Posted by: thealienist | April 9, 2010

Valuable Skills: Peacemaking

I like a good argument.  Sometimes I like arguments so much that I might play “the devil’s advocate” just to engage in the contest of wits.  I believe there is a place for this in society, but I also know that our society is getting more and more polarized.  This political, religious, philosophical, and international polarization may affect our interactions with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers on the street.  Therefore, it is essential to know how to cool down the fires of conflict.

I have a few recommendations for those who want to be able to engage others with minimal conflict.  They are not inflexible rules and need not be used all the time.  Sometimes we are with people who understand and tolerate our differences or who are simply not inclined to argue or fight.  Conversations with these people can be more relaxed and natural.  However, when we are engaged in conversations with those who are not inclined to understand us or give us the benefit of the doubt, and especially with those who want to use verbal aggression to control us, we may be able to remain in control of ourselves and the discussion by using a few simple strategies.

1.  Assume that your opponent is reasonable. Intractable arguments often start with each speaker assuming that the other is unreasonable.  They believe that the other is simply stubborn, ignorant, malicious, or evil.  In fact, most people (but not all) who will take the time to talk with you about an issue have some legitimate interest in the subject under discussion.  Our responsibility is to try and understand what their interests are and to try and convey our interests to them.  We may not end by concluding that our opponent is reasonable (for example if they show that they are arguing simply to upset us), but we should certainly begin with the assumption.  This is simply a way to ensure that we treat our opponents with respect.

2.  Don’t tell people what they think, ask what they think. So much of what currently passes for public debate is not debate at all.  One side simply distorts the beliefs of the other and then proceeds to tear it down (i.e. “the straw man” arguments).  Instead of eliciting the views of their opponent, they pretend to know what their opponent believes.  When we are victims of this type of argument, we naturally feel misunderstood, frustrated, and mocked. In this situation, we understand that we should be allowed to make our own case rather than having words put into our mouths by our opponents.  Therefore, we should take care to allow, and even encourage, our opponents to make their strongest case for themselves.  If we feel the need to restate their positions in parts of our argument, we will encourage them to vouch for or correct our understanding of their position.  This ensures that we truly listen to our opponents and respect their views.

3.  Identify your own and your opponent’s interests. Often we argue over positions rather than interests.  For example, a story is told (I think I read it in the outstanding book, Getting to Yes by Fischer and Ury) about two young boys who wanted to share an orange.  They struggled to decide how they should divide the orange and finally settled on one boy cutting the orange in half and the other boy getting first choice of the pieces.  They each went away somewhat disappointed with half an orange — one boy using the peel for zest in a recipe and discarding the fruit, and the other boy eating the fruit and discarding the peel.  If the first boy had expressed his interest in the peel and the second his interest in the fruit, they could have divided up the orange with both getting all they wanted.  Instead, they were distracted by competing positions on how to divide an orange.  By identifying our interests, we can often find ways to work with our opponent to each get what we desire.

4.  Cultivate a desire to see your opponent succeed. This does not mean that you easily sacrifice your interests.  Instead, it means that you are not willing to discard your opponents interest lightly simply to get what you want.  This is simply another application of agape (see Foundations of Mental Health:  Love).  If your opponent sees that you take his interests seriously and that his success matters to you, you make it very easy for him to cooperate with you.

If you practice these suggestions in dealing with those who would oppose you, you will not always make peace, but you will give peace its greatest opportunity.

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