Nov 122013

As we pass another Remembrance Day, I’ve been reflecting on one of those memes that circle the internet:

10% of conflicts is due to difference in opinion and 90% is due to wrong tone of voice.

Following on from last week’s post, I would add ‘wrong choice of words’ to ‘wrong tone of voice’, but I believe there is a great deal of truth in the idea that how we treat each other matters much more than our differences of opinion.

I think I’ve mentioned before a blog I follow about public-speaking skills. In a recent post, the writer/coach talks about how best to approach speaking on a discussion panel and she highlights the problem that so many events billed as debates or discussions are, in reality, just about posturing, sneering and bullying. On the Public Speaking Skills Facebook page, a contributor quoted the philosopher Karl Popper as saying: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.” This admirable attitude requires those on both sides of the argument to stay grounded and to respect the opponents – a big ask, but think about the rewards! Not only would we get nearer to the truth, which has got to be the only productive way forward, but we would vastly reduce the amount and intensity of conflict around the world.

Bullying may secure compliance but it’s never going to win hearts and minds. We see this on the global stage and within our own homes. Laughing at me, telling me I’m stupid or otherwise belittling me is not going to persuade me to your point of view. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll fight back more fiercely than before, no longer listening to your arguments but defending myself and attacking you as hard as I can. If I’m feeling weak, I may capitulate – but that is far from the same as agreeing with you and my resentment will simmer until I can get my revenge.

The best way to manage conflict is to be reasonable, to make concessions where the other person has a good case and to engage with the parts of the opposing case that seem to you wrong, calmly illuminating the flaws in it without asserting your superiority. It may be exciting when sparks fly, but a productive debate is one with more light than heat.

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