5 min read
14 Aug


As promised then, we start a three-part series on those difficult, unpleasant, seemingly impossible conversations. We will try to give you some elementary tools to engage in these conflicts at a more effective, more comfortable level, and to hopefully bring more light than heat to these important events that in the modern world have become quite unavoidable. 

What qualifies as such a difficult conversation? We find them in the old warnings not to discuss politics and religion, and in modern times society has managed to add quite an impressive list of additions to that, from topics such as race, gender, climate change and a variety of Covid-related topics such as masking and mandatory vaccinations. Obviously, the greater majority of difficult conversations can, and should, simply be avoided. It is really not your task to convert Facebook, or to ensure that everyone on the neighbourhood whatsapp group votes The Right Way. But there are conversations that we should have, that are unavoidable in their practical implications. These are the conflicts where our silence, or our assumed acquiescence, actually make matters worse, where we prejudice our own interests or those that we care for. We need to develop a level of comfort with difficult conversations – we do not need less of them, we need better difficult conversations. 

Modern conflict resolution research and case studies support us in not confusing the resolution of conflict with the acceptance of harmful points of view, bullying, oppression or an unwarranted limitation or even negation of our own rights and interests. My conflict consultancy has as one of its cornerstone philosophies the understanding, again fully supported by research, that in general compromise is an outdated and harmful approach to conflict resolution. A wonderful definition of compromise that encapsulates this view is to see compromise as “giving something away that you would have preferred to keep”. While traditional compromise has its limited role, it is often simply a lazy, conflict-avoiding non-strategy to get the conflict over and done with, until the next time. In the process we send out mixed or inaccurate signals, and we become a part of cyclical, even generational conflicts. So we need to become comfortable with the challenge in these difficult conversations, the ones that we assess that we should or must have, and we need to understand that we need to bring a higher level of courage and skill to such conflicts if we are going to look after our own interests, those of others, and bring a greater measure of peace, stability, co-operation and goodwill to those environments, be they our homes, workplaces or communities. 

The result that we are aiming for with this series will not be compromise, but a creative solution to such conflicts, measurable results that transcend these conflicts in a healthy, sustainable manner. At the outset of the series, also a simple word of encouragement for you to not be too hard on yourself in the beginning, and to be realistic in your goals and expectations. The series will be dealing specifically with complex conflicts, so it assumes a strong pre-existing foundation in conflict work. As any conflict practitioner, or student in our six-month advanced conflict negotiation course will know, these complex conflicts are often a symphony of competing interests, shrill voices, fear and insecurities, egos and poorly understood triggers, and it requires a conductor who has the necessary knowledge and experience of the technical, practical application of the latest and best practices, and who can apply factors such as timing, influence, persuasion and others, spanning a multi-disciplinary field encompassing psychology, complex system design, social sciences and many others. Complex conflicts have developed its own very sophisticated body of research and case studies over the last number of decades, and it would really be a feasible goal simply to be better at your own complex conflicts, not to necessarily master the skill. 

A very uncomfortable but crucially important skill that anyone wishing or having to effectively participate in these complex conflicts will have to learn is the all-too-human need to be right, and to be acknowledged as such. Once we have decided that a particular complex conflict is either necessary or worthwhile to engage in, we need to ask ourselves whether we want to be right (in the objective, scientific sense of the word), or effective in convincing our counterpart of our view, to end that conflict or to at least change its dynamics. Very rarely are those two options the same thing. Here the normal joys of “being right” also come packaged with the very real concern and debate as to whether harmful opinions should be respected and allowed to have equal airtime with the correct view. Of course, in that simple sentence lies a part of the challenge – what is the Right View? How do we know this, if it is so obvious and settled why are some so resolutely unconvinced? Other than a gentle reminder that a sense of humility and an understanding of the limits of knowledge (especially in some of these controversial topics) will come in handy on this journey, we also can rest easy in our brief overview of these techniques that such factual accuracy will be of secondary importance in becoming effective at having these complex conversations. Once a complex conflict is assessed as necessary or unavoidable, and once we have then assumed our own view based on our own epistemology, we need not spend our time and energy on arguing the correctness of our position as a primary goal. As we will see, and as a further counter-intuitive experience, these complex conflicts generally do not react well to factual arguments in any event, and the more we bring the “facts” to the table the more we entrench our opponents in their view. 

From this understanding flows the realization that we need to have a fresh look at the underlying causes and triggers of these conflicts, that we cannot hope to make any meaningful, positive difference in them unless we learn to see and work with the real levers that run the machine. Research in recent years (by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in particular) show clearly how important it is to understand that these complex conflicts are driven by and experienced as value arguments, affecting the very identities of most people participating in them. As much as we want to think of ourselves as rational thinking machines open to convincing evidence, these assumptions are simply not correct or useful when we deal with complex conflicts. We tend to, when dealing with these topics, have an emotion-based, instinctive predisposition, a sort of prima facie comfortable level of preference, and we then look for confirming evidence to support that pre-loaded cognitive bias. Most of us are blissfully unaware of that process, and we remain quite convinced that we arrived at our worldviews based on the facts. If the facts did not primarily get us to our worldview, how can the facts lead us away from that worldview?  

This also now leads to further complications in these complex conflicts, in that our various political proclivities (and we all have them to some degree, whether we see ourselves as politically active or not) lead us to different approaches to these values and identities. Case studies clearly show a marked difference in how conservative and liberal people understand and react to seemingly simple concepts such as “fairness” and “freedom”. To then ask someone to “Look at the facts and be fair”, for instance, may mean very different things to different people, and it is often here where the temperature starts rising. With these arguments being value and identity based, we often inadvertently not only see our positions as being correct, but also as being “ethical”, “morally correct”, “decent”, “honest” and the position that “good” people assume and should hold. From that position, any counter-argument, especially a shrill and aggressive one, and even if backed by a mountain of evidence, is no longer dealing with the pros and cons of vaccination or the latest scandal involving my favourite political party, they are now attacks on my values as a good person, on my identity. Every new attack simply causes the person to push back against such an attack on their very identity, and the objective facts become actual tools making matters worse, simply further entrenching the person in their worldview. That is why we have these cyclical conflicts that seemingly get nowhere, and it now also starts to cause very toxic secondary results, such as frustration and allegations of dishonesty leading to the next cycle of aggression and distrust. We see these cycle play out in real time in a matter of days on social media – one of these complex conflicts presents itself, facts are presented, these are rejected and met with counter-arguments, the original attack becomes shriller and more frustrated, more facts are brought to bear, and then we see the accusations of cognitive deficiencies, moral and ethical failures and distrust that make the process completely counter-productive in the hands of those who do not understand these levers and triggers. The silos are built and the problem is worse than before, despite hours of evidence and arguments. Cynically, we can also see how these levels are misused on social media by those benefiting from dissension and division. 

Now that we have a better understanding of the process leading to these complex conflicts, and how our best intended efforts at ending them often simply serve to make them worse, how do we have complex conversations and conflicts in a confident, effective way? I generally work with a framework that comprises of (at the risk of oversimplifying) nine steps in a process designed to recognize and work with these realities, and with which a high degree of success can be expected. Next week we will start looking at each of those steps and try to get them in a format that you can use as a starter toolkit in your own complex conflicts. 

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