Do No Harm at your Fingertips

October 9, 2013 | Marshall Wallace

Share this article

The Germans have a word for it: Fingerspitzengefühl – fingertip feel. The seemingly intuitive understanding of a changing context that allows for rapid, good decision making in the face of uncertainty. When we use the phrase “conflict sensitivity”, we intend to suggest that we can touch the context, feel its contours, manipulate and shape it with our knowledge and experience and how they contribute to our decisions.What is Do No Harm really? Do No Harm is about decision making.

What do you need to know to make good decisions? You need to know the context – you need an accurate enough map of reality. You need to have a model of change – you need to know how change happens. You need to know what you can do – you need to understand your own power and constraints.

The exceptional aid worker, development worker, peacebuilder has a sense of a context that is dynamic and instinctive. Change is inevitable and decisions must be made in response. Responses must fit reality or they can make a situation worse. Any context is large, consisting of thousands of factors vying for attention. Navigating these demanding and attention grabbing events is hard.

Do No Harm is a set of techniques that

  1. reduce the amount of information about the context to a manageable level, while maintaining a focus on the most important factors;
  2. model how behavior changes context along those factors, again filtering information into a useable flow; and
  3. make project details, criteria, and rationale explicit so that necessary shifts are quick and precise.

Fingerspitzengefühl is a skill. Do No Harm is a set of methods for learning Fingerspitzengefühl.

Dividers and Connectors

All contexts can, when thinking about conflict, be characterized by Dividers and Connectors. While these categories seem extraordinarily broad, they nonetheless exclude the vast majority of factors in a context. In addition, in practice we find that people use these categories to further refine and prioritize conflict and peace related factors into immediately useable understanding.

This duality shrinks potential change to two axes. A factor can be either a Divider or a Connector (or neither; if you can’t see how a factor affects the conflict, then leave it out) and it can be getting either better or worse. This simplicity allows for extraordinarily rapid observation of change in a context.

ABCs (Actions and Behaviors have Consequences)

Dividers and Connectors change because of the things people do. Human interaction is made up of a few behaviors and actions. These can be combined in complex ways, of course. However, change can be traced to specific interactions and the patterns they demonstrate.

The ABCs constitute a record of observed patterns. Often unintentional in our day-to-day lives, the patterns can be placed under our control. We can harness them to become the agents of change we desire to be.

In basic DNH, we want to be aware of our own actions and behaviors in order to support positive changes and avoid negative ones. Our responsibility for our own actions and behaviors is total. When we identify negative patterns in our own interactions, we can reverse them by using positive counter patterns. We can change and, with us, we can change the context.

Beyond ourselves, however, we can be aware of the way the actions and behaviors of others change the context. Our awareness of how changes take place improves our ability to act rapidly and decisively. Extending our sensitivity beyond our local concerns extends our power and range of action.

Critical Detail Mapping of an Intervention

All interventions are planned in some way. They are begun with some rationale and established with some set of criteria for making decisions. There are criteria for how and where and with whom to work and criteria for success. Yet often some criteria are unspoken and implicit. What is unspoken is often forgotten or ignored. When dealing with people and changes in their situations that will fundamentally affect their lives, it is imperative that we neither forget nor ignore how we made and make decisions.

Close analysis of the details and criteria of a program or project is imperative for understanding where and how we can effect change. Why have we made the decisions we have? What lies behind the decisions and can we understand them well enough to make them better when inevitable change in circumstances challenges our preconceptions?

Any program can be analyzed through the classic questions (why? where? what?  when? who? and how?), but to go deep enough when examining our criteria, we must ask “why?” after every answer. This will push us to examine our roots and to get underneath the choices we have made. Knowing that we made a choice about something and knowing what that choice was allows us to track whether it was a good choice and makes changing it far easier than when we only observe the program or project as a whole. The whole program or project is too tangled to understand where any decision can make a fundamental difference. Being explicit about the specific criteria and choices cuts through the thicket.


These three techniques provide us with specific outcomes.

Dividers and Connectors gives us a model of the context against which to test our understanding. Today’s model is good enough inasmuch as it helps us to rapidly see change. Today’s model is good enough inasmuch as we review it and revise it daily based on the changes we observe.

The ABCs gives us a model of human interaction that explains the changes we see in Dividers and Connectors. It also gives us understanding of how to effect change ourselves through our informed actions.

Critical Detail Mapping an intervention highlights our decision points.

Putting these three techniques together provides us with the ability to observe and act in a rapidly changing context in near real time. We see the important factors, we know why they are changing, we know what we can do and where.

The exceptional aid worker, development worker, peacebuilder does this so quickly that we do not see individual steps. They have internalized their experience and knowledge to the extent that decisions appear intuitive. They have acquired Fingerspitzengefühl.


The secret of mastery is the secret of speed. The master fails so much more quickly than the novice. Even as we grow in our ability to understand the context and react to it, reality will challenge us every step of the way. No matter how good we get, we will make mistakes. The master sees the mistake, identifies the flaw in her understanding that led to it, and corrects course before the novice has even realized a mistake was made.

Good decision makers are built not born. As we learn to play an instrument through our first fumbling, barely able to even bring a clear note into the air, to a time years later when our fingers move seemingly of their own accord through the most challenging and beautiful passages, Fingerspitzengefühl is a skill that is improved through regular practice.

As we practice DNH, our speed at moving through the techniques improves. Our ability at each one individually improves. The links between them grow more subtle and interesting. We become even better aware of all the mistakes we can make and realize all the mistakes we have made. At this stage, some become paralyzed by indecision, knowing that any path forward has consequences. Others, however, trust that they are learning and that their attention to detail supports better decisions.

Consequences are the result of action and behavior. Inaction is still action – and all action has consequences. Perfection is not an option, but mitigation is. Armed with understanding, we can act quickly and then act again. The cycle is endless.

With Do No Harm at our fingertips, we can advance, ever more rapidly, in the direction of peace and development.

Related Posts

Lens and Filter


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *