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Conflict and the Mediator: Peace Within – Redefining Interpersonal Conflict

by Boroka Ganyu
May 2015 Boroka Ganyu

"The first two important truths of postmodernism (that we construct reality and that meaning is context-dependent) mean a multiperspective approach to reality is called for."
Ken Wilber

This article introduces a feminine (emotional-relational) approach to interpersonal conflict, the mediation process, and the role of the mediator. In this article, I will redefine interpersonal conflict as a mental representation, and as a basis for defining inner peace.

Essential Elements of an Interpersonal Conflict Definition
According to Coleman and Ferguson, "scholars suggest that the lack of detailed attention to emotions and relationships is the biggest gap in our understanding of conflict today" (Coleman and Ferguson, 2014, p XV). Consequently we are looking for a relational definition of interpersonal conflict that incorporates emotions, even though it is not a popular framework in alternative dispute resolution, because of its feminine nature (Lindner, 2014).
For purposes of simplicity, I will define interpersonal conflict in terms of a dyadic relationship. Even though it may seem as though conflict exists between the two individuals in the dyadic relationship, when we extract the two individuals from the "conflict", we are left with no conflict whatsoever. This proves that conflict does not exist without the individuals participating in it; there is no conflict independent of its mental representations. Instead of discussing "the mental representation of conflict" (Halevy, Chou and Murnighan, 2012), it provides us with a new definition of interpersonal conflict: conflict is a mental representation. Mental representation is an imprint in the mind, a structure of mental processes (perceptions, emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.) that captures specific elements of reality in a distinctive way.

Furthermore, conflict is mental representation because the only access to the conflict is through the two participants’ personal experience. In a dyadic interpersonal conflict, we are thus dealing with two mental representations that are generally quite different from one another. So we must fine-tune the previous definition to say: dyadic interpersonal conflict is two different mental representations.

Some conflicts in a dyadic relationship are one-sided (represented as conflict in the mental processes of only one of the two people). For example when inequality increases between two individuals, the one with less power may experience a conflict, while the other may not be bothered. Depending on whether the conflict is contained within the individual, or is expressed toward the other person (leads to action), it will either remain intrapsychic or become interpersonal.

The two different mental representations in a dyadic relationship are generally compatible: an interaction between the two mental representations creates a conflict that is seemingly a conflict between the two individuals. In my experience, when the two mental representations are compatible in a personal relationship, the conflict of each individual is often not with the other person, but with a significant other in the past. The dynamics of an early relationship is triggered, relived, and projected onto the other person (in the present), as it is introduced in psychodynamic theory.

Question remains whether incompatible mental representations in dyadic relationships exist. My assumption is that the moment they are expressed as conflicts, they create their compatible imprints in the other.

Additionally, a valid definition of conflict should also be linked to the definition of peace. The “absence of conflict” would be insufficient, in terms of mental representations. I suggest connecting the definition of interpersonal conflict with the definition of intrapersonal peace, or in ordinary words, with inner peace.

I would also advise incorporating possible power differences in our formula, allowing us to shift from the psychological mode to the social-political-economic mode (Deutch, 2014) within the same framework.

The Definition of Interpersonal Conflict
So far we have stated that dyadic interpersonal conflict is “two different mental representations.”In describing each of the two mental representations we can add the following. Conflict is:

1: A negative emotional state in relation to another person.

2: Accompanied by negative thoughts.

3: Caused by one of the following:

a) Having different perspectives.

b) Wanting different things than the other.

c) Wanting the same as the other, while perceiving it as something only one can have.

d) One person taking more from the other; more than the other is able or is willing to give.

e) One person not able or not willing to give as much as the other wants to take from him or her.

f) Or a combination of the above.

4. Which may lead to actions that cause physical or psychological injury.

Additional Notes to the Definition
1. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder who have different emotional responses from others, and may less likely experience negative emotions in a conflict situation (Hare, 1999), are considered exceptions in this definition.
2. Negative thoughts range from thoughts about oneself, the other, someone else, an idea, to thoughts about the situation, etc. Naturally thoughts and emotions are interrelated with one another.
3. In the end all other causes (b, c, d and e) come down to differences in perspectives. Nevertheless, I am leaving them as subcategories, because they are separated in our ordinary thinking, and the proposed structure will help us distinguish different types of interpersonal conflicts. “Having different perspectives” will then only include causes of conflict that do not fit into the other four categories (b, c, d and e), and represent purely ideological differences.
4. Power imbalance is embedded in the conflict definition in sections 3c) and 3d). The high power individual would be the “taker” portrayed in 3c), and the low power individual would be the “giver” in 3d). In this context, “taking” and “giving” refer to both objects in the physical world, as well as psychological power games.
5. “Wanting the same as the other” may include the same objects, relationships, roles, status, jobs, etc.
6. By “actions that cause physical or psychological injury”, I mean injury, damage, or trauma that hurts the individual, the other person, the relationship, someone else and/or the environment.

The Definition of Inner Peace
The definition of interpersonal conflict takes us to a definition of inner peace. We must emphasize that this definition is the relational component of inner peace, while inner peace consists of an additional component which is not associated with relating to other people. A (partial) definition of inner peace derived from the above definition of interpersonal conflict would then be:

1) A positive emotional state in relation to other people.

2) Accompanied by positive thoughts.

3) Caused by all of the following:

a) Being comfortable with having different perspectives from other people, and acknowledging other people's different perspectives as valid.
b) When wanting different things than the other, being able to come up with mutually agreed solutions.
c) When wanting the same as another person, being able to let go of it, or
perceiving it as something the two can share.
d) Not taking more from another person than the other can, or is willing to give.
e) Not being asked to give more than one can, or is willing to give.

4) Which lead to actions that cause physical and psychological safety and well-being, as well as compassionate relationships.

Notes to the Definition of Inner Peace
"Not being asked to give more than one can, or is willing to give" is the interface through which inner peace is exposed to the outer world. Let me give you an example to demonstrate this point: cultivating inner peace is central to the Tibetan culture, but the Tibetan people’s sense of inner peace was nevertheless shaken by the Chinese government taking over in Tibet. This example also intends to show how this element of inner peace (3e) is the channel through which the personal becomes social-political-economic, and how the wider social-political-economic context may compromise one’s efforts to cultivate inner peace.

A Hint of Compassion
By comparing the definitions of interpersonal conflict and inner peace, we may notice an added ingredient to inner peace: compassionate relationships. Turning the definition around, we can also say that interpersonal conflict is losing the ability to relate compassionately to another person. All of the above elements of the conflict definition have significant implications to our role as mediators, but before turning to that issue, I will walk you through a schematic model of the dynamic mediation process to enrich the discussion.


Coleman, Peter T. and Ferguson, Robert. (2014). Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement. Boston, New York:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Deutch, Morton. (2014). "Introduction." In: Coleman, Peter T., Deutch, Morton, Marcus, Eric C. (eds.) The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, XViii-XXXViii.
Halevy, Nir, Chou, Eileen Y. and Murnighan, J. Keith. (2012). "Mind Games: The Mental Representation of Conflict."In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102(1), Jan 2012, 132-148.
Hare, Robert D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York, London: The Guilford Press.
Lindner, Evelin G. (2014). "Emotion and Conflict: Why It Is Important to Understand How Emotions Affect Conflict and How Conflict Affects Emotion."


Boroka Ganyu was a clinical psychologist at the Psychiatric Department and Psychotherapy Center of St. Imre Hospital in Budapest. She studied Tibetan Buddhism and is trained in psychodrama group psychotherapy. Since 2011, when Boroka came to New York, she has been engaged in research at the crossroads of Eastern and Western psychology, and has become a mediator and facilitator. She conducts workshops enhancing self-reflective skills for both mediators and individuals dealing with conflict. She mediates disputes focusing on interpersonal issues and volunteers for Community Mediation Services in Queens.

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