The Nature of Conflict

By Charles B. Parselle

Published on January 18, 2014

Essence of Conflict

The essence of conflict is collision. The root of the word is fligere, strike + con, together. Although we tend to use the word dispute synonymously, its root is more benign: putare, consider or estimate + dis, two ways, differently. At a physical level, the nature of conflict is expressed in the rule that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; if they violate the rule, they collide. One might say that the forces unleashed in the Big Bang are fleeing the consequences of colliding in micro-space; hence the expanding universe. This is conflict avoidance on a cosmic scale. Living things are apt to collide in the competition for space and resources, but humans are more complicated. We have long memories, complex emotions, and nurture grudges, so we can fight about things that happened a long time ago; we can also fight about abstract ideas and beliefs. The elements of conflict are past time, future time, wounds, desires, mind and matter. Wounds exist in the past; desires exist in the future. Any conflict may be played out on the twin planes of mind and matter.

Time as an element of conflict

Conflicts always contain time. Continued conflict is a way to drag the past into the future. The idea of justice is in essence a belief that past events can be “put right.” We may also speak of the present moment, but the present moment is always in the process of becoming the future. Conflicts exist in the present, but they are always about something that is desired to happen or about something that already happened. That is why we try to know the future and the past. The present moment is our point of perception; to the extent that the past exists at all, it can only exist in present perception, and to the extent that the future exists at all, it can only exist in present perception. But when one contemplates the nature of the present moment, it vanishes. It is always becoming the past and always rolling into the future. The only thing one can do with the present moment is experience it.

When people fight about the past, they are generally fighting about their wounds; when they fight about the future, they are generally fighting about their desires. Some conflicts pertain both to past and future; when wounds are mixed with desires, the entanglement is complex. Fights about the past are always about how to patch up the past so that wounded spirits may be satisfied, and fights over the future are always about who gets what, how much, and at what price. The most complex conflicts contain past time, future time, unhealed wounds, unfulfilled desires, conflicting doctrines and beliefs, and contest for territory and resources.

We approach the past by means of memory, physical and written records. Although we only have our stories about the past, they may be more or less accurate, depending on many factors, of which the most important is usually the passage of time. As memories fade, we have to rely on the written and physical record, and if there is no written record, we have only the physical record. Lawsuits involve an attempt to reconstruct the past; evidence is the law’s method of reconstructing a past story.

The future is like the past in some ways. We have stories about the past, and predictions about the future. We cannot remember the future, but we can predict it, and the accuracy of our predictions depends mainly upon time. Most people can predict what they are likely to be doing next week, but not what they will be doing ten years ahead. No one can predict a hundred years ahead. When rapid change occurs, prediction becomes more difficult.

Wounds and desires

A “wound” may be psychological or material. The legal system compensates for material losses (economic damages), and for pain and suffering (non-economic damages). Some wounds may have no material component: “..I have told thee often..I hate the Moor..let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.” “Desire” pertains to the future. Those who have no desires are either enlightened or apathetic. A desire may be for psychological or material satisfaction. It may be positive (to achieve gain) or negative (to cause loss).

Mind and matter These are separated conventionally, though most material things have an emotional or psychological component, and vice-versa. The achievement of satisfaction often requires both to be addressed. A system that does not attempt to address both needs is incomplete, and means of doing so are sought for “alternatively.”

Beliefs and resources

Humans fight about ideas and beliefs. The inquisition of Galileo was about the Earth’s relationship with the Sun. Bloody religious wars have been fought over quite abstruse points of doctrine. Today a battle is waged between Creationism and Darwinism. These are essentially conflicts in the realm of ideas. The desire for revenge is for mental satisfaction; someone has written that it is like drinking poison and expecting the other fellow to die. People have always fought for the control of territory and natural resources. These are “who gets what” fights.


Whether we fight over the past or the future, we are dealing with uncertainty. Conflict increases the uncertainty of outcomes. Making peace is a way to diminish uncertainty. Transactional negotiation involves an attempt to predict and influence the course of future events without conflict. Conflict management involves the development of systems to prevent conflict, and to deal with it when it happens. A person may also be in conflict with himself; these conflicts also are always about past wounds, future desires or conflicting beliefs. The goal of conflict resolution is to heal past wounds, harmonize future desires and reconcile conflicting beliefs.

There are two possible broad categories of subjects for conflict – things of the mind, or physical resources. There is nothing else to fight about.

Summary On the physical level, we fight in time and space for control of matter and energy. We also fight for ideas and beliefs. We fight to heal wounds and fulfill desires. Conflicts may pertain to both past and future; the past contains wounds, the future contains desires. The most complex conflicts contain all variables at once: resources and ideas, past and future, wounds and desires, material and incorporeal. These involve a high degree of entanglement and congealed emotional energy. Dispute resolution is about untangling the contestants and releasing the energy.

The Author

Charles Parselle

Charles B. Parselle is a mediator, arbitrator, and attorney. He graduated from Oxford University’s Honor School of Jurisprudence and is a member of the English bar, then joined the California Bar in 1983. A prolific author and sought-after mediator, he is the author of the book, “The Complete Mediator.”

Article picture: Pixabay


Law & Philosophy