Article: An Autopoietic Conflict Model

An Autopoietic Conflict Model

by Jan Willem van Ee

(Dit artikel heeft gediend als voorbereiding voor het college van 1 maart 2010 voor de minor mediation van de UU, faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid. 

Voor eventuele verbeteringen in het Engels houd ik mij graag aanbevolen. Commentaar kunt u geven op

An updated and more extensive version is also in Dutch language on this website.  


In this article I will propose a conflict model, based on the theory of autopoiesis.(1) This theory is interesting in the field of conflict theory because it focuses, instead of most theories, not on the process of interaction between persons, but on the process inside a person (system) in interaction.

My aim is to show that conflict is not only an interactive process, but mainly a process that is rooted inside the person itself. This offers the possibility to search for and find a field of cognition that is responsible for starting and maintaining conflict.

In autopoiesis is what we “are” defined by what we have learned. The main slogan in autopoiesis is: living is learning and vice versa, learning is living. When we as humans do not seem able to cope with conflict, what is it that we don’t know or haven't learned yet? The results will also enable a mediator to look for the source of the conflict at hand and with this knowledge to be of better service to clients.

In short: Autopoiesis suggests a cognitive domain for learning how to deal with conflict and even how to learn from it. 

1. Autopoiesis

The theory of autopoiesis was proposed by the Chilean neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their main text book is called: The Tree of Knowledge, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.(2) According to autopoiesis everything, including everything, is defined and limited by our biology, even our understanding. 

A human being is a living system. It seems to have come into this world with little luggage, with far less hard wired behaviour than animals. This living system, a person, has to learn everything just from scratch. This learning process is ongoing and never stops, until the person dies. So a newborn baby is not yet a human being, it looks like it by its features (organisation). And in this way we have learned to discriminate between cats and people. We take it for granted that a baby has the potential to become human, but in its structure, one could say the content of its beingness at birth (structure) it is not (yet). Normally it has these possibilities, mainly through its highly plastic brain. Everything has to be learned. One can teach it every kind of knowledge, from the most difficult physical acts like playing a musical instrument or a circus act, to the most difficult languages. But this is always the case: it has not only to be taught, but more important the teaching as to be processed in such a way that the baby, kid, or person shows that what is taught is properly learned. This process goes this far that when a human baby is not raised in a human environment, it will not become human. To become human, a human environment is indispensable. A famous example are the wolf children, found in India about 1920.(3) These children were raised in a wolf troupe and had become wolves. A human baby only becomes a human person by becoming a human person in a human environment. This is essential circular and self-referential.

To make this more clear I will give an other example. You as a reader happen to have learned the English language. You are more or less good at it, depending on your place of birth and your level of education, but being able to read this text does not mean that you can read or easily understand James Joyce’s Ulysses, the book with the highest versatility of English words. It takes practice to get to that level.

This process of learning is achieved by interaction with the environment. In this process an event that is perceived by the person is called a perturbation. A perturbation (perturbation) is an interaction with the environment in a structural coupling (structural coupling) that triggers a change of state in the system. Perturbations are perceived by the system, i.e. the human person and processed. This processing is handling the perturbation in such a way, that the system stays alive and that the coupling is maintained (conservation of adaptation). Thus the next time a same perturbation is perceived, the system will be (better) able to compensate for the perturbation. In this way the system learns. A conflict is a situation that threatens the structural coupling and as well makes huge demands on the conservation of adaptation.

To bring this down to earth: who has mastered swimming, has learned to compensate for the perturbation of falling into the water and he will have a better chance of not drowning. Who has learned a martial art might be better suited to face a robbery. This is true, not only for physical, but also for mental activities like learning a language and doing a training of any sort. In autopoiesis nothing is excluded from being a perturbation that, once compensated by the system, happens to have been a learning device, by which the system next time a same perturbation is perceived, can compensate and say that it has learned something (cognition). In daily life every human is busy to compensate for the perturbations from the environment that he perceives, and by maintaining his adaptation he proves that he is learning. But sometimes it happens that a perturbation is not, or cannot be compensated and then the conservation of adaptation is in danger and with it the structural coupling and in the end the person himself. It seems obvious that there are perturbations that cannot be compensated, because the biological parameters of the human body are not fit to learn to compensate them. Being thrown from a tower cannot be compensated in any possible known way! All the possible extensions of the system do not make this possible (structure determination). In daily life there are also many possible perturbations that the system does not seem able to learn to cope with, like having a structure determination that seems not able to learn to cope with what happens. This is quite obvious with conflict.

It follows that the biological parameters and boundaries are the bottom line of what can be learned and that only what the system has learned to cope with, it may cope with. So any reaction to a perturbation is not governed by the perturbation, but by the structure of the system that is trying to compensate for the perturbation. Put differently: Not what happens to me, but my structure, defines my possible reactions.(4)

2. The structure defines the reaction

I will start with an example that I will use throughout the next sections: A couple has just married. They are deeply in love, but at a party the husband sees his wife chatting with one of her exes in a way he does not like. He gets very troubled by that.

Every human being wants to live in harmony with his environment. This is called homeostasis.(5) In a conflict the environment is not longer seen as safe. In this environment some perturbations are perceived and seen as a threat. The husband perceives his wife chatting in a way that within him builds up the conviction that she is deceiving him. The system in conflict appears not to be able to cope with this perturbation. It follows that the perturbation, seen as a threat is something the structure has not (yet) learned to cope with. In the structure the knowledge (cognition) is not available to compensate for the perceived threat. The husband does in reality not even know whether his wife is deceiving him. It may be true, or he may fancy it. Put differently, but saying the same: the individual in conflict has not learned to act properly upon the perturbations and does not react in an adequate way (i.e. to live in peace). This happens to be so, because his actual structure determines the possible ways of reacting and (as said) in his structure knowledge for an adequate other reaction is not (yet) available. Only when having learned to compensate for the perturbation the conflict can be solved. In this way is conflict a learning process! It is in fact a high pressure learning process, because the individual sees himself facing an unsafe environment that threatens his conservation of adaptation and the structural coupling he is in with this environment. In this situation basic biological hard wired behaviour often sets in, for instance the fight or flight response. Everybody knows and has the experience that in a highly stressed situation the body seems to take over, sometimes with embarrassing results.

Because the structure defines the possible reactions, it may be clear that  a conflict is not defined by what is commonly seen as the “facts”, the matter about what the parties seem to fight. We all know that, because “facts” that for some person are only a reason to shrug his shoulders, for another they may be a real casus belli. This is common knowledge, but to connect proper conclusions to this happens to be difficult, as it seems. In the example, the husband does not look inside to consider why he is thinking what he is thinking, but he exports the “why?” and projects it.

3. The perturbations that lead to conflict

I have said before that in conflict the perturbations picked up from the environment and processed in the structure have as an outcome that the environment is seen as unsafe. With inadequate compensation the conflict is about to start, unless the other party is wise enough to really see what happens. But because his structure may have learned as little of even less, an adequate compensation may not be given and there the conflict goes. What then happens is that one or the parties or both mey try to make the environment a safe one, first by trying to change the other person and to convince him of his wrongness, and thereafter in case of need or thoughtlessness by removing him from the environment. Picking up a gun is a way of ending the conflict and the learning process of living will continue in jail! The husband in the given example might do that with devastating results. Many great works of literature and opera are based on this theme.

Picking up perturbations of all kind, be it in language or not, are the ground for building up a conflict, but not the conflict itself. While in autopoiesis everything is perturbation, also language is a perturbation and not information, as is sometimes thought. Language is a consensual domain (consensual domain) in which the processing of perturbations is coordinated. If I say something in Quechua (the language of South-American altiplano indigenous people) and you do not happen to speak the language the perturbation cannot be processed by you in a way that, if you had happened to speak the language would make it possible for you to create in your system the information to which I, speaking, tried to orient you. You as a reader even can understand this text only in as far as your structure enables you to understand it. And further on, if you do not understand it, it might not be my fault, but only a lack in your cognition. This goes even further. If a man says to a woman: “You are just like your mother”, the result of this will actually be the processing by that woman partly of the tone and voice the statement is put in, but most of all, what kind of relation this woman actually had with her mother. Even words we all say that we know have (slightly) different meanings, most of the time emotionally coloured, for each of us.

In other words, not what I am saying, in any language, transfers any information. It is the system of the reader or listener that creates, with what is written or said, in an internal operation, the information, but only to the extend that the structure of the system, i.e. its cognition, what it has learned till that moment, enables it to do so. And this applies to language and also meta-language, like face expressions and body language.(6)

Not what we are perceiving – in the example the wife chatting – creates any information. It is the system in its actual state of structure that most of the time makes something of it. In the example, it is the husband getting jealous.

We are all interpreting the environmental perturbations according to the state of our own structure. What is said and what is done, is only interpreted and given meaning, according to the state of our structure. So it follows that the deficiencies of the structure in interpretation and as a consequence of adequate behaviour upon it, determine the conflict. Said in another way, although the person himself thinks he is doing his very best, from the standpoint of an outside observer it may seem that the behaviour of that person is not adequate to the situation and threatens the conservation of identity and adaptation of this person in his structural coupling to his environment (of which the outside observer is also part). To make things absolutely clear, it are not the perturbations from the environment that trigger the conflict, it is the internal operation of the system that creates the information the system is using to start the feelings and emotions that, only in the end, result in behaviour that is by an outside observer is described as conflict minded. The husband in the example sees his wife chatting (perturbation) and in his internal processing the state of his structure makes him think that she is deceiving him.

This put in another way gives rise to the saying that what a person in conflict says and does is always and only about himself. Autopoietic logic teaches that what in conflict is said and done only shows a representation of the state of the structure of that party in the conflict. In Holland a children’s rhyme exists that says: “What you say, you are yourself”, meaning that when you utter nasty language, it is about yourself that you are talking. 

4. The cognitive gap as conflict trigger

By now the question arises if it is possible to define an area in the system, or the lack thereof that causes this whole operation. I think it is possible to define such an area. But let me first give an example of a situation that happens once in a while to most of us: You are driving on a highway and near an exit someone, overhauling, cuts you off in a nasty way. Most people will, understandably, react with: “The bastard!”, or words with such a meaning, or worse. Let me unravel this. Of course when this happens you will almost certainly be alarmed. And a bodily reaction of anger is almost natural. But what happens next is not! Saying: “The bastard!” essentially means that you put the other person down, in fact you are saying that you would not do such a thing and that the other one is a lesser person. Or course it is only a temporary reaction you might say, but think about it. By calling someone a bastard, even in distress, it essentially says that you and he/she are not equal, he/she is of a lesser kind, doing something like that. Your reaction might also have been of fear, angriness or distrust. This does not make any difference. The main point is: These are not necessary reactions, because one might have thought that the other driver is in haste going to his sick dying mother. With that thought all angry feelings, or whatever reaction, might wear off.

We judge other people along the standards we set (but almost never live up to ourselves) and if they for whatever reason fail, we set them apart as wicked or worse. In the meantime we forget to ask for possible reasons and what we do is filling in the gaps of knowledge about the situation.

An illustrative example of this is told by Stephen Covey.(7) In the metro somewhere a father, very distressed and absent minded is sitting, with his children who are running around, shouting and annoying everyone. One of the passengers gets angry and he demands from the father to discipline his children. His answer is something about: “Sir, you are completely right. We just come from the hospital, where my wife died. They cannot cope with it and neither can I”. This story shows a lot about the basics of conflict. The passenger filled in his own thoughts about how children should behave and what a father should do. This builds up in him a conflict that was expressed. The answer of the father, apologizing, would any compassionate person make to ask if she could offer some help. But also the reverse is possible by saying in a snubbing way: “Well, how could I know, but ……”. You can fill in the rest. In this case not only the conflict was not over, but actually he was now accusing the father as the source of his own behaviour. How much autonomy can one loose!

The story also shows that in the case of a building-up conflict we are seeing the world through a lens, the lens of what we think right or wrong. In the example of the couple the lens is plainly jealousy. In the case of the car incident, the lens is of us not doing such thing, being better, hence we call this pride. In the case of the deceased wife the lens may be ideas about how children should behave. This might be through anger and even shame.(8) What is happening is that our worldview, the idea of what the situation should be is filled in by thoughts that we have created in our own structure. From that point on the environment is seen in a way to really have the duty to maintain this worldview. What we do in fact is to see and perceive and judge everything along the standards that we have created as suitable or just. What does not conform to these is seen as a threat and most of the time acted upon accordingly. This goes so far that in the end we are super sensitive and are even looking for and expecting from people to do things different from what we have devised as suitable for us. In maintaining conflict we seem, very paradoxically, to expect and welcome their behaviour, because this proves that we were right all the way. Everything that is perceived is interpreted this way. We do this by maintaining our view by perceiving what happens through the lens of our prejudices. 

5. The lacking cognitive domain 

The theory of autopoiesis suggests that a person can only act as his structure enables him. When a person does not seem to cope with some perturbations, according to autopiesis, there is a lack of cognition. It follows that in conflict the lack of a cognitive domain is shown. The stories prove this. After a long search how to name or describe this domain, it is my opinion that this lacking domain can be described grosso modo in terms of the human virtues and vices. In the case of conflict these are the great human deficiencies, or in other terms, the deadly sins.(9) It is not about the number or the list itself, because for instance also fear, deceit, shame or power can be named, but these just point out the domain in which there is a cognitive lack.(10) Whatever happens in conflict, I have found that it can always be traced back to one of these items.

When put in autopoietic language, it is the structure of a person that not yet has learned to cope with human vices. And so, in my opinion, conflict is the learning process to cope with one’s own cognitive deficiencies in this domain. Seen in this way, a conflict is the question asked to a person whether or not she has begun to cope with them and how far she has succeeded as yet.

Brought back to the examples taht I gave, this could for the husband be jealousy, but also fear to loose his wife; In the case of the car incident pride is a good candidate, and in the case of the story in the subway it might almost be every human vice, but most likely anger.

6. Validity of this finding in different paradigms of worldview

Although the list is sometimes named as de 7 Deadly Sins, by no means it has only a religious connotation. Also in secular philosophies comparable lists exist. What I state is that in different ways of looking at reality my thesis makes sense. In a materialistic view, having learned effectively to deal with conflict has survival value and at least increases the way one might perceive life. In a Christian/humanistic view one may become a better person. And in a view which contains the notion of reincarnation it may be a step up on the chain of lives.

I remind that in autopoiesis all living is learning and having learned is to show more adequate behaviour to cope with the environmental perturbations. So learning to cope essentially is becoming more human.

In autopoiesis the perturbation from the environment is seen as the source of change. But by now we know that it is not the perturbation from the environment alone that triggers change, in reality it is the internal operation of the system that initiates the change and with that the possible learning. So the external perturbation does not even matter that much, - it even may be illusory - it is the internal operation that matters, even if it is based on objective wrong information. How often doesn’t it happen that one reacts on something another person is supposed to have said, but never did? We tend to fill the gaps in our knowledge with stories we fancy about someone else, based on our bias toward that person. If we have a benevolent feeling about him, what he says will be interpreted positively and vice versa, as long as we can maintain our worldview.(11)

7. How to get out of it

Although we seem to act instinctively, and behaviour draws mainly on gut feeling and intuition, is there a way out of this, so that when something happens and a conflict seems about to start you can track down what really is the matter? The solution seems to lie in our self-consciousness. It is self-consciousness that enables a person to observe himself and to make critical descriptions of his own (internal) states.(12) In first instance this does not help, unless one is willing to concede to the fact that all observing is utterly subjective. If in a conflict I am sure of the wickedness and bad intentions of the other party and I only can see through all his words and deeds that indeed I am right, there is not much hope.(13) But by knowing that my structure is an unique one, in fact there is no other of me in the entire world ánd by knowing that it is always my structure, the way I became “me”, that has shaped the lens through which one observes the environment, it is possible to come to one’s senses.(14) It is all utterly subjective and has per se no connection whatsoever with any objective truth. If this is profoundly realized a person might become more humble to state truth in what she observes.

This argument can also be applied to oneself. I am de only one that can try to look at the internal operations of my own system and by knowing some basic ideas it is possible to trace the own behaviour in conflict. For this consciousness is not enough. Human beings are gifted with self-consciousness and that enables them as an outside observer to make critical descriptions in language of one’s own internal operations. In autopoiesis, long before modern psychological research showed that it seems to be the unconscious that is at the steering wheel, the conscious is not seen as the core, but only as a sort of interface between the system and the environment.(15) Self-consciousness makes it possible to observe oneself and the outcome acts as new perturbations for the system to deal with and to learn from, in fact to boast the learning process. In fact, self-consciousness seems the turbo on our learning processes, or the turbo of the awareness of ourselves and the states in which the system is operating. In the case of the husband-wife example the husband can cure himself by observing his inner process of getting jealous and asking himself why he brings forth these feelings and thoughts.

I would state that just the simple awareness of the process alone is very helpful to have a critical view on the own behaviour, which tremendously helps to evaluate and to change the behaviour itself.

8. Interim score

It might be clear that conflict is is always an internal phenomenon. Conflict arises and and can be solved only in the person herself. This seems of course very counterintuitive. Every reader knows the situation in his or her past that with the best of intentions, love or whatever means you have employed, the other person stayed nasty and not able to deal with the situation. If that is the case, it is not your problem, but his. The reaction of the other party in conflict, you know by now, is not about you, but only about himself. And this applies to you also.

It follows that whatever the other party does or says, when you know and apply this basic knowledge about conflict, you can stay calm. But it takes courage and some exercise to say to the other one, especially when he seems absolutely unreasonable: “I strongly and utterly disagree with you”, and leave it at that. To do that without negative feelings about the person of the other party is the goal. And it is possible, how difficult it may seem sometimes. This is a choice one has to make. (16)

9. How about this in mediation?

For me it seems necessary for a mediator to look at his own deficiencies in this way and to recognize them, if only he will be helpful for his clients. But having done your own share of it, which is not always confortable, the easy part begins. It shows that unknowingly clients in mediation show their coupling to a particular deficiency quite openly. The simple slogan to trace this can be kept in mind: What one says is always about oneself. A client who feels deceived will say so, but that is not about him really being deceived, it is how he perceives the world and how his view frames his observations of the situation at hand. Very often in small parts of language or in meta-communication this view is shown to an observant mediator. It takes some skill and practice to discover, but once done that it is very easy. I have made the observation that a client tends to say what his real feeling is, sometimes very hidden and in an obscure way, three times at the most in a session. If he is not heard by then, he will retreat and start on “drumming the facts”, as I call it, going on stubbornly to tell over and over what is wrong with everything and everyone, except with himself. The mediator has to be aware that both clients have this problem! And if he himself has the problem too, things might go awkward.

If the mediator can take the lead to what a client feels about the conflict he can show them each other that their worldview is not congruent, that both have on the basis of their (different) coupling with one of the possible deficiencies made up a story about how it all operates, which is utterly subjective and for that reason almost certainly just a fancy. This also shows that the principle of narrative mediation (17) is quite correct. Clients have made different non-congruent stories and they have to build up a consensual domain in which their new stories will be overlapping. My theory shows how their different stories were made and where to begin to make it possible for them to change the stories.

10. Going from I-It to I-Thou

What happens next, ideally, is that one of the clients sees his own story really as what it is, a story, essentially made up and that his adversary is also a human being with his own needs and deficiencies, that do not make him a lesser person, but one, equal to oneself. This is what by the philosopher Martin Buber, is called: going from I-It to I-Thou.(18) By seeing the other person not as an obstacle to one’s own peace or happiness, but as a traveller on the road too, just like oneself, it becomes possible to solve the conflict, not only about the “facts”, but also the inner conflict, being the coupling to the deficiencies. If the latter is not achieved, the first will never happen. Of course the mediation may end in some formal contract, but this will not be enduring. Gottman says something likewise when he sees the ultimate property of an enduring marriage in the positive sentiment override. (19) The state of mind I-It or I-Thou is according to Buber a basic attitude, a state of being. In very powerful poetic prose he paints how the state of being in I-Thou enables one to love the other person, even if he has done something stupid or awkward.

As an example I will describe a true mediation story. A man, elderly and a woman, some ten years younger, asked me for a mediation in their pending divorce. The man had a handful of papers about what was not right with his wife and she complained about his lack of support for her, mainly financially. They were married about 10 years ago, both being widowed before. They both stated that the financial problem was the main thing. When I saw the financial records it dawned unto me that it was not the financials, but something different. We parked the topic and talked about money in general. On my question what was her money for, she surprisingly said that it was a compensation for her children for losing their father so early in life. When I asked the husband about his view on his own money he answered about the same, it was for his children. After a long conversation on money and related topics it became clear to them what script they were playing. Unbeknownst to both of them, their attachment to money steered them. Because when asked to both if they still loved each other the answer was an emotional “Yes!” from both. In this case both were indeed coupled with money, in this case the vice of avarice, but in a quite different way from what they initially thought.

In the next true story the coupling to a cognitive deficiency was different. Two neighbours had a conflict about the wall in between their houses. Neighbour Fred had arranged for it, with consent of neighbour Alan, but had paid more and when it came to accounting, Alan said he did not want to pay whatsoever. So Fred accused him of avarice. The conflict was not resolved. Half a year later it came to a clash on a related topic, about parking the cars and Alan got very upset, calling names and walking away, leaving Fred flabbergasted. A few minutes later the young child of Alan addressed Fred and said: “Neighbour, my father never behaves like that! And he calls you King-Neighbour!” At that moment it became all clear. The coupling of Alan was not on the money, that was Fred’s own coupling. That of Alan was somewhere else, like feeling inferior, or feeling commanded in a way. The conflict for both was something quite different!

I have made the observation that this is mostly the case. The different couplings to the human vices, not known to either parties in the conflict, steer them and maintain the conflict because what one of them does is only seen and interpreted by the other through the lens of his own coupling. Even if a step is made by one of the parties to really solve the conflict, it is by the other party often seen as an exception and dismissed as having no meaning.

11. The first step: towards autonomy

It needs skills and insight from the mediator to guide a process in which both parties are able to see their own subjectivity. One of the main tools for a mediator is to tell people that they have a choice. Starting a conflict is a choice. In the case of the car incident, mentioned before, it is not per se necessary to say: “The basterd!”, neither is it a given in the case of the metro to snub at the father. These are choices that often are poorly made. But in the conflict itself each party has at every moment the choice to make the step from I-It to I-Thou, how difficult or even impossible this may seem. (20) But most of the time the “impossibility” to make that step is mixed up with and caused by notions about how the world sees us and how we expect from ourselves in which way to behave. It is all utterly subjective and it has nothing to do with real choice. These are all “fictitious necessities”. To get control over this reaction of what other people might think is the first step and if a person does not succeed in this, she might be enslaved forever by her expectations of what other people think and feel she should do. This is the step to autonomy.

12. The next and last step: towards compassion

Although it may seem strange, this is the only and also ultimate way to really resolve conflict. To show this I will make a detour, while revisiting some of the earlier arguments.

I argued that the outside perturbation that gives rise to an internal operation, which triggers the behaviour does not matter so much. It is the internal operation that matters. The perceived perturbation may even be illusory. In the example of the just married couple this might be the case. The husband sees his wife talking and his jealousy steers him into a conflict. All conjuring tricks and circus acts are based on this principle of illusion: the system itself cannot discern between fact and fiction. That is why they are so thrilling. This is also why dreams can be so frightening.

What happens is that on a perceived perturbation, fact of fiction, the system starts an internal operation. What the result will be is unknown, till it comes into consciousness. It was processed by the system as a whole, long before the outcome showed up. It follows that the system itself does not exist of the conscious or the unconscious as stand-alone items, but as a whole that includes both. Modern psychological research shows that the subconscious is far more competent and has a much higher “bit-rate” than the conscious. The conscious is only capable of very simple operations and complex decisions are with consciousness poorly made.(21) Everybody knows that it can happen that the answer to a difficult problem arises almost out of the blue. Great Nobel Prize winning discoveries have been made this way. In the theory of autopoiesis consciousness has always been seen as a sort of interface between the system (of which it is part) and the environment.(22)

We also all have experienced that sometimes when the consciousness seems not able to handle a situation that the body seems to take over. Sometimes it is the hardwired fight or flight response, but it also has happened to each of us that at the moment of the actual behaviour the person senses vaguely that this is not the proper response, which later turns out to have been a correct feeling. So the processing in the unconscious gives rise to chemical/hormonal/electric reactions in the body that show up in consciousness in all kinds of emotions and feelings. (23, 24) What happens next is that a person, because he undoubtedly has these feelings or emotions, holds them as truth. Because this feeling or emotion is a truth for the system, it has to look for a reason why to feel this way.

The next step is a simple cause/effect mechanism: because you have just read a letter (or whatever perturbation arises) and now you feel very angry, it is the content of this letter that caused it. Because the husband saw his wife talking with an ex and he felt jealous this feeling had to be justified. And because your feelings are true, you are going to project these on the person or situation that “obviously” has caused them. We human beings feel first and then start to think, so it seems.(25) But when one looks more closely to the situation the projection is only the coupling of that person to one of his own human vices and as a consequence only fictitious. The story of Fred and Allan shows such. But it is very difficult to reach that conclusion.

There is a way out of this maze. As said before, a very special human trait is that the human person not only has consciousness, but also self-consciousness. Self-consciousness makes it possible to look at oneself, to witness the own actions and thoughts. In normal daily life a person is conscious, but seldom operates fully in self-consciousness. The difference is crucial. In self-consciousness a person can make descriptions in language of the actual state of the own system. Nobody else can do that, because this is also an internal operation and in that way a perturbation. I strongly believe that this trait enables us humans to learn more quickly from our own mistakes. When one has established within himself the strong conviction that in conflict these feelings and emotions are utterly subjective and that acting upon them is a choice, then, when looking self-consciously at the internal operations of the system it is possible to “feed” this knowledge back into the system as a whole as a compensation for the perturbation. This is done in a simple and rudimentary way where I wrote earlier that in the case of the car incident one could think that the driver who cuts you off is hurrying to his sick mother. When this is conscientiously done the system will see this “knowledge” as a compensation for the perturbation. This may not be actually true, but it helps to calm down and not let your feelings take over. This is not easy in the beginning, but my experience is that in the end you can see the other party not as your antagonist or even foe, but as your friend, not putting him down as a human being of a lesser kind, as is very often done. This does not mean that you cannot with all your power oppose to what you see as wrong. But this then is done in a very different frame of mind.

This may seem very unrealistic until you try it, but nevertheless, the logic of my theory amounts to this and the experience is that it works out this way. 

If you can see your adversary in conflict in the mode of I-Thou (Buber), whatever the “facts” of the conflict, because the highly emotional feelings can be subsided before they take root, your dispute with your adversary may not be ended, but the conflict inside yourself will be solved much more easily. After some training these feelings and emotions do often not arise anymore. You are able to see the situation more clearly, just as it is, without the blinders of your feelings and emotions. This is not highly esoteric stuff, but the simple result of some simple practices and (it should be) common knowledge.

When this operation is successfully completed the person can meet any situation or conflict without getting involved in a personal way. In the case of the couple he might see his wife chatting to an ex and think: “How wonderful she interacts with people, even him. I am a lucky guy!”. Or in other cases, like the conflict between the neighbours, they may not like it, but they can hold their ground and will not get emotionally involved.

When this is the case, any situation or conflict is not longer seen as a threat, as an unsafe environment, but as one of the things that happen in life. The adversary is no longer an other, an “It”, that can/must be treated as a thing, an obstacle, but a “Thou”, equal to oneself, with whom in reciprocity a relation went sour, but which has nothing to do with his essential equalness. (26, 27)

With this realization compassion will set in, not about your antagonist being mistaken and feeling sorry for him that way. This would be a feeling of superiority and missing the mark completely. What I try to say here is that it is impossible not to feel compassion for your adversary, because essentially he is you. This compassion works both ways, also towards yourself. This is what all great wisdom teachers are saying and they are right.

 13. Conclusion

In this article I wanted to demonstrate that conflict is essentially about the person in conflict himself. Solving conflicts is about cognition, it is a learning process that never ends, but when mastered is very helpful in speeding up the process of learning itself. I wanted to show how autopoiesis can be very helpful in the field of conflict theory. In the book Collaborative approaches to resolving conflict the first sentence is a citation: “The place we need really imaginative new ideas is in conflict theory. That’s true with respect to war and peace, but also it’s true domestically ”.(28)

I think that looking at conflict in the way I have proposed in this article is very promising, not only for solving conflict, but also to see and use it as a learning device.



1. Autopoiesis is what can be called a basic theory. It cannot be proven by other theories. In this article I will not go into criticisms on autopoiesis, or discuss the theory itself. I take the theory as it is given by the authors and apply it to the field of conflict theory. One exception is made: A trait of the theory is that that is seems solipsistic and self-referential. The latter is true, but is not a criticism, because as I will explain that becoming what you as a human being have become is essential self-referential. We are in fact as a species a kind of Baron von Munchhausen, grabbing ourselves out of the moor pulling our hair. That’s why our development as human beings has taken so long. The first (solipsism) is not true, because, as I also will show, becoming as you have become, only can be achieved through the processing of interactions with the environment, which is by definition non-solipsistic.

2. Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Revised Edition, Shambala, Boston/London, 1998. The word autopoiesis comes from Greek: autos is self and poiein is the verb for to make. So autopoiesis is about making oneself. We humans are creatures that are constructing ourselves and at any point in time are the actual result of this process of constructing, which is an ongoing process itself. The language that is used in autopoiesis is formal. For the sake of better understanding I will not use this form of language, but in the following text certain central topics of the theory will be stated between brackets.

3. Maturana and Varela, o.c. p. 125 a.f. They describe the children found in India raised in a wolf troupe. As is known by now through many later examples, children take on their environment, whatever that happens to be.

4. What is often asked or said: “What does this do to you?” essentially is a wrong question or statement. Put this way it creates victimhood. Nobody has ever done anything to you! Only your processing of the perturbation, according to the actual state of your system counts.

5. Homeostatis is the situation in which an organism (incl. a human being) tends to get to an internal and external equilibrium and to maintain this. All organisms tend to such a situation.

6. Language exists of consensual domains in which we more or less know what is meant by the spoken words. This holds also for face expressions The work of Paul Ekman proves this. Luckily for us face expressions are universal, and insofar form a consensual domain, so that the interpretation of these are less of a problem than for instance of body language that is cultural. Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and Animals, introduction, afterword and commentaries by Paul Ekman, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, original edition from 1872; Paul Ekman, Telling Lies, Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics and marriage, Norton, New York, London, 2001; Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed, Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve communication and Emotional Life, Times Books, New York, 2003. A TV Series broadcasted in 2009-2011, Lie to me, is based on the work of Ekman.

7. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 habits of highly effective people, Nightinggale Conant, Audio Book.

8. Remember how in the movie “12 Angry Men”, directed by Sidney Lumey (1957), Henry Fonda finds out that the very problematic behavior of the last of the jurors to be converted is triggered by shame about his own behavior in the relation with his son.

9. According to Charles Panati, (Panati, Charles, Sacred Origins of Profound Things : The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions, Pinguin Books London 1996), Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus first drew up a list of eight offenses and wicked human passions:. They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius saw the escalating severity as representing increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most egregious of the sins. Acedia (from the Greek "akedia," or "not to care") denoted "spiritual sloth." In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, acedia into sadness, and adding envy. His ranking of the Sins' seriousness was based on the degree from which they offended against love. It was, from most serious to least: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Later theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, would contradict the notion that the seriousness of the sins could be ranked in this way. The term "covetousness" has historically been used interchangeably with "avarice" in accounts of the Deadly Sins. In the seventeenth century, the Church replaced the vague sin of "sadness" with sloth. (WWW, 4 October 2008)

10. The Enneagram for instance works with 9 vices, attached to the different types.

11. John M. Gottman en Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, A practical guide from the country´s foremost relation expert, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999.

12. While awake, we are conscious all of the time, but we are not conscious of being conscious. We do not observe ourselves all of the time in our actions (self-consciousness). Often we are so taken away by the flow of life that only afterwards we can get reflective about our own actions. This is the difference between consciousness, reflective consciousness and self-consciousness. What I am talking about is not reflective consciousness, which is looking afterwards at the processes, but observing the own actual operations in self-consciousness, i.e. seeing what you are actually doing and perceiving the internal changes of state while acting.

13. Maturana & Varela, o.c. p. 246. “[…] What biology shows us is that the uniqueness of being human lies exclusively in a social structural coupling that occurs through languaging, generating (a) the regularities proper to the human social dynamics, for example, individual identity and self-consciousness, and (b) the recursive social human dynamics that entails a reflection enabling us to see that as human beings we have only the world which we create with others – whether we like them or not”.

14. I hope it will now be clear that the reproach of solipsism on autopoiesis cannot be justified. Becoming who you are becoming is not solipsistic. The process of becoming demands for an environment. Solipsism highly threatens the structural coupling and denies the conservation of adaptation.

15. Maturana en Varela o.c. p. 234.

16. Sometimes this choice may seem so difficult that it almost seems impossible. Viktor E. Frankl has shown that even in the most extreme circumstances in the German death camps this choice is there. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s search for meaning, An introduction to logotherapy, Touchstone, New York 1984. Original edition in German, Ein Psycholog erlebt das Koncentrationslager, 1946.

17. J. Winslade en G. Monk, Narrative Mediation, A New Approach to Conflict Resolution, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco 2000.

18. Martin Buber, I and Thou, Touchstone New York 1996 (there are many translations on the market). Originally in German, Ich und Du, first published in 1923. It has to be pointed out that the translation of the German “Du” into the English “Thou” is somewhat strange. In German there are two words for the English you, “du” and “Sie”. Sie is very formal. But in 1923 when the book was first published Sie was even between neighbours and co-workers the common form of addressing. Du at the other hand is between close relatives and friends. In Germany even nowadays it is a sort of an honour when people propose to “dutschen”, to say du. You are supposed to address people you do not know well by Sie. Thou is the translation for Sie. In this respect an important point of what Buber says is obscured through translation.

19. Gottman/Silver o.c. p. 213-216

20. See Viktor E. Frankl. o.c. But nevertheless the choice is there.

21. Ap Dijksterhuis, Het slimme onbewuste, denken met gevoel, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2008. Dijksterhuis is an university professor in psychology, at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He has published widely on the topic of the unconscious, also in the periodical Science.

22. Maturana and Varela, o.c. p. 246.

23. A lot of (neuro)biochemical research is published on this topic. A more understandable book about this matter is: Candace B. Pert, Molecules of emotion, The science behind mind-body medicine, Scribner, New York 1997. The author describes her own path through academics, under while giving much insight in the topic of (neuro)biological research.

24. It is a matter of fact that every state of consciousness has an equivalent in the biochemical state of the body. Being angry shows different biochemical substances than being joyful. The most striking example is Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who reached “enlightenment” through a stroke. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, Viking Pinguin Group, New York, 2008. This does mean that I do not concur with the opinion that this equivalent physical state is all there is.

25. I was explained to me that these feelings from the body first arrive at the feeling center of the brain and milliseconds later at the thinking center, the neo-cortex. This could give an explanation. Since I am not a neurobiologist, this is outside my field of research.

26. This word happens not to exist in the English language. Nevertheless I can only find this word to convey what I am trying to say.

27. Maturana and Varela o.c. p. 245/6: “[...] If we know that our world is necessarily the world that we bring forth with others, every time we are in conflict with another human being with whom we want to remain in coexistence, we cannot affirm what for us is certain (an absolute truth) because that would negate the other person. If we want to coexist with the other person, we must see that his certainty - however undesirable it may seem to us - is as legitimate and valid as our own because, like our own, that certainty expresses his conservation of structural coupling in a domain of coexistence -however undesirable it may seem to us. Hence the only possibility of coexistence is to opt for a broader perspective, a domain of existence in which both parties fit in the bringing forth of a common world. A conflict is always a mutual negation. It can never go away only if we move to another domain where coexistence takes place. The knowledge of this knowledge constitutes the social imperative for a human-centered ethics.”

28. M.W. Isenhart en M. Spangle, Collaborative approaches to resolving conflict, Sage Publications 2000, p. 1. The citation is by A. Toffler, ‘Shock wave (anti warrior)’, Wired Magazine, p. 1-14.

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