One of the highlights of my conflict resolution career was a national conference presentation entitled Conflict Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. This combined my passion for conflict resolution with my love of Tolkien’s powerful trilogy. The session explored how archetypal themes from the Tolkien’s epic can help us understand conflict.
In one scene, Faramir, Prince of Gondor, stands over the corpse of an enemy soldier and reflects:
“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than ours, I deem. You wonder what his name was. Where he came from? If he was really evil at heart? What lies or threats lead him on this long march from home, when he’d rather have stayed there? Peace. War will make corpses of us all.”
Firstly, this reflects the “drama triangle” of conflict, in which we view ourselves as an innocent victim or righteous hero and cast our adversary as a callous villain. Our adversary, however, views the mirror image of the situation – they see themselves as innocent and righteous and view us as the villain. Faramir’s short monologue demonstrates curiosity and empathy. By acknowledging his adversary’s sense of duty and remaining curious about his motives and values, Faramir humanizes his fallen foe. In my book, The Joy of Conflict Resolution, I examine the relationship between the roles of hero and villain and conclude that “a villain is a misunderstood hero” in their own story. I encourage us to remain curious as to the motivation of the other person in conflict. This understanding paves the way for collaboration.
Secondly, and more subtly, Faramir speaks to the cost of a win/lose approach. Danaan Parry, in Warriors of the Heart, points out that no one will accept losing and that win/lose will eventually devolve into lose/lose as a cycle of revenge unfolds. This dynamic underlies passive-aggressive responses in conflict, as well as outright aggression. This theme is also explored in Monk and Winslade’s book, Narrative Mediation. They recommend “mapping the impact of the conflict” on each party. This expands the discussion by encouraging each person to share how the conflict has affected them. The parties come to realize that they are both suffering – and sometimes, this shared pain is the only common ground between them. This realization humanizes those involved and allows each person to view the conflict, not each other, as the enemy.
We can also apply this approach in dealing with our own difficult people. Consider that the people who may drive us crazy are doing the best they can to get what they think they want – even though their methods may be inappropriate or unacceptable. They are likely to be as uncomfortable with the situation as we are and may welcome the opportunity to move beyond the pain of the situation towards a new understanding.
In honor of the recent release of The Hobbit this will be the first in a series of Lord of the Rings themed blogs.