Can We Harness Conflict?

Notice that the question in the title is not can we ‘end’ conflict, or even ‘manage’ or ‘contain’ it. These are old and usually unproductive approaches. The more useful question about conflict today is: Can we harness it?

After studying and working directly with conflict around the world for the last quarter century, and now witnessing my home country of America bitterly divided, this question seems both important and urgent to me. In fact, I would argue that the human future depends on how we answer it.

When I was young and inexperienced in the realm of social and political conflict, I had clear and (I now can admit) headstrong opinions. That simplistic certainty was comforting for me but not useful for the world. Now that I am a gray-haired ‘conflict veteran,’ I believe that my simplistic opinions were, in fact, part of the problem. The evidence shows that most of the so-called answers about ‘resolving’ conflict are at best incomplete and at worst dangerously misleading.

The truth is that on every level of my life where I have experienced conflict, it has not been something that lends itself to being ‘managed’ or ‘contained.’

1. Family. The two people who brought me into this world, my mother and father, divorced. For many years thereafter, they almost never spoke. Having studied clinical psychology and family therapy, as well as coached many couples, I observe that conflict in families is the rule, not the exception.

2. Community. There is no automatic or guaranteed ‘unity’ in ‘community.’ On the contrary, in every place where I have lived or worked, there has been local conflict. Some groups are ‘in;’ others are ‘out’ to varying degrees. And conflict between these groups is virtually universal.

3. Work. Every organization I have worked for encouraged aligning around a common purpose (profit, cause, mission, etc.). But, in every single case, there was internal conflict. Our pursuit of the organization’s goals was often less effective than it might have been if we had more creatively dealt with that conflict.

4. Nation. Both in my home country and in every country where I have consulted (Kenya, Nepal, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine, China, to name a few), conflict has been significant, often severe. Even though each nation wants to be strong and prosperous, it is divided and in conflict about how to act in its own interest.

5. World. As I have experienced the world, both directly and through the media, I have been struck by the ubiquity of conflict. From the poorest, least ‘developed’ nations to the wealthiest, most ‘advanced’ countries, the common denominator has been conflict. Although in much of the world violence has declined, conflict has not.


Spanning twenty years, I did my best to address the riddle of conflict in an unfolding series of books (see sidebar on next page). While my works were well received and reflected a generation of progress in the ‘conflict resolution’ field, they still left deeper questions unanswered.

Beneath the question “Can we harness conflict?” I believe we find three underlying inquiries:

1. What is it about human consciousness that prevents us from harnessing conflict into collaboration?

2. How can we shift that aspect of consciousness so that it enables collaborative problem-solving?

3. What determines whose consciousness will shape the future?

Please join me in exploring each of these questions in turn.

What Prevents Us From Harnessing Conflict into Collaboration?

Human consciousness is designed for survival. Consequently, we fear scarcity (material), exclusion (social), and humiliation (mental). These feelings form our identities and make us see the world through the lens of separateness. This creates barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

This fundamental aspect of human consciousness underlies all the usual ‘causes’ of conflict. To oversimplify:

• In Kenya, I was assigned by the United Nations Development Program to promote ‘collaborative leadership’ between political parties. The key source of conflict there appeared to be the legacy of post-colonial land distribution and tribalism.

• In Korea, where neither tribes nor colonialism were pivotal, the conflict between north and south was based on geopolitics.

• In Japan, a highly homogeneous society, the citizens were divided by family lineage and competing sects of the same religion.

• In China, this vast nation deals with conflict political ideology as well as ethnic diversity.

• In Saudi Arabia, the barely contained conflict seemed to be about religion.

• In Israel/Palestine, the conflict was between two communities that have been victimized over issues of land, culture, and religion.

• In Argentina, with so much power centralized in Buenos Aires, the conflict has strong overtones of economics.

• In many other nations, one might point a finger at unfair land distribution or abject poverty or inequality.

But the very diversity of ‘causes’ underscores the fact that the deeper source of conflict is none of the above. None of these challenges are inherently or inevitably insoluble. They become insoluble because of the consciousness we bring to the situation.

Instead of differences making us curious, they make us afraid. Instead of transforming challenges into opportunities, we turn them into problems. Instead of opening our hearts, we close them. Love gives way to fear, and fear breeds separateness, dehumanization of the other, and, in the most extreme cases, violence.

This is the human predicament. We move through this plane of existence in separate bodies determined to survive. To give our lives meaning and stability, we attempt to protect and care for ourselves and our loved ones by forming points of view, or worldviews. But even as we do so, we are imprisoning ourselves in identities that cut us off from each other, and ultimately, from the larger planetary, cosmic Truth of which we are all a vital part.

mark-gerzon-booksLeading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities takes the approach of studying the great leaders who have been most effective and then identifies the skills that they embodied.

Global Citizens, first published in London, addresses the question from a wider, cross-cultural perspective that transcends the America-centric quality of my first two books and truly speaks to, and with, humanity.

A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America’s Soul is based on the premise that if we compassionately analyze and better understand the competing views of reality, we could develop a ‘new patriotism’ that is more inclusive and respectful of differences.

The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide shares specific strategies for building collaboration at a time of intensifying social and political fragmentation.

How Do We Enable Collaborative Problem-Solving?

After spending a long day wrestling with Kenya’s tribe-dominated political party leaders, I shared my frustration with a South African colleague. I wondered out loud how long it would take to reduce the impact of tribalism (or ‘negative ethnicity’ as it is sometimes called here) from Kenya.

“I have seen with my own eyes that we can eradicate racism in one generation,” my South African colleague responded. “Perhaps the Kenyans can do the same with tribalism.”

A young Kenyan with whom I spoke later that day shared a similar story. When I raised the issue of shifting attitudes about tribalism with him, his response was immediate and optimistic.

“The best way to fight it is intermarriage,” he said. “I am Luo. My wife is Kikuyu. Our children are mixed. We are part of the change.”

“How did your families feel when you got together?” I asked him.

He laughed. “They were not happy at first,” he said. “The older generation stayed within the borders of tribe. But our generation does not. Why should we?”

These two anecdotes indicate that a major shift can unfold in one generation. Similar shifts have occurred in almost every culture in the world. They occur when the dissonance between the stated ideals of a culture (for example: “All men are created equal.”) clash with living reality. As the classic protest chant puts it so succinctly: “No justice, no peace.”

Both colleagues’ stories illustrate that shifts in individual consciousness do happen within a lifetime and over generations.

Two Kenyans come to mind whose comments epitomize for me what ‘consciousness shift’ sounds like in practice. As one former Member of Parliament said during our workshop: Look at us —we are sitting in a circle. Africans have been sitting in a circle for centuries. Yet when I meet with my constituents I sit on a podium, with a drink, and an umbrella, while the people sit in the baking sun without anything to drink. I commit here today that, from this moment forward, I will never do that again. I will sit in a circle with my people.

In another workshop, one politician had just finished filling out a self-reflection questionnaire. “I have never reflected on my strengths and weaknesses as a leader,” he said. “I think all our leaders should do this—and often.” It was an endearingly honest and transparent admission.

I am grateful to both of them because their comments underscore the power of consciousness-shifting work. Post-shift consciousness strengthens the witness self so that we can release stuck views of both self and other, bridge divides, and harness conflict into true collaboration and synergy.

So the good news is: Yes, we can shift consciousness from conflict to collaboration.

What Determines Whose Consciousness Will Shape Their Nations’ Future?

This is a critical question. As evidenced by every country in which I have worked, at any scale, some segments of the population have made this shift in consciousness while others have not. Whether in Russia or China, the US or Japan, a consciousness ‘time warp’ exists. This ‘post-shift’ consciousness is still caught in an institutional system created by earlier generations. So it seems that conflict between the ‘post-shift’ and ‘pre-shift’ worldviews is inevitable.

Given this context, the ‘political’ question that confronts us wherever we may live is this: Which consciousness will rule? Will the more entrenched ‘pre-shift’ mindset maintain control? Will the emerging ‘post-shift’ consciousness lead a nation forward? Or will the competing worldviews lead to paralysis?

The stakes could not be higher.

In Nazi Germany, for example, the most regressive levels of consciousness took control. Hijacked by paranoid sociopaths, the Third Reich became a classic case study of how the lowest common denominator seized power. Not only did the most primitive personalities take control, they systematically eliminated the more evolved segments of society. Hitler and his allies destroyed thought leaders, intellectuals, scientists, theologians, and other independent-minded citizens who refused to bow down to the twisted Nazi ideology.

By contrast, the formation of the EU only a few years later offers a contrasting case study in which ‘higher’ consciousness led the way. Under the guidance of Jean Monnet and other globalist thinkers, Europe sought constructive ways to recover from the devastation of the second world war. European leaders from scores of diverse nations managed to weave their national identities into a common union. However, as the recent ‘Brexit’ crisis illustrates, the conflict between competing worldviews is rarely settled once and for all. It is simply postponed. A majority of British citizens rebelled against the ‘progress’ that the European Union symbolized and voted to reclaim their national autonomy.

Every nation, in my opinion, faces its own unique version of this fateful choice. Will it regress into a reactionary, narrow, ethnocentric, partisan mindset that reflects the lowest common denominator? Or will it be lifted up toward a more visionary, embracing, global problem-solving worldview?

Let’s look at two cultures where this unfolding contest of consciousness continues today: post-Fukushima Japan and post-Trump America.

Post-Fukushima Japan

During my author tour in Japan for my book Global Citizens, the first time the subject of Fukushima came up was with an audience of civic and corporate leaders at the Japan Foundation, located in the heart of the downtown business district. When a student who had just returned from volunteering in the Fukushima area asked me about nuclear power, I turned the question back to my audience.

“If any people in the world would be afraid of nuclear power and the danger of radiation, it would be the Japanese people.” I said. “Why, after experiencing the horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, did you make the decision to go nuclear?”

After a long strained silence, a man in the second row spoke up.

“We did not decide,” he said. “They did.”

“And who is ‘they?’” I asked.

“The leaders,” said someone else. “The leaders decided.”

Here, once again, was the clash of competing worldviews. ‘They’ had made the decision, not ‘we.’ And the difference was not just about nuclear power; it was about whose consciousness would rule Japan: the pro-nuclear business and energy risk-takers committed to economic growth, or the anti-nuclear environment-oriented groups who value human safety and eco-security over ‘cheap’ energy. This is not a question of right-versus-wrong. Rather, it is a question of two ‘rights’ that must find a common path forward. Can Japanese political culture ‘harness’ this conflict and turn it into collaboration?

Post-Trump America

The emergence of Donald J. Trump as a political figure in America is a case study of an anachronistic, ‘pre-shift’ consciousness that tried to reassert itself in a democracy. As the demographic data proved, his appeal was overwhelmingly with older white men without a college education. This is the America of the previous century, the America before social media and before globalization, the America that time left behind.

Like other demagogues before and after him, Trump not only embodied but exacerbated conflict. Just as there will always be exemplars of the emerging consciousness, so will there always be anachronistic figures who embody the past. Although Americans rightfully boast of more than two centuries of democratic development, they are currently tearing themselves apart with a partisanship that is as ugly as it is ineffective. Were it not for our still-powerful economic engine, which keeps most of our people living in comparative affluence, the waste and inefficiency of our constant careening between Left and Right would have already left us financially bankrupt and socially fragmented. Can the US harness this conflict and become a stronger and more effective global leader in the process?

How America answers this question will determine the rise or fall of this democracy in the 21st century.


My working conclusion after a long journey through conflict is that harnessing conflict into collaboration depends on whether or not competing worldviews engage each other constructively.

This requires:

  • Accepting the inevitability of competing worldviews or ‘levels’ of consciousness.
  • Engaging others who hold diverse perspectives with humility and respect.
  • Supporting leaders who bridge differences rather than exploit them.
  • Encouraging the emergence of the next generation of leaders who promote a more inclusive, global vision of being human.

From now until eternity, there will always be a contest between competing mindsets. The narrowest, most primitive, most rigid and exclusive perspectives in a society will always be in conflict with the more evolved, innovative, and inclusive ways of thinking.

Each of us can do our part to bridge differences in ourselves and in our societies. After all, each of us has aspects of ourselves that are more evolved than other aspects. Just as we maintain an inner dialogue between these competing parts of ourselves, so can we play a role in promoting dialogue between these contesting parts of our culture.

Just recall once again the young Kenyan couple that married across tribal boundaries. From their perspective, their leaders’ tribal mentalities were an anachronism that their ‘Facebook generation’ had moved beyond. This same fresh, cross-boundary thinking is also present in all the essays by millennial authors that follow this article. Every one of the four authors, who together span the political spectrum, illustrate how we can move beyond stale concepts of Left and Right and model a practical, open-minded, problem-solving attitude.

This is the inevitable cycle of generations, of progress—and, yes, of conflict. Harnessing conflict into collaboration is absolutely possible. But visionary, creative collaboration will occur only if we face conflict, not avoid it. As the poet Robert Frost put it, the only way out for us is through.