By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Violent headlines fill the news. From disgruntled employees to polarized political zealots, shooting incidents leave death and destruction in their wake, bringing shock waves of grief, pain, and fear. And beneath much of this violence is the fatal false dilemma that turns people with different views into enemies and conflict into combat.

One of the most needed, least known skills in our world today is conflict resolution. We don’t learn it in school, at home, in the media, or on the streets. We don’t learn it at all, most of us. So we act on impulse, lapsing into fight or flight, perpetuating cycles of misunderstanding and violent interactions on levels from the interpersonal to the international.

The ancient wisdom of the East affirms the dynamic balance of complementary opposites--yin and yang, night and day, action and contemplation. But our Western minds too readily fall into the logical fallacy of the false dilemma, reducing our complex lives to only two options, either-or: win or lose, right or wrong, all or nothing, us or them.

When this reductive dualism narrows our minds and limits our choices, we see differences as threats and others as enemies. Instead of working together to solve our problems, we spend time blaming, shaming, and attacking others—and the problems only escalate.  

Over 25 centuries ago, Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:

Blame and attack
Rage and resentment
Perpetuate cycles
Of violence and pain.

The wise leader
Seeks real solutions.
(Dreher, 1996)

Years ago, I studied with international conflict resolution facilitator Dudley Weeks, who would ask people in conflict to look beneath their differences to discover their shared needs. Building on the foundation of shared needs, people could then become partners¸ creating new solutions together (Weeks, 1992).

As Dudley found through decades of resolving inner city and international conflicts, when we find ourselves in conflict, the key is to stop reacting with anger and fear, to get beyond dualism by looking for common ground. For beneath the differences that divide us, there is so much more we have in common. And, ultimately, we all really do stand on common ground—this beautiful planet we call home.


Dreher, D. E. (1996).The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Tao chapter 79, quote and some earlier thoughts on this subject from pp. 178-179.

Weeks, D. (1992). The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy Tarcher, a wise and  practical guide to conflict resolution.

Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling. Visit her at and

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