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9 January 2014

Complexity, coherence, and conflict

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Every once in a while, I begin to muse again about the benefits of development. I mean, I’m a developmentalist, and I have spent most of my career researching, writing, and building a practice about what it takes to grow more developed. But the truth is, sometimes I lose the plot about this task and need to be reminded about the whole point of development.

In my last blog post, I talked about Peter Coleman’s book about complexity and intractable conflicts: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. Coleman connects our need to avoid oversimplification and the traps of falling into black and white beliefs to the intractability of 5% of conflicts between individuals, groups, and states. (He also warns about falling into the misery of “overwhelming complexity.”) He is clear about the difficulty of resisting these “conflict traps” and about the gifts of being able to regulate the complexity in our lives.

Specifically, the pieces he talks about that have a direct correlation to adult development are:

  • Behavioural complexity and flexibility. This one is the most linked to adult development and what I call “self-complexity.” It’s about how many perspectives you can take and your capacity to flex to the styles, roles, and behaviours of multiple and competing stakeholders.  Coleman says, “Leaders who display higher levels of behavioural complexity tend to be more effective and successful in achieving their goals…”
  • Political thinking: Our capacity to have a complex view of political thinking “is associated with a tendency for cooperation and compromise in political conflict. Lower level, linear political thinking is associated with a simple, dualistic view of conflict situations and with a more competitive and destructive orientation.” Sounds like we should maybe have a test of complexity of political thinking before people get their names on political ballots…
  • Emotional complexity: “People with greater emotional complexity tend to be more open to experience, empathetic, cognitively complex, and have a better ability to adapt to different interpersonal situations.” This aligns with Todd Kashdan’s research that a capacity to name and understand your experiences with emotional nuance leads to less conflict and negative societal engagement.

Then he lists a variety of issues that are about our relationship between complexity and coherence but are more about the context of our lives than our sensemaking (although of course context and sensemaking are always braided together).

  • Social identity complexity: This is a really interesting one. This is about how complex (and, er, incoherent) your various social identities are. If you are an NPR listening, pro-gay, vegetarian (as I happen to be), you (or I) have more social identity coherence/ simplicity than a Republican, anti-gun, pro-choice Catholic. Coleman says, “Research shows that people with higher social identity complexity are more tolerant of out-groups and more open in general.”
  • Social network complexity: Related to this, probably, they’ve found that “people with more diversified, complex social networks…[are] more tolerant of out-groups and more supportive of policies helpful to them.”
  • Cultural rule complexity: The more nuanced and varied our cultural rules are, the more successfully we’re likely to negotiate. An eye for an eye (a simple rule) is not helpful. An eye for an eye unless the person who took your eye did it by mistake or unless she was under 18 or unless she was coerced in some way, etc. is a more complex social rule.
  • Culture and contradiction: Where you come from and what core philosophy your culture is based on also seems to affect your relationship to complexity and coherence: “Cultures based on Confucianist philosophy prefer contradiction.  This results in a dialogic or compromise approach to conflict resolution that retains basic elements of the opposing interests and perspectives in a conflict. Cultural groups derived from a lay version of Aristotelian logic are less comfortable with contradiction. They tend toward a differentiation model of conflict resolution that polarizes contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which position is correct.”

He concludes, “This is a big idea. And it seems that all of this is essentially the same idea. Whether it is how people tend to think, feel, or behave; how they view their own group identities or members of out-groups; how they approach their relationships and group processes; or how their cultural groups and societies are structured and organized, the degree of complexity and coherence matters…Human beings are driven toward consistency and coherence in their perception, thinking, feeling, behaviour, and social relationships. This is natural and functional. Conflict intensifies this drive, which can become dysfunctional during prolonged conflicts. However, developing more complex patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and social organizing can mitigate this, resulting in more constructive responses to conflict.”

I am grateful to Coleman for putting all these ideas together (and there are lots of ideas) and also for reminding me of one of the core benefits of becoming more developed: as we grow, we are better able to deal with conflict and complexity, and we have a wider number of options in our responses. There’s a way this links to Bob’s Big Idea, which I’ll talk about in my next blog…

2 thoughts on “Complexity, coherence, and conflict”

  1. Carolyn Coughlin says:

    I think I have one to add to this, having just read a book by a guy named John Protevi called Politial Affect: connecting the social and the somatic. He talks about complexities related to our physiology….essentially proposing that in many ways the somatic also influences the way we show up in complexity. The particular ways our “affect” network has been conditioned (the most obvious to me of which was the degree to which we effectively established connection with our primary caregiver, but there are many other examples) affects the choices we have to think and act in a particular situation. Our somatic capacity, in other words, both limits and enables particular responses to a given situation.

  2. tim says:

    Thank you – interesting watching what can come out of our feelings of uncertainty? – I am noticing for myself that as I become more aware of my body – yes somatic experiences – there becomes so much more possibility – I have found I can bear walking into the places that have scared me most – almost like my body opens up a larger antenna for signals… for example I walked into a fairly old established organisation the other day and noticed a hidden layer of communication almost – which has been invisible or twinkling at least now and again… I guess talking about complexity so bluntly – can lead me into trying to talk my way out of a double bind… yes what you say Carolyn is so true – somatic responses to complexity if not surfaced… back to simultaneous awareness of 4 territories and yoga I guess 🙂 (message to self i think there)… thanks again

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