|We live in contentious times. Our elected officials, our communities, our neighbors, our workplaces are at odds! How do we get better at resolving conflict? What approaches work best for different situations? Here are some suggestions about how to find agreement in angry times.
1. Be the Convener.
Use your status, your influence, even your power to call the disputing parties to the table. You may have no formal authority to convene but others may secretly welcome the opportunity to find common ground-they are just not afforded that opportunity very often. There is magic in dialogue; so why doesn’t it happen more often?
Convening people who are mad at each other, or at you, is uncomfortable. Most of us like to control our situation and we lose that control when conflict is directly expressed.
We are also busy, constrained by the tyranny of the daily crisis. It takes time, a lot of time to build consensus. But the alternative is so much worse. We hunker down in our opposition to each other and the positions become inflexible and personal. Living in a cycle of anger and blame costs a fortune in anxiety, lost opportunities and litigation. Turning conflict into productive dialogue is hard and time-consuming…and it is absolutely necessary.
2. Recognize that People are Fundamentally Different.
This is such a simple truth but acknowledging it would make a huge difference in resolving disputes. I have long (and wrongly) believed that if I just talked at someone long enough and said enough smart stuff they would eventually come to my way of thinking. What silliness!
Americans are a diverse people with fundamentally different moral foundations. Recent psychological studies show we have genetic predispositions for what we believe (which are influenced by our upbringing and surroundings as well); but whatever we believe, no amount of yelling at each other or listening to the yelling on cable news shows will change our beliefs. And this has always been so.
“Morality binds and blinds,” writes Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the NYU School of Business. “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
Haidt believes a mix of moral foundations creates healthy communities and given our inherent diversity, we should act with moral humility toward each other. Acknowledging that what others believe is as sacred to them as what we believe is to us is essential to getting past the gridlock.
3. Express Your Assumptions.
Assumptions are terrible obstacles to dialogue and consensus. Yet we make them all the time; it is the only way we can organize our thinking about the world around us and function at all efficiently. The problem is that we sometimes hold onto ideas that are simply wrong, and stay wrong until they are exposed to the scrutiny of others.
Here is a key to consensus-building; admit your own assumptions, ask others to admit theirs and hold them all up to the light of truth. Dig past the hardened positions to the honest discussions of interests and (to use Roger Fisher’s phrase from Getting to Yes) “insist on using object criteria.” Fisher writes, “It is far easier to deal with people when both of you are discussing objective standards for settling a problem instead of trying to force each other to back down.”
Here are just a few thoughts about how to get past today’s debilitating policy and personal gridlock. Know that for some there is no interest in finding common ground. But for the rest of us: recognize our differences. Question our own perfect knowledge. Articulate presumptions and then test them. And be humble.
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