Seeking a truce in the war on words

Column by Jim Bishop
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Is conflict, often resulting from widely-divergent viewpoints in organizations, religious and secular, a bad thing? I think it largely depends on whether it’s avoided, allowed to fester or addressed head-on.

For example, argumentation and adversarial roles seem to drive most talk radio/listener call-in and “talking heads” TV news analysis programs, yet, might their value lie in allowing persons to vent strong feelings and

lower frustration levels by channeling their energies in this venue rather than directing hostilities toward those close to them or inflicting bodily harm on others?

The problem for me: many of these programs only serve to support one particular position, usually upheld by the host and reinforced by most callers.

Enter David Brubaker, an engaging, convincing speaker with expertise on a most timely, sorely-needed topic – how to bring people with widely divergent views together in dialogue.

I sat in on a training seminar he led on the theme, “Beyond Avoidance: Congregational Dialogue on Difficult Issues,” part of a four-day leadership conference held every year at this time in Harrisonburg.

David is a professor of organizational studies in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. He has trained or consulted with more than 100 religious, government and business organizations both stateside and abroad to help them communicate and manage conflict more effectively. He’s also written a book, Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations (Alban Institute, 2009).

“We desperately need healthy spaces where people can come together and dialogue across the political-ideological spectrum,” David told the large group of attendees. “The media constantly show us how not to have helpful dialogue on differing viewpoints, but tend rather to contribute to an increasingly polarized society.”

“Conflict is inevitable, in churches and elsewhere,” he said. “But, how we deal with difficult issues can be handled in creative, fruitful ways.” He presented three models for structuring dialogue that he uses in helping groups interact across ideological divides:

– The issue spectrum. Identify one end of the room for people strongly convinced about one idea and the other for those strongly convinced of the opposite. Ask everyone to take a position somewhere on or between those two points. Then invite individuals from various points on the spectrum to tell why they chose the spot where they are standing.

“While this method tends to surface underlying differences, it’s a good way for more views to be expressed,” Dave said. “Those at the strong ends are usually surprised by the large number of people who occupy the ‘middle ground’ on an issue.”

– Circle process. All participants in the dialogue are seated in a circle and have opportunity to address an issue or respond to a question. The most important ground rule is that only the person who is speaking has the floor – others must wait their turn as the dialogue moves around the circle.

“Circle processes are best facilitated by an experienced ‘circle-keeper’ who can give clear guidelines and encourage a healthy process,” David said.

– Samoan circle dialog. This method requires at least two circles, an inner one of “discussants” and outer, or multiple, circles of “observers.” Only occupants of the inner chairs are allowed to speak; all others are

listeners. The facilitator may choose to join either circle and is prepared to intervene as needed.

“I’ve found these approaches beneficial in lowering the contentious nature of a conflict and helping persons to really hear each other, even if the goal isn’t to make a decision or resolve the issue,” David told the group.

In the end, face-to-face encounter is the most effective way to hear the other person and hopefully respond more thoughtfully and with a sense of respect, even if the gap between viewpoints is wide.

We can’t possibly think alike and agree on every issue, and perhaps in some situations the best we can achieve is to agree to disagree and move on. If we belong to a religious body, it’s well and good to affirm a basic

confession of faith, but we can still give others with whom we don’t agree the right to hold differing views without rejecting them.

“Genuine dialogue happens when people feel safe,” David told the group. “Listening is an act of the will even more than it is a skill. Understanding is about respect, not about agreement. The beliefs and commitments that unite us are more significant than the issues on which we may disagree.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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