In 2007, Linda and I attended a conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in which many other speakers from a number of countries shared stories about peacemaking between groups, individuals and nations. One of these speakers was Johan Galtung. Galtung, who is a Norwegian sociologist and founder of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, is a world-renowned expert in conflict resolution. Although he was over eighty at the time, Galtung was one of the most dynamic and inspiring speakers of the conference.

In his talk, Galtung referred to a consultation he’d had several years earlier when he was asked to mediate a border dispute between the countries of Ecuador and Peru. As in many places, the border was a body of water. In this case, however, the river between them appeared and disappeared according to temperature and rainfall. The area in dispute was a zone of 500 kilometers, and for the past fifty-four years, there had been endless “negotiations” (which were really verbal warfare), postponement, avoidance, and three bloody wars.

Each country was stuck in a mindset that the zone in dispute was owned by them alone, and the other country would have to give in. After over half a century, both sides were tired of fighting, but were at a loss for how to resolve things. A suggestion was made to call in Galtung, and after being briefed on the situation, Johan offered something radical:  He proposed that both countries assume joint ownership of the disputed area and draw no border at all. They would declare it a binational zone, consisting of a natural park for camping, hiking, and mountain climbing, and charge admission to those using the area, with both countries sharing in the proceeds. In 1998, a peace treaty between Ecuador and Peru officially designated the area as a natural park, a potent example of conflict transformation based on creativity and goodwill. Galtung referred to the conflict resolution process as “creative synthesis”—which he described as “the combination of smaller constituent elements forming a more complex whole and the driving force of modern creation, innovation, and intelligence.”

Unlike many other programs designed to resolve interpersonal differences, creative synthesis does not involve a compromise where both parties end up feeling that they have given up too much. The breakthrough occurs when each party commits itself to transcending their old way of zero-sum (either/or) thinking. In this example, the dialogue continued, even in the face of mutual frustration with both parties staying engaged with use of periodic temporary breaks, until they reached a mutual agreement that satisfied both sides.

Not surprisingly, creative synthesis works for couples as well as nations. Creativity is an essential quality in any breakdown where one or both parties are unable to fulfill their needs. When there is a shared commitment to resolve the impasse in a way that results in mutual satisfaction, there is a likelihood not only that resolution will occur, but also that it will be lasting.

When we practice conscious combat as opposed to fighting, the struggle tends to become more creative and is more likely to result in growth and development.  When we find our desire to get our way in competition with our desire for mutual fulfillment, we can flip the switch to enlightened self-interest which can quickly become a game-changer.

The process takes into consideration the goals of both personal gain and mutual satisfaction. This dialogue is characterized by a spirit of goodwill, which ultimately enables both partners to feel heard and understood. Rather than holding an intention for victory at any cost, the ultimate goal is to remain in dialogue until a mutually acceptable solution is found. If the Peruvian and Ecuadorian negotiators were able to prevent a war with creative synthesis, the rest of us should have a (non) fighting chance!