Mind over matter

Clinical psychologist Haim Omer reflects on the IDF's implementation of his concept of 'constructive conflict' in the Gaza withdrawal.

mind over 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mind over 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Their performance exceeded all expectations," says Haim Omer emphatically, reflecting on the the behavior of the IDF soldiers who carried out the evacuation of the settlements of Gush Katif and northern Samaria a year ago today. For this he can take at least some of the credit: Co-author with colleague Nahi Alon of several books on conflict management, Omer worked with army commanders during the period leading up to disengagement to prepare them for one of the most unconventional military operations - arguably the most painful and controversial - in the country's history. It was the first time Israeli troops would be facing opposition forces who were none other than their own peers, comrades-in-arms, relatives and friends. Landsmen who, up until the withdrawal, were the object of their protection. To prevent a bloody battle and what many feared could become a full-fledged civil war, both the IDF and the settlers took lessons from psychologists Omer and Alon in the art of "constructive conflict." "The usual response to provocation is to fight back," Omer asserts, claiming that the principles in his books apply equally to divorcing couples as they do to other forms of dispute. Exercising restraint without relinquishing the struggle, he says, is not "spontaneous," but rather requires a lot of determination. Asked whether the settlers - whose contribution to the absence of violence during the pullout he also lauds - might in retrospect rue their own restraint, Omer insists that his philosophy is about the process, not the outcome. "You can lose a violent battle just as easily as you can lose a constructive one," he explains. Describe how you were utilized by the IDF prior to disengagement. The emphasis of our work in general, and with the IDF during disengagement in particular, was on constructive rather than destructive conflict. In a destructive conflict, there is provocation, argument, violence, wanting to "show" the opponent. Constructive conflict aims to preserve the positive elements of the relationship between opposing sides. In our book [Hasatan Shebeineinu (The Psychology of Demonization)], we described how in all sorts of conflicts - between husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, neighbors - it is possible to conduct constructive conflict through the alteration of premises. Our work aroused great interest in the IDF, which asked us to become pre-disengagement advisers. We presented our principles and worked together with the army to apply them to the disengagement arena. Did you conduct workshops with the soldiers? With the commanders and the military psychologists, so that they could instruct the soldiers on how to behave. Through simulations of the event? Simulations were part of the basic training. But there were also strict guidelines. For example, company commanders were instructed to impress upon their troops not to rise to any provocations they may encounter from the settlers. It was made clear to them that if even a single soldier failed to comply, he would bring about the failure of his whole unit. The success of our endeavor depended on reversing their sense of military pride so that together they could manage to exercise restraint. They were also told that any soldier who felt he wouldn't be able to manage restraint in the face of provocation could move several steps back and allow others to be ahead of him. The ability to remain calm, even when provoked, became both a test and a source of pride for each and every soldier. Another example was the issue of how to minimize escalation the minute the soldiers entered a home and began to evacuate it. We were adamant about their sticking to a strict text they had to memorize. Not to try and argue the case, because that's something which, by nature, tends to heat up the atmosphere. What was this "strict text?" "We have to evacuate your home. We ask that you be ready at such and such a time." If members of a household engaged the soldiers in an argument or hurled accusations at them, they were not to respond in any way other than to repeat the text, with the additional phrase, "You don't have a choice." It sounds like advice for parents who have difficulty disciplining their children. Precisely. It's based on my work in domestic violence prevention. When you observed the behavior of the soldiers during the actual evacuation of the settlements, were you pleased with the results? Indeed. Their performance exceeded all expectations. When you enter the spirit of constructive conflict, your head begins to operate differently. When you switch your mind-set from power-struggle to restraint, all kinds of unexpected developments ensue. All those touching moments we witnessed, with soldiers embracing the settlers and saying, "We're your brothers." We didn't train them to do that. But, because of the positive feelings they already harbored for the settlers, and because they succeeded - partly due to our training - in refraining from the patterns that usually lead to escalation, the result was so positive. Couldn't this have had to do with the fact that many of the soldiers identified with the settlers? Certainly. And the minute we were able to help the soldiers and the police refrain from escalatory behavior - which they did and it was an enormous achievement on their part - those soldiers who identified with the settlers felt better. They saw that neither humiliation tactics nor force were going to characterize the evacuation, but rather "determination and sensitivity." The result was an expression of genuine mutual respect. How, then, do you explain the police violence during the evacuation of the Amona outpost some months later? Constructive conflict is not a spontaneous human response. The usual response to provocation is to fight back. Countering this requires a great deal of preparation and determination. You're saying that what happened at Amona is the "default? - the norm? Our ineffective natural responses to conflict require us to work at restraint and plan ahead for it. In the absence of such work, we end up with situations like that of Amona. That was a classic case of both sides getting dragged into conflict. Not just the police. The settlers were also not prepared properly. This is something that has to be learned each time anew. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's realignment plan is executed, will you be called in again to train the army? If I'm asked to do it, I certainly will. But not just the army; the settlers, as well, as Nahi Alon did last year. The contribution of the settlers to the non-violence cannot be undervalued here. They, too, wanted to avoid bloodshed. Doesn't this view have an element of moral relativism? The ability to bring about a resolution to conflict without violence doesn't necessarily mean that the victorious opponent was right, after all. In all conflicts, the less suffering for all concerned, the better. Is there no such thing as a victim in a conflict? Absolutely. A battered wife is a victim, for example. Then how can such a conflict be "bridged"? Constructive conflict begins where bridges fail. We always imagine that there are two solutions to a problem, when in fact there are many more options than that. When dialogue and persuasion fail, a conflict can become destructive or constructive. Constructive conflict doesn't mean a cessation of the struggle, but rather a minimizing of its escalation. Viewed from the standpoint of the settlers, it could be argued that the end result of their restraint was a loss of their battle and of their homes. As in the case of divorce, one of the spouses may end up losing the house and custody of the children by avoiding "escalation." We teach people to conduct their battles, not to relinquish them. This has no bearing on the end result. You can lose a violent battle just as easily as you can lose a constructive one. The outcome is not the issue. Are there any settlers today who really believe that they would have won their battle had there been bloodshed? Of course not. But even if there are, the only thing that bloodshed could have accomplished is that there would have been more bloodshed the next time around. So far, the conflicts you've mentioned involve people or groups who once shared a common bond or love - one that went awry. Is it possible to apply your philosophy to conflicts involving enemies among whom no such bond ever existed? It's much harder to do that, as in the case of our fight with Hizbullah. Yet, even in battles like this one, there are certain circumstances under which the principles of constructive conflict can be applied. Part of this war's origins stem from errors made in the way other wars were conducted - mistakes that contributed to escalation. We're not responsible for the entire process of escalation, but we certainly influence it. There are ways to unilaterally minimize the escalation, and we would greatly gain by implementing them. Destructive conflict is characterized by what Nahi and I call the "duel" mentality - one pitted against the other. In constructive conflict, the aim is to achieve maximum personal security. In today's conflict with Hizbullah, the difficulties are enormous. I certainly wouldn't want to be in the place of the decision-makers right now. But we can see how the "duel" mentality can be harmful to us. It was reported in the press recently that a minister at one of the cabinet meetings said that the message has to be [a clear focus on the culprit]: "Nasrallah, Nasrallah, Nasrallah!" Why do I use this as an example of the "duel" mentality? Because, let's say one could defend the thesis that striking Nasrallah would further our security interests. Fine. Then defend the thesis. But, when you're shouting "Nasrallah, Nasrallah, Nasrallah," at least two of the three repetitions of his name can be attributed to the "duel." Seeing one's enemy as completely evil - with no redeeming qualities whatsoever - and oneself as completely good, constitutes demonization. Are you saying that there is no such thing as a completely evil enemy? If so, does this mean that even Hitler had redeeming qualities? No, Hitler had no redeeming qualities. But even the war against the Nazis could have been conducted more wisely and spared more lives.