When ‘dumbing it down’ goes way too far: Why oversimplifying conflict is dangerous

How the Israel-Hamas war demonstrates the dangers of oversimplifying complex conflicts

November 20, 2023

My son came home the other day with a barrage of questions about the appalling Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel. Like any modern teen, he had seen some videos on TikTok and had been hashing it out with his buddies, leading to some assumptions and perspectives that made me go “hmmm.” 

Naturally, I seized the opportunity to school my offspring on an issue I have made an effort to explore. I shed some light on the complexity, depth and lengthy history of the conflict. I needed him to grasp that this awful situation is both horrifying and complex. I wanted him to understand that he is hearing strong positions based on a simplistic view of the truth, shared by those who are skilled in crafting a message and making it spread like wildfire. 

Watch German Vice Chancellor's remarkable speech on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
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Tell me: Are we seriously this ‘simple’?

Watching such a complicated conflict, with layers upon layers of nuance and complexity and a modern history that is 75 years old, be reduced to a black-and-white issue is challenging for me. The Israel-Hamas war is a tapestry woven with social, economic, political and religious threads. It involves a diverse group of players and stakeholders, each with wildly different visions of the future

And yet, we reduce it to a simplistic, binary issue. We declare our positions, draw lines in the sand and slap labels on anyone daring to differ. We alienate, attack, and transform that line into a canyon so vast it’s hard to imagine a bridge big enough to cross it.

The Israel-Hamas conflict is an extreme example of a reductionist pattern we, as facilitators, see in conflicts all the time.

Simplifying complex conflicts: A dangerous trap

Our addiction to urgency, quick hits, sound bites and so-called ‘expert opinions’ fuels the problem. Here’s the hard truth: Nothing is as simple as that. We live in a complex world with complex people and complex problems. 

Today’s communication platforms, with their sensational headlines and polarizing clickbait, have contributed to a dialogue that makes nuance easy to avoid. Everything gets reduced to a binary and stamped with a label: 

  • Good/bad
  • This/that 
  • Left/right
  • Conservative/Liberal 
  • Oppressor/oppressed

Disagree with me, and you’re not just wrong; you’re bad, labeled as a racist, misogynist, far right, Trumpian, far left, communist, Marxist, socialist, oppressor, settler—the list goes on. 

Once we’ve labeled someone, we make assumptions about what they think, how they think, the values they hold. We don’t seek to understand their viewpoint or perspectives. We assign motives and intent. We tell ourselves stories that reinforce our untested assumptions.

We create an image that can be very difficult to dismantle, leading to a cycle of misunderstanding, animosity and missed opportunities for genuine dialogue and resolution.  

Knee-deep in conflict: How do we get out?

Navigating conflict is like diving headfirst into a sea of complexities. We must be willing to ride every wave, explore every twist and turn, and confront the undertow of misunderstandings. 

Ocean metaphors aside (you know I can’t resist a good metaphor): This is really hard stuff. It doesn’t happen overnight—it takes time, dialogue and commitment and often calls for external support from someone who is trained and skilled at conflict management and resolution.

If we’re going to talk about hard things, we first need to create a space where people feel open and safe to speak up. In our experience, organizations in conflict usually have some work to do here. In my world, psychological safety is a requirement in conflict resolution. This involves allowing ourselves to put ourselves in the shoes of others - building an understanding of others’ perspectives. I often quote Amanda Ripley from her book High Conflict: Why we get trapped and how we get out: “People need to feel you understand them, even as they realize you disagree with them, before they will hear you.” 

Once we’ve established a safe zone, we take a step back from the conflict and start working to uncover the root of the issue. A first step is to hear all the perspectives to create a comprehensive context. The hard thing we are trying to ‘fix’ is typically tied to a much larger system. Understanding that system, how it works and why it isn’t working takes time. It's important to recognize that there’s a logic in every system that is self-reinforcing - whether it is obtaining mental health services, building environmental monitoring programs or developing effective procurement systems. Before we can even begin identifying solutions, we must break the issue down into smaller, solvable problems. Otherwise, our wheels will just keep on spinning.

Here are some handy principles for dealing with tricky conflicts: 

  • Approach the ‘mess’ with curiosity.
  • Expect to take time and resist the lure of the ‘easy fix’; complex problems need thoughtful solutions. 
  • Get the full picture by bringing all the perspectives into the room.
  • Accept that you don’t know it all when you step into the room. 
  • Assume folks have good intentions and are operating from a logic that is rational for them. 
  • Dig into the values behind different perspectives; it opens doors to solutions. 

Dig in to build bridges

Look, I get it. Simplicity is appealing. It’s the easy route, right? But here’s the thing – real-life problems just aren’t that simple. Glazing over important details and jumping to conclusions is not only counterproductive; it’s irresponsible and even dangerous. 

The Israel-Hamas conflict serves as a stark reminder of this. Around the world, partially informed people are becoming hardened by surface level understandings that miss the complexity. The consequence is humans are literally dying. People like my Jewish uncle and cousins, whom I love very much, are the targets of hate-fuelled behaviors due to binary positions taken about a complicated conflict a half a world away. It makes my skin crawl. 

At our dinner table, we’re talking about it. We’re digging into the hard stuff. We’re slowing down, challenging our assumptions and reading beyond the headlines, investing the time into learning about it. In a world full of polarizing conflicts, embracing complexity is our superpower. 

It’s daunting. It’s fascinating. And it’s so damn important. 

P.S. I came across this 'kaleidoscope' view of the conflict from Thomas Friedman, an author I particularly respect. I love how it leans into nuance and complexity.

Read our other blogs about conflict:

Photo by Mateusz D on Unsplash.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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