Diversity and Conflict

Despite, or perhaps because of the often tangible rage seething beneath the surface and the danger it implies, USians have been becoming more and more conflict avoidant. This makes sense in a national climate where disagreement quickly results in violence, verbal (stereotyping and name-calling), psychological (threats and manipulation), or physical (“road rage” and war). The inclination, when confronted, is to smile and change the subject. Instead of debates and arguments promoting mutual appreciation, the result is, more often than not, fear and active dislike, stereotyping and name-calling, resentments and grudges. It is not very safe to argue in USA. There is little or no context for it. Not surprisingly we are culturally addicted to rules, laws, lawyers, and courts to solve our problems, and, when our fear leads us to think conflict inevitable, to preemptive strikes.

Dr. George F. Simons

We don’t like conflict. We try to avoid it instead of learning how to engage in it appropriately and productively, and the end result of our incompetence is horrendous enough to fully reinforce our avoidance.

This is a problem.

It’s particularly a problem for those of us who value cultural diversity and recognition of human equality. The easiest recipe for avoiding conflict is to allow one person or homogeneous group to define the “right side” of any disagreement. Obviously, that’s not an option for us. The greater the diversity of a group, the more opportunities there will be for conflicts of perception and values. And that’s a good thing.

The previous U.S. administration was hardly the first government to show just how wrong someone can end up being when they only listen to the people who agree with them. Surrounding the pampered and culturally isolated with sycophants has always been a recipe for bad policy. It’s frequently been a recipe for revolt.

No, even ignoring their own inherent worth, we need people who disagree with us simply because they disagree with us. They see the things we do not, including the ways that people can come to different, honest decisions using all the same facts we use. We must have disagreement. So why is it so damned hard to manage?

There is the anger, of course, as Dr. Simons mentions. It’s a reasonable anger, for the most part, based on real wrongs. Very few of us have not been the victim of power used inappropriately. It’s a useful anger to the extent it motivates us to seek change. I’m not just talking about anger for the injustices we have individually faced, either. Empathy can build very large coalitions.

Anger is not useful, however, when it tears apart the coalitions that support diversity. It is not useful to listen to someone say they are angry over a behavior they see in a particular community and respond as though they had attacked the community instead of the behavior. It is not useful to assume that, because some of your anger is directed at ways in which you’ve been wronged, any time you’re angry, you have been wronged.

These are particularly hard lessons to learn when the topic of discussion is identity politics. We are the subjects of our discussions, which makes everything so terribly personal. But how do we move forward if we can’t get past the personal? And the personal, in this case, also includes our closely cherished notions of acceptable means of disagreement.

We need to understand the diversity in conflict styles to make conflict productive. Some years ago, Thomas Kochman observed that cultural styles differed between many US blacks (as long as you are shouting, you are not hitting) and many US whites (as soon as you shout you are likely to hit). This is a good example of how not understanding diversity in conflict styles creates more misperceptions and further conflict.

Complicating the negotiation of diverse viewpoints is the fact that there are plenty of people who don’t want all voices heard. These include people who are so insecure that anyone else’s success makes them feel they’ve failed, people who are incapable of questioning the beliefs with which they were raised, people who want their own voice to dominate and people who just enjoy fomenting trouble. (Be careful diagnosing these last two, though, as they’re almost indistinguishable from well-meaning people with poor social skills or different cultural assumptions.)

Ironically, I think that sometimes our reliance on goodwill hurts us as well. We assume that because we have some common goals and values, this should reduce the friction between us. It should make things easy. It doesn’t. Instead, as any marriage counselor will tell you, these only increase the pressure for parties to agree. Finding disagreement where we expect to find accord can feel very much like betrayal.

Luckily, plenty of work has been done on finding ways to resolve conflict. We don’t have to reinvent anything. Nations have been doing this for years, with varying degrees of success. Marital counseling provides models we can build upon, and companies have adapted many of the same strategies as they’ve discovered that top-down business models aren’t nearly as effective as those that rely on all of an organization’s resources.

We can figure this stuff out if we decide it’s worth the effort. After all, most of it boils down to making sure we understand one another: listen actively and ask questions whenever we’re unsure what’s being said, focus on behavior instead of motivation or character traits that can’t be observed directly, give ourselves time to think instead of simply reacting from emotion, be aware of what is under the control of the parties involved and what isn’t and be clear about our own feelings, wants and needs. Not that this is easy in practice, but it isn’t difficult to understand the theory.

We live in a time when technology, changing demographics and political and financial upheaval are opening opportunities for change on a scale and at a pace we’ve never seen before. It hurts me to think that we might not take advantage of those opportunities over disagreements that are–not petty and not easily set aside, but manageable and negotiable.

In the spirit of preventing that, I leave you with this:

The Drama Reduction Act of 2006
As amended 3 October 2007 and 14 January 2009
by Uncle Mikey; preamble courtesy Bethzebra; Article IX courtesy Jenzie

Preamble: “Step one: Remove hand from flame.”

Article I: When you’ve found someone who is honestly willing to take an unwanted burden off your shoulders, especially an unwanted burden that frequently immerses you in unnecessary drama, don’t procrastinate. Let them have it.

Article II: When someone demonstrates they can be trusted to take information said in confidence and use it to generate drama, do not trust them with your confidences.

Article III: Do not allow others who are not only incessantly negative but whose misery is almost entirely their own fault, and who insist on poisoning their own lives with unnecessary anger, to harsh your mellow.

Article IV: The best way to avoid a cross-fire in a battle that is not yours is to absent yourself from the battlefield.

Article V: Recognise the line between supporting and enabling. Embrace the former without restraint; eschew the latter without apology.

Article VI: Public humiliation never reduces drama, and is never as effective as it seems like it should be.

Article VII: People you admire won’t always do things you admire. People you find agreeable won’t always do things with which you agree. That’s OK.

Article VIII: Sometimes it’s neither malice nor incompetence. The smartest, most well-intentioned people make mistakes, have accidents, and sometimes just don’t think things through.

Article IX: Sometimes, it’s not about you.

Tags: , ,

11 Responses to “Diversity and Conflict”

  1. May 29th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    yolio says:

    I disagree with this assessment:

    “USians have been becoming more and more conflict avoidant. This makes sense in a national climate where disagreement quickly results in violence”

    Having grown up in a context where violence was a realistically a possibile outcome to disagreement, I can tell you that it teaches you the value of dealing with conflict rather than avoiding it. Avoidance leads to things getting out of hand.

  2. May 29th, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Bill James says:

    George Simons is Founder and Principal of George Simons International, a Santa Cruz, CA consulting and training organization which specializes in gender and cultural diversity. With over twenty years experience in cross-cultural communication and global management, he is an internationally known counselor and author. Has has authored: Working Together: How to Become More Effective in a Multicultural Organization and with G. Deborah Weissman, Men & Women: Partners at Work. (Crisp Foundation). The Questions of Diversity, a set of assessment tools (ODT Inc. and Pfeiffer, Inc.) Transcultural Leadership with Carmen Vazquez and Philip Harris (Gulf Publications). The Transcultural Communicator and The Gifts of Feedback with Castle Consultants (London, UK). Achieving and Managing Diversity, a video training series with Trimark Ltd (Canada). In the 1970’s, he served as VP for Development at Vastle Consultants (London, UL) and Director of European Operations for Austin & Lindbergh, Ltg. (Brussels, Belgium). In 1975, while teaching at Oberlin College, he was named an Underwood Fellow for outstanding work in Human Development. For many years, Dr. Simons directed Hidden Valley Center for Men, whose purpose is to educate men to meet the stresses of changing gender roles. Working in English, German, Spanish and French, Dr. Simons has clients worldwide. Recent work includes: Training international management and employees to communicate, negotiate and cooperate across cultures. Domestic gender and cultural diversity assessment, consulting and training. Training overseas managers to function effectively in a U.S. organization. Training multinational trainers. Training North American trainers for U.S. domestic diversity interventions. Diversity program design. And Public diversity and cross-cultural communication programs and keynotes. In 1994, he became a Founding Board Member of The National Men’s Resource Center where he currently holds the position of Secretary/Treasurer. “Diversophy”.

  3. May 29th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    yolio, I tend to agree with you from personal experience. It’s one of the areas in which I’m very hesitant to generalize from myself to others though.

    Bill, did you have a point about Dr. Simons’ qualifications?

  4. May 29th, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    I like the essay, but allow me this one caveat that was mentioned but perhaps not emphasized.

    The thesis of this essay is predicated on the premise that those that disagree with us do so honestly and based on a genuine rendering of reality. I contest that this is the case with the current Republican/right wing/religious segment of society.

    None of this applies to disagreements with the delusional or the disingenuous. Sometimes mockery and derision is the only appropriate response. Direct conflict in that arena is warranted for an entirely different reason.

    Other than that, it’s a beautiful piece of writing, Stephanie.

  5. May 29th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    The thesis of this essay is predicated on the premise that those that disagree with us do so honestly and based on a genuine rendering of reality

    And an honest attempt at considering what you are saying with the expectation of the favor being returned.

  6. May 29th, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I deliberately didn’t emphasize the “delusional” and “disingenuous,” in part, because I think it’s not a helpful place to start in dealing with someone. There are loons and trolls, sure, but they’re relatively rare. Treating someone as though they’re a loon or a troll when they’re just coming from a very different place isn’t going to build any bridges, and the risks of starting with the assumption that people are sane and honest are pretty small.

  7. May 29th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    the real me says:

    “Treating someone as though they’re a loon or a troll when they’re just coming from a very different place isn’t going to build any bridges”
    Ame…er…*ahem*…right on….but mebe article 2 should be article 1–trust is everything in relationships, or the building of them brrridges.

    yolio is right about the need to deal with the conflict on some level, but the timing of that confrontation is the really important factor. Picking battles wisely is the key when you cannot avoid them. However, avoidance has its own merits, if one can ‘afford’ that luxury. The issue there seems to be the difference between ‘close quarters’ combat situations versus the luxury of distance and space.

    ‘real’ scene: The conversation with three Cuban stooges with a sawed-off shotgun and knife on a guys throat in my living room is definitely a different conversation than one with middle class and theoretically educated ppl in cyberspace who have never known violence, but heard about it on t.v. or s/th; or dealing with the domineering and mouthy religiously-radicalized ‘Ethnic’ slum/landlord that gets slapped down by a lease agreement and the sheer fact that he is out numbered ( in his mind outnumbered in ‘brute force’ human bodies)in a given situation.

    The main difference, is only ‘space’ and the luxury to be able to avoid conflict; buy into or out of it ;or negotiate some on a day to day basis; and if necessary meet violence with violence as a life preserving measure when it cannot be negotiated .

    In each scenario, the politically correct idealism goes right out the fracking window, and cultural sensitivity is ( and should be) near zero .

    “Anger is not useful, however, when it tears apart the coalitions that support diversity.”
    I disagree. Not all diversity is ‘good’ diversity–having the flu, cancer, and diarhea for instance, is a diversity of symptoms AND diseases; having one self involved, selfish identity politic indoctrinated douche bag in a room with another is equally toxic, because it promotes selfishness over self awareness. The whole idea of ‘identity’; that can be nailed down to ones ‘issues’ b/c of race class or gender promotes selfishness, and disrespectful ‘othering’ dialogue.

  8. May 29th, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Azkyroth says:

    It is not useful to assume that, because some of your anger is directed at ways in which you’ve been wronged, any time you’re angry, you have been wronged.

    I can think of a few people who need to write this a few hundred thousand times on the chalkboard. Excellent observation.

  9. May 30th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Well, Azkyroth, I have to admit it may have taken me about that long to learn it myself.

    real, I think you know I mean a much broader diversity than that. As for the selfish and self-involved, it can be pretty hard to distinguish that from youth and inexperience. Greg’s point elsewhere about there always being a need for education is a good one. Not to say that everyone is interested in learning, but I think that if it comes down to deciding to cut someone out because they’re not interested, anger still isn’t helpful. That’s got to be a decision based on something more than, “This person has pissed me off too many times.”

    Excellent point about immediate danger of violence. Having known/not having known that kind of danger is one of those divides that is really hard to talk across, or to talk to both sides of at the same time.

  10. June 19th, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    other Greg says:

    “We dont like conflict. We try to avoid it instead of learning how to engage in it appropriately and productively […].”

    No. We are not taught how to engage appropriately and productively. Therefore, we fear and avoid it.

    In fact, we are taught how to fail to engage appropriately and productively. You have indicated some of these failing methods.

    I used to think this was unfortunate. Now, I think is deliberate.

  11. June 20th, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    other Greg, that’s definitely a thought worth chewing on. Thanks.

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline