“Dispute” or “Conflict”?

I have always used the words “conflict” and “dispute” inter-changeably. The dictionary definitions seem to show, as law school professors would say, a distinction without a difference. So I am grateful to Brian Muldoon of HeartWorks Mediation Center, keynote speaker at this year’s ANDRI, for offering a way to distinguish them: He says a “dispute” is two or more contesting positions claiming to be true or just, whereas a “conflict” involves a difference that tends towards destruction or domination. Dispute is linear; conflict is complex.
My simplistic understanding of this distinction is that a dispute involves our rational minds, whereas a conflict involves our emotions. If this is true, then the two are related in that a legal dispute results from an underlying conflict. So, our goals in mediation are both to resolve the dispute and to resolve the conflict.
In the law, we appropriately use the word “dispute” because the legal process uses facts and logic to determine which position is “right.” Thus, “alternative dispute resolution” is the proper term to describe alternatives to litigation. But I’m not sure that “conflict management” is the correct term, given this distinction, because conflict management often offers superficial tools that do not address the passion of conflict.
In Christian peacemaking, I’ve tended to use the word “conflict” and shy away from “dispute,” without having a good reason for doing so. Based on Muldoon’s distinction, this is valid, because biblical peacemaking addresses the problem wholistically, recognizing that the dispute/conflict affects people mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I’m going to try to be more careful about which word I use from now on and see whether this distinction helps.

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