Imagine driving through a hostile area in any conflict driven country, let’s say Afghanistan. You would definitely make sure that your physical maps are exact and up-to-date, indicating not just where mountains, rivers and villages are, but also where your friends and enemies are located (as far as you know). Would you get this map by climbing on a hill (or sitting in a ditch) and just looking all around you, drawing what you see and inventing what you don’t see? Not likely.
However, when we look at how we think about our conflict networks, that is exactly what we tend to do: Sit in our own ditch and asses who are friends and enemies, where they stand, how they work with each other and with or against us, where the safe roads are and where the landmines may be hidden. We even tend to draw in our mind’s eye what happens behind our backs or in people’s heads.
That’s bad enough if we do that in a simple office or family conflict. That’s like having a wrong physical map when I walk through Washington, DC. Annoying, but doesn’t kill me. But if you are in a conflict where the lifes of people are on the line, it’s scary. When I Net-Map with people on different sides of conflicts they can tell me vastly different stories, draw maps that don’t look like they are about the same issue. Now the immediate reaction to this is to ask: So what is the true story? Then you pick one side and run with it, thinking that the other side is either deluded or lying. But I have found that the question about the true story is besides the point. The approach that leads to more progress and opens doors for new strategies is to say: Both maps are true. This is reality as it looks from the perspective of two different ditches when the smoke in the air clouds the view. Each map is real in that it will shape all the actions of the person who sees the world this way. If someone thinks you are their enemy, irrespective of whether you think you are, it is a reality that you need to know and deal with.
Whether we put them on paper or not, we all have more or less complex views of what the conflict network looks like. And we act based on these assumptions, gathered from the bottom of our own ditch (or maybe from the top of our own hill). One of the great theorists of social network analysis, David Krackhardt, talks about developing a common cognitive social structure out of all different network views. That makes a lot of sense if the difference in view is basically just a difference in knowledge and you can add all the different knowledge bits together to have a more informed common view. To navigate a conflict effectively, this “average” view, developed by stacking individual maps, is less useful, as none of the conflicting parties actually sees it this way and you get so much more guidance by being able to understand how the different sides see this differently.
If you want to bring the maps together, bring the people together, instead of just stacking interview results… If you are at a point in the conflict resolution where you can actually bring people together and they are ready to talk with each other, you might want to draw a common map together, where people can negotiate what is true and why they think it is and sometimes just agree to disagree. If you are not there yet, you could sit down with both groups separately and draw one map asking: What does it look like? and another map: What do you think the enemy thinks it looks like? You end up with four highly interesting maps that will tell you a lot about the pitfalls and opportunities for next steps…