Review of Douglas E. Noll's Book, Elusive Peace

by Rick Love

Douglas E. Noll’s Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts provides a profound overview of the field of peacemaking. The heart of the book, though, is his rigorous critique of diplomatic peacemaking methods and robust apologetic for the importance of emotions in peacemaking. Noll’s detailed illustrations and solid research make this one of the best books I’ve read this year!

Noll gives a helpful historical analysis of “old school” diplomatic assumptions and practices referred to as “rational-choice theory.” He points out that modern diplomats lack an understanding of the latest scientific research as it relates to peacemaking:

“New discoveries in behavioral economics, cognitive and social neuroscience, and social psychology have demonstrated that emotions weave through our every thought, decision, and action. To paraphrase neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, we are 98 percent emotional and 2 percent rational. We are not nearly as rational as we think we are” (p. 22).

Here is one good example of his critique of modern diplomatic approaches to mediation:

“The problem with having political personalities acting as ‘mediators’ is that they do not know how to design a mediation process, how to engage the parties to the conflict, how to prepare parties for a mediated negotiation, how to facilitate meetings where strong emotions are present, how to deal with prospective impasse, or how to bring a variety of processes and techniques to bear on the normal issues that arise in any complex problem-solving negotiation” (p. 34).

Noll is a lawyer-turned-peacemaker (and a martial artist!) who acknowledges that feelings are a crucial dimension of peacemaking. He explains what most of us know from our own experience with conflict: emotions can hinder conflict resolution.

“The one thing I have learned in mediating thousands of conflicts and disputes is that when people fight, emotions dominate reason. If people in the fight cannot work through their emotions, negotiating an agreement or solution is generally impossible” (p. 98).

But there is a lot more about the centrality of emotions in conflict resolution than this conventional wisdom. Here are two fascinating scientific insights that Noll uses to argue his case. First, the innate human biological fear-response system is found in the two small, almond-shaped structures in the brain called the amygdala. They comprise an early warning system so that we are capable of responding to threats in the environment quickly and without conscious thought (p. 155). Our emotions, especially fear, have biological triggers.

Second, I was also interested to learn about Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical humans produce that reduces stress responses in conflict and significantly increases positive communication (p. 189) - another biological fact that impacts our emotions. "Thus," Noll concludes, “we are not rational beings with feelings; we are feeling beings with the ability to think rational thoughts” (p. 280).

So how do we effectively address emotions to resolve conflict? While peacemaking is a complex, demanding endeavor, a few things dominate Noll’s approach. First, he puts a strong emphasis on careful, sensitive listening, not only to words, but also emotional data and body language. Skilled mediators listen at multiple levels.

Second, having the different parties share their stories is a powerful way to build bridges. Storytelling increases empathy for the other and de-escalates emotions. “Empirical evidence and deep experience suggest that storytelling is the only way through the maze” (p. 80). It is “the core of a twenty-first century approach to international negotiation” (p. 101).

I do have one critique of the book. A detailed table of contents would make this valuable resource a much more powerful tool. The sub-sections of the book need to be noted in the table of contents so students of peacemaking can have quick and easy access to the data.

But students of peace should not wait for a revised edition of the book! You can get it on amazon. I believe that if you read and apply Noll’s suggestions, peace will not be so elusive.