Conflict Mental Maps

Alternative to resolutions

Could you summarize in a sentence what you’ve learned from your life’s work, or a relationship, special interest or hobby? I decided to try that instead of pretending to make New Year’s resolutions. I also want to read your sentences, so please share yours. And, happy 2020 writing about what life taught you.

What I learned from life distilled to one sentence:

Thinking about Conflict Mental Maps
is a core conflict competency.

Okay, admittedly that is not self-explanatory. So, read on …

A Conflict Mental Map is a straightforward idea that won’t take as long to describe as I took to formulate it.

During 25+ years as a Conflict Manager, researching conflict analysis and management, I dipped into small world networks, critical and strategic thinking, conversation analysis, complexity science and chaos theory, neuroscience, crisis and risk theories, theory of mind, mindsets, decision-making, problem-solving and a few more.

Right, the slow, indirect route.

Mental maps represent thoughts

As I teach and practice, I observe large differences in how people in conflict operate. Everyone follows a unique mental map, which only that person’s mind accesses. Like operating systems for the mind, mental maps organize values, beliefs, and convictions about what should be.

Yet – we rarely think about how we think – yet.

Maps represent ways of understanding territory. Mental maps, also called mental models, represent each person’s understanding of what’s possible and proper and fair, according to that person. A regular mental map has a dormant Conflict Mental Map standing by. If conflict brews, flares or is anticipated, the Conflict Mental Map activates.

Mental maps and Conflict Mental Maps specialize in their settings. Activating your Conflict Mental Map in a regular setting can get you ghosted or arrested. Sticking with your regular mental map in a conflict setting can get you beaten (physically, legally, financially etc).

Conflict Mental Maps also specialize defensively and offensively, depending on context, victorious expectations and motives. Defence assesses capacities, protects resources and ensures safety, etc. Offence offers anything from flight to total annihilation of the opponent(s).

I notice how varied the threshold, the tipping point, between mental maps and Conflict Mental Maps. Some people dread crossing the threshold, willing to suffer on only one rather than use both their regular and Conflict Mental Maps. Others straddle their threshold, ready to tip either way. And everything in between.

Thinking about thinking about worldviews

I think my way is correct. When I think about my beliefs, I see my worldview stems from being a middle-class woman in a developed country, whose mental map depicts a straight road ahead with shortcuts to my places in my communities. 

Our worldview constantly informs and directs our decisions. I admire Adam Shoalts’s description of natural, political and cultural maps with specific and general glimpses into values and worldviews:

Thinking about how we think about conflict opens the possibility of conflict awareness. Since we change over time anyway, conflict competence awareness can’t hurt, right? Key is that mental maps reflect changes over time.

Conflict Mental Map’s routes, shortcuts, and codes

What makes thinking about and understanding mental maps a conflict competency? Stroll my personal mental map from the west and to east.

In the West (left), my earliest mental map and Conflict Mental Map overlapped, a cultural artifact from my high conflict family’s home battlefield. Only my worldview made sense, so I crept on high alert, hyper-vigilant to harm, close to my Conflict Mental Map’s threshold. I guarded my regular mental map with weapon drawn for defence. The instant my Conflict Mental Map activated, I used the weapon.

My route split after high school, going East (right). My Conflict Mental Map reacted to research and my mental map responded to life experience. No surprise that my regular mental map realized sooner that people are mostly goodhearted. After I completed grad school, my Conflict Mental Map also caught on that other worldviews matter.

Now, I can’t recall when I last tipped across the threshold onto my Conflict Mental Map.

How would this explain other experiences of conflict? Here’s another, imaginary, example.

Relevance of mental maps as conflict competencies

Imagine a meeting between Connie, a conservative developer, and Lily, a liberal biologist. They agree on facts and know their science. Both want their client to approve their joint report on the feasibility of developing a tract of land.

Connie’s regular mental map is coded to freedom and individual rights. She believes people are logical and rational, development damage happens and market pricing takes damage into account. Client approval is a straight route to developing the land for a fair return. The client doesn’t seek profit at all costs, so Connie expects Lily to support recommending the development proceed.

Lily’s regular mental map is coded to social justice and collective rights. She believes people are caring and rational, development damage should be avoided and profit doesn’t compensate for community losses. Client approval is a straight route leaving land in a natural state because of its intrinsic worth. The client doesn’t seek profit at all costs, so Lily expects Connie to support recommending the development not proceed.

“Okay,” says Connie. “Our disagreement, based on differing worldviews, is solvable using rational decision theory.”

“Agreed,” says Lily.

Except, Connie hears Lily’s recommendation as betrayal. Not only does Connie believe the science supports her, she values loyalty and judges Lily for undermining their client. Connie codes their disagreement as conflict, triggering her worldview consisting of winners and losers, which activates her Conflict Mental Map. It directs her convictions about how conflicts should or should not unfold.

Connie’s Conflict Mental Map also defaults to shortcuts based on past experiences. She hears Lily and thinks, ‘oh no, Lily’s another of those who puts frogs ahead of people’s jobs and families.’

Meanwhile, Lily hears Connie say, “… solvable using rational decision theory.” Lily’s regular mental map codes Connie as open to negotiation, which shortcuts to reaching consensus through further discussion.

Lily and Connie have different thresholds.  After the meeting, Connie meets the client alone. Lily, unprepared on her regular mental map, is blindsided when the client terminates her contract.

Connie believes she acted in the client’s best interests and was true to her values. Lily believes she acted in the client’s best interests and was true to her values.

Both are correct, based on their worldviews and differing thresholds to tipping between their specialized mental maps.

Conflict Mental Maps make sense of conflicts and that’s a conflict competency.

So, the one sentence distillation of what I think about, is thinking about and trying to understand my own and others’ Conflict Mental Maps.

What’s your learning in a sentence (or more)?
I’d like to read it.

Happy 2020 to all, with wishes for a peaceful year.

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