eThoughts : May 1, 2009: Conflict

The mark of civility cannot be solely measured by our ability to be courteous and considerate to others, but must include the ability to handle conflict in a constructive manner. In fact, if we can do that, the rest comes naturally. What most of us do much of the time is to practice being courteous and considerate—and mostly tolerant. So it should come as no great surprise that we’re better at tolerating people than we are at handling conflict.

That’s why we’re not really a civil species.

Since conflict cannot always be avoided—and shouldn’t be—we have to have methods to deal with it. The usual strategy is to win. However, that’s not my definition of a constructive handling of trouble, that’s my definition of losing. And here’s why: winning as a conflict resolution is not doing one’s best. That’s a loss. And having losers and winners is a loss. Sure, sometimes we’ve got to lay down the law, but even the necessary use of authority is not a win, it just a necessary use of force. Something went wrong.

Did that stick in your craw? I can see the people from Wall Street to Main Street, from Washington DC to the mayor of Podunk, USA, from the racketeers to the religious, from generals to privates, thinking about how political naiveté can kill position and render us vulnerable. Guess why that’s true: It’s because we’ve made it true, not because it’s an inherent truth. It’s born of the belief that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and one better get the biggest bowl and guard it like crazy.

It’s funny how much we want to distance ourselves from the animal kingdom, yet follow many of those same the-strongest-will-survive laws. Yet, as Cesar Milan of Dog Whisperer fame said, we’re the only species that will follow an emotionally unstable leader. Besides, the notion that the strongest will survive is a human interpretation of the animal kingdom. Another way to look at it is the strongest will set the order in the interest of cooperation—nutsos are not good for the order, or cooperation. Certainly putting people down is not about the good of the order, it’s about gaining personal power and standing. But challenging nutty ideas and/or authority when we need clarity is mostly appropriate, as long as we’re not in crisis mode—as in immediate personal danger from this nuttiness.

Look, we’re different people with different attentions. We don’t get stuff at the same time or necessarily in the same way—or at all. This state of affairs is natural, like a temporal displacement. For example, feedback from taste is not on the same temporal plane as feedback from our digestive system. It isn’t about one of these winning out, it’s about knowing the displacement exists and dealing with it. That knowing could help us to not eat or drink so much so fast. Understanding temporal displacements might help in other areas as well, such as love. And it will certainly help with general interpersonal relationships, which would help with cultural and global relationships. It is not so important that we’re all on the same page, it is important that we’re not at each other’s throats.

And here’s the real point: It’s important that we don’t avoid conflict as a compass heading. In fact, I say we engage in it. Where civility comes into real play is when we practice civil conflict—as in going after getting the reality right, as opposed to going after being right.

What is civil conflict? For one thing, we need to quit taking things personally. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. If we’re right, we’re right. If we are mostly wrong, we’ve got some learning to do. If we’re mostly right, there’s still stuff we’re probably missing—one can fix something that isn’t broken, as in making it better. In any case, cooperation is much more likely to spawn commitment, and civil conflict is more likely to inoculate against exclusivity. We need to correctly do both cooperation and conflict to really engage in civility.

So, in the interest of true civility and cooperation, let’s have a good fight, let’s wonder about what the hell someone means or what they’re up to or why they stole those clothes from a homeless person or why they think they’re the only normal one in the Star War’s Bar. Then we just might get something done other than extending tolerance as a social construct or conflict as a tool to stamp out all the “crazies.” Heck, maybe we’ll even experience acceptance. I’m willing to bet we’d actually breathe easier and have energy for something other than looking over our shoulders. In short, let’s really interact. That doesn’t mean we’ve got to pour our hearts out and show our scars, it means use the context, not our pre-planned way of saying and interacting and living. And let’s accept that we’re all fools, and that that state of affairs doesn’t mean we are without dignity.

Hmmm, maybe I should go first—and last, eh? :)

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