A Simple Example of Bridging Divides

Here is a simple example of Bridging Divides in everyday life. It is not a complex political problem -- but the basic principles are the same. It's better to understand simple problems before we take on more complex ones.

Let's unpack this.

Panel 1: The conflict begins. Mom and Amy take different "sides" or "positions". Mom wants Amy to wear a raincoat, but Amy doesn't want to wear it.

As long as the discussion stays on the level of "positions", the conflict will reduce to a battle of wills. Each party will tend to assert her position, hoping the other will give in, and vice-versa.

When this happens, the person with the most power tends to win. And when that happens, there is resentment, anger and bad feelings. And those feelings tend to last a long time.

Panel 2: Each side tries to "convince" the other. What do we do when two people adopt different positions? Well, we try to convince the other person that we are right and they are wrong.

We offer reasons, rationales and logic in order to convince the other person to change their position.

Really -- when you are in a debate, when was the last time you changed your position because of something that the other person said? When were you convinced by the other?

Convincing doesn't tend to work unless both parties are willing to be convinced!

Panel 3: Find the need beneath the position. People act in order to meet their needs. Beneath every position, there is usually an unmet need. Find the need and you can begin to solve the problem.

The best way to begin to identify the needs that motivate a person's position (including one's own) is to ask "Why?" In this case, "Why don't you want to wear the raincoat?" (If the other person answers by saying, "because I won't get wet" or "I'm trying to save you the money of buying me a raincoat" -- you know they're trying to fool you. They are telling you what they think you want to hear rather than stating their genuine needs.

You have to make the other person feel safe enough to express themselves if you want to identify genuine needs.

Panel 4: To identify someone's needs, act with compassion, curiosity, and care. In this situation, Mom acted with compassion toward Amy by summarizing what Amy said. Once Amy began to sense that Mom truly cared about what Amy wanted -- that Mom genuinely wanted to try to meet Amy's genuine needs, Amy began to open up. She could now say, "I don't want to look stupid!"

The trick to in much conflict resolution is to see that the needs that motivate each person's initial positions are often not incompatible. Amy's desire to "not look stupid" is not incompatible with Mom's desire to "keep Amy dry". Once Mom and Amy are able understand the deeper and more genuine needs, they can begin to look for ways to meet both sets of needs at the same time!

Panel 5: Meet the needs of each party. Now that we know that Mom wants to keep Amy dry and Amy wants to look "cool", we can now engage in some genuine collaborative problem solving. How can we meet both sets of needs at the same time?

Conflict management typically requires two skills that people often see as incompatible -- seeking to understand and meet the needs of the other while simultaneously not giving in on one's own core needs. While initial positions in a dispute may clash, so often, when we identify the underlying needs that motivate those positions, we find that the needs themselves do not clash.

The task then becomes one of creating novel solutions to the problem of meeting each party's needs.

Panel 6: Common ground is created -- not simply "found". We often think of conflict resolution using the idea of "finding common ground". The idea is that we start off on different pieces of ground, and if we search hard enough, we will find a piece of already existing land that we both share or can share.

But when people differ, "common ground" isn't simply "found" -- it has to be created. We literally have to invent it. Before Mom and Amy began to identify their needs, neither could have anticipated that Amy would be wearing Mom's old hippie coat to school. That solution was created -- it didn't exist before Mom and Amy invented it.

What happened? Common ground was created.

"Creating common ground" is a better metaphor for conflict resolution. If we have differences between us, let's look for new ways of thinking, feeling and acting -- ways that don't yet exist but will exist once we actively bring them into existence.