Conflict Hacks: A Summer Survival Kit
From BBQs to book bans, make sure you come prepared.
There’s a lot of electricity in the air these days, as you’ve probably noticed. Incoherent shouting matches at city council meetings and massive street brawls at July 4th fireworks celebrations. We hear a lot about these ugly encounters on the news, but we very rarely hear about creative countermeasures.
So this summer, I’m collecting conflict hacks the way other people collect seashells, plucking them out of the muck after the tide goes out. They are there, if you look closely, shimmering in the sand. And when you find one? Oh man, it’s like spotting raw gold. A moment of pure joy.
So here’s a few of the most recent gems I’ve stumbled across. Maybe you can try them out at your next neighborhood block party gone wild—or on your family’s epic road trip to the world’s biggest bounce house. Maybe (fingers crossed) you have some of your own to share.
“Positive Gossipers”: How to stop a culture war in its tracks.
Facing rising outrage over CRT and mask mandates, the kind that has splintered so many towns in America, a school superintendent in Middletown, OH, had a realization: nothing he could say would be enough to defuse this crisis.
So Marlon Styles did the opposite of what most leaders do in conflict: he asked for help. He called on local ministers and a group of well-informed community members, whom he called his “positive gossipers,” to speak up, as Courtney E. Martin describes in the Christian Science Monitor. The positive gossipers showed up to eight school board meetings in a row—offering their own insights, balancing out the fear and vitriol, and reminding everyone what it looks like to love thy neighbor. “They told little, textured stories of community. They told jokes. They quoted Scripture,” Martin writes.
People still disagreed, of course, as they should. But the conflict was productive, instead of toxic. The lesson for the rest of us? “Every school community has a quiet majority,” Styles said. “Authentically and genuinely reach out to them.”
Conflict entrepreneurs inflame conflict for their own ends, as we have seen again and again. But positive gossipers do the opposite. They cultivate good conflict for the sake of the whole community. What would it look like to deputize more of them?
A Reset Button: How to apologize in 2 seconds.
Restaurant kitchens, like hospitals and locker rooms, are perfect laboratories for conflict. The first season of the FX show The Bear captured in heart-pounding intensity what dysfunctional conflict looks like in a Chicago restaurant. There was a lot of unexpressed rage and despair that came out sideways. But the new season reveals a fascinating and ambitious shift.
After overreacting to a misstep, the chef turns to his sous chef and does something new: he uses his fist to draw circles over his heart—a gesture that means “I’m sorry” in sign language:
“Two of my old chefs used to do it,” he explains. “You know, if they were angry, fighting on the line, it helped. It was, like, their version of ‘Let’s talk about this later.’ It didn’t matter if one tore the other one apart. It always got them through service.”
TV is saturated with the routines of high conflict these days, so it was thrilling to see something else. Good, useful conflict depends on shared vocabulary and rituals you know by heart. I love this ritual in particular because it requires no words. It’s exquisitely efficient. (Thank you to my friend and fellow positive gossiper Paul Bock for flagging this one for me! At the time, I was still gutting it out in Season 1 and not at all sure I would make it to Season 2…I’m so glad I did!)
Practice rituals that make good conflict easier to achieve. Do it before—not during—the dinner rush (or the family road trip or the city council election or the union organizing drive…).
The Isle of Discussion: How to make politicians uncomfortable.
This delightful conflict hack comes from a reader who has spent time at Loch Leven, one of more than 30,000 lochs (lakes) in Scotland:
In Scotland, there is an island in the middle of Loch Leven called “Eilean a’ Chombraidh” or “The Isle of Discussion.” Legend has it that the clan chiefs who would disagree (and potentially drag their clans into a useless and costly conflict) were rowed out to this tiny little island by members of their own clans. Cheese, oatcakes, and wine would be left. The clansmen would then row ashore, and sit on the banks together. Their job was to ensure that the chiefs could not escape the island by swimming away.
The only way the chiefs could leave is if they came to an agreement. At first, neither would give way. They would eat the cheese and oatcake, drink the wine, curse, and argue. But as the night came, and the cheese and wine ran out, and the cold wind blew into the loch from the North Sea, the men, desperate to leave, would begin to negotiate. Once an agreement had been reached, the men would row their chiefs to another little island where agreements were ensconced in writing and sealed.
I’ve wished for the same thing in our country—a tiny little island that we could send our leaders to, in order to force them to agree and compromise for the good of the whole.
There are 18,617 claimed islands located in the United States. Let’s pick one (maybe this one?) and send our Congressional leaders there, shall we? I’ll bring the oatcakes.
Here’s to pockets full of seashells this summer,
Looking for professional help with a conflict of your own?
Veteran conflict mediator Gary Friedman is one of the wisest people I know (which is why he’s featured in my last book High Conflict).
Right now, Gary is offering a limited amount of one-on-one conflict coaching (free of charge) to help people navigate a work or personal conflict on their own.
If you agree, we may record these coaching sessions for Gary’s next book and for other projects through Good Conflict (the media and training company I co-founded with broadcast journalist Hélène Biandudi Hofer a couple years ago). Our goal is to learn (with you) what works—so we can help more people fight more intelligently.
Interested? Click here to learn more!
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