Let’s have a smart conversation about gun policy

National headlines all too frequently tell tragic tales of violence inflicted upon the most vulnerable. We all abhor the loss of life and gaping holes left in families. Fearing it could happen to a loved one, or us, we demand the right to protect ourselves from the very act about which we are so very afraid.

We are conflicted internally and we are conflicted as a nation. We’ve never really come to grips with our ultimate value. Is it human life or human freedom?

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We’ve not resolved the issue that balances these values. Events such as those in Sparks, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Columbine, motivate some to slam the gun lobby for its intransigence in light of the fact that guns kill. Cries for harsher penalties for gun-related crimes go unheeded. Second Amendment proponents mount a blistering defense for the right to bear arms. Others push for tighter laws, better safety education, increased onsite security, or smarter politicians. Our righteous passion compels us to force our solution on our neighbors.

Such an approach forces participants into fixed, oppositional and strident positions. A polarized debate becomes a winner-takes-all competition, with favorable public opinion as the prize. Yet, this prize is an illusion. Policy may change; decisions you support may be made. The cold hard fact is: the deaths of innocents continue.

Many of us throw up our hands and admit we don’t know the best way to reduce wide-spread fear and prevent another school child or teacher from being shot by a student ever again.

It is counter-intuitive, but this uncertainty may be our best path to long-term success. Why? Gun-related violence is a genuinely complex dilemma and collaboration is the only way to achieve a viable, enduring policy. When we are uncertain, we are more likely to collaborate, so more likely to find the solution.

Collaboration is the innovative option that resolves complex issues.

Collaboration starts with the basic premise that the best solution emerges when we stop talking to convince and start listening to understand, when our aim is not to win the argument.

Smart outcomes arise when we take new approaches and listen to different voices. When we accept that we don’t have the answers and don’t know how best to resolve a dilemma, we enlist the perspectives of others, especially those with contrary opinions and those with ideas that haven’t been heard before. We broaden our shared understanding about the issue and co-create the lasting solution. In effect, we commit to a different, collaborative approach in which we spend more time asking questions than advocating a particular position.

Effective collaborators explore issues without imposing their pet solution. They know there is much they don’t know, and seek to learn. They know that others have different views and expend considerable effort to understand those views. As all parties come to understand what is most important to the others about this problem and its solution, and build their willingness to to work hard together for as long as it takes, trust is built even across the deepest chasms.

When all parties share an understanding of each other and can agree on the nature of the dilemma they face together, it is time to start a conversation about how they can work together to resolve it.

Reducing gun-related violence and achieving the socially protective balance between human life and human freedom is a complex dilemma that requires a sophisticated and robust conversation, the like of which has never been had before. This needs a genuinely collaborative governance structure and process, unlike anything else that has been seen.

Waters is managing director of Twyfords, a company headquartered in Australia with a global reach. He specializes in helping government officials and organizations apply the disciplined process of collaborative governance to the most difficult problems by working out the real issues and the best way to solve them.