Courage, conflict, and how we lose track of what we care about

Courage, conflict, and how we lose track of what we care about

“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody—including me—has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”

~ Ken Wilber, from A Theory of Everything

I offered this idea recently to a group of state legislators gathered in Seattle during the 2015 Summit of the National Conference of State Legislators. More than 4000 elected officials and legislative staffers got together to discuss hot topics ranging from energy policy to education funding, mental illness in the criminal justice system, marijuana legalization, and beyond.

During this non-partisan gathering, 85 of us spent a morning together focused on building skills to navigate what I call Courageous Conversations. You know, the daunting ones. The ones we tend to avoid because the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.[1]

Some approaches to conflict—whether in politics, business, or elsewhere—focus on how to subdue or dominate the other party. Crush’em, even. Basically, how to GET YOUR WAY.

That’s not the work I do.

I’m much more interested in how we can navigate conflict and negotiate differences, even the most challenging ones. I’m interested in finding creative, productive approaches that allow for the possibility of a mutually agreeable solution that serves the greater good.

Happily, the past three decades of research on negotiation show that “a collaborative, problem-solving approach to negotiations produces better agreements than approaching them as wars to be won.”[2] This applies to many of the situations in our lives—personal and professional—where we need to navigate differences and negotiate a path forward.

So it’s pretty interesting to think about conflict and courageous conversations within a structurally adversarial system (a.k.a. partisan politics), especially when the current vibe of public discourse is all too often dominated by withering disdain, personal attacks, and general dismissiveness.

When I see people looking for ways to bridge differences, I feel hopeful. It’s easy to bemoan gridlock and accept it as inevitable. It’s much harder to look beyond it, and imagine that there’s a path through it. Heck, I’m certainly not immune to the challenges myself. It’s hard when it feels like our efforts, beliefs, or aspirations are being ignored or attacked. The lizard brain kicks in, and our flight-fight-freeze reactions are triggered. And it’s easy to demonize or dismiss our opponents.

But what happens when we do that?

We stop seeing each other as people. We stop seeing that our opponents have strengths, flaws, needs, and aspirations — just like we do. Instead, we reduce each other to less than human. When this happens, we typically start seeing each other as one of three types of objects[3]:

  • An obstacle. “My idiot coworker is making my job miserable.”
  • A vehicle. “We really need this donor’s support, and he is totally against this initiative.”
  • An irrelevancy. “Don’t bother talking to the minority coalition; we don’t need their votes.”

These strategies may make us feel better, temporarily, because they help us feel justified in not really trying to resolve the conflict. But here’s the real cost: We dig in our heels. We look for evidence of our rightness and our opponent’s wrongness. We amplify the conflict.

YOUR TURN: Where do you see this showing up in your workplace?

NEXT WEEK: A small but mighty tool to break the cycle of defensiveness and blame.


[1] Adapted from Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

[2] Ask for It, by Babcock and Laschever.

[3] These ideas draw heavily on The Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute

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