The Anatomy of Peace: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Anatomy of Peace" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the Arbinger Institute’s The Anatomy of Peace about? What is the main reason, according to the authors, that people get into conflict?

In their 2006 book The Anatomy of Peace, the Arbinger Institute offers an outward-focused take on interpersonal conflict. According to this perspective, conflict is the result of clashing worldviews constructed by mental re-framing of the events to justify the participants’ actions.

Below is a brief overview of The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

We all struggle with conflicts, both on a smaller scale—in our businesses and families—and on a grand scale—politically and intergovernmentally. In all spheres of our lives, we see people embroiled in bitter, cyclical conflicts that appear to resist all efforts toward resolution. The Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute, discusses the ways in which we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result.

Instead of cooperatively working toward resolution, we “collude” to worsen conflict, actively inviting the mistreatment we desire an end to. We choose to act in ways that don’t honor our sense of what’s right, and in justifying those decisions, we twist our view of the world to justify further conflict.

Through a fictional narrative about a program for parents who no longer feel able to guide their children, The Anatomy of Peace book shows us how our mindset leads us into conflict and what we can do to escape that trap. It lays out a strategy for building cooperative relationships that proactively resist cyclical conflict.

The first step toward resolving conflict is to be open to the possibility that you’re contributing to the problem. Even if your position is right, your mindset may lead you to behave in a way that inflames those around you. Accept the possibility that your mindset, your behavior, and your strategy may need to change.

The Two Mindsets

In their 2006 book The Anatomy of Peace, the authors describe two mindsets, the combative mindset and the cooperative mindset—whether we succeed at resolving conflict depends on which we embody. Mindset is about more than just how you think; it’s the way you see yourself, others, and the world—and the conclusions you come to and the behaviors you choose as a result.

Ideally, you embody the cooperative mindset; you make a conscious effort to always see others as people, with needs, challenges, hopes, and fears as real and important as your own. When you see others as people, you’re innately aware of how to treat them appropriately and resist any pressure to betray that sense. This mindset proactively mitigates and minimizes conflict by accepting a personal responsibility to change and by building relationships in a way that encourages cooperation.

In contrast, the combative mindset sees others as objects and obstacles in your way. It’s an inward-focused mindset that ignores the nuanced circumstances of those around you. This mindset actively resists seeking a resolution to conflict by refusing to see what’s really causing it; it hides behind blame and justification to avoid accepting responsibility for the way your behavior affects those around you.

The Strategy of War

The combative mindset generates two primary distortions that fuel a destructive conflict strategy: objectification and collusion.

Objectification Leads to Collusion

When we embody the combative mindset, we remove the nuance from the personhood of others, discounting their experiences, struggles, and intent. Because of this:

  • We can’t see each other’s reasons for acting as we do. We don’t consider the other party’s objections and challenges, closing our minds to the possibility that they may be right—even in some small way. We give up on even trying to find common ground. After all, we can’t reach a satisfying agreement with an object; the best we can hope for is to push it out of our way.
  • Our mindset prevents us from being genuine. We may choose behaviors that look kind and respectful, but if we embody the combative mindset, our true intentions shine through. The other party responds to our mindset, not just our outward expression.
  • The more we objectify each other, the more we begin to write off entire categories of people as being unreasonable, entitled, foolish, lazy, argumentative, and so on. We use broad, reductive labels to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to consider the needs of individual people, to help them, or even just to treat them fairly.

The combined result is that we constantly treat the other party as if they were less than human and are shocked and offended when they respond in kind. In fact this circular, cooperative sabotage that reinforces each side’s negative view of the other is a key feature of the conflict mindset. The Arbinger Institute calls this mutual mistreatment-and-response cycle “collusion.”

Example: Lou and Cory Collude

In the narrative, Lou has been trying to get his son Cory to examine his behavior and change it. Cory, however, has responded badly to this. “Being your son is a living hell,” he says. “Do you have any idea how it feels to know that your dad thinks you’re a failure?” Lou’s constant criticism and judgment of Cory, his mindset toward him, has hurt and inflamed him to the point where Cory is no longer willing to listen to him. If his father’s goal seems to be to make him feel terrible about who he is and what he’s done, why shouldn’t he respond in kind? 

From Lou’s position, his son’s mindset toward him is disrespectful and offensive. Why should he treat Cory civilly if it doesn’t get him anywhere? In the end, both of them just get more and more upset with each other and drive each other further away from a cooperative solution.

Collusion Drives Us Apart

There may be a lot we disagree with others about, but the way we disagree affects how we see each other going forward.

Once we’ve chosen to see others as objects and decided that we don’t need to be reasonable with them, we take it a step further. We don’t just invite failure; we behave in a way that guarantees it, so we can justify refusing to change.

  • We collude with each other to jointly create a problem that’s bigger than it should be, to share our anger and frustration in a way that hurts our enemy just like they’re hurting us. We start to provoke, demean, and infuriate them, treating them in ways that encourage them to continue making us unhappy.
  • Furthermore, we intentionally avoid the other party and seek support elsewhere, making it impossible to even discuss coming to an agreement. We complain to people we know will take our side, poisoning our friends against each other, our partners against our children, and our coworkers against our bosses. We increase the scope of the conflict instead of reducing it.
Example: Lou and Cory Escalate the Conflict

As their conflict continues without resolution, Lou gets harder on Cory. In return Cory rebels more, and each time, Lou responds with increasing criticism and disdain. They’ve trapped themselves in a cycle, and because they’ve closed the door to cooperative communication with each other, they seek allies elsewhere. Lou complains about Cory to his wife, Carol, and to his friends. Cory complains to his friends about his father, and both of them feel increasingly justified in antagonizing each other. Carol, unsure how to act, feels stuck watching their war grow increasingly hostile.

The Justification Trap

The combative mindset is at the core of all cyclical or ongoing conflict. It’s easy to objectify others, and every time you justify doing it, it gets easier to do it again.

The problem, in short, is that when you don’t see others as people you become unable to understand why they behave as they do. You’re focused entirely on yourself, so you assume they’re unreasonable, ignorant, or malicious, and treat them as such. In mistreating them, you invite mistreatment from them in return, and you lock yourself in a collusive cycle of endlessly worsening conflict. Neither party is looking for a solution; both believe they’re right and that it’s the other party that needs to change, so the only cooperative movement is toward further conflict.

Again: You know how people should be treated. When you choose to act in a way that’s not consistent with what you know to be right, you either have to accept that you’ve done wrong and act to fix it, or you have to find a way to justify what you’ve done.

When you embody the combative mindset, you choose justification. You excuse your behavior by adjusting the way you see yourself, others, or the world. When you do this, you create a false reality in which what you did was right. You put up walls to blind yourself to the uncomfortable reality you’ve chosen to ignore, creating a box that narrows your perspective going forward. You continue to mistreat people, safe in your conviction that it’s right to do so.

There are four primary justification methods, each of which blinds us in different ways and gives rise to a particular set of emotions. We call these justifications the Four Boxes.

The Four Boxes

  1. Better-Than
    • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re better than they are.
    • We feel impatient, disdainful, or indifferent.
    • (Shortform example: When you make a mess and leave it for someone else to clean up, you’re using a Better-Than box. You’re telling yourself that it’s someone else’s job to clean up after you, someone less important or valuable than you think you are.)
  2. I-Deserve
    • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we deserve more than they do.
    • We feel entitled, deprived, or resentful.
    • (Shortform example: When you yell at service workers for messing up your order, you’re using an I-Deserve box. You’re telling yourself that paying money entitles you to perfect service, and it justifies your mistreatment of the person who you think messed up.)
  3. Need-to-be-Seen-As
    • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we need to be seen in a certain way. (Wanting others to think we’re smart, kind, cool, a good spouse or employee, and so on)
    • We feel anxious/stressed, needy/fearful, or overwhelmed/overburdened.
    • (Shortform example: When you pretend you know what someone’s talking about even though you have no clue, you’re using a Need-to-be-Seen-As box. You’re telling yourself that it’s more important that they think you’re smart than it is to be honest with them.)
  4. Worse-Than
    • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re not good enough to do better.
    • We feel helpless/despairing, bitter/jealous, or depressed/lonely.
    • (Shortform example: When you refuse to interact with people you think are out of your league, you’re using a Worse-Than box. You’re telling yourself that you’re not good enough to be around them to justify not putting in the effort it’d take to ensure they enjoy your company.)

When you justify, you need conflict. Ongoing cyclical conflicts give you evidence that the world is horrible, the people around you are irredeemable, and you have no choice but to bitterly mistreat others. You create and feed conflict because if you didn’t have “evidence” for your justifications, they would fall apart, and you’d have to admit that you’ve made many conscious choices to hurt other people.

Escaping the Trap

To approach conflict in a healthier way, you need to escape the combative mindset. To do that, you first need to see that your justifications have put you in a box.

There are a variety of signs that you may be in a box. If you find yourself blaming others, justifying your behaviors, making the world or the people around you look horrible, or feeling any of the emotions associated with each of the Four Boxes, you can recognize that you’re in one.

Once you’ve recognized that, you can step out of the box. You’re not in a box, or trapped by your justifications, toward everyone, and there are many situations where you don’t have any need to be in a box at all. Getting out of the box can be as simple as recalling a memory of a time when you weren’t in any box.

When you remember what it’s like to be genuine, open, and accepting toward someone, your perspective automatically shifts. Memories of brighter relationships and calmer times lift you, emotionally and mentally, out of the present moment, and they allow you to step out of the negative perspective your conflicts have boxed you into. From this more positive space, you’re able to reexamine the situation that had previously restricted your view.

From that out-of-the-box perspective, reexamine your conflicts. Ask yourself what the challenges, struggles, burdens, or pains of the other party are, how you’re contributing to them, and how you could be helping instead of hindering.

Once you’ve got a sense of what you should do, act. Acting on that sense is key; if you don’t act, despite now knowing what’s right, you return to justifying and immediately hop back into the box. By acting, you honor your internal compass and embody the cooperative mindset. You begin to form a habit of considering more than just your own needs.

Example: Getting Out of the Box

In the narrative, Lou remembers his oldest child Mary, whose presence had always had a soothing effect on him. He recalls taking her for walks and sitting at her bedside and reading as she fell asleep. For Lou, these memories take him out of the box; they bring him to a place of calm, from which he can examine other situations without prejudice.

Example: Honoring the Sense

In the narrative, Yusuf had finally found out-of-the-box space for the first time in years. He recalled a childhood friend whom he’d treated very harshly and then never seen again. As he reexamined the situation from his new perspective, he realized how cruel he’d been. He felt strongly that he should reach out to his old friend, and in the next few days he did. His decision to act was a concrete step toward resolving a decades-old conflict, and it helped him stay out of the box.

Every time you find yourself in a box, repeat this process. Over time, you’ll dismantle more and more of your boxes, and your perspective will broaden as a result. You’ll find yourself learning all kinds of things about all kinds of people, and becoming more resilient to conflict.

The Strategy of Peace

The core of the cooperative mindset is the choice to see those around you as people, to be curious and interested in their needs, burdens, and struggles, and to act on your internal sense of how to treat them well. When you do that and maintain it, you become an agent of peace, a voice that—even in conflict—pushes for a cooperative solution instead of an escalating war.

Your goal, as an outward-focused person—a person who consciously resists dehumanizing and objectifying others—is to build resilient, cooperative relationships. Such relationships enable you to correct the problematic behavior of others in a way that is considerate and respectful, and that will be received gracefully and without resistance.

This strategy can be visualized in the form of the Influence Pyramid:

Its bottom-up structure conveys the following lessons:

  • Success in the upper stages depends on your investment in the lower areas; your ability to fix what’s wrong is generated by your dedication to helping things go right.
  • The solution to a problem at one level is always below that level.
  • Your effectiveness on any level depends on your mindset; your dedication to seeing others as people and treating them as such.

If you find yourself in conflict with someone, or if you’re working with or living with a person with whom you’d like to either avoid conflict entirely or proactively mitigate it, build the Influence Pyramid:

1. First, maintain a cooperative mindset. Get out of the box and stay out of the box. Everything that follows is predicated on this and will only be possible insofar as you’re not in a box.

2. While you’re out of the box, build relationships with those who have influence with the person you want to connect with. If that’s your child, build your relationships with their other parent, with their friends, and with their teachers. If it’s a coworker, build your relationships with their superiors, their subordinates, and their peers. The friend of your friend is your friend; in showing respect and consideration for the people they love, you show respect and consideration for them.

3. Next, work on building the relationship with the person you want to connect with. Stay out of the box as you spend time with them. Find out what they like to do, and do it with them. Be involved, be interested, and be engaged. Give them a judgment-free space where they can be genuine, and show them that you value their openness. Trust them, and show them that they can trust you.

4. As your relationship grows, be sure that you’re listening to them, that you’re learning from and about them. What are their burdens, struggles, and pains? What are their hopes, dreams, and goals? The more open you are with them—the more you stay out of the box—the easier it will be to do this. As you learn, you may find that there are things you need to change about the way you’re seeing them, the way you’re evaluating the problems you face in your relationship, and the way you’re behaving. Take these opportunities to reevaluate your strategy and adjust as needed.

5. At this stage, you can begin teaching what you know. By listening and learning you’ve mitigated the possibility that you’ll focus on lessons that aren’t appropriate to the other party’s needs. Your understanding of who they are and what they’re going through will show you where they need help and how you can be involved. The atmosphere of trust and communication you’ve built will foster a desire to learn from each other and cooperate with each other. You can teach your mindset, share your experience, and demonstrate what you’ve learned. You can show them why change is important and how it can help them.

6. Finally, if necessary, correct. Because of the way you’ve built the relationship, you can suggest behavioral and mindset changes from a position of trust and care. They’ll be more open to receiving guidance and feedback, and they’ll understand that your goal will always be to cooperate and learn from each other. 

If you find that correction isn’t working, return to the previous steps. Make sure you’re out of the box toward the other party, that you’re building relationships with the people who have influence over them, that your relationship with them is strong. Continue to be curious and interested in their needs, struggles, and goals. Foster an environment in which they can share those needs with you. Make sure they understand why it’s important for them to reevaluate their behavior. Check to make sure that you’re not missing or misunderstanding something, that the change you’re asking for is genuinely good for them, and then try again.

This is the strategy that leads to long-term resilient resolutions. It’s the path that opens up to us when we choose to embody the cooperative mindset. You’ll still find yourself in conflicts, and you’ll still find that many other people choose the combative mindset and resist your efforts to collaborate toward resolution. But when you embody the cooperative mindset your mindset will invite them to reevaluate. You won’t be contributing to the problem, so it’ll be less likely that a conflict becomes cyclical and destructive.

The Anatomy of Peace: Book Overview

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Anatomy of Peace summary:

  • How we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result
  • What causes conflict, how we make it worse, and how we invite mistreatment
  • The steps we can take to escape the combative mindset and set aside our biases

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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