News headlines are sagging under the weight and bulge of people in conflict. North Americans are conflicted over — well, I don’t need to list all we’re in disagreement about because it’s front and center stage global news.
It seems that, like South Carolina’s 1 in a 1,000 year rain, the U.S., if not much of the global community is journeying through an epochal period of polarization.
Given widespread conflict and disagreements of perspective, opinion, and value:
How can two or more people with significant dissimilarities attain a respectful, dignified and trusting understanding of one another?
Three days post-Umpqua Community College’s mass shooting I re-shared a Facebook posting of a picture of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver with his hands out and his palms open, expressing what I assume is incredulousness. The caption above his head read, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport,” and the bottom-concluding caption read, “31 school shootings since Columbine and no change in the regulation of guns.”
One friend decided this was an opportune moment to inject his opinion on this “stupidest of comparisons.”
Other friends weighed in, too, mostly anti his perspective. Wasting no time, I simply responded that his opinion seemed to derive from Fox News (“Bullshit Mountain” as Jon Stewart and The Daily Show re-named the network), and that he should practice his own advice on “thinking,” because all he seemed to be communicating was raucous vitriol.
An example of how not to develop trust and build bridges of understanding!
To my shame I singularly presumed ignorance and negative intent on his part, particularly given my past association. I responded only to his words and my perception of his attitude and intent; ignoring formative and unknown-to-me influences that most certainly shaped his worldview and values. And I sought to win the battle of opinion with minimal expenditure of effort and inconvenience.
Like icebergs, whose above water visibility reflects only one-ninth its real size, so, too, words, both in ordinary conversation and especially during conflict, reflect only a fraction of what co-antagonists think and feel.
As Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most demonstrates, people’s unspoken, invisible-to-the-eye feelings are “usually where the real action is. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.”
Conflicts or difficult conversations, therefore, are seldom if ever about “getting the facts straight.” They’re about differing perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, and values, with all sides each and on every occasion contributing something to the discord no matter who might legitimately be “most wrong.”
Conflict generates, perpetuates and escalates around accusations of blame, which in turn threatens punishment, which naturally, then, meets with save my (own) bacon denial and counter accusations.
Sadly we default to negative and embittered exchanges, rather than inquisitive discourse that seeks to imaginatively understand each other’s life story—aka, the formative experiences, persons and information that we don’t have access to, yet which shaped and influenced our antagonist’s worldview, interpretation of sensory input, and his/her subsequent words, actions or beliefs.
Funny story. When my middle child was six she shared a bedroom and a bunk bed with her older sister, “Mana.” One night she was lying on her top bunk ranting and wailing because of some disciplining “act of parenting.” After a prolonged period of wailing, their room went silent, after which a quiet, quivering, six-year-old voice asked her sister, “Mana, what was I crying about?” After her older sister reminded her why she had been crying, loud crying again ensued!”
Translated: Conflict and blame take on lives of their own, when, in fact, often times and over time the precipitating facts and feelings are forgotten.
To minimize conflict and difficult conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen argue that we should intentionally and by disciplined practice, move away from a “message delivery” (i.e., “I’m right and you’re to blame”) stance to a “learning stance”—one in which we “walk around the sculpture of our own feelings and observe it from different angles.”
That is, we need to become more adept at asking thoughtful questions when conflict occurs and emotions are heightened. Questions that seek to imagine oneself in the other person’s life story. Questions that seek to understand one’s own inner, vulnerable, and complex emotions and sense of identity.
Or as Chapter Two aptly summarizes it: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right” and instead “Explore Each Other’s Story.” Regrettably, most disagreements—including that of my classmate—center on proving “I’m right and you’re wrong”; a heated exchange of conclusions, rather than an openness to hearing one another’s stories.
Listening and expressing feelings are critical tasks during conflict. When feelings are expressed, the urge to blame subsides. Ironically, an inability to listen well to one’s adversary is symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to express one’s own feelings well. Why is this so?
“Good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on them. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. Instead of wondering, ‘How does what they are saying make sense?’ and ‘Let me try to learn more,’ we have a record playing in our mind that is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: ‘I’m so angry s/he treated me like that!’”