I recently had a political discussion with a friend, and as many political discussions do, it accelerated into greater and greater emotionality. I did my best to try to slow down the discussion, to analyze our differences, to find areas of agreement, to keep my emotions in check, to acknowledge the other point of view, to actively listen…in short, I used many of the things I had learned in my experience of conflict resolution. And while the conflict did not escalate into anything dire such as bad feelings or an ad hominem attack, it was frustrating to me because I wanted to debate the issues, to analyze them, to find some way to work together toward a new shared understanding, and was unable to make that happen.
My friend apologized for becoming emotional and I apologized as well, and we left on excellent terms. Yet, I remained troubled by our inability to have the kind of dialogue I wanted and knew we were both capable of having. After I got home, I sent her an email explaining the kind of dialogue I would like to have in the future and proposing a way for us to engage in it. I suggested that we hear one another’s points of view, try to understand the other’s perspectives, confirm understanding, correct any misunderstanding, and try to analyze the issues collaboratively and see if we could come to a deeper and better analysis of the issues. I received my friend’s response, which said, simply: “Excellent approach.”
What is the takeaway from all this? The first thing I recognize from this is that one should not be quick to throw in the towel in conflict resolution. There were many positives in my interaction with my friend: we both remained pleasant; and we both restricted our frustration to the issues and the discussion rather than escalating it into bad feelings toward the other person. The second thing I recognize is that conflict can be hard to resolve in one sitting. Nothing I said in the heat of the discussion succeeded in moving the discussion to a higher level. Under the circumstances, we did our best by keeping our emotions from heading into the danger zone of attacking the other person, and my friend showed excellent conflict resolution skills by being the first to offer an apology for becoming emotional. This ensured that we would continue to have good feelings toward the other. Since those good feelings were in place, I was able to send an email suggesting a strategy for future discussions. The third thing I recognize is that the strategy needs to be spelled out. There was no way for the discussion to automatically become the kind of rational analytic discussion I wanted without actually specifying how I wanted it to be. Even though this is the type of discussion I almost always want to have and even though this is a friend I’ve known for over 25 years, that type of discussion is not everyone’s default; in fact, it is almost no one’s default when emotions are involved. And although I was anxious to engage in that type of discussion at the outset, once emotions became a little heated and the pace of the dialogue became faster and faster, I was swept away with the current. I doubt that I appeared to be looking for analytic discussion myself.
I feel very good about the events that transpired, and am looking forward to seeing how our new strategy will play out next time. I have no doubt that it will require that one of us remembers the strategy and reminds the other early in the discussion before enthusiasm gets the better of us. But I also have no doubt that we will be able to follow through on that strategy if one of us reminds the other early on. Life and conflict resolution are rarely simple and automatic: it is almost always hard work and it is inevitable that we will all flare up and become passionate at times. We will need time to cool down, devise a strategy for working through the difficulties and start again. This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing. We are not machines, and we do not want to be. We enjoy our passions and do not always want to be cool, calm and collected. So it’s a struggle between these extremes. In order to maintain our relationships and to avoid destructive conflict, we need to keep the following in mind:
Work hard to avoid letting emotions become so out of control that we attack the other person instead of being passionate about the issues in the dialogue
Take a breather when emotions get out of control and make the effort to say warm things to the other to let them know that they are not being personally attacked and that positive feelings remain in place
Once cooler, develop a strategy for how to have the discussion and suggest it to the other: do not assume that the other understands the approach to the discussion that you wish to take.