People involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to stop using the word “peace.”

Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of facilitating discussions within the Minnesota community regarding the Middle East conflict. I typically begin by challenging my audience to define “peace.” The responses are similar and predictable:

Peace is a state of harmony.

Peace is a lack of violence.

Peace is a state of getting along.

On the week of March 18, 2012, I had the opportunity to ask Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian visionary and leader of Bereaved Families Forum the same question, “How do you define peace?” His answer: “Harmony.” And that same week, I was able to ask the forever-young visionary of the state of Israel, President Shimon Peres. He answered, “No war; no violence.”

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians need to understand that a resolution completely devoid of all conflict is impossible. And both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not helping themselves or their people if they cannot even agree on a vision for the outcome. All that is happening is that time and energy are being wasted.

What occurs when leaders use language for which it’s impossible to agree on the definition? If there is no agreement on the definition of peace, we won’t know what it is we are working toward. Then how will we know when we achieve it?

Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach, speaks to this very issue. In his book, “Learning How to Avoid the Gap,” Sullivan shares his belief that unattainable goals taint the minds of those who wish to achieve them. Total harmony and complete lack of violence between Israelis and Palestinians sounds beautiful, but it is destroying the process of coexistence. Complete and total peace does not exist even among Americans, as demonstrated by the challenges we are facing in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident.

Total peace is, metaphorically speaking, the horizon, which by definition is impossible to reach. The horizon is always present, and, even if we appear to get close it, we can never actually get there. It remains maddeningly, tauntingly, just ahead. If the Israelis and Palestinians only focus on achieving the horizon, they will all too soon become dejected and dismayed over the lack of progress toward their goal, thus falling into “the gap.” This dejection and dismay leads to frustration, a feeling of lack of accomplishment and, eventually, lowered confidence. Entering into negotiations with low or no confidence causes parties to become defensive and intractable, removing the possibility of creating alternatives.

There has been progress over the past 63 years. Israel and its supporters around the world have built a state of economic success and cultural and intellectual vibrancy through what Joanna Landau calls “creative energy.” Israel has made peace with the Egyptians and the Jordanians. Palestinians have convinced the world that they are a peoplehood, not just part of another Arab community, and thus deserving of their own state. But these positive steps apparently provide no sense of accomplishment for members of either community in terms of their ability to coexist.

What are we after? ‘Constructive Conflict’

Constructive conflict is defined as “a condition in which conflict is recognized not as evil, but as the material with which to create personal and community achievement.” Conflict needs to be respected and looked upon as an opportunity to become better, not worse. The opposite of constructive is destructive. Nothing more needs to be said: we do not need more lives, relationships or material property destroyed.

What is needed to create constructive conflict?

  1. Leaders who desire to provide service to their constituencies, rather than leaders who believe their people work for them.
  2. People to face reality as it is, not as they wish it to be.
  3. A belief that you could be wrong; a true sense of humility.
  4. A court system of judges, agreed to by both parties, to assist in conflict resolution.
  5. Use of an assessment tool that will evaluate and inform all the players about the style in which each person “gets things done.” One such tool is Kolbe Wisdom, which describes, not the way people think or feel, but the way they take action. Do they enjoy working with details, or do they prefer the big picture? Are they good at organizing? Are they impulsive decision-makers, or do they have trouble committing? Are they comfortable with lack of closure? There is no right or wrong style, but the combination of styles within a group can lead to the success or failure of its assigned task.

The assessment tool is extremely valuable because constructive conflict cannot occur unless the communicator is delivering his or her message in a style that can be “heard” by the communicatee. A general rule for all communication is to “start with the conclusion.” This helps the person who is receiving the communication put the information into context. It will save time and energy.

Effective problem-solving and decision-making require a certain kind of “action mode” that needs to be recognized. During each phase of implementing a constructive conflict model, a different kind of leader is needed. The person who is ultimately in charge has the responsibility of placing the right leader in the right place at the right time.

Deadlines with rewards and penalties need to be established by a third party. These will help instill patience in those who want decisions yesterday, and spur to action those who always feel they need more information before they can stop gathering data.

As Dan Sullivan would say, we have hit the “ceiling of complexity.” The two communities are buried under countless details, demands, and activities that drain energy and destroy confidence and creativity. To break through, we need to simplify. We need a new set of structures, habits, and capabilities. We need to stop living in the gap. We need to bring an end to frustration, since it only leads to anger. Leaders and followers, let’s change the trajectory of events. Let’s implement the attitudes and systems we need to foster constructive conflict.