Conflict Intelligence and Systemic Wisdom: A Paradigm Shifting Framework for Engaging Conflict in a Complex, Dynamic World

Conflict Intelligence and Systemic Wisdom: A Paradigm Shifting Framework for Engaging Conflict in a Complex, Dynamic World

Peter T. Coleman and Rebecca Bass


Our world is in a crisis of complexity. In this new order, non-state actors such as corporations, computer hackers, nongovernmental organizations, and terrorist splinter groups wield more power than ever before. As a result, many of the conflicts that emerge involve a complex web of objectives and actors that pose uniquely difficult challenges to resolution. Similar trends are reflected in many of the more challenging domestic disputes in the U.S. today, as the current patterns of political polarization, ethnic fragmentation and intergroup enmity indicate.

While decades of research in conflict resolution have resulted in range of sound evidence-based practices for engaging conflict constructively, our standard methods are being rendered increasingly ineffective within these more highly complex, volatile, and unpredictable contexts. The time is ripe for our field to think differently about the skills and competencies required as we work toward building a more peaceful world.

In our lab at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University, our research agenda is organized around a new integrative framework dedicated to addressing these challenges. Based on insights from research in psychology, peace and conflict studies, and complexity science, this applied framework offers two new meta-competencies—Conflict Intelligence (CIQ) and Systemic Wisdom (SW)to help individuals resolve conflict and promote more constructive and peaceful relations across diverse contexts.

These meta-competencies emerge from Dynamical Systems Theory (DST)—a complexity science approach within applied mathematics—which offers a host of new concepts, models, methods, and algorithms that allow us to move beyond systemic metaphors toward a more rigorous understanding of the underlying dynamics within even the most intractable conflicts.

Below, we offer a brief primer on DST as our conceptual foundation, followed by an introduction to our CIQ and SW applied framework.


The Conceptual Foundation: Dynamical Systems Theory (DST)

While systems theory has informed conflict resolution and peacebuilding for decades, it has mostly been employed metaphorically, as a general way of thinking about conflict dynamics more holistically. In contrast, DST draws upon recent advances in complexity science to test, mathematically model and explore: (a) the longer term temporal patterns of conflict dynamics rather than episodic events or short-term outcomes, (b) the way these patterns are often affected by a complex constellation of factors (attitudes, beliefs, norms, policies) that interact over time, and (c) the way in which some parameters are likely to have a stronger impact on changes to the system than others.

By shifting the way we think about conflict in terms of time, interactions among many factors, and the impact of strong situations, we have identified four dynamic models that inform our research, including:

  • Optimality models: explore how seemingly opposing goals, motives, or strategies in conflict (i.e. distributive and integrative negotiation processes) can be effectively combined, either simultaneously or iteratively over time;
  • Adaptivity models: demonstrate that fundamentally different types of conflicts require distinct strategies which fit the unique demands of situations;
  • Complexity models: illustrate how fostering more complex patterns of thoughts, feelings, group identifications, actions, and social organization can prevent or mitigate extreme forms of polarization and destructive conflict escalation; and
  • Attractor models: demonstrate how interactions among thoughts, feelings, behaviors and social norms in conflicts coalesce into change-resistant patterns that self-perpetuate over time.


The Applied Framework: Conflict Intelligence (CIQ) and Systemic Wisdom (SW)

Based on the insights provided by our research on DST and the four dynamic models, our lab at the MD-ICCCR has identified two meta-competencies—Conflict Intelligence (CIQ) and Systemic Wisdom (SW)—for managing conflicts in ever-changing contexts, and for transforming entrenched conflict systems. Specifically, the CIQ and SW framework differentiates conflicts according to levels of complexity, destructiveness/intensity, and endurance, and suggests that variation along these 3 dimensions calls for distinct strategies and orientations. (See graphic below.)

In short, CIQ refers to the overarching set of competencies that enable one to navigate different types of normative conflicts in distinct settings constructively and effectively.

In contrast, SW refers to the capacity to understand the inherent propensities of the complex, dynamic context in which a conflict is embedded and to work with the dynamics of the system to support the emergence of more constructive patterns.

CIQ is most effective for addressing conflicts of low-to-moderate importance and intensity, where extreme forms of enmity, injustice and violence are rare. Our temporal scope in these disputes is usually more immediate or short-term, and our aim is to directly engage the problem, relationship, or other disputants.

In these contexts, the essential core competencies are:

  • Self- knowledge and regulation: Knowing and managing oneself in conflict, including implicit theories of conflict, social value motives, conflict anxiety management, and moral exclusion.
  • Constructive conflict resolution skills: Understanding the constructive and destructive potential of conflict, and developing the knowledge, attitudes, and skills for constructive conflict resolution—including active listening, perspective taking, probing for needs and interests, focusing on common ground, etc.
  • Conflict optimality: Navigating between different or competing motives and emotions, and combining different approaches to achieve desired outcomes.
  • Conflict adaptivity: Employing distinct strategies in different situations that are effective and that fit the demands of the situation.

However, in situations that are more complex, destructive, and enduring, often times these more straightforward strategies fail to have the desired effect and sometimes bring about unintended consequences that can perpetuate existing problems.

Accordingly, SW requires a shift in orientation from the figure (the conflict) to the ground (the constellation of forces contributing to the conflict), and from the short-term (reaching an agreement, resolution or victory) to the longer-term (changing the patterns of interaction – the attractors – qualitatively and sustainably). SW requires recognition that there are non-linear networks of causation that underlie more intractable conflict systems, and effective approaches require non-linear thinking and intervention. This is a dramatic paradigm shift for most of us.

In these contexts, the essential core competencies are:

  • Systemic aptitudes: Tolerance for ambiguity, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral complexity, and future orientation.
  • Complexity visualization: The capacity to map out and visualize complex systems, and to identify core dynamics that drive the conflict beneath the surface.
  • Systemic agency: Skills in reading and marshaling resonance or shared energy; Capacities to work “upstream” to alter the dynamics of systems over time to support the emergence of more constructive patterns.
  • Sustainability and adaptive decision making: The capacity to employ adaptive decision making and action to sustain constructive dynamics.

Taken together, these CIQ and SW competencies offer a new paradigm for the practice and teaching of conflict resolution.

For the full paper on this applied framework, see: Coleman, P. T. (2018). Conflict Intelligence and Systemic Wisdom: Meta‐Competencies for Engaging Conflict in a Complex, Dynamic World. Negotiation Journal34(1), 7-35.