Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts

January, 2019

I began a new journey in May of 2016: I set out to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and writing a description of the ascent; and, each time, writing a reflection on my journey since joining Peace Corps over 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Since then, in 43 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. And I’ve reflected on two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures,” and most recently my tenure as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.

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Late in our years in Sydney, I took a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation.  At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work.  Plus it had been over ten years since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!

As I described last time, after having completed those two courses, Dr Rosemary Howell (who I was lucky to study Principled Negotiation with) suggested that I consider pursuing a Masters Degree in Dispute Resolution. I’m glad that I followed her advice, because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the degree, which I finished just after we left Australia, in 2015.

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The eight classes that comprised my degree were informative and interesting, useful in my work and in life. And several of the professors I studied with were world-class, including Rosemary herself, for sure.

One of those, amongst the best, was Dr Bernie Mayer, one of the world’s foremost thinkers, researchers, practitioners, and teachers in the area of conflict. It was my good fortune that Bernie undertook a sabbatical in late 2015, and taught “Skills in Dispute Resolution” at UNSW. Rosemary suggested that, if at all possible, I enroll; I leaped at the opportunity… and I’m very glad I did!

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One focus of that course was “conflict analysis.” Bernie had developed a framework that could be used to understand any conflict, as a prelude to addressing it. In this blog entry, I want to try to summarize that approach: how can we understand specific, particular conflicts?

But first… this time I want to describe my climb of Mt Washington (6288ft, 1917m), my 43rd 4000-footer!

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I climbed both Mt Washington and Mt Monroe on a spectacular day in late October 2017 – they would be my last climbs that year.  The day was clear and cool, ideal conditions for climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire.

Mt Washington is the highest of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and is in fact the highest mountain in the eastern United States.  The highest wind speed ever recorded, on earth, was measured at the top of Mt Washington, and stories of extreme weather at the summit are common. As are, tragically, fatalities, so one does not approach climbing Mt Washington lightly, in any season.

My hope was to climb both mountains that day, doing a long loop, but I was a little bit concerned about the time this would take, because the days were getting shorter in late October.  So Eric and I left Durham at about 7:15am, hoping to get an early start.

On the way up Rt 16 we stopped to have breakfast at the Miss Wakefield diner, and to pick up a Subway sandwich for me – that’s because Eric was going to skip the climb this time, as he was recovering from shoulder surgery.  He would spend most of the day working from a Starbucks in North Conway.

My plan was to hike up to the top of Mt Washington from Pinkham Notch via Tuckerman Ravine, and then loop over to Mt Monroe on the Crawford Path, and then down Davis Path to Glen Boulder Trail to the Glen Ellis parking area:

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My Ascent Of Mt Washington

Another challenge was that I was somewhat out of shape.  I had just returned from a great month in India, travelling with my old friend Ricardo Gómez to eight places that are especially significant in the life of the historical Buddha, and had gotten very little exercise during that time.  A fascinating and illuminating and exhausting month, but upon my return I wasn’t sure I was ready to climb two of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains.

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I left Pinkham Notch just before 10am, heading up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail:

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It was a beautiful day, clear and cool, perfect for hiking.  After about a 1/2 hour I passed the turnoff for Huntington Ravine, which is about 1.2m from Pinkham Notch.  To that point the trail had been pretty steadily and moderately upward, not too steep yet.   The barren summit area of Mt Washington was just beginning to appear:

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Fifteen minutes later I passed the junction with the Raymond Path, which was unmarked, and soon after that I passed the turnoff for the Lion Head Trail:

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Just after 11am I arrived at the Hermit Lake Shelters, at the eastern end of Tuckerman Ravine.  This area is spectacular, and the day was perfect:

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The Main Shelter At Hermit Lake
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Looking Up Tuckerman Ravine

I walked up into Tuckerman Ravine; soon some light snow was on the trail:

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It was only 1.8m from there to the top of Mt Washington, but it looked like it would be a grueling 1.8 miles!

At about 11:30am I reached the beginning of Tuckerman Ravine, in the bowl, and began to climb up very steeply, surrounded by many small waterfalls.  This is a dangerous area in the winter and spring, when avalanches are common:

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Steeply Upward…
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It Was Getting Colder and Windier. Much More Cold and Much More Wind Awaited!
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I arrived at the top of the Ravine at around noon.  There was a surprising amount of water at the top of the Ravine, testimony to the recent rains we’ve had I guess.

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Here is a video taken near the top of the Ravine:

I remember climbing up this trail, years ago, and nearing the top, and several young men began to throw rocks down into the ravine.  I don’t think they could see me, down below the edge; one rock came so close to my head that I could hear it fly past.  I scolded them severely!

On this day there were no rock-throwers, and it was simply amazing at the top of the ravine: I could see the large, fairly-flat area between Washington and Monroe, and the mountains off in the distance to the southwest:

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But Washington itself loomed above me now, about 0.6m away in terms of distance, but way above me in elevation!  Here the antennas at the top of Mt Washington can just be seen up above:

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That final climb up to the summit of the highest mountain in the eastern United States was brutal.  The wind started blowing, and the temperature dropped steadily; the walking was a challenge in the wind; just trying to stay on two feet while dodging around and on top of granite rocks of all sizes was hard enough, but with the wind blowing so strongly I did lose my balance a few times!

I got to the summit area at around 12:45pm, where I found a small crowd – a few hikers like me, along with a bunch of tourists who had taken the Cogg Railway up the mountain.

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Mostly Tourists, Queuing Up To Take Photos At The Summit Sign

So I had climbed 44 of the 48 4000-footers!  Now including the highest one, and though I had climbed Washington a half-dozen times over the years, it felt very good.

But it also felt very cold and windy: I had a quick lunch at the top, sheltering between rocks from the strong wind and cold.  I started shivering, so put on another layer of clothing.

Once I had finished my sandwich and carrot, I went back over to the summit marker, as most of the people who had been queuing to take pictures were now queuing to go back down on the railway.

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Arriving At The Top
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About To Start Down, Quite A Bit Colder!  And, Clearly, I Needed An Eyebrow Trim

OK: I figured I had time to climb Mt Monroe so, after hunting around in the cold, and starting to shiver mildly, I found the beginning of the Crawford Path, and started down.  I’ll describe the rest of the day – getting up Mt Monroe and arriving down at Rt 16 in the dark (!) – next time.

But first…

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So I had launched into a masters degree, studying conflict, and much of the coursework I undertook was focused on gaining the range of tools needed to address, transform, resolve conflict: “Principled Negotiation,” mediation, conflict coaching, etc.

Bernie Mayer’s class focused, in part, on what I soon realized was a missing, foundational piece for me: how can we understand a conflict? How can we gain insights about the roots of a specific, concrete conflict?

Because without gaining an understanding of a conflict, of course, it would be much harder to achieve a lasting and positive transformation, even using the tools I was learning. One of the texts we used for this course was Bernie’s book, “The Dynamics of Conflict.” Highly recommended:

This book goes well beyond understanding conflict, and is in fact a survey of the conceptual understandings and skills needed to engage with conflict productively.

In this article, I want to unpack Bernie’s “Wheel of Conflict,” which is included in “The Dynamics of Conflict.” The “Wheel” is a very helpful tool that can be used to understand specific conflicts:

The graphic illustrates, both in terms of content and form, the essential lenses through which we should look at any conflict as we seek to understand the situation more deeply. At the center are the deepest motivating forces (needs), surrounded by five domains in which conflicts develop and intensify. At the outside are general contextual factors that can contribute to the conflict.

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Let’s move through each component of Bernie’s Wheel: firstly, at the center of all conflicts are Needs – and the more fundamental the Needs involved, such as Identity or Survival, the more intense the conflict might be. Human needs are at the core of all conflicts, and people engage in conflict, situations become conflicts, either because people have needs that are fulfilled by the conflict itself, or because they have needs that they can only attain (or believe they can only attain) by engaging in conflict.

Then Mayer describes six domains that are directly determinant in understanding a conflict: the history of a conflict: how it has emerged and transformed; how parties to the conflict communicate; the emotions involved; the underlying values that are related to the situation; and the structure in which the conflict develops: the legal or organizational setting.

These domains are in the middle of the Wheel:

  • History: conflict cannot be understood independent of its history.  The history of participants in a conflict, of the system in which the conflict is occurring, and of the issues themselves has a powerful influence on the conflict. The example that I focused on in my term paper, and described and included below, was the conflict then ongoing in Ferguson, Missouri, which emerged in full, violent form after the killing of Michael Brown. In this conflict, the tragic killing of a young man can easily be seen to be formed and strongly influenced, in part, by the long history of racism and oppression, and of violence by and against police officers. Clearly, societal conflicts have their histories, as do even the most individual, personal conflicts – so understanding events that led to the present situation can be very informative;
  • Communications. We are very imperfect communicators.  Sometimes this imperfection generates conflict, whether or not there is a significant incompatibility of interests, and it almost always makes conflict harder to deal with effectively. Several conflicts that I can recall in my own life were strongly influenced by (mis-) communications: for example, our use of the term “excluded” to refer to how a contract would not apply to a particular person, in a positive sense (as a positive exception, because the particular relationship predated the contract, she would not be bound by the agreement), but who interpreted the use of that word to be a reference to racist discrimination that was vivid in her past;
  • Emotions are the energy that fuels conflict.  If we could always stay perfectly rational and focused on how best to meet our needs and accommodate those of others, and if we could calmly work to establish effective communication, then many conflicts either would never arise or would quickly de-escalate.  But of course that is not human nature.  At times emotions seem to be in control of our behavior – as I mentioned last time, our “lizard brain” takes over and deskills us. The conflict mentioned above certainly resulted in very inflamed emotions, which significantly impeded our ability to deal with the situation;
  • Values are the beliefs we have about what is important, what distinguishes right from wrong and good from evil, and what principles should govern how we lead our lives.  When a conflict is defined or experienced as a struggle about values, it becomes much more difficult to manage. In an article I hope to publish here in a few weeks, I will describe a couple of real conflicts that I experienced over the years, in my career, and the most-intense of these disputes did indeed involve deeper beliefs about my own self-image, my values and self-worth;
  • Structure: the structure or framework within which an interaction takes place or an issue develops is another source of conflict. Structural components of conflict include available resources, decision-making procedures, time constraints, legal requirements, and locations. In other words, understanding the context of a conflict can help us understand how it is emerging and how it might develop and transform, or be resolved.

Finally, Mayer shows four wider, contextual factors on the outer rim of the Wheel, which will help us understand the broadest setting for the conflict:

  • Culture affects conflict because it is embedded in individuals’ communication styles, their history, their ways of dealing with emotions, their values, and the structure within which conflict occurs. I will focus on this topic, extensively, which is fundamental in the INGO work that I’ve described in this series, and indeed in our globalized world, in my next article. And the examples from my career that I will share in the near future will all have significant cross-cultural components. So stay tuned for that;
  • Power is a very elusive concept, one that can obscure the roots of a conflict but can also help us understand the interaction.  Power is partly embedded in the structure within which the conflict is occurring but it has to be understood as a product of personal styles and interpersonal interactions. Readers of this blog series will recall that an earlier article was focused on precisely this subject. Certainly feelings of relative powerlessness can be powerful drivers of conflict, and a power analysis can lead to a deeper understanding of conflict behavior;
  • Personality is a very broad concept, perhaps best understood in terms of styles of conflict engagement and avoidance, a topic I covered in my previous article in this series;
  • Data: how data are handled and communicated can exacerbate conflict.  In today’s United States, how we handle data, often now by dismissing science and objective facts – “Fake News” – is of fundamental importance in terms of understanding the conflicts that we are immersed in…

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I’ve found the use of Bernie Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict to be very helpful as I’ve addressed conflict in the years since I studied with him. It’s a great way to understand a conflict, as a prelude to addressing it, and I’ve used it in work contexts, and in life.

Perhaps my first in-depth use of the Wheel was in the class itself. Each of the eight classes that I took to complete my Masters in Dispute Resolution required the preparation of a research essay. For Bernie’s class, we were asked to analyze a particular, present-day conflict, and he encouraged us to be ambitious as we selected our subject.

I proposed analyzing the then-current conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, between the African-American community and local police. Of course, this tragic situation was one of the sources of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; emerging at around the same time as other movements gained momentum, part of a general push-back against long-standing domination and oppression in the US since then, in particular of women (via the #MeToo movement)…

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Bernie was keen for me to attempt an analysis of this conflict, though he cautioned me that it would be a very complex situation to unpack!

I will share my essay, below, and welcome your comments. The essay’s introduction reads as follows:

Just after noon on 9 August 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Civil unrest and protests, many of which became violent, erupted the next day in Ferguson, and beyond. Violence continued for 10 days. A further wave of violent protests was prompted by the announcement, three months later, that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

The conflict that took place in Ferguson in August 2014, and beyond, can be understood as a dynamic combination of the actions and backgrounds of two human beings, one black and one white, who encountered each other

  • in a town suffering deep “injustice … (and a) calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines” (this was a reference to a 2014 article by Charles Blow in the New York Times);
  • deeply fearful, due to pervasive racial stereotypes and the ubiquity of guns in American society .

The purpose of this paper is not to explore how the conflict in Ferguson could be resolved, nor will it suggest how relations between African-American communities and the police could be improved. Rather, this paper seeks to describe and understand a particular, complex conflict in the specific context of Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the killing of one black teenager by a white police officer. Given limitations of space, the paper will focus only on some aspects of the conflict.

Firstly, the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death are summarised, with a brief reference to other, similar events that took place in the months before and after his killing. A framework for analysing conflict is then presented, and the framework is used to deepen understanding of the situation in Ferguson. In conclusion, some final reflections and thoughts for further analysis are offered.

You can download the research essay using this link: mcpeak – laws8165 – research essay – final.  I welcome your comments!

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So that’s the “Wheel of Conflict,” as designed by Bernie Mayer, a very helpful tool for understanding conflict. Soon, in my next article, I will describe the rest of the hike, climbing Mt Monroe, and I will write about culture and cross-cultural conflict.

Stay tuned for that!

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Here are links to earlier blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights.

4 thoughts on “Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts

  1. Pingback: Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict | Mark McPeak

  2. Pingback: Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study of Culture and Conflict | Mark McPeak

  3. Pingback: “The Functions of Social Conflict” by Lewis Coser | Mark McPeak

  4. Pingback: Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey. | Mark McPeak

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