Marilyn Smith passed along a wonderful cartoon from The New Yorker magazine a few months ago that pictures two opposing armies carrying banners emblazoned with an animal’s head. The caption quotes one army’s general saying, “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God.” The pictures on the banners, of course, can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. The cartoon is amusing and insightful at many different levels.
Too often, we look at the same set of facts and circumstances and reach different conclusions based on our own beliefs and biases. My duck is your rabbit, and we are prepared to fight to prove that our view is the only correct one, regardless of whether the difference really matters. I have seen far too many conflicts develop and grow because the need to be right outweighed the importance of doing what was best for all parties.
Usually these conflicts are fueled by finger pointing, name calling, and other equally bad techniques that may provide momentary satisfaction at the expense of understanding. Aggrieved parties then begin to look for opportunities to be offended, rather than more productively working to find solutions. Without positive intervention, the dispute ends up in court or in the worst cases, violence.
I recognize that every dispute has its own dynamic, where a resolution technique that worked well in one situation is a complete failure in another. I believe, however, that there are practices that can help us get past disagreement without poisoning future relationships. Basic respect is almost always a useful tool in getting past differences. I may not like what another person is saying, and I may even dislike the person; but I still feel obligated to be polite whether that courtesy is reciprocated or not.
I also begin with the assumption that the other person wants a positive outcome for both parties as much as I do. If we talk and share information, we should be able to find a place where we can agree. Questioning another’s motives usually just makes them mad and cuts off communication. I have seen many disputes where one or both parties stopped talking, escalated the conflict, and then claimed the other party wouldn’t listen. My experience is that most people hear well, but they don’t necessarily like what they’re hearing. Rephrasing or paraphrasing can be a useful way to put an issue in a different perspective. The duck and the rabbit head are easier to see from different angles.
Humor can help break down barriers and allow us to see things differently if it’s used with good judgment. It’s harder to stay angry or belligerent if you can see the humor in a situation and use it to relieve tension.
If all else fails, I prefer an arbitration or litigation to lining up armies. Courts are expensive, but they can resolve a situation with at least some attempt at fairness and impartiality. These processes also allow the parties to the dispute to part company without acrimony if they choose to do so. My hope is that we will develop more resources to resolve disputes without the financial and emotional costs of litigation. It would be even better if we could figure out how to resolve all our conflicts with our own goodwill, sound judgment, and the ability to understand the other person’s point of view.