I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool [i]

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool [i]

Thoughts on strengthening your capacity to navigate conflict (while also seeing each other as human)

In Collaborating with the Enemy, author and facilitator Adam Kahane shares a meaningful anecdote about the challenges of navigating conflict, especially where people have long-standing reasons for distrust and disagreement. In the early 1990’s, as South Africa started negotiating a transition from apartheid toward democracy, one of Kahane’s South African colleagues shared an idea that encapsulated the challenges ahead: “Faced with our country’s overwhelming problems, we have only two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option would be for all of us to get on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option would be for us to talk and work together to find a way forward together.”[ii]

This joke captures the common—and often quite reasonable—fear that finding a way through conflict will be impossible. Often, even the suggestion of trying to find a way through is met with skepticism and cynicism. And yet, in this particular situation, a cross-section of deeply entrenched opponents (establishment politicians, opposition leaders, mine owners, trade unionists, tribal leaders, etc.) were able to negotiate a relatively peaceful transition to a new constitution and a democratically-elected government. And while the transition has been imperfect, challenging, and incomplete in addressing the legacies of apartheid, it is a powerful example of our ability to work together across vast differences.

At this moment in time, I’m drawn to stories like this as an example of what’s possible, even when the challenges we face are daunting, the path is unclear, and the results are uncertain. We are currently experiencing (and, let’s be honest, often contributing to) increased political polarization in our country, in our communities, and in our families. What does this mean for us as individuals, and how does this relate to the challenges and conflicts that we face as leaders, as organizations, as coalitions, and beyond?

In the Pacific Northwest, we have a reputation for how we handle–or don’t handle–conflict. Passive-aggressive and conflict-avoidant, we’re often known for preferring the false harmony of quiet denial to the discomfort of open dissent. We tend to talk around an issue rather than addressing it, and accept silence as agreement. It seems that we are skilled at calculating the risks of open conflict, but we completely overlook the risks of pretending that differences don’t exist.

Whether it’s members of a coalition who are getting territorial about how resources will be distributed, a rogue board member who just doesn’t seem to understand why their brilliant idea isn’t being pursued, or a policymaker who openly opposes how our organization is addressing a particular community issue, we are faced with conflicts and opposing views all the time.

Are these problems, opportunities, or both?

There’s no easy answer. And even if there are seeds of opportunity in conflict, how do we work across differences? How do we know where to draw the line between being open to the ideas of others and betraying our own interests? This central dilemma is expressed in the two conflicting definitions of the word collaboration: “working jointly with others” and “cooperating traitorously with the enemy”[iii].

Honestly, I don’t have the secret formula. But as I study high-conflict situations around the globe and look at the increasing polarization in this country, it seems that the ability to work across difference is more important than ever. And if we can learn to handle conflict better in our families, our organizations, and our communities, then we stand a better chance of working together to address the pressing regional, national, and global issues that affect us all. While the path isn’t clear, I believe that we all need to start where we are to build this capacity.

While this short article will only scratch the surface of a sprawling topic, here are three ideas for strengthening your capacity to navigate complex challenges by: (1) reframing collaboration, (2) deepening your self-awareness, and (3) refining how you listen and communicate.

(1) Reframe collaboration and conflict:

In his stories about facilitating collaboration in high-conflict situations, Kahane highlights the limitations of conventional collaboration, which embraces harmony and tends to reject dissent. He makes the comparison to breathing[iv]. We can’t choose between inhaling and exhaling, we need to do both. If we were only to exhale, we would die from a lack of oxygen. If we were only to inhale, we would die from excess carbon dioxide. We need to balance both processes in order to survive. Similarly, Kahane frames collaboration as involving both connection and conflict. We need to engage with others AND assert our individual interests and views. If we only focus on common ground, we minimize real differences and capitulate to the will of others. When this happens, we gloss over real issues that need to be addressed. On the other hand, if we only assert our own interests, we disregard our interdependence and impose our will on others. While we might be able to force a set of actions, the underlying issues fester and remain unresolved. In the face of complex challenges, we need to make room for both connection and conflict.

(2) Deepen your self-awareness:

A high level of self-awareness is a crucial foundation for navigating conflict effectively. If your lizard brain is feeling threatened and a flight/fight/freeze reaction is triggered, you’re not going to be at your most resourceful. So develop a practice of checking in with yourself by routinely asking yourself three key questions:

“What’s motivating me right now?” Notice what’s going on in your internal landscape that’s shaping your responses and behaviors. Are you reacting to your circumstances based on judgments or based on curiosity? Have you already reached your conclusion, assigned blame, or made assumptions about someone’s underlying motives? For example, if a colleague delivers poor quality work, does your inner narrative sound like this: “He did a terrible job on that, clearly he doesn’t even care what happens to this project. What an idiot.” Or do you have the capacity to get curious? And maybe your inner narrative sounds more like this: “I wonder what shaped his approach? What needs to happen next to bring this project up to par?” Being curious doesn’t mean that you abandon your expertise or your standards; rather, curiosity is a vehicle for staying connected to the other parties and to your creative problem-solving capacities.

“How am I viewing the people I’m dealing with?” More specifically, are you seeing them as human beings, or as somehow ‘less than’? In the face of conflict, it’s easy to demonize or dismiss our opponents. We stop seeing that they have strengths, flaws, needs, and aspirations—just like we do. But what happens when we do that? We start treating them like objects[v], an ‘us vs. them’ narrative emerges, and our focus shifts from addressing issues to conquering enemies. This may make us feel better, temporarily, because we feel justified. But here’s the real cost: it leads to the same kinds of dehumanizing language and behaviors that we object to in others. And the stakes are high here, my friends. “Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides… We are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.”[vi] Recognizing someone’s humanity doesn’t mean that you agree with their position or that you will submit to their demands. It just gives the process some breathing room, allows for greater clarity, and keeps us connected to our shared humanness.

“What choices do I want to make?” You don’t get to control the outcome, but you do get a choice about how you respond to and shape circumstances. The goal isn’t to stop being triggered, stifle disagreement, or pretend that people are never hard to deal with. The goal is to shorten the cycle of being in a reactive state, so that you recover more quickly, and can be as resourceful as possible.

(3) Refine how you listen and communicate:

Skilled communications involve receiving and making meaning of complex information from multiple sources. While we sometimes go through the motions of conversation, sometimes the quality of our listening and speaking limit what’s possible. Take a look at this summary of four different levels of conversation[vii], and assess how much of your time you spend on each level.


Each of these levels is useful at different times, so the goal isn’t to only dwell in Generative Dialogue. It’s useful to have skill in all of them, and to be able to fluidly transition between levels, depending on what’s needed in the moment. If you’re spending most of your time in Level 1 and Level 2, you may find that the concrete and past-focused nature of these levels is limiting. Conversation remains pretty superficial at Level 1, and the Factual Debate of Level 2 can trigger defensiveness and amplify rigid posturing. In some ways, Level 2 may be most familiar because our education system tends to emphasize debate skills: articulating an argument and dismantling opposing positions. And while comparing facts and opinions certainly has its place, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Communicating at levels 3 and 4 allows us to expand the range of possibilities for a shared future that acknowledges our current challenges and our human connection.

NEXT WEEK: Part 2 looks at some ways to put these ideas into practice.

YOUR TURN: We’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • What are your tips for engaging productively in conflict?
  • What have you learned from your successes at working across differences?
  • What have you learned from your failures?


[i] Title quote: Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s pithy example of the concept that we tend to view our own actions more charitably than we view the actions of others. From a 1948 BBC radio program, cited in Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, Cambridge University.
[ii] Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy, Loc 400.
[iii] Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy, Loc 350.
[iv] Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy, Loc 996, drawing on the work of psychologist Barry Johnson on managing polarities.
[v] These ideas draw on Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute, and Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown.
[vi] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Loc 885 and Loc 864.
[vii] This is lightly adapted from Otto Scharmer’s model in Theory U, which is also discussed in Collaborating with the Enemy. www.presencing.com/permissions

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