• There is a difference between true peace and cheap peace.
  • Settling for cheap peace can rob us of tremendous opportunities.
  • This article explains the difference and outlines a process for working toward true peace


When we talk about things like“expanding our table,” sometimes it comes with a tone of “We should all just get along. Don’t rock the boat. Just keep the peace.”

That word “peace” comes up a lot in conversations around conflict and impasse.

Every time I hear it, forgive me, but I cringe a little.

Don’t get me wrong, peace is something I long for. I long for it so deeply that I hold all claims with a high degree of skepticism. Too many times, peace is cheap. It can be downright cowardly, a Band-Aid fix, a state we arrive at too quickly because we don’t know how to cope with discord and ambiguity.

Peace can also be coded language for death: a state of ultimate and changeless resolution.“Peace” sometimes represents an ominous point of no return.

My story with cheap peace

Let me give some context. When I was in high school, I was the president of a student club. One of my fellow club officers developed strong feelings about the way I was running the group but didn’t talk to me about it. Instead, the student sent a letter to our entire 200-person email list, outlining all the ways I was incompetent. The letter actually used the word incompetent. As you can imagine, I felt blindsided and totally humiliated.

I approached a couple of adults who I respected, and I asked for advice on what to do. Both adults told me to let it blow over, to just “take the hit.” I followed their advice. The weekly attendance of the club shrank from over 100 kids to 11.

To this day, when someone asks me to be in charge of something, my heart skips a beat in panic.

When I think about that memory, the most painful part is not the kid who sent the email. Kids do inconsiderate things, and maybe I wasn’t the best leader. What still hurts is how those adults failed to counsel me in a meaningful way. They basically said, “It’s totally healthy to pretend everything is fine.” I was taught to embrace cheap peace in a way that hurt my confidence and my concept of leadership. I was taught that avoiding conflict was okay. Maybe the adults were trying to teach me that leaders should not let themselves react to criticism, but something about being that passive felt wrong.

What we miss when we embrace cheap peace

Cheap peace often represents missed opportunities to engage some of the best, most complicated questions. In avoiding that conflict in high school (and many others afterward, as avoidance became my working model), I missed an opportunity to grow from understanding why the other student characterized my leadership negatively or why they had larger issues with me. The other student missed the chance to properly register a grievance face-to-face.

Demanding peace too quickly can lead us to gloss over a number of significant emotions, expressions, and questions. Cheap peace robs us of chances to become better thinkers, better neighbors, and better leaders. It ultimately robs us of opportunities to strengthen relationships and leaves us in a state of constant fragility with no real closure.

It’s possible I can never be fully at peace with someone with whom I strongly I disagree. The relationship may never be 100 percent comfortable and free of tension. I may never be fully in unity with them; I may never reach a place of full comfort. Therefore, it’s not realistic to anticipate or expect peace when it comes to impasse.

This might seem bleak, but let’s not lose hope. Once we get beyond idealizing peace and start to practice the secrets of impasse, we can start to transform conflict and make it work on our behalf.

Cheap peace vs. True peace

Many of us exist in a pressure cooker and experience life amidst forces that war for our attention, our loyalty, our heartstrings, and our time.

From interpersonal complexities to large national and international conflicts, the world we know is not just a noisy place saturated in too much information, but a place where we pulled. Pulled by advertisers, pulled by politicians, pulled by activists, pulled by jobs, pulled by family members and interpersonal relationships. Pulled by the longing for justice. Pulled by grief that life isn’t what it should be. Pulled by a desire to make things better, but perhaps not knowing how to start or what to do.

Many of us long for peace. We grow weary of the fight, of any fight. We crave resolution and simplicity. These are right things to hope for. When we experience this kind of being in the world, it’s tempting in our drive for peace to skip ahead. It’s tempting to look at acts of kindness or civility or unanimity and say, “we have achieved it.”

In our drive for true and lasting peace, it’s altogether tempting to skip ahead. It’s tempting to look at acts of kindness or civility or unanimity and say, “we have achieved it.” But things are not always as they seem.

Sometimes, we might think we are resolving a situation but really we are just burying or silencing it. Sometimes people say they are okay with compromises, but they really haven’t heard felt or seen and the compromise is not sustainable. Sometimes we take one small step to address an unhealthy system and pat ourselves on the back for making progress. But the larger brokenness looms.

True peace is the outcome of justice and sharing power. It is an indicator of needs being met, systems being healthy, people caring for themselves and each other. It will be felt by everyone involved in the situation, not just for some. True peace takes a long time to build; it is a collaborative and creative effort on behalf of all parties involved. It’s not magic, it’s hard work. It’s an intentional process.

Brave Talk Process: A Roadmap for True Peace

To transform a situation of conflict into a situation where true peace is possible, we have to wear a lot of hats. Here’s a step-by-step process that can help.

  1. Be the Detective. Identify everyone involved, all stakeholders, and gather information from every party (including yourself so you are aware of your own biases). Have each person involved write down what’s happening using “I” language from their own perspective. It’s not possible to be fully objective, because we all have a context and a perspective, but it can be an eye-opening experience to take a step back and explain the situation.
  2. Be the Empath. Dig into each person’s emotional landscape. What is this bringing up for them? How are they feeling? Why is it significant? What history, fears, grief, or even traumas are contributing to these feelings and their read on the situation? Make notes on this.
  3. Be the Host. Get everyone in the same space to share their perspectives. Make sure everyone has equal time and space to share. The Circle Process is a highly effective tool for this. Note similarities and differences. Honor all voices, even if you disagree with them. Share reflections on what people bring. Celebrate any deeper understanding and learning that occurs.
  4. Be the Philosopher. Look at the big picture and all the factors at work, including power structures that are operating. Who has the most power? Are they seeking to equalize and share power? Does anyone feel powerless, and if so why? Philosophy is especially interested in the study of paradox. Be open to the idea that the situation may not be resolvable. The most important goal is not forcing resolution, but healing relationships.
  5. Be the Transformer. Conflict transformation means a willingness to look deeply into systems and patterns that are acting as the root causes of conflict. Make a plan of action to address root causes and organize forward motion to create sustainable change. Peace can be possible, but only when justice and love reign.

Excerpts are taken from my book Brave Talk, Broadleaf Books, July 2020.

Melody Stanford Martin - 17 posts

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert helping people of all ages develop skills of courageous dialogue and conflict transformation. She is the author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020) and the Founder of Brave Talk Project.

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