Conflict and complexity

Why conflict and complexity are important


Societal problems vary with respect to their level of complexity. In this context, the word “complex” is not a synonym for “difficult”. We differentiate between simple, complicated and complex problems. Treating a complex problem as if it were simple risks increasing tension and possibly making it more complex. We believe that it is important for the process designer in particular, but also the facilitator, to understand complexity in order to be able to adjust the process accordingly.


We regard conflict as a natural process in any living system. It is an opportunity for the development and growth of society, organisations and relationships. Whilst polarity is an essential phase in a successful process, there is always the risk that such polarity can become a conflict if is not resolved or transcended.

Consider an example of a project that starts well. There are good intentions all round and communication between all involved parties is free from friction. Issues arise where parties are not in full agreement with each other and some degree of tension arises. If this is not resolved right away, the tension will grow or surface in other issues. For us, this is quite natural. The tension is an indicator that some form of adjustment is necessary – either in the structure of the organisation, the flow of communication, the relationships, the goals or in the practical implementation of decisions. This is no problem as long as the issues are facilitated well and resolved. Should they, however, fail to be resolved, the ensuing conflict could have negative, even disastrous effects on the project.

What you could consider when faced with a complex problem

Sometimes a crisis arrives without warning. A sudden event occurs – like lightning starting a fire in the forest. At other times one can see it coming – the way you smell smoke and know that there is a hotspot smouldering somewhere and that needs to be taken care of to avoid a fire. The Dialogue Triage can give you a hint as to what you are faced with, which risks you face and what you could do right away to prevent the problem escalating.

Conflicts arise and escalate because parts of society are marginalised: when individuals or groups are ignored, actively excluded or when voices are silenced. Any action that furthers this marginalisation will most likely make the problem worse. If short term repressive action causes it to quieten down, it is likely to surface again: only this time with more intensity and in a way that is much harder to resolve.

In the same way, complex problems will not go away if the surface issues are “fixed”. The deeper underlying issues will remain and new problems will rise to the surface.

For these reasons, it is of great importance for an authority that faces social problems takes care to act in a way that will alleviate pressure. “First aid” applied without an understanding of the risks involved, can have adverse effects, sometimes of a very severe nature.


What to do?

The Dialogue Triage

Making sense of complex challenges

The Dialogue Triage is a tool that takes into account both the levels of complexity and conflict escalation in order to understand:

  • The nature of the problem and what  kind of dialogue is required
  • Risks
  • Opportunities
  • Design and facilitation capacity required
  • First aid advice

By answering questions relating to each of its axes you will identify a square on the matrix that will provide you with some hints as to how to proceed.

Contact us for more information about the Dialogue Triage and how it can be used


What is dialogue?

Dialogue is a conversation between those involved in a problem or conflict. For us, this often involves attempts to deal with complex social problems and societal conflict, but also includes conversations to resolve lesser conflicts and reduce tension within organisations. 

Complex social problems require a dialogue that includes the relevant perspectives and the actors involved. This requires careful design and skilful facilitation.

Societal conflicts, and indeed all problems that involve tension to some degree, require an approach that creates fluidity: moving from fixed positions to mutual understanding and even empathy. The facilitator strives to create a safe space characterised by openness and clarity in order for that which needs to be said can be said.

It is a process that makes the implicit explicit, that makes the unseen visible and the unspoken speakable. It contributes to the building of trust and the strengthening of relationships.

Dialogue is a process of building sustainable peace between those with opposing views or perspectives. It may lead to concrete decisions or agreements, but this is no requirement. Parties to dialogue may reach the understanding that they differ but can live side by side with mutual respect.

Is your organisation ready to deal with a complex problem?

The forest blaze in Sweden in 2018 exposed the lack of preparedness for a fire of that size. The Swedish fire services were able to deal with lesser forest fires and were well equipped. They didn’t, however, bargain with the support and infrastructure needed for a fire of that magnitude and needed to call on neighbouring countries for help.

We have discovered that many authorities lack the capacity to deal with complex problems and societal conflicts even when help is available in the form of trained facilitators or mediators. The problem is that the organisation is not prepared to work collaboratively with other stakeholders and partners. They fall back on traditional modes of decision-making and rely on planning and experts to “solve” the problem. This risks making the problem worse, both in terms of escalating frustration, resistance and conflict and in terms of complexity. Unfortunately, complex problems don’t come with a warning: “DON’T ATTEMPT TO SIMPLIFY”.

We would be happy to assist you in gauging your preparedness and assist you in building the capacity to deal with complex problems before they arise. If the heat is already up, you can learn as we help you deal with the problem, or, as we say: “make the road while walking it”. Please contact us if you need more information on how we or our partners can assist you.


Be prepared