Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The One Secret To Resolve Argument and Conflict

Professor Todd Kashdan of George Mason offers this wonderful tip on his Psychology Today blog:

Researchers at Stanford University tested a simple idea for how to create successful outcomes during tense negotiations or conflicts. The reason that arguments can quickly turn ugly is that people don't feel as if they're being understood. Thus, make sure that each party feels as if they are being carefully listened to.

If people show that they are curious and willing to learn more about someone else's opposing view, this might be the key to diplomacy. That is, ask a single clarifying question about what another person's view is about. That's it. One question with a few important guidelines:

1. All you are doing is gathering information.
2. Be willing to suspend your biases and passionate beliefs-anticipate being challenged to defuse any defensive reactions on your part.
3. There is no commitment that you are going to alter or change your position based on what you learn.

Think of it as making an assessment of what the other person is thinking instead of judging them. Don't get me wrong, this is a hard mindset to be in. But what happens when we are genuinely curious about someone that holds a point-of-view that diverges from our own? By merely asking for a single bit of information, the other person views us as more open-minded and warm ("I appreciate you taking the time to actually hear me out"). They view us as different from the typical person with a belief system that differs from their own ("You know, it's refreshing to hear someone who is an atheist listen to what someone with faith actually has to say"). The other person feels as if we are paying attention and they don't just feel good, they view us as a good person. That curiosity, that open-mindedness, ends up being contagious. When you show curiosity in what they care about, they show a greater willingness to gather additional information from you. In the end, they are more willing to negotiate and come to a compromise that benefits everyone.

Far too many in this day and age take a positional approach--establish your position, and advocate it as strongly as possible. But the positional approach is only optimal if the conflict or argument is truly a simple, zero-sum tug-of-war.

Far better to seek an understanding that lets you craft an outcome that maximizes overall utility. Even if you don't get a significantly better deal, allowing the other part to come out ahead as well has major benefits for future interactions and your overall reputation.


Michael F. Martin said...

Some procedural structures are conducive to this end. For example, the Constitutional Convention was closed to the public. This probably gave the participants more breathing room to explore different ideas without getting committed / worrying about the embarrassment of inconsistency or admission of mistake, &c.

My Agapic Life said...


That is terrific in discussions that have opposing viewpoints. Do you think it's as effective when two people aren't really taking opposite viewpoints, rather someone is just trying to be heard?

Jan said...

hey chris
thx very much for the article.
for further ideas concerning mindests etc. have a look at HABERMAS's theory about the communicative rationality.
Thanks again. Bye

Matt said...

I think this can backfire sometimes- instead of resolving things it can lead to a tirade or aggressive language by the person being asked the question simply because asking the question opens the door to do so.