaborative, democratic relationships that encourage continuous adaptation, evolution, and personal and systemic change.

All the tools in this Conflict Literacy Framework use an interest-based approach to resolving conflict.

Balancing the Elements of Effective Decision Making (Content, Relationship and Process)

To have effective discussion and decision making about social and political issues there must be a shared understanding of the content being discussed, strong relationships and a clear and effective process that reflects the desired outcome.


Conflict is usually not about what it's about.

The presenting problems of social and political conflict are usually just symptoms of something deeper, especially when emotions are involved. To understand how to solve a problem, you need to figure out what's at the heart of it. Active listening is a great way to identify the feelings, needs and values that are under the surface. Why is the issue so important to the people involved?

The content of political conflict is often about a clash of strategies. Strategies are efforts to meet our basic human needs, and strategies are inspired by values. Threats to these values, and the needs and interests they reflect, provoke an inherently emotional experience, and this emotional experience is the fuel behind political and social conflicts.

When we are in impassioned conflict it means that we are discussing something that touches deep chords, and have discovered a topic that is profoundly important to everyone involved. The fact that conflict connects straight to what is most important makes it especially divisive and volatile. This same fact, however, also means that social and political conflict offers us an opportunity to come closer together, rediscover our common humanity, and jointly define our fate.


Whoever is involved in a problem, must be involved in the solution.

Holistic and inclusive participation is essential, because more perspectives allow a more accurate assessment of the problem and a more comprehensive solution. What's more, if people aren't included in the process of solving a problem, they will still be involved later, but they will usually involve themselves on their own terms (often as resistance or outright protest). A solution cannot be imposed on another.

If the relationship is not respectful, constructive, trusting, and collaborative, then it is important to focus on strengthening the existing relationships before anything else. This can begin with the simple acknowledgement of interdependence and shared humanity. Active listening can be a powerful tool for developing relationships. Once someone can develop a sense of safety, then it is important to use strong interest-based dialogue processes, and develop the relationship by making small incremental and experimental steps toward a shared goal.

Click here for more information about how to use "Stretch Collaboration" when working together in difficult relationships.


The process for resolving a conflict and the solution are the same thing.

The values that are brought to the process for addressing any issue will be infused into the outcome, because the choice to work on a problem is the beginning of the creation of the new situation. The outcome of any process won't actually the end either; it is a choice to enter into a new process, a new way of being in relationship.

Remember: If you are in an ongoing relationship, there won't ever be a final outcome.

As long as you're in an ongoing relationship, there will always be new problems to address, including implementation of the new solution. Things have a way of not going according to plan. This means that the most important agreements are NOT just about what will happen, but how it will happen.

Use processes that focus on addressing the underlying feelings and needs and are inclusive. If you infuse these values into the process, then you'll be ready to address whatever happens.

Polarity Management

Some polarities are simply choices that can be settled once and for all. But when a polarizing "choice" becomes a source of chronic conflict, it usually means that people are trying to choose between two sides of an interdependent polarity.

What Is an Interdependent Polarity?

Interdependent polarities are two seemingly opposing values that can complement each other when applied in a balanced way. The polarities need each other and neither is sufficient alone. Each side is accurate but incomplete or meaningless without the other.
Interdependent polarities are not an either/or choice. Choosing one over the other is generally destructive, while choosing both can be generative. Consequently, interdependent polarities must be managed to maintain balance. The following process, developed by Barry Johnson (Polarity Partnerships) developed the following process.

Mapping the Polarity

  1. Define what the core debate or question is using neutral language. Try to find a way of describing the problem in a way that everyone can agree.
    • What is the question that all participants believe would be useful to answer?
  2. Find neutral terms to describe the two positions, approaches or concepts that people can agree on. Use neutral language. Make sure that it's a true polarity and not just a choice to be made.
    • Do the poles need each other over time and give each other meaning?
    • Is the tension inherently unsolvable (ie: choosing one will eventually lead to people to advocate for the other)?
    • Is it an ongoing conflict rather than a decision that can be made once and for all?
  3. List the strengths of each approach.
    • What are the positive outcomes that can come from using each approach?
    • What are the reasons that each of the approaches are appealing?
  4. List the weaknesses of each approach.
    • What are the risks and dangers of taking either approach to the extreme?
    • What are the negative outcomes that might result from each approach?
    • What reasons do each of the approaches cause concern?

Create a Polarity Map

A polarity map is the first step for understanding the nature of an interdependent polarity. It can be powerful to develop the map collectively, with all the people involved in the conflict.

Position 1 Position 2
  • What are the best features of this approach?
  • What are the positive outcomes from using this approach?
  • What are the best features of this approach?
  • What are the positive outcomes from using this approach?
  • What are the risks and dangers of taking this approach to the extreme?
  • What are the negative outcomes that might come from this approach?
  • What are the risks and dangers of taking this approach to the extreme?
  • What are the negative outcomes that might come from this approach?


  • As the polarity map is developed it may become clear that the two poles need a different definition or that they are addressing a different core question.
  • Sometimes a feature will be part of both polarities or a single feature may be seen as both a positive and negative feature.
  • The polarity map is best developed as a brainstorming-style session (.ie., avoid debating whether the points are true, and instead try to understand them as perceptions and possibilities).

Managing the Polarity

Once the polarity map is developed, the group can take it in and consider the following dynamics of interdependent polarities:

  • The positive qualities of one polarity tends to offer solutions to the problems arising from the negative features of the other polarity.
  • Choosing either pole at the exclusion of the other can become degenerative. The negative features tend to arise when either pole is taken to an extreme.
  • A system where the positive aspects of both poles dynamically work together would be constructive and generative.

Once the group feels like it would benefit from prioritizing the positive aspects of each pole and working together to avoid their negative features, the group can consider the following questions:

  • What are the early warning signs that each polarity is beginning to slip into the negative features? What will it look like when the system is out of balance in one direction or the other?
  • What are some concrete action steps that can be taken to bring the system back into balance by uplifting the positive of the opposite polarity.
  • Who will take responsibility to raise the alarm if the system becomes out of balance or a  pole is being taken to the extreme? How should they do this? Who will they talk to?
  • How will the group respond when the concern is raised?
  • Where is the system currently on the map?

Here is an example of a developed polarity map: