Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Highest Common Denominator

I've wondered how international organizations dedicated to reducing conflict in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka might advise us Americans about getting along. Reds and Blues aren't exactly Shiites and Sunnis, but what would be our chances of building a government together if we'd had to start from scratch in 2003?

There's an astonishing array of organizations devoted to keeping groups around the world from killing each other—or at least limiting the long-term carnage. And though their charter may be global, most of the call for their work seems to be for mediating within countries rather than across borders. In other words, among people who should have something in common, but are too focused on their differences.

If you're like me, you'd prefer spend your spare time at the Molly Ivins School of Colorful Invective rather than in a workshop with facilitators and junior college professors learning the twelve skills of conflict resolution. But it takes more than a quick wit and a sharp tongue to deal constructively with conflict. If you need to brush up before visiting the in-laws, visit the Conflict Resolution Network.

Search for Common Ground calls for a non-adversarial approach that focuses on a common problem rather than on each other as the problem, and speaks to everyone's highest place, not the lowest:

"Often when people disagree, eventually they have to meet in the middle and everyone has to compromise. What we're talking about is creating a new, 'highest common denominator.' Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards.

"When people care passionately about two sides of an issue, there is usually something of value in each point of view. People's underlying interests, concerns and values tend to be much broader and less polarising than their negotiating positions. When we look from this perspective, the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated and creative options can be generated that benefit all."


The Public Conversations Project encourages dialogue instead of debate as a way to bridge differences. I've digested some of their principles here:

• Listen to understand instead of to refute. Try to understand the deeper interests and concerns behind people's perceptions rather than trying to change their perceptions to fit your reality.

• Speak to each other as individuals, from your own unique experience, rather than be your side's representative.

• Explore complexities of the issue. Reveal differences within the same side.

• Question the usual language, problem definition and possible solutions that constrain public discussion.

• Demonstrate the values you believe are essential to the process, such as inclusiveness, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.

And if anyone starts rolling their eyes or making sarcastic comments about singing "Kumbaya," be sure you've brought along someone who could credibly kick their ass.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I wish I'd have had this knowledge at a recent "political discussion". I watched what I thought were close friends attack one another as soon as they figured out they weren't going to change each other's minds. It was sickening. They stopped listening and morphed into a set position. My meager attempt at mediation only made things worse.

What has happened to the art of listening? And I'm not confining this question to weighty topics. How about just letting me finish my sentence about the burrito I had for lunch?

12:02 PM  

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