Engaging Different Views Without Spiraling Into Hostility

Tamra Pearson d'Estrée, Luce Professor of Conflict Resolution, University of Denver

17 July 2020

Recognize this: Conflict spirals. It has this character; we know this intuitively if we think about it. If we assert more strongly or use a harsher tactic, the other side will usually respond by asserting more strongly or becoming more harsh also (unless they are conflict avoidant). It's this escalation that is what bothers many people, not just the difference itself.

We know there are ways to engage around a conflict or difference without escalating it. How do we do this?

Engage with the other as a human being. Recognize first that everyone wants to feel heard. This is true especially if they feel like they haven't had a voice or been recognized in the past. If someone yells louder or pushes more, it may be because they didn't feel they were really heard yet. Until they feel heard, they will keep pushing. So you have to start by listening, and since you are the one who knows a bit more about changing a conflict spiral, you need to be the one to listen first.

Listen. Listening doesn't mean agreeing. You can listen and not agree. But at least listen, and not just to argue back (which makes if feel like you didn't listen very well), but listen to the point where you could actually repeat what they said or reflect it back to them somehow. If that person actually feels that you heard them, even without agreeing, they will likely feel they accomplished something and now be more prepared to listen to you

Speak from your experience. Then present your view, and if possible include some personal experience of how this has affected you. People don't hear arguments well, but they will hear your personal story, especially if they already have a relationship with you. And they will remember your story.

Focus on identifying underlying concerns. What are you actually afraid of? What do you hear that they are afraid of? Check this out with them to see if you are hearing accurately. Perhaps you will even find some underlying common fears or concerns, but just differences on how to address them. This can be the start of a different kind of conversation, where you work to address common concerns but with different opinions and priorities about how to address them. These are tough conversations also, but can be focused on the problem rather than on the people (like in Getting to Yes).

Recognize that some people are just going to have different values than you, but you can still be in relationship with them. Value conflicts are the hardest to 'resolve'. You likely won't change the other's views in one engagement, but if you can at least change their feelings about some of the people that hold different views (in the positive direction), they may be more open to listening again the next time – to you or to someone else. You help to reduce the conflict spiral, and maybe even start to establish a relationship that can hold the tension – and learning – that comes from difference.