Engaging in conversations and reframing conflict

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“Tell me more.”  

This phrase needs to become a new mantra and a collective discipline among all Americans if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s vision of unity for this country hopes to gain traction.  

This comes at a time of deep polarization in this country that has only been exacerbated since the election and the contested results. 

Last year, Gallup identified greater division in approval of President Donald Trump than for any other president, as well as greater hostility to the opposition party.  The Chicago Council on Global Affairs reports extreme partisan differences in foreign policy issues and the country’s top threats.   

Despite the prevalence and depth of polarization and animosity between Americans, some behavioral scientists assert that Americans are traditionally socialized to not discuss certain taboo topics, such as politics, money, sex, or religion, in the workplace, at social gatherings, or the family dinner table. 

Yet, productive collaboration requires connection and conversation, and it also needs diverse perspectives. The issue is not whether or not to have the conversations; it is to learn how to have the conversation.  

As a nation, to function more effectively addressing, handling and adjusting to the pandemic,  economy, unemployment, systemic racial injustice and a host of other challenges, as well as to repair relationships in families and communities, it is best to have courageous conversations about political and social issues that many prefer to avoid.  

Clearly, some principles involving values, morals, or ethics are non-negotiable for many.  For other heated issues, there are various recommendations for navigating the discomfort of conversations rife with divergent perspectives and benefit from doing so.

In more than 25-years of teaching leadership and negotiations to global executives and graduate students, I have advised it is optimal not to ignore or stifle their emotions in conflict scenarios but rather to reflect and use them to identify their underlying values.

If outraged, examine what that reveals about what you value; passionate feelings often represent strongly held beliefs, values, or fears. Outrage about bullying, for example, may represent respect for the dignity of all people.

Identifying the underlying root causes of emotions, and dismantling polarized positions and passions, lays the groundwork for more fruitful dialogue.  People can discuss and remain true to their values and interests and be more open-minded and flexible to different solutions to the issues at hand.

According to the Beyond Conflict Polarization Index, Americans say they believe that the opposite party members dislike, dehumanize, and disagree with their own party about twice as much as they actually do.  Both Republicans and Democrats overestimate the amount of disagreement, for example, on positions on immigration and gun control.  

Recent state ballot propositions indicate increasing agreement on the war on drugs and the justice system. 

Bringing people together and increasing contact with those who hold different perspectives is important for reducing conflict. Research with participants in five countries by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Professor Nour Kteily suggests that interacting with members of a different group reduces dehumanization and perceived dehumanization.  

According to a 2014 report, the shared experience approach suggests that change can occur when people learn from the experiences of others who have also confronted difficult challenges. 

Sharing life experiences enables people to connect and relate as humans, even when they hold extremely different positions. In my teaching of leadership and storytelling, I have witnessed individuals worldwide from completely different backgrounds feel connected in just minutes after sharing stories around their values and key life lessons.

I saw this firsthand visiting Rwanda in 2010 for research to listen to those who had survived the 1994 genocide that left almost a million dead. I witnessed the unfolding transformation of the country with improvements in infrastructure, health and education. 

Observing a cooperative of women entrepreneurs making artisan crafts, they worked side by side, knowing that family members of some of their colleagues had murdered some of their own family members.  They shared that there is no alternative and hate does not help them move forward.  The only way to move forward is to work together.  

I returned to Rwanda in 2014 with 30 MBA students from the Kellogg School to meet with President Paul Kagame and other business and government leaders, as part of an academic course on leading change and transformation.  We observed that hope and change often come from people talking about the future they want to build together.

Fundamental to the issue of talking about politics and having courageous conversations is reframing the concept of conflict.  

Many people avoid conflict to avoid the discomfort it can bring and maintain the perception of harmony. Yet, resolving conflict begins with addressing it.  

Harvard University, Professor Deepak Malhotra, writes in his 2016 book, Negotiating the Impossible, “Explore all potential explanations for the other side’s behavior.  Do not start by assuming incompetence or ill intent for behavior that seems aggressive, unfair, unethical, or irrational.”  

Transforming forbidden topics of politics and social issues into opportunities to learn more about others’ experiences helps individuals move towards creative solutions to society’s most pressing challenges and opportunities.

The Better Arguments Project, designed to help people “argue better, not less,” advocates for conversations that are “emotionally intelligent, rooted in history and honest about power imbalances.”  

Even Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post, says that “etiquette adapts” and that “the best political conversation is one where the participants can ask each other questions to learn more.”  

As society attempts to move forward in finding new solutions to critical issues, and as families and friends hope to reconcile as holidays approach, it is critical to consider that everyone does not have to agree or compromise their values.

It requires a willingness to engage and do the difficult work together.

Rather than avoiding conversations, people on all sides can ask each other questions and listen with curiosity and respect to find out what we might learn.  That can begin by saying, “Tell me more.”  

Michelle L. Buck is a Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow in the OpEd Project

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden

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