To Navigate Conflict, Prioritize Dignity

Four interrelated practices can bolster dignity, leading to more constructive problem-solving and collaboration.

Reading Time: 5 min  


  • Rafael Lopez/

    Conflicts between businesses pursuing commercial objectives and communities defending their interests arise regularly and often inevitably, especially when companies don’t prioritize engagement with their neighbors. Consider the rapid expansion of the mining sector in Latin America, renewable energy projects that underestimate “not in my backyard” opposition, or the displacement of marginalized groups with unwanted facility siting. In many cases, the work has slogged on despite local protests, and drawn-out conflict has resulted.

    Leaders inclined to think strategically and competitively may believe that stakeholder management in these cases is a matter of outmaneuvering the other party through gamesmanship, but that is shortsighted. When corporate interests conflict with the needs and values of communities, we need to build better interactions among people, especially those intensely at odds with one another who also need to collaborate.

    This is where augmenting dignity can help. In my years of work in conflict resolution with the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), I’ve seen the benefit of putting the basic human need for dignity at the center of my efforts. By dignity, I mean our inherent sense of value, self-worth, and need to contribute and shape what matters most to us. Emphasizing dignity in conflict resolution doesn’t displace the tactics and strategies of classical interest-based negotiation, either; rather, it precedes them, prioritizing what drives human behavior.

    Donna Hicks, Roger Fisher, and Daniel Shapiro have written amply of the role of dignity and emotion in conflict resolution. Working in the field, I’ve found four interrelated practices that distill what’s needed most to sustain such dignity, thereby helping people navigate effective problem-solving and healthier collaboration. These four practices are deepening acknowledgment, strengthening agency, building reciprocity, and ensuring clarity of path — acronymically forming an “AARC” that can help leaders across both commercial and public fields.

    Deepening acknowledgment can set organizations on a better path to problem-solving. As Donna Hicks writes in Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (Yale University Press, 2021), acknowledgment happens when you grant people “your full attention by listening, hearing, validating, and responding to their concerns, feelings, and experiences,” creating a gateway to deeper engagement. Acknowledgment in this sense is not platitudinous empathy. Rather, it’s about naming tensions and core issues with an appropriate emotional tenor.

    In the coal-mining region of Cesar, Colombia, a place torn by two generations of social and political violence, CBI once coproduced a documentary film to give voice to mining communities and a mining company, all of which were trying to move forward after years of conflict. The company was hoping to make a responsible exit from coal mining, and it wanted to establish a better relationship with the local community and beyond. But that same company had also been accused of human rights violations during years of civil war, and the community’s pain, identity, and loss had not been meaningfully understood, heard, or considered. Tensions were high. The film explored commonalities and distinct differences, providing residents, the company, and other stakeholders with a shared focus to address past tensions and envision a way forward. Conversation and collaboration had seemed like remote possibilities, but now, the community and the company have begun to imagine and discuss ways to work together.

    Strengthening agency helps parties understand and explore their own opportunities for shaping outcomes. As a facilitator in the Niger Delta, I’ve seen deep tensions between communities and energy companies take a constructive turn once community members understand their real influence over both process and outcomes. In Chevron’s effort to improve community relations in the region, strengthened community agency proved crucial. Chevron’s work had polluted the area and proceeded without sufficient participation from local communities.

    Violent conflict followed, including kidnappings. Yet improved understanding became possible through the creation of regional development councils, which had representatives of all the major social groups in the area: youth and traditional chiefs, men and women, business leaders, and church representatives. Through direct participation, people were able to clarify and prioritize what mattered most in terms of their livelihoods, development needs, and well-being. Chevron took note. The resulting empowerment produced stable benefit-sharing agreements that have delivered results in terms of jobs, education, health care, and other community services.

    Building reciprocity keeps momentum alive through practices that encourage constructive, give-and-take behavior. These practices include the demonstration of genuine curiosity, skillful active listening, and conscientiousness with respect to what’s needed to understand the other side’s perspective better. A surprising example emerged in the aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, when CBI worked with Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Congress to help them hear one another’s perspectives on that day’s events at the Capitol and find a way to work together despite sharp differences. By facilitating reciprocal listening, acknowledgment, and discussion of issues where there could be bipartisan agreement, the process enabled members of both parties to feel that they had been heard and could again work with the other side — without overlooking the tensions and political rancor — on issues of mutual interest. The resulting success of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been covered by The Washington Post.

    Ensuring clarity of path means stating next steps clearly and addressing understandable anticipation from participants. In a recent hydropower conflict in Panama, I helped a major international development institution and indigenous groups rebuild confidence in one another after damage caused by a hydropower project. The project had led to flooding, including areas of local sacred sites, and indigenous communities had been inadequately involved in the planning stages. Specifically, indigenous representatives said they had been given insufficient data before the flooding.

    To improve the relationship between the local communities and the development institution, I helped them cocreate a road map for remediating environmental impacts, community development, and social support. In the wake of flooded sacred territories, an AARC mindset helped participants recognize harms, frame joint issues to resolve, identify options for remediation, and, most significant, clarify how next steps would unfold. This approach — in a situation of deep power disparity, cultural divides, and mistrust — led to a precedent-setting acknowledgment of what had happened from the development institution and an overall remediation agreement.

    The four AARC elements are essential ingredients in a recipe for dignity that should be modified for each context. And these elements, as in a good recipe, interact with one another. Deepening acknowledgment opens the possibility for joint problem-framing by finding spaces of shared agency. Once we grasp a shared problem, we can identify areas for constructive, reciprocal exchange, and those exchanges can lead to enhanced clarity about decision-making, roles, and responsibilities. When threaded together appropriately, these four elements support the potential for improved interactions, more durable organizations, and more effective problem-solving. In an era when fractures among people seem ever-widening, a bolstered sense of dignity can help bring colleagues and counterparts together constructively, in situations where you’d least expect it.


    More Like This

    You must to post a comment.

    First time here? : Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.