Conflict System Mapping

Background: In researching for my conflict resolution skills session assignment, I stumbled across a book, Making Peace Last, that takes the concept of systems thinking – one I originally grappled with during my master’s program in city and regional planning – and meshes it with peacebuilding. In the book, author Robert Ricigliano explains the paradox of macro-micro conflict, which is best summed up in this quotation he highlights:

All the good peace work being done should be adding up to more than it is. The potential of all these efforts is not being realized.” – Mary Anderson and Lara Olson

(Please note: All sections below except for Caveats are included in the video.)

His argument is that by taking a systems approach to conflict, we’ll be better able to identify the interactions between different factors and in turn address root causes. In other words, as peacebuilders, we need to be able to see and understand the full picture of the conflict (understanding it as a conflict system) before exploring resolution strategies so we don’t end up with band-aid approaches – or worse, interventions that exacerbate the conflict.

Caveats: Teaching systems thinking is no easy, quick task – I barely scratched the surface while taking a semester-long class (and am certainly not an expert, so please excuse any flubs in this piece!) – but it is not a topic that should be ignored. To help practitioners and educators, particularly those in the urban planning field or aligned professions, to at least give learners a taste of the discipline, I developed a lesson that could be expanded or used as a jumping-off point for more exploration or in-depth study. If you’re able to borrow a copy of Making Peace Last and spend a few hours with it, that’ll give you a solid foundation in some of the key concepts covered here.

You’ll note in the reading that the approach Ricigliano outlines is a bit clinical, and it certainly isn’t a panacea – however, I think it provides a helpful lens through which to view conflict as interventions are sought and implemented. He also refers to systems maps as “value-neutral” while conceding that multiple systems maps could be created for any single conflict, so it’s reasonable to assume that while the maps might be “value-neutral,” they are inevitably informed by the perspective and knowledge of the (not value-neutral) map maker (and indeed, given a person’s understanding of a conflict, the factors represented may indicate bias). Lastly, all map makers operate in a system that perpetuates structures and modes of thinking that could influence how we interact with the activity.

Pre-work: Because this lesson is meant to be completed within 30-35 minutes, I had participants do a bit of advance work to prep for our session. This also served to ensure that all participants had the same level of basic knowledge about the conflict we’d be examining – and given that most folks were likely not familiar with the cases discussed, chances were good they wouldn’t bring a personal bias or insider perspective to the session. Before class, I requested that students listen to this episode of The Daily podcast, which gives a fairly balanced overview of a conflict system that many urban planners and aligned professionals are faced with, and will continue to be faced with in coming years: how to plan for a community whose future is uncertain due to climate change impacts. The podcast shines a light on the varied conflicts that emerge between neighbors, between different levels of government, and between the public and their local government, among others. This particular topic is one that I happen to know a fair amount about given my professional background, so the outside expertise I was able to bring to the topic served me well in thinking through the complexities and wide-ranging factors students might uncover. You might decide to explore a different topic, one in which you have more interest or familiarity and have a great primer on that can be shared with your students.

Lecture portion*:  I opened the session with a bit of background about why the topic was of interest to me and how I think it’s a helpful exercise for exploring the dynamics of conflict before getting into a very high-level overview of systems mapping.

  • First, I talked about the first important feature of a systems map – the factors. To illustrate what factors looked like, I adopted a very simple example from Ricigliano’s book.
  • Then, I explained another crucial element of a systems map: the feedback relationships between factors. Specifically, more of one factor may cause less or more of another factor, and vice versa. *At this point in the lesson, I had students puzzle out the feedback loops that existed between the factors. These relationships are depicted with simple + or – signs.
  • Next, I discussed how these feedback loops determine whether a system is a reinforcing system or a balancing system. The example in the video is an example of a reinforcing system.
  • After explaining the foundational characteristics of a systems map, I elaborated on the factors. In Ricigliano’s book, he puts forward the SAT model of factors: Structural, Attitudinal, and Transactional. While the SAT model is not necessary to do a basic systems map, I included this section because it was a handy way to think through the different types of factors that could influence a conflict system.
  • The video has some graphics to better illustrate these steps.

Co-learning: Once we had covered the components of a systems map (factors, feedback loops, and system types – reinforcing or balancing), we turned our attention to the conflict system featured in the podcast.

  • In my lesson, I had the students choose the town they wanted to think about to start with, as the two towns profiled in the podcast episode had slightly different situations and factors at play.
  • Next, I assigned students to think about factors that could fall within each of the three categories of the SAT model. I gave each student a pile of sticky notes, and gave them about 2 minutes to brainstorm factors within each of their respective categories.
  • While time limitations did not permit us to move beyond the factor identification stage, a longer lesson could accommodate selecting a few factors to determine how they relate to each other and what feedback loops exist between them.


  • Whiteboard, chalkboard, or easel
  • Dry-erase markers or chalk
  • Sticky notes
  • Markers

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