The grammar of conflict

As virtually everyone knows, grammar is the study of how words are used in language to form acceptable structures and sentences. It is about the body of rules guiding the use of language and word combination processes. To understand grammar is to know how to use language correctly or without violating the rules.

However, beyond language, many things in life have their grammars, from programming, computing and engineering to life itself as a phenomenon. To understand the grammar of life is to know the principles through which socially acceptable and generally responsible lifestyles that underlie success can be imbibed. Just as there is the language of peace, there is also the grammar of conflict which may help everyone to relate with or respond to conflict accordingly.

One of the major features of life is conflict which people perceive differently. It is so natural that the Yoruba emphasize proverbially that the tongue and the teeth do conflict though they are contiguous. While the classicists see conflict as negative, bad and destructive, the functionalists view it from its potential for improved relationships, progressive competitions and general development. They consider conflict as a driver of progress just as competition among serious students propels academic excellence.

Though the functionalists are also right as every piece of nonsense even bears some sense, there is something distressing about conflict such that avoiding, preventing, managing, resolving and transforming it are often considered desirable especially in inter-personal and inter-group relations. That conflict can even become violent, leading to destruction and deaths, is significant and it is ideal to nip conflict in the bud before it becomes manifest.

There are many features of the grammar of conflict. One of them is the use of the first person personal pronoun in the wrong context. Life is not just about self but also about others. Thus, using “I”, “me”, “my” and other derivatives often is a vector of conflict as it suggests that one is concerned all about oneself, not about others. It shows selfishness and self-centeredness that others are wont to resist.

In discourse, the constant use of ‘I’ to suggest that the speaker is the one who matters is a grammar of conflict that should be understood as a rule. To use it often is to seek conflict and to avoid it is to keep conflict at bay. Rather than too much focus on self, having tact, being generous and focusing on others is better.

There is a long quote attributed to Dalai Lama. According to him, “If you think only of yourself, if you forget the rights and well-being of others, or, worse still, if you exploit others, ultimately, you will lose. You will have no friends who will show concern for your well-being. Moreover, if a tragedy befalls you, instead of feeling concerned, others might even secretly rejoice. By contrast, if an individual is compassionate and altruistic, and has the interests of others in mind, then irrespective of whether that person knows a lot of people, whenever that person moves, he or she will immediately make friends. And when that person faces a tragedy, there will be plenty of people who will come to help.”

Another feature of the grammar of conflict is the use of verbs. In their study entitled “A Rose by any other Name? A Subtle Linguistic Cue Impacts Anger and Corresponding Policy Support in Intractable Conflict” that appeared in Psychological Science in 2018, researcher Orly Idan and her colleagues (E. Halperin, B. Hameiri and M. R. Targer) found that using nouns rather than verbs had a small-to-medium effect on anger and support for steps towards peace making.

The study revealed that verbs are associated with agency, meaning a person doing something, the image of which nouns do not often spur. The researchers concluded that verbs are more prone to promoting conflict while nouns tend to be peacemaking.  So, to minimize conflict with others, the grammar of nouns, as researchers found, is better.

Beyond the purely linguistic, underlining the grammar of conflict are also psychological dispositions of anger and absolutism. To avoid much conflict with others, an approach is to restrain oneself from being angry. Though everyone is prone to anger, some consciousness of restraint would make one exercise control by not reacting, by taking charge. A rule in this regard is, “if you are angry, don’t talk or act immediately.” It is said that the beginning of anger is madness but its end is regret.

In every situation, just as Jalaludeen Rumi counseled, “Listen with ears of tolerance! See through the eyes of compassion! Speak with the language of love!” Rumi also advised all: “Know that a word suddenly shot from the tongue is like an arrow shot from the bow. Son, that arrow won’t turn back on its way; you must dam the torrent as its source.”

Then, there is absolutism, the belief that there is only one absolute answer to every problem. Without the psychology of assuming that more than a single road leads to the market, one would be prone to disagreeing and conflicting with others who wish to toe alternative routes. No one has all the answers and there is no need for being righteously indignant on every situation.

Basically, people are not supposed to see things from your perspectives only. What is truth to you is a bundle of lies to someone else. If you present a matter that someone else does not see your way, concede to the person his right to be wrong. Respecting and being polite to others often revolve around these rules, developed by Robin Lakoff, that violate absolutism: don’t impose, give options and make the other person feel good.


Today, just as it was yesterday, millions of people are dealing with various life challenges. As long as life exists, it appears that human beings will always have to cope with what they perceive as problems. We met problems in this world and we shall leave them behind.

Challenges are only problems when they are perceived so. People have lived with financial difficulties, academic problems, failed relationships, unemployment, barrenness and many others. This is why what is a problem to someone is not a problem to another person. Like someone who was crying for having no shoes until he met someone without legs, problems are relative and they should be so deemed.

A Philosophy professor once wanted to examine his students. He picked up his chair, plopped it on the desk and wrote, “Using everything you have learnt in this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.”

While many students spent hours proving that the chair did not exist, the student, who in a class of over 200 got a distinction, did not spend up to a minute to submit his script. His answer was simple, “Which chair?”

Which problem do you bother about? Which problem?