(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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I am a recovering conflict avoider. I still have a ways to go to be fully recovered. Whenever conflict, or the possibility of it, comes my way, a sense of dread fills me. My fight or flight instinct kicks in and fears often make me want to avoid the challenge and the potential hurt of a difficult conversation.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists say conflict avoidance comes from being raised in families where conflict is ever present – but never effectively dealt with. Children learn to walk on eggshells because a parent can erupt at any time. Such kids also learn to do their best to maintain outward peace – even if negative emotions are roiling beneath the surface. And such kids grow into adults who do the same. Unfortunately, that’s been me and sometimes still is – even though I know and appreciate that honest and gentle communication is the surest way to solve disagreements.
What I’m learning how to do is have difficult conversations with other people – those who I’ve disappointed, those who disappoint me, or those who have different opinions from mine. What I struggle with is the idea that disagreement or disappointment often leads to conflict – and most people define conflict the same as the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Conflict, the dictionary says, is a serious disagreement that usually results in angry argument.
The truth, I believe, is that conflict need NOT be defined as “usually resulting in angry argument.” Conflict can instead be a temporary and even compassionate sharing of different viewpoints that, if effectively handled, can result in peaceful resolution. Whether or not peace will come to the Korean Peninsula, for instance, the war of angry, insulting and bellicose words has mostly ended and given way to respectful conflict – one where disagreements are discussed without rancor. Peace, reconciliation and unity are suddenly real possibilities all because the various sides are engaging in difficult conversations in a respectful and even friendly manner.
How people engage in difficult conversations, therefore, is key. Will the conversation produce something constructive and helpful? Or will it create greater hostility and resentment? Will it solve the disagreement so that both sides are satisfied? Will each side gain something they did not have before? Will they remain in community – as friends, colleagues, family members, partners, or church members? Or will they be even more divided?
For me, to conduct an effective difficult conversation, I believe there are several practices to follow.
First, when planning a difficult conversation, I should share with the person, in advance, what I want to discuss – something I’ve mistakenly not always done. It’s important not to blindside someone. I should then approach the conversation with a completely open mind. That means I don’t have an agenda to rebuke or argue, but rather to learn and respond accordingly. In other words, I should be curious about the other’s feelings and thoughts. I should avoid using words like “always” or “never” – they are too absolute. I shouldn’t point fingers or blame. I shouldn’t demean, humiliate or judge.
During the conversation, my focus should be on what I’m hearing, and not on what I’m saying, or want to say. Good listeners, I believe, are usually the wisest people in any conversation – they want to learn, they mirror back what the other has said in order to signal they understand, they never interrupt, and they offer only brief, clear and modest thoughts or opinions.
In difficult conversations, I should be friendly but direct in what I say. When I do share opinions, I must clearly state them and make sure the other understands me. Yelling, name calling, or verbally attacking is never helpful. Anger puts the other on the defensive and either results in them yelling back, or shutting down the conversation. If one feels anger, most experts advise the person delay the difficult conversation until strong emotions have passed.
I should also endeavor to discern the other’s feelings. That involves using intuition and strong listening skills – to read between the words for underlying emotions. I should also gently share my feelings about an issue. Whenever we use “I” statements and share only our feelings about something – and not accusations – we allow empathy to grow. Our feelings are our feelings and nobody can contradict them – even if we might disagree with why they are felt. Sharing of feelings is a way to build intimacy and person to person connection – all in order to defuse possible tension.
I shouldn’t abandon a difficult conversation without a resolution – either by arriving at an agreed solution or by agreeing to continue talking at a later time. I must try my best to find areas of common ground or agreement with the other. That involves giving up my desire to be right and emerge the winner. Productive conversations should not be competitions but rather, as I said earlier, opportunities to solve a problem. I believe the best solutions are ones where both people win and neither loses.
The irony of this suggestion is that unless both sides feel they win something, both sides will end up losing everything. The loser will be disappointed, frustrated and less willing to stay engaged in further addressing a problem. The victor may think he or she has won, but without a cooperative partner to solve the problem, long range success is rarely possible. He or she won a proverbial battle, but lost the larger war.
History shows this to be true. Germany, for instance, was humiliated by the peace treaty at the end of World War One. It was forced to pay huge reparations to the winning allies and much of their economy was destroyed or given to the victors. Those harsh measures directly planted seeds of resentment and anger in Germany that helped Hitler’s rise and the start of World War Two.
In that regard, I wish people were less averse to win-win resolutions that by necessity require give and take. I therefore lament negative connotations associated with the word “compromise.” “He was found in a compromising position” or “She compromised her principles. Etc.” In today’s world, compromise is seen as a sell-out and the forsaking of one’s beliefs. But I believe that is true only in extreme situations.
Instead, as the philosophical father of conservatism, Edmund Burke once said, compromise is the foundation on which all human society is based. Every day, each of us make many compromises or concessions so that we can live at peace with others. Marriages and relationships had better be rooted in loving compromise, or else they’ll never last.
Our U.S. constitution is a hallmark of compromise. It gives a lot of power to the people through Congress because the constitution framers were wary of a too strong executive, or king-like tyrant. But the framers also feared mob rule, like what happened during the French Revolution, and so significant power was also given to the President. And both the President and Congress are subject to the rule of law as determined by the judiciary. This balance of power government is compromise in action – one that insures democracy without chaos. Over the long haul, despite many difficult times that would have destroyed other systems, the American style of government, while not perfect, has survived.
One reason for that is our respect for minority rights. America is governed by majority rule, but the rights of those who lose are not denied, nor is the opportunity for the minority to still have influence. Throughout much of our history, rights of the minority have insured smooth transitions of power. It’s a stunning scene played out every four or eight years when one side gives up power without resorting to violence or revolution. Americans know that even in victory the majority must often compromise with the minority to get anything done. And there’s also the likelihood that one day the minority will be back in the majority. For me, this emphasizes the paramount importance that participants in any disagreement or difficult conversation NOT take a “my way or the highway” attitude – a “I must win or else I quit” approach.
I hesitate saying this but “my way or the highway” thinking is less than enlightened. It’s what some children do during playground games – they win or they pout and stomp away. Better yet would be if children and adults engaged in more cooperative activities in which everyone wins.
That underscores my support for win-win compromises. You may not achieve 100% of your goal – but I won’t either. Instead, we’ll each gain perhaps 50% of what we want…….and that 50% is more than what we had at the outset. Anybody who forsakes half a pie because they can’t get the whole pie is not wise, in my opinion. Such people have made a desired perfect outcome become the enemy of a good outcome. Yes, some of what a person wants or believes is not achieved. But all is not lost. Much has been gained. And what has not been gained now, may be gained in the future.
Most importantly, what is achieved is unity, mutual respect and continued connection with one another. And those accomplishments are not trivial. The success or failure of the human endeavor depends on cooperation. All of us not only belong to the one human family, we rely on it. We each do our part to support, love and compromise with one another so that the entire family can live in peace.
Some of you might quickly say the ideal of human equality is a core value that should never be compromised. I totally agree. But cooperation between 8 billion people is tricky business. It requires continued difficult conversations to achieve workable solutions so that all can live together. It’s in the thousands of difficult conversations people have every day that we find compromise – precisely in order to affirm we are an intelligent and spiritually attuned species capable of selfless love for others.
Compromise for the greater good goes far beyond simple platitudes. It’s a vital ethic that many believe, but so few excel at practicing. Even as I’m learning not to avoid conflict and instead engage in peaceful dialogue, I still mess up. I fail to listen as much as I should. I fail to stop, ponder and seek to understand underlying emotions of the other. Too often I think I’m right, I marshal all of my best arguments, and then I speak – gently, but without empathy. I often don’t concede the other may have a point. I also don’t really hear what they are saying. Most of all, I’m not always willing to accept less than what I believe is right. As with so many things, my ego gets in the way.
Ultimately, what I must do is have a difficult conversation with me. “Get over yourself Doug. Contrary to what you think, you’re not always right……….and you’re definitely not as smart as you believe. Shut up. Listen. Show compassion to the other person. Hear and feel their emotions. Be willing to concede other ideas are often better than yours. In four simple words, Doug, practice what you believe.”
We’ll engage in a difficult conversation next Sunday and in the days and weeks beyond about Black Lives Matter. It’s an important conversation to have – one that UU officials tell me is going on in virtually every UU congregation in the country. Just as I must not avoid potential conflict on important matters, so should we not avoid this difficult conversation. I trust we will prove that we can and do practice what we believe. We will be decent, respectful, compassionate, open minded and compromising people in this conversation – remaining united as good friends, and seeking ways to bridge divides by creating a “we all win” outcome.
It is in our power to do what is right – and that statement is not my advocacy for either position. To do what is right in the next few weeks means each of us will check our egos at the door. It requires we deeply listen to one another, that we understand and acknowledge the legitimate feelings of every member, that we not blame or judge, that we work for compromise, and that we each pledge not to abandon this place if you or I don’t get what we want. We’ll resolve instead to continue to serve this congregation, we’ll allow our better angels to shine, and we’ll continue being involved and engaged in doing good and important things here. Let’s have this difficult conversation and make it one of the best and most inspiring moments in our church history.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
I also now welcome your thoughts on this topic and my message.