Politics and the Process of Conflict

Regrettably, not all issues of conflict can be resolved by a mutually acceptable agreement.  As we continue to try to encourage enlightened leadership, getting those in the position of governing to accept that their idea is not always the best one takes more than my encouragement on a blog site.

As I make my coffee this morning and write this post, I am doing so using a French Press.  On a number of occasions, I prefer to make it in a Bialetti Moka Express (pictured).  In any case, I prefer these and several other devices to coffee made by running hot water through grounds in a paper filter. So as I was making my coffee, it occurred to me how passionate I am about it.  I prefer the French Press, the Bialetti, or even using a mesh filter for a number of reasons.  To me, those methods provide the best tasting cup of coffee (as I said, “to me”), as the natural oils that flavor my java stay in it and give it a richer taste.  I am not saying I won’t drink coffee run through a paper filter, because I certainly do. But I strongly prefer other methods of making coffee.

I have friends and family who find my coffee to be way too strong for them.  They obviously would prefer something you can see the bottom of the cup through.  While I consider this blasphemous, I can understand and appreciate their perspective without being obnoxious about it (although I admit, I rub it in a little sometimes).  To them, my coffee makes them ill.  They say it upsets their stomach and they either dilute it or just skip it altogether.

Neither of these perspectives are wrong.  They are different. But the way we manage conflict is very similar.  We may personally value one approach, but for our own reasons.  Others may prefer a different approach.  Short of these values being entrenched in religious reasons, they may both have merits that we must be willing to acknowledge as being valuable to solving our differences.

But I mentioned the religious issues and that makes a very good point.  I will concede that the issues of religion are mired in value and belief that I could do a month’s worth of blogs on.  Here’s a message for you:  Get past it.  What we are talking about in this series aren’t issues of religion.  These are issues of comfort, of preference, of tradition, of convenience that we are haggling over. In some cases, there are entities staking the entire intractable situation on issues of whether our organization is named this or that.  Is this really a hill you want to die over?

I will admit, if you have actually been following this series, there are departments who inspired my observations and were chiefly among the reasons I chose to discuss the topic.  At the risk of taking sides, some of the parties in these engagements seem to be petty, mean-spirited, and power-hungry.  Conversely, in some of these organizations I am considering when I write, the opposition  has done themselves no real favors over the course of the conflict either.  While I agree there were also considerable issues to deal with in these administrations, and since from the outside, there seems to be an undue amount of drama, it still seems like in some cases, the resistance is or was heavy-handed.  Given these situations, however, and not being employed in any of those departments, I have some distance and thus, some objectivity.

Given the emotion involved in some of the smallest issues and the power of the internet for those who can say their piece in what they consider to be an environment free of retribution (uh, maybe not so much), there sometimes seems to be an unwillingness to change and evolve from one side, and clearly a target on the back of anyone at the top on the other side.  These situations clearly illustrate several problems that have to be overcome when dealing with intractable conflict at the political level:

Conflict of interest must be resolved.  As beyondintractability.org states, “when people charged with making a decision on behalf of the larger society have a personal stake in that decision which leads them to act in ways that favor their narrow, selfish interests over the larger, community interest”, decision making authority assigned to representatives always runs the risk of that individual using that power for their own benefit.  This can be seen repeatedly in the process, especially when we are speaking of elected representatives these days, but also in labor or management negotiating through certain issues.

The phenomenon known as “veto group syndrome” must be avoided.  Again, from beyondintractability.org, the process of negotiating must include mechanisms to keep people from blocking new initiatives simply because they don’t want to change, especially when change is indicated to meet with changing circumstances.

Mechanisms must also be put into place to avoid turf battles.  Oftentimes, individuals who are advising the lead negotiating parties have vested interest in maintaining status quo, or making changes that only benefit their particular group, division, or team, without considering the benefit to all, or to aid in the delivery of the mission requirements.  Operating in a silo does nothing to help the overall organization and these walls must be broken down.

Finally, and most interestingly, there is the “Dismal Theorem of Political Science”, as described by Kenneth Boulding, in which he asserts: “the skills that it takes to get elected and propose appealing solutions are very different than the skills needed to effectively govern.” Boulding suggested that the ability to communicate well, simplify problems, and propose appealing but not necessarily feasible or effective solutions are not always present in the individual who also needs to be able to assess data and competing interests and values.  In short, “good” politicians should also have the ability to see that what they propose has consequences, be able to see the big picture, and be able to appreciate the other conflicts that will inevitably arise as a result of the proposed solutions.

To an outsider like me, issues of what you call your organization, which may be annoying, considered awkward, or whatever, but not a life-threatening issue, should be trumped by the need to provide safe working clothing.  Which hill do you want to die on?  To me, cross-trained firefighters and medical personnel are essential, but unless you can wave a magic wand and have that happen overnight, do you really want to hold off on bringing in new personnel and jeopardizing response in the meanwhile?  Again, is this a hill you want to stake your flag on?

There is nothing simple about conflict at these levels, especially with the media coverage and the emotion involved.  It is exactly for these reasons that juries in some cases convene outside of the jurisdiction in which they were initiated. Objectivity is necessary and sometimes, regardless of who is really in charge, someone must step in and referee the proceedings.  The problem is when the objective, outside observers do come to conclusions and the powers that be ignore the recommendations anyway. 

As I said, neither of these perspectives are necessarily bad, but we must consider the impact our decisions make on the opposing viewpoint and work toward mediation if we can, and try to achieve a working relationship.  Some of the issues that are being tossed around as holy are not, they are issues of preference and of tradition. I may not like paper-filtered coffee, but if there is the choice of no coffee or that, I will drink it.  If I have the choice between issuing shirts with a certain logo on them that will make my personnel safer but I don't like the logo, I will do that.  If I am told, however, that I have a uniform to wear and this is the uniform and although the name isn't what I like (but it is uniform and safe), I would rather make the change, than say, give up my 24/72 hour shift rotation, if that were the case.

Choose carefully what you want to fight over.  Otherwise, you look petty and unwilling to work with anyone at all.  We must make changes in life and resisting every change that comes is not going to create a mutually acceptable environment for anyone. Pick the battles that are REALLY worth fighting over.

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