A friend of mine sent me a link a few days ago to a TED talk on resolving conflict: Julia Dhar: How to disagree productively and find common ground (201810). My friend is part of a group who are exploring how to manage difficult conversations, the ones where people are almost certain to argue without resolution. Their premise (and mine), and the premise of the Julia Dhar talk, is that “Contempt has replaced conversation.” Dhar suggests that the resolution for all parties is to learn the skills of debating.
Yet, I think there is an easier way that I will describe shortly. The skills of debating are still part of the process — it is the preliminary steps that make it easier, and likely more effective.
First, to look at Dhar’s comments:
- the nature of debate is that there is a big topic on the table, an idea that is controversial. One side argues in the positive; the other in the negative.
- the foundation of debate is rebuttal, face to face, as the participants present structured arguments appropriate to their positions. For most people, rebuttal is difficult — it feels like attack. But if the personalities are minimized, it becomes tolerable, perhaps stimulating.
- in a formal debate, it may be that the sides are assigned beforehand, independent of the debaters — to a certain extent, this removes the personalities of the debaters from the debate. Debaters learn to argue from either perspective.
- Dhar notes that the “only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.”
- of note, Dahr also identifies that “listening to someone’s voice as they make a controversial argument is literally humanizing. It makes it easier to engage with what that person has to say.”
- she notes that powerful debaters do not seek to attack; they seek to find common ground. They create what is called shared reality, and Dahr suggests that shared reality is the antidote of alternative facts.
- most important of all, Dhar notes that the structure of debate, especially the ability to argue from either side, is such that we “open ourselves, really open ourselves up to the possibility that we might be wrong. [We encounter t]he humility of uncertainty.”
I agree with all these points yet, as noted, I think there is an easier way.
A former friend of mine (I lost track of him when he moved to Turkey) Joe Schaefer was a cultural anthropologist who engaged in community building. He talked about creative communication as that of “going on feeling good about the other while we resolve our differences.” And the way to do this was to talk about how you learned to hold the stances what were important to you.
I remember a process that Joe led us through. Thirteen pairs were asked to pick a topic upon which we strongly disagreed (issues like “Smoking should be entirely prohibited” or “Young offenders should be treated as adults for serious crimes” or “Gay partners should have the right to adopt children”), and then to take turns telling personal stories to each other of how we learned our attitudes to the topic. We used a standard format of “I remember when . . .,” telling the sensory details of something we remembered as being important to how we came to our conclusions related to the topic: a memory, an intuition, something seen or read, any source of meaning. These conclusions were what we were exploring, yet we were instructed to never state a conclusion during this exercise as to what we learned.
We exchanged memories for ten minutes only, and then had two minutes to explore to what extent we had reached a resolution between us — twelve minutes to explore a tough issue wherein we strongly disagreed. The outcome: ten dyads were completely satisfied in their resolution; two knew they had a resolution but needed a few more minutes; one pair knew they had no resolution possible yet were satisfied that they could be friends about it. I was astounded — I had never seen conflict handled this way and so successfully.
So what is important here:
- first, we stayed away from conclusions, and focused on sensory details of the memories. Details like “I remember walking into Tim Horton’s to get a cup of coffee. The place had a glassed-in smoking section. I saw a friend in the smoking section and went in to talk to him. I was amazed that, within ten minutes, my eyes were burning and my throat was burning.” Period — no conclusion.
- People do not argue sensory details or memories. They argue conclusions.
- Sensory details create shared reality. If you are Canadian,I can almost guarantee that when you read “I remember walking into Tim Horton’s,” you accessed your own memory of walking into your favorite Tim Horton’s — a shared reality in progress.
- Although Dhar talks about shared reality as the antidote of alternative facts, there are fundamentally no such thing as facts. What we call “facts” are our memories of agreed-upon experiences. For example, [fact] I weigh173 pounds because [experience] I remember stepping on the scale this morning and noting that the scale displayed 173.4 (pounds). Even if we together watch me step on the scale, within a few minutes we only have the memory of the event to denote as “fact.”
- the sharing of memories, without conclusion, allows each of us to learn about the “reality” of the other, to step into and feel their experience. Since no conclusion is stated, we do not have anything to bump against.
- we also learn about our own reality. Once we begin to recognize the scanty information that forms the basis of most of our cherished beliefs, we begin to entertain the possibility of being wrong. We again encounter the humility of uncertainty.
- in this humility, we can each step into the experiences of the other and “go on feeling good about the other while we resolve our differences.”
- rather than putting the personalities aside, we actually increase our awareness of the humanness, and the personality, of the other.
- from this place of connectedness, we might then choose to go on to “debate” the topic, recognizing that there are important “facts” within both sides of the “debate.”
- and that if we are to resolve the issues, we must take all these “facts” into a common ground that works for all concerned.
Thus, for me, Dhar’s process is simply the end point of this more simple approach wherein we become familiar with and learn to respect each other, working to common goals.
Does this work for everyone in all circumstances. No, nothing does.
The other must be at least willing to listen to me at the beginning. The beauty of Joe’s methodology is that in most areas where I might argue, I can introduce this approach with fair ease, and often invite a dialogue rather than a debate.
The major limitation always occurs where the other is simply not willing to engage. Even there if I stay strictly with descriptions of my own sensory details, I can minimize argument. People cannot easily argue sensory details, especially if I tell something true that cannot be challenged (e.g., “Wow. I notice how tightly I am clenching my teeth because I so want to argue with you, and yet I am also stopping myself — I don’t want to argue. Does that ever happen to you?” — using the questions perhaps to invite common reality!)
There are so many ways to handle argument, ways that engage rather than separate. As Dhar notes, the skill is to invite common ground.