What is the Cost of Conflict?

While recently travelling in Asia, I witnessed the lingering effects of a conflict that ended 38 years ago.

It is estimated that over two million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were killed and countless wounded in the Vietnam War. The financial cost to the U.S. government was billions of dollars. Today undetonated land minds and cluster bombs still kill or maim, and render precious agricultural lands unusable. The statistics on the cost of war are readily available – but what about other kinds of conflict?

An average litigated divorce costs $50,000 in legal fees. Family members disputing a deceased’s Last Will can deplete the entire estate. Those are the quantifiable costs of conflict, but what about the effects that we cannot measure? When one parent files a statement of claim for divorce in court against the other parent, it is analogous to declaring an act of war and the children will be the casualties. Family members fighting over an estate cause irreparable damage to their relationships. Ongoing conflict reaches far beyond the financial by negatively impacting our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health.

Each of us possesses our own beliefs, values, needs, thoughts, opinions, judgements and assumptions which act as a filter to create our own personal version of reality. In law school I observed a criminal trial in which more than 20 witnesses were called to give evidence. Each witness had a different account of the event. How could 20 different people watching the same event have 20 different stories of what happened? Because each of those witnesses had their own unique filter, through which the data and facts were being processed. No wonder we have conflict; our individual perceptions are rarely in alignment with another’s.

Add to this, that anytime we get triggered by something said or done to us, our body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol. This causes our brain function to retreat from the frontal cortex to the amygdala where we react in one of three ways – fight, flight or freeze. With our thinking processes diverted to the primitive part of our brain, no rational problem solving can occur. We may have the intention of resolving conflict in a peaceful manner, however as soon as any of the parties to the conflict are triggered, productive resolution becomes improbable.

Most of us lack the necessary communication skills to ask the kinds of questions to deepen understanding. Much of the time we are protecting and defending ourselves. How often are we truly curious about what is going on with the other person? We have to be centered in ourselves and detached from the emotional charge of the conflict. If we are caught up in our own emotional reactions and defending ourselves we are not open to any other perceptions other than our own.

Mediators work with those in conflict by using skills and self-awareness to stay outside of the conflict while knowing when and how to ask the questions that will shift perceptions and transform the conflict. When this happens, the tension in the room lessens or dissipates all together. Clients signing their mediated agreements often experience an emotional release. These are not easily quantifiable results, but nonetheless just as real as the financial impacts.

Conflict affects our families, workplaces, communities and nations. Each of us will relate to the conflict differently, usually in a way that we learned in our family of origin. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the negative emotions will affect our health, just like the undetonated bombs in the fields of Asia. What is unresolved conflict costing you? Do you want to try a different way?