How to talk without fighting

Do you avoid talking about politics with someone in your family, for fear of conflict?  Have you clashed with a friend over an issue, and sadly found that more conversation made you both dig into your positions more deeply? 

I just read a piece by Amanda Ripley that explores the dynamics of conflict, and reports on some ways people are defusing it to foster meaningful conversations on highly charged issues.  The article was written by a journalist who is worried that news reporters today are inadvertently exacerbating conflict, rather than arming the public with information that will help us find a way through it.  In search of new approaches to reporting on divisive issues, she sought out people who know conflict well and have helped others wade in and out of it successfully.

Where emotions run high and beliefs are entrenched, even the most factually accurate, complete, and unbiased news reporting may not do the intended job of informing readers.  What’s worse, new information that contradicts one’s beliefs can actually further deafen one to opposing ideas.  These insights, and lessons learned from the various conflict resolution experts who Amanda Ripley interviewed, may help reporters write stories that change the way readers navigate the thicket of political speech. These new kinds of reporting might even breach the walls of our echo chambers. 

Two insights about conflict stand out for me:

  • Complexity reduces conflict. When people hear stories that present an issue in its often messy complexity, rather than as a simple “one side/other side” narrative, even people locked in intractable conflict can listen to each other more respectfully and gain understanding of each other’s views.  We may crave simplicity, but humans’ true complexity could save us.
  • Asking a larger question can turn feuds into inquiry. A nasty conflict over a public sculpture was defused when the community’s conversation was widened from “Do you like this sculpture?” to a broadly focused discussion of questions like “What is public art?”.  It’s just one example of how using a wider lens can quell conflict and foster dialogue.

Complex narratives, big questions about meaning – they’re the bread and butter of the humanities, right? 

With our statewide Beyond the Headlines project we’ve been using the humanities to spark thoughtful, wide-ranging conversations among journalists and citizens on tough community issues.  It’s exciting to think that bringing journalism and the humanities together might benefit the public in ways journalists are just starting to imagine as they pursue their mission in tumultuous times for our democracy and the media that serves it. 

For now, if you’re tired of conflict and looking for conversations that can move communities toward real solutions, take heart from Beyond the Headlines events coming up in Wausau and Eau Claire in September and October.  And if you have ideas for future Beyond the Headlines programming, I’d love to hear from you!



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