One of the central tenets of conflict resolution is that everyone always acts from what seems to them to be the best of intentions. Everyone. Always.

I suspect your initial reaction to this is probably much the same as mine was -- a horrified denial. We can all think of monsters -- Hitler, Myra Hindley, Frederick West. These people, we say, are evil, and twisted, and their actions can't possibly be interpreted as good.

And we are right. The argument is not that the actions are good, or that the person's reasoning is sound. We don't need to agree with them, or sympathise with their point of view. We are perfectly entitled to consider them monsters.

The purpose of the statement is to help us understand that nobody is a monster in their own mind. Why does the rapist rape? We can say that it is to humiliate and hurt the victim, an act of hatred -- and again we would be right. But why? The answer is probably something like "To achieve a feeling of power".

Hitler had his own ideals. He believed he was acting in the best interests of Germany and the Aryan people. In his mind, the Jews, the homosexuals, the mentally ill or retarded, the gypsies, were lesser creatures, deserving to be sacrificed for the greater good of the superior race. People who beat and abuse their children may be doing it, "so that they understand right from wrong" or "because they have to learn that there are consequences to what they do."

Why does it matter, why should we understand and accept this, if we don't have a responsibility to treat the motivations of others as good or valid?

There are two key reasons:

  • Know thine enemy. If we have an understanding of why the other person is acting as they do, we are in a better position to counter what they are doing. In a situation where things are less black and white than I have outlined, we may be able to reach a solution that gives the person we are in conflict with what they need, without harming ourselves or others.
  • Know thyself. If we get in the habit of seeking the motivations and intentions of others, we gain a clearer perspective on the possible effects on others of what we do, when we act from "the best possible intentions".

The ability to look for motivation and consequence also allows us to distance ourselves from conflict itself, and move into a position where we can depersonalise the offences committed against us -- and therefore, puts us in a better position to resolve the conflict.

Back to Resolving Conflict

notes: As I clearly stated in the wu above, we don't have to see the intentions as good. The person acting from them does. It is about the person's perception of themselves -- what they intend. My personal value system means that I will not always act in my own best interests, if I know that doing so will cause harm to someone else, and can point to countless people who act selflessly for the good of others, so I cannot state that people act out of their best interests. It is intention that is the key.

Perhaps the idea should be more along the lines of "Everyone acts in a manner that they believe is in line with their best interests". Break down why you do the things you do, and you'll arrive at the same conclusion.

In other words, regardless of how we interpret an action using our own experiences as reference, all individuals are doing exactly the same thing. The important thing to note is that everyone has a different belief system and therefore the view of 'acceptable conduct' varies wildly from person to person.

People do not usually act in a manner that is not consistent with their beliefs, and when they do they frequently experience guilt.

In a conflict resolution sense, the important thing to realize is that people do what they do because they believe that their action will bring them an outcome that is deemed highly desirable. Not everybody wants the same thing, and simply because lots of people think in a contrary fashion to that person does not make either "right" or "wrong".

There are laws, of course, but what society deems acceptable behaviour is not the issue. Understanding the motivation for an action is simply a matter of understanding what an individual believes will bring them a desirable result.

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