The Second C – Conversation

When it comes to conflict, are your only two options fight or flight?

In a previous post, I encouraged you, whenever you find yourself in conflict, to continue to communicate with those around you — particularly those with whom you disagree. I defined communication as “the measured, yet free-flow, of information that results from discipline and control.”

3Cs.079This proactive behavior of communicating is essential in practically every aspect of our lives. It’s particularly necessary when we’re in conflict — at least those conflicts in which our desired outcome is continued relationship within or without our current environment.

Yet communication can be void of an essential element that is necessary to move individuals to a point where they can successfully manage the conflict. That element is trust and trust is what transforms communication into conversation.

CONVERSATION is the exchange of feelings, thoughts, and beliefs that lead to understanding.

You can readily see that without trust and the safety it brings to the table, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs will rarely be shared.

In separate conversations precipitated by a post on joeycope.com, I noted several comments where individuals were really trying to get a handle on the concept of conversation. Specifically, there was a good deal of interest in finding ways to initiate and maintain conversation when individuals were in essential disagreement over the topic at hand.

That article dealt specifically with our concept of sin. I promoted the point that sin can’t be debated. Behavior is either sinful or it is not. In other words, the identification of sin is a divine task. The difficulty comes when we, as moral and spiritual beings, try to determine what is and isn’t sin as we work toward a more righteous life. What if my understanding and subsequent belief differs from yours?

Dealing with elemental spiritual belief, conscientious individuals can’t simply take a stance that what others believe is unimportant if, indeed, we are concerned about the spiritual essence of others.

We have to come to an understanding. We must build a refuge of trust that allows for our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs to unfold, not only for others, but also for our own review and consideration.

In yet another post on this blog, I suggest that true conversation requires individuals to carefully choose a position on a topic, express it as clearly as possible, and then be prepared for the questions to come. When I enter the arena of public conversation, I have to ask you to trust me to be responsible with my opinion or belief. You, in turn, should expect my trust.

If you truly believe that I am wrong in my stated belief, nothing in the nature of conversation requires you to dilute or ignore your belief. And trust develops when the same is true for me. In fact, full knowledge of where others stands is a baseline for building trust.

At the same time, nothing about disagreement should necessarily cause the conversation to end. However, cyclical conversations with no added insight or information tend to breed frustration. And frustration often precipitates a desire to control or to win. When winning seems remote, the conversation ends with serious negative consequences.

So what do we do in these situations? How do we continue in productive conversation?

  1. We continue to ask thoughtful questions that can help us understand one another.
  2. When presented with a thoughtful question, we value the opportunity, we soberly craft a respectful answer that reveals additional insight into our position, and we invite further questions.
  3. When we are at a loss on what else to say to move our conversation, we find different topics of conversation that build relationship and community.
  4. Within community, we often can return to those more difficult conversations.

S-b Logo.001In my work as a mediator, I naturally direct parties towards conversations about disagreements in the same manner as outlined above. We continue to ask the “why” questions as we seek to understand the underlying interests. We work hard to hear the answers to those questions. And, when we get stuck, we spend time concentrating on the common ground between us — the things we agree on — to explore the possibilities of doing some good as fellow travelers in this life. With the feeling of community that emerges, we often find the keys to better understanding on even the most divisive of issues.

And tremendous opportunity exists side-by-side with understanding.

It’s often said that people don’t like change. That simply isn’t true. We all like change. We just don’t like to be changed by someone else. Conversation — purposeful, friendly, and open — presents both me and you the opportunity to reflect and, if needed, change.

I’m involved in a lot of conversations. Many of them are with people I disagree with on matters both large and small. At the end of the day, I count success not by the number of people I have persuaded, but by the number of those who will return to the conversation tomorrow.

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In the Post Position

Last week I was flooded with frustration.

The backdrop was the United States Supreme Court and the buzz was about the two cases that involved homosexuality and issues surrounding whether or not same-sex relationships had certain rights and privileges within our system of laws and process.

The frustration I felt was from watching the way that people on both sides behaved in their public reaction to the event. To be fair, I did see a good number of individuals make their support known for one side or the other in a respectful manner. But those who didn’t, stepped far over the line of civility.

S-b Logo.001The frustration sparked something in me. I felt like I had to speak out about the ugliness that was unfolding. So, I wrote a post for my other blog. As I was writing it, I have to admit that I was anxious about making it public. I so wanted to say the right thing, in the right way. I wanted it to be about civility, about helpful conversation, and about better understanding. After all, I’m right in the middle of the development of the Better Understanding Project with my colleagues at the Duncum Center for Conflict Resolution — not to mention others who are standing by to join us as our plans materialize.

Yet, as I continued to review that article and my hand paused above the “publish” button, I felt reluctant to put my words in front of others. I found I wasn’t afraid of what others would think about what I had to say. I was afraid of going public because of things I had not said.

As I teach people about negotiation and healthy ways to build collaboration through negotiation, one of the important pieces is convincing negotiators to be clear about their position in regard to the matter at hand. True, there is a certain amount of posturing in most, if not all, negotiation.

But experienced negotiators know that at some point the parties to a discussion must set forth reasonable positions — and be clear about them. Clarity in positions is vital to the transaction. It defines the field of negotiation and sets the agenda for the discussion. Positions can and sometimes do change as people talk, listen, and reason together. However, the importance of the opening position cannot be diminished.

As I looked back over my article, I was pleased with all of the things I had said. I was hopeful that my readers would understand my point and feel genuine encouragement from me toward productive dialogue and conversation in place of fruitless shouting matches that were attacks on other individuals and not the issues.

What I realized was that I was standing and boldly inviting people to be in conversation about some truly important issues . . . and yet, I had not made my position known.

And so, I rewrote an entire section of that blog post. I took a position — I stated my belief on the underlying matter of sexuality. However, I did not use any words in that post to defend my position. It was not my intention to change any one else. I was simply asking for people to join in conversation. I hoped I made it very clear that, while I had a position, I was also more interested in showing respect to others than I was in winning any sort of a debate. In fact, I tried to convey the obvious fact that I’m not always right about things.

In truth, when I finally did hit “publish,” I expected very little to happen. My writing is not widely known or circulated. So, I sat and waited to see if anyone would even notice.

While I had a few negative reactions, the emails and comments were largely positive. I was particularly surprised by some emails I received from individuals who disagreed with my position, but were effusive in their gratitude that I had been transparent in saying what I believed while encouraging them to share their beliefs.

It was then that I realized how important and how responsible it is to attempt to think well about important topics and to quietly and humbly make your positions known. The power is not in the position you take. The power comes from the trust and respect you gain in entering the conversation.

Some issues — some conflicts — between us may never be resolved. But there is a great power from trust and respect that can overcome a lot of our problems when we sit and reason together. We may disagree, but we’ll always be moving toward better understanding and peace.

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The First C – Communication

You know that feeling you get? The one that starts deep in your stomach and then expands to point that breathing becomes tough? That feeling.

Anxiety surfaces in a lot of situations. Apprehension of things to come. Fear of things both seen and unseen. And that fear and apprehension can paralyze you.

S-b Logo.001The presence of conflict in our lives brings on that anxiety. Sometimes the paralysis is total. Ancient defense systems kick into play. Through the lens of an anxious person, we weigh the costs of flight. Yet, conflict is such a constant in our lives that the rational side of our brain reminds us that we can’t always flee. We have responsibilities right here . . . at home, at work, in a group of friends. While we would rather not deal with conflict at all, it stands directly in our path.

The other alternative is to fight. The urge to fight also has its costs. Society frowns on it. Overt fighting puts us into a win-lose situation. Relationships are destroyed. The rational mind is risk-averse. The odds for victory must be slanted in our favor for us to willingly engage in battle. We will plunge head-on into the fray when our survival is at stake.

Years of dealing with conflict have presented us with other “fight options.” More strategic than tactical, these behaviors are designed to put our opponents on hold — to neutralize the threat until we can piece together a winning game plan.

All of these fight options revolve around the concept of slowing or stopping the progress of the dispute. And, in those situations where we can’t flee and we can’t or shouldn’t engage in an all-out confrontation, our rational minds tell us to cut off, to the greatest extent possible, communication.

Communication can be power. Sloppy communication can be a weapon turned against us. The thought of communication, with our fears of vulnerability, can evoke even greater anxiety. And, in relationships we value, thoughtless communication can cause harm to the other party that we never intended.

Many people say that communication is at the base of all conflict. While it is true that communication problems do contribute in a large way to many disputes, once a conflict is underway the absence of communication is the greatest contributing cause of sustained stress.

3Cs.079As we prepare you to take part in the Better Understanding Project, we are insisting that you make a commitment to the Three Cs: Communication, Conversation, and Community. This first C – Communication – needs a little explanation within the context of this model.

Communication is a huge disciplinary field. I have a number of friends with advanced degrees in communication. I’m amazed at the wisdom they bring to a discussion about communication. But I’m a simple person. And for purposes of the Three Cs, I want to severely limit the definition of “communication.”

COMMUNICATION is the measured, yet free-flow, of information that results from discipline and control.

Nothing else.

When faced with conflict where continued relationship is important, your first move is to ensure that the exchange of accurate and helpful information continues.

For example, let’s say you are working as part of a team at work. As the project unfolds, you and one of your co-workers come to a disagreement on a key element. Anxiety levels escalate. One of your natural tendencies is to shutdown the flow of information.

Part of your reasoning is your perception that information is only adding to the conflict. And it may be if communication was being used as a weapon. But withholding needed information for practical and relational function causes a much larger crisis. It starves the interaction, promotes distrust,  and prevents even an attempt at normal function.

As painful and as nonintuitive as it may seem, as a person of responsibility and integrity, you must commit to this first C. You must continue to provide information that supports the project. A good portion of that information is conflict-neutral anyway. Full commitment to Communication also demands that you exercise discipline and control in providing full and accurate information for those details surrounding the matter in conflict.

The passive-aggressive act of withholding needed information is a fighting behavior. Individuals who are truly committed to peace must recognize it as such and take steps to communicate — even in the most difficult of situations.

When communication flows within the borders of discipline and control, you will be in position to move forward on the second C – Conversation.

The Better Understanding Project is an effort to equip you and those around you with the desire and the skills to enter meaningful dialog on important topics and to develop common ground in difficult times. You owe it to yourself, your friends, and your family.

Commit to Communication. We’ll be taking an in-depth look at Conversation and Community soon.

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Committing to Something

I was standing in front of a white board, staring out at eight individuals. The question from one of them was still hanging above the room as a sense of anticipation gathered.

“Can you give us a simple model based on principles that we could use as a guide in working through every day conflict?”

Although I had never expressed it before, I knew that I could present this group of organizational leaders with that model. I had constructed it in my mind and explored the possibilities.

“Each and every one of you must commit to the Three Cs,” I said.

3Cs.079

  • Communication
  • Conversation
  • Community

As I wrote the words on the board, I momentarily panicked. The concept seemed too simple. How could these ordinary words transform these people and this organization? But it was too late. My thoughts, long protected and nurtured, were out there for review and scrutiny.

“To end fruitless conflict, to be inclusive of new and diverse ideas, to move forward, and to unlock the potential of each person in your organization, you must commit to Communication, Conversation, and Community,” I continued.

For the next fifteen minutes, I detailed how each of these elements combine to build solid support, better understanding, and strong relationships within an organization. I completed my work with that group later in the week and headed home. And I wondered if they would succeed.

A few years later, I was surprised to be greeted by two of those individuals at a conference I was staffing. I knew that their organization had grown. But I didn’t know the details — if they had grown through collaboration or brute-force, top-down management.

S-b Logo.001The story they told was quite amazing. Basing first their leadership and then their entire operation on the model of the Three Cs, they rebuilt their organization on principles that empowered and rewarded the best traits of their people. In the next few articles, we’ll take a closer look at each of the three elements.

A commitment to the Three Cs is the first step in embracing the Better Understanding Project.

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The Decisive Moment

I faced a decisive moment yesterday.

Without providing the detail, just let me say that I shared an idea that I believed had tremendous power and truth. I knew when I shared it that some of my friends would be troubled by it. But I wanted them to read it and think about it. Some read, some thought about it, and some responded.

And that’s when the decisive moment surfaced.

S-b Logo.001I’ve been writing about the Better Understanding Project. To this point, I have hovered around the first step — a commitment to the principle of what I have called in other arenas, the “Three Cs” (Communication, Conversation, Community). More about that will be unveiled in my next article.

The second step in the Better Understanding Project is to identify a thought or a concept that is worthy of exploring and put it out there for others to consider. That is what I did yesterday.

But I’m skipping to the third step in the Project process, because I was surprised when I reached it yesterday.

You see, the third step in the Better Understanding Project is to personally resubmit to the process. It is the decisive moment for success.

After I launched the idea for others to consider yesterday, I was warmed by the positive responses I received. But then, I received a single negative reply. Succinctly worded, a friend simply said, “I don’t agree. But I hope you have a great day.”

My first inclination was to force my friend to reconsider or to assume that he misunderstood the thought or, if all else failed, to belittle him for his lack of mental acuity. After all, something was wrong if he didn’t agree with me.

Then it hit me. He had done exactly what he should have done. He considered the idea, he discerned his personal position, and he firmly, yet kindly, made that known to me.

And I almost blew it with my self-centered response.

But it was the decisive moment. And I decided to resubmit to the process — to see if I could come to a better understanding of his thought processes and his values.

“Thanks for letting me know,” I replied. And I’ve begun crafting my next conversation. When I reached the decisive moment, I found that I truly want to come to a better understanding.

It’s this third step that will set us apart. I hope that you will be thinking of what you will do in that decisive moment. It’s coming.