An Intro to Conflict Mapping

Leanna Jasek-Rysdahl, Lynx Fellow 

  • Are your business operations hindered by conflict? (for the purpose of this blog: international or business conflicts, even interpersonal conflicts).
  • Do you value processes that can help your business engage in problem solving?

If you answered “yes,” or even “maybe” to either of these questions, consider conflict mapping.

What is conflict mapping?

Briefly- conflict mapping is the process of visualizing conflicts and their components to see connections and hubs of energy that contribute to conflict escalation or de-escalation.

Instead of thinking linearly about a problem (i.e. this particular cause leads to this particular effect), conflict mapping embraces complexity and allows conflict mappers to see contributors and detractors in a systems-thinking approach. For example, if one were to analyze a conflict such as, “piracy in Somalia” in a document, one might write about two causes- lack of economic opportunities, and lack of a strong judicial system. However, in conflict mapping, the number of causes, effects, interveners, and connections expands considerably. The below image depicts how the beginning stages of a conflict mapping session might look.

Mapping is not just for global conflicts on a macro level. For example, let’s say you run a business or NGO where the work culture is occasionally toxic and is preventing you and your staff from engaging in the most effective work. Mapping could contribute to finding solutions and the process might start off a little like this- with individuals voicing their own views of sources and outcomes.



What are the benefits of conflict mapping?

The main benefit of conflict mapping is in the process of creating a map. For example, with different parties and individuals engaged in map design, an organization will hear various insights on interconnections, causes, effects, and the overall layout of the conflict. This information suggested, the disagreements that occur while creating the map, and process of drawing the map is one of the most productive aspects of mapping and becomes a valuable opportunity for discussion, clarification, planning, and idea generation. For example, if contributing to the Somalia map, some individuals might strongly advocate to draw an arrow pointing out of legal ramifications into terrorism and list sources and reasoning. Others might argue that there should be an arrow pointing out of terrorism into lack of security, and another arrow pointing out of lack of security into terrorism. The process can take a deceivingly long amount of time and often results in the production of several maps.

Additionally, conflict mapping allows groups and individuals to see potential interventions that might not have been fully realized. For example, if the map item “lack of governance” has five fewer arrows leading into the entry compared to “feelings of inadequacy,” the ideal intervention might not be to set up an immediate interim government. Instead, it might be brainstorm programs that can address inadequacy such as a jobs program.

Conflict mapping can also offer additional perks to visual learners who appreciate other forms of interpreting information beyond reading articles or looking at numbers. Mapping can be used in a multitude of settings from the board room to a community town hall meeting.

What are the downsides of conflict mapping?

Conflict mapping is not a panacea for conflict. It will not magically give mappers a solution to a problem. So, for a one-stop shop to solving a conflict, conflict mapping is not the method (although those who claim to have the ONE answer might be leading you astray, anyway).

So how do I start conflict mapping?

There are various ways to begin conflict mapping. One method involves starting with a particular event and proceeding to use a timeline approach. For example, in the toxic work setting example, the mapping group could begin by listing specific instances where they felt disrespected, then draw arrows highlighting the outcomes of these events.

In a different method, the mappers would identify major themes or feelings involved in the conflict. For example, when trying to identify interventions that would be most impactful in Somalia, mappers might identify the lack of economic resources or feeling disempowered as major themes. Mappers would then write what contributed to that entry, and what elements that entry produced in the conflict.

There is no one way to make a map, but the map should have enough entries that someone who is unfamiliar with a conflict would be able to spend time reading the entries and arrows and have a basic understanding. The map should tell a story, but not be too complicated to be indecipherable. To avoid maps that are unreadable, it is entirely acceptable (not that mapping has hard and fast rules) to create several maps using micro, mezzo, and macro lenses.

Business leaders can be as creative as they want when drawing maps- one can use various colors to represent parties or shapes to categorize types of actions. Mapping can take several hours. Map creation can be frustrating due to how confusing and complicated the map can become. Ultimately, the mapping process is yours and has the potential to be a valuable tool. Getting lost while mapping prevents later problems when implementing solutions, policies, or new ideas.