Conflict and Consensus

What a year 2016 has been! A year of firsts I don’t think anyone was very excited to witness. I am not the first to observe that the one thing that seems to unite the world today is a mutual dislike and general divisiveness — not ideal for building consensus and bringing people together this holiday season.

But in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I think we should consider another view: See the value in conflict, and perhaps even be grateful for it.

I recently received the advice to lean into the small conflicts of everyday life. Highly effective individuals do it without prompting, and I’m working on that skill. 

Sometimes I am guilty of letting slights fester rather than address them. I know how to hold a grudge, and I have been known to take great pleasure in it. It’s a character flaw. But lately, I have started to think about how much energy I waste dwelling on minor disagreements and how little it would take to resolve them peacefully.

We all encounter little spats with our friends, colleagues and family members. The best path to preserve our well-being is to confront them respectfully, but head-on. Politics, though, is not a great method for achieving progress, precisely because it encourages disrespect, division and disregard for others. Now that this election is over, we have the chance to make great strides in communication and understanding, if we choose to do so.

Most of us can agree that this election did not bring out the best in America. It was nasty, brutish and unbearably long. No matter who we endorsed at the top of the ticket, we lost something. Now that it’s over, I am just as frustrated with those who won as with those who did not.

How much do elections mean in the grand scheme? Not enough to justify what we have gone through over the last 18 months. One president usually behaves very much like another, party affiliations notwithstanding. Knowing this, and knowing that we might be more disappointed than usual with the just-completed election cycle, perhaps we should try embracing conflict. See it a way of bringing the country closer together, rather than a tool to drive a greater wedge.

How is that happy state possible? Make your first reaction to conflict a desire to understand the other. When frustrated by gloating relatives or protesting college students, lean in and start a conversation. Genuine curiosity and peaceful questions are the best tools for anyone who wishes to build consensus and relationships – two things we will need to avoid another year like 2016.

Win, lose or draw, I suspect most Americans will end up disappointed with our federal government in coming years. But I hope we can avoid being disappointed in each other for much longer.