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The most important material on conflict I have ever read

Tom Salinsky writes...

When I’m working with clients on building relationships, they often tell me horror stories about terrible people they work with. They want to find ways of avoiding these people, managing them or sometimes even ways of destroying them. One of the things I’ve been saying for years is these people who make your life hell don’t do it deliberately. They don’t wake up in the morning thinking to themselves – how can I make life harder for so-and-so. They are protecting something, prioritising something, or they just have a different way of interacting with the world. If you can find it in yourself to have a little empathy, see things from their side of the table, help make your interactions easier for them, you may completely rehabilitate the relationship. But this often involves swallowing a lot of pride, a lot of anger, and letting go of a perceived injustice.

One of the hardest things to deal with is the situation in which you feel not just inconvenienced or annoyed, but actually let down or betrayed by someone else. I was reading Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he forensically examines the history violence and comes to the counter-intuitive conclusion that on almost every time-scale, humans have been becoming nicer and nicer to each other, with only a very few instances of the trend moving in the other direction.

In the book, Pinker also discusses why this is so and what lessons we can learn. The following experiment I think is one of the most important and interesting things I have ever read about personal conflict and I implore you to take it to heart.

Pinker describes an exercise in which people were asked to describe a time when they had wronged someone or when they had been themselves wronged. People described lies, thefts, betrayals, arguments and so on. But the difference in narrative between perpetrators and victims was astounding. Pinker volunteers the following “composite narratives”.

The Perpetrator’s Narrative: The story begins with the harmful act. At the time, I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps I was responding to an immediate provocation. Or I was just reacting to the situation in a way that any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did, and it’s unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor, and easily repaired, and I apologized. It’s time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones by bygones.

The Victim’s Narrative: The story begins long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident in a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrator’s actions were incoherent, senseless, incomprehensible. Either that, or the actions of an abnormal sadist, motivated only by a desire to see me suffer, even though I was completely innocent. The harm done is grievous and irreparable, with effects that will last forever. None of us should ever forget it.

As Pinker points out – they can’t both be right. We forget so easily that our perspective of events is flawed, incomplete, partisan and self-serving. It’s tough – really tough – to genuinely see stories like this from the other perspective, but it’s incredibly valuable and powerful if you can pull it off.

May 27th, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: , , ,

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