A Practical Guide to Conflict Resolution: Comprehension

[As described in the introduction, this post is about the value of fully grasping the whole picture, including the many sides to each debate, even when most of them are wrong.]

Seek First to Understand

A good attitude and a good venue will carry you a surprisingly long way, but of course they’re not always sufficient on their own. The next thing I try when mediating conflict is to temporarily ignore whatever I believe and work to understand both sides of the argument equally. I called this post “comprehension”, but it could equally just be called “listening”, or maybe more precisely “active listening”. Honestly, Stephen Covey has already said most of this far better than I can in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit number five is “seek first to understand”, which captures the spirit of things.

The value of truly understanding both sides of a conflict cannot be overstated. Even when I’ve nominally resolved a conflict, I get antsy if I still don’t really grok one side or the other. More than once, trying to scratch that itch “after the fact” has turned up a hidden requirement or pain point which would have just caused more grief down the road. Remember, success is rarely as simple as just making the conflict go away; you can’t know if you’ve truly found success (not just victory) unless you properly understand both sides.

But understanding both sides isn’t just an after-the-fact thing. It also has concrete value in guiding the resolution of a conflict when you’re caught in the middle of it, because it allows you to properly apply the principle of charity. The principle of charity says that you should try and find the best possible interpretation for people’s arguments, even when they aren’t always clear or coherent. It goes back to assuming good faith; maybe an argument sounds crazy, but it makes sense to the person saying it. The only way to apply the principle of charity in many cases is to start by understanding the argument, and the person making it.

Understanding both sides is also a key part of something called “steelmanning“, which is the process of actively finding better versions of another person’s arguments. This may seem like an odd thing to do in a conflict, but only if you’ve accidentally slipped back into the habit of aiming for victory instead of success. Assume good faith, and work with both sides to fully develop the points they’re trying to make. Doing this brings clarity to the discussion which can often illuminate the crux of the conflict.

Of course sometimes being charitable is hard. People may make arguments which just seem… wrong. Crazy. Even harmful. (The topic of whether an argument can be harmful in and of itself is a fascinating one I don’t have space for here. Whatever you believe, it isn’t relevant to the point I’m trying to make). A lot of people would suggest that trying to understand or improve an argument like that is a waste of time, or even ethically wrong. I disagree. I believe that truly understanding both sides of a conflict is fundamentally valuable, no matter what that conflict is. It clarifies. It builds empathy. It expands your knowledge of the world. And even if by the end you still deeply disagree, understanding the argument will let you articulate a better response.

Practical Tips

The principle is all well and good, but getting to that level of understanding in practice can be really hard. It’s a skill that gets easier with repetition, so I would encourage you to practice it as much as possible, even for small conflicts where it might not seem necessary. Build that habit when it’s easy, and you’ll find that it becomes automatic even when it’s hard. Still, if you’re trying and you’re really stuck, I’ve got a trick which helps me when I just can’t seem to connect with what somebody is saying.

To better understand a different perspective, try splitting an argument up into the separate pieces of a problem and a solution. A lot of arguments fit into this pattern quite naturally, and I often find that while I couldn’t quite grasp the argument as a whole, I both understand and even agree with the problem; it’s the solution that’s causing me issues. Even then, having the problem separated out and well-defined can lead me to understanding the solution too, because it frequently highlights some unstated premise which I wasn’t aware of. This is also a great way to practice steelmanning, since making implied premises explicit is a great way to improve an argument; people are pretty bad at this by default.

I should also note that if this trick kind of works for a situation, but doesn’t quite, you should try making the problem even more general. For example, if the argument is “Mexicans are taking our jobs, so we should stop immigration from Mexico”, it’s tempting to define the problem as just “Mexicans are taking our jobs”, but it’s probably more productive to define it as something like “something is taking our jobs” or even “our economic prospects suck”. This pulls out an implied premise (that the cause is Mexican immigrants) which may be the real point of disagreement, but even apart from that, finding a problem which you can be sympathetic to is worth its weight in gold. With this kind of problem in hand, you can reframe the conflict as a cooperative mission, working together to find the best solution to the problem. You can start to look for success, not victory.

Standards of Understanding

It’s often said that the real acid test for truly understanding somebody’s argument is the ability to explain it back to them in a way they will agree with. This is good, and you should definitely aim for this (trying to explain it back is also a useful trick for conflict resolution in general), but sometimes I find it useful to use a slightly higher bar. I consider myself to really properly understand an argument when I can not only explain it to the person who made it, but can also explain (to myself, not to them) how they came to believe it. Both sides of the conflict are part of the universe, so to understand the universe you have to know how both sides came to be.

This may seem like an esoteric or excessively demanding standard, and it isn’t necessary all the time. But there are interesting and practical sources of conflict where this is a really useful approach that provides a lot of insight. Religion is my favourite example of this; most theistic worldviews can pretty naturally explain the existence of atheists, but a lot of atheists have a hard time explaining the existence of theists. “People are dumb” may be emotionally satisfying, but doing the work of constructing a real explanation builds a lot of empathy and ends up sharpening the resulting argument.

I’ve covered a lot of different ground in this section, but I think I can boil it down to four key points to take away:

  1. Seek always to understand.

  2. Actively look for the best version of everyone’s arguments.

  3. Separate the problem and the solution.

  4. To truly understand, you must explain how both sides came to be.

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