The Need for Better Conflicts

The Need for Better Conflicts

Recently, I listened with great interest to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” program aired on PBS. She interviewed two people on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate who are proud of their ability to “achieve disagreement.” While still advocates for their side of the debate their willingness to stay in conversation with each other inspired me.

For years I’ve wrestled with the positional nature of conflict. A dozen years ago, after a falling out with my business partner I began studying conflict resolution and got trained as a mediator to learn a different approach than walking away to resolve my conflicts – a strategy that never really resolves anything but rather breeds resentment, anger and mistrust. As I started seeing the value of “getting to yes” type conversations (for more on this see Fisher and Ury’s book by the same title) I found more and more opportunities to practice a new craft.

But what stood out to me in the On Being conversation was the idea that CIVILITY and DOUBT need each other for true discourse to take place. Civility was defined as the treatment of another person the way you want to be treated by them and doubt was defined as the belief that you may not be right. Imagine in the most heated disagreement– in a marriage, a business partnership or a political divide – if both sides agreed to the need for both civility and doubt to be acceptable. How might that affect not only the outcome but the relationship itself?

I recall attending a marriage celebration years ago in which the parents of the groom, in their speech to the couple said that the most important three words in marriage were “maybe you’re right.” That recommendation stays with me and resurfaces when, in a moment of mindfulness amidst a heated disagreement, I see the positions taking hold and moving me farther away from the person with whom I disagree. I can now see that mindful moment as the healthy presence of doubt.

It still takes two people to have a disagreement. But here’s the rub… it only takes one to start moving toward resolution – one who is willing to say, even if only internally, “maybe you’re right and I want to start treating you like I want to be treated.” It’s important to recognize that resolution doesn’t have to mean agreement. Like the two men interviewed above, whose goal was “achieving disagreement” both sides can find alignment on some neutral ground like values or purpose.

This isn’t an easy topic, nor can it be easily addressed with platitudes. Still, I’m fascinated by what might be possible if I really understood how crucial civility and doubt are to each other. What do you think?