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  • Writer's pictureBess de Boer

Unravelling the knots of conflict

Dealing with intractable conflict is like unraveling a tightly knotted ball of yarn. Trying to find and pull one of its ends can bring you to the edge of yourself. It can consume you, sucking you into the process slowly, but surely.

The more you pull trying to release one end, the tighter the ball’s center becomes bound. Before long, you’re all in - in to the process, the frustration and the seemingly endless investment of your time and energy. Hours later, as you sit exhausted looking at the two longer ends of the yarn that you’ve now gained, you realize that all the effort only served to make the ball’s center smaller, tighter, more impossibly dense than when you started.

How do I know this? Because I’ve spent years as a lawyer, taking people’s unsolvable conflict into the battleground of the courtroom.

Like the ancient Greeks bringing their most vexing issues to the Oracle of Delphi to receive a prophecy, I helped people and companies take their conflict to the courts to receive a judgment. I watched both sides of the conflict leave the courtroom, struggling to make sense of its punishing process and often the judgment they received. It didn’t matter which side I stood on. Both the winners and the losers were left unmistakably beaten and irreparably changed. They were left to live with a new reality they had not themselves fashioned.

Being a courtroom warrior in the front lines of conflict changed my perception of the merit of battle. It informed me about the basic needs of every human being when sinking into its vortex. It gave me an intimate view of its unstoppable and destructive power. It allowed me to stare the idea of ‘winning’ in the face, only to see, that by the end of the process its luster invariably diminished.

The moments of relief and celebration after the wins were relatively brief. Short-lived. Lacking the lasting satisfaction that I had expected. A reckoning of the human pieces that those wins had devoured, almost always followed.

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