Our social harmony has been fragmented by mud-slinging and divisiveness. Clashes between the left and the right have global reverberations. Each side holds negative views about the other, leading to polarization, culminating in political “echo chambers.” I admit, I've been guilty of this myself at times. When I do engage with people on the opposite end of my political views, however, I find practical negotiation strategies lead to respectful and eye-opening debates.
Nearly every week in 2017 someone has asked me for advice on dealing with stressful conflicts. There’s no denying that the U.S. election struck a nerve with individuals’ deeply-held values and identities. Emotions vary, but mostly people are angry.
Helping people engage productively in conflict is what I do. In the past week, I worked with clients who felt hurt, ashamed, disappointed, bullied, fearful, bitter, mistrusting and worse. Here’s a short list of (real!) people who recently sought my assistance:
- A wife stopped talking to her husband because he voted for a candidate she believes could end her career.
- A daughter wondering if she should “un-friend” her parents because they kept making disrespectful comments about her political beliefs on social media.
- An entire department subdivided along ideologies some say has intensified since the election.
- Neighbors stopped socializing with one another because the conversations became too toxic
There are better options and conflict resolution professionals are doing all we can to turn this around. While you may not resolve everything, or anything, you can learn to respectfully disagree. After over two decades of working with people's conflicts, I've discovered these five keys to doing this well:
Reframe a win.
Let go of believing, “I must win and therefore, you must lose.” Harvard’s William Ury, suggests creative strategies for moving the goalposts. Find out what they really want, you may be able to give it to them, without losing what you want. Most likely, you will find they are willing to do the same, or at least meet you somewhere along the way. If you’ve not heard about it, consider the conflict over an orange.
Accept what you can’t change.
As I mentioned in a previous post, you can’t change what others believe, anymore than you can alter their core identities. Your beliefs about what is true are as real to you as theirs are to them. (Conversely, as absurd as their beliefs seem to you, believe it or not, yours may seem strange to them.)
You don’t know everything.
No matter how intelligent, rational or evidence-oriented you are, you cannot possibly know what the other person experienced. You cannot see the conflict through their lenses. You do not know what they know, feel or believe. (See my previous blog post on this.) First, recognize how anger is clouding your own judgement. Then, listen, from an objective and impartial stance, to understand why they see things the way they do.
Respect is personal.
It is shaped by the way we are raised and what we believe. Quite often, one person in mediation will say something like, “Everyone knows [x behavior] is disrespectful.” The truth is, everyone doesn’t operate from the same set of rules. If you feel disrespected, then you may ask to negotiate with the other person about what respect means. Be prepared for them to make requests that you should also respect. To learn more about the role of respect in conflict, download the free workbook I've created.
Be the change.
Take cues from leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who took risks to build peace. If you want the conflict behind you, take the first step to let it go. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what do you really have to lose? Giving someone a moment of respect not mean giving up or giving in. In fact, as I have seen with my own clients, it can be empowering.
Respectful disagreements are possible, even in our polarized world. You don’t believe me? Listen to this kid break it down.