The power of conversation is real but not total.
People sometimes take an oversimplified perspective of the power of dialogue, deliberation, and choice-creating to deal with tensions between people. EIther they think “just talk” can’t do much to resolve serious conflicts or they think talking can resolve any and every conflict. I think both perspectives fail to appreciate the specific gifts powerful conversation brings to the table in times of conflict.
I’ll share here how I think about these potential gifts. It is important to keep in mind that they all depend on the choice and quality of the conversational processes used.
FOR CONFLICTED PARTIES (generally) – We can take people involved in a dispute and help them (a) to hear each other, (b) to understand each other’s stories, perspectives, and needs and (c) to move beyond their conflict by solving it and/or by shifting the quality of their relationship towards positive regard and generosity of spirit that reduces the problem or even totally dissolves it.
FOR POLITICAL PARTISANS – We can take people on opposite sides of the political spectrum and help them (a) find issues and solutions they agree on and (b) come to see and respect each other as reasonable human beings who share many views and concerns but happen to disagree on some important things. They may or may not end up agreeing on a particular issue, but they will surely find points of agreement on some issues.
FOR STAKEHOLDERS IN A SITUATION – We can take people who are focused on their conflicting interests in a situation and (a) help them find solutions that meet most or all of the deep needs and/or legitimate interests of all participants and/or (b) nurture mutual respect and relationships that help them continue to work on the situation together creatively – or at least civilly – from their different roles and perspectives.
FOR DIVERSE CITIZENS – AND, THEREBY, COMMUNITIES AND COUNTRIES – We can convene diverse ordinary citizens to consider public issues or the condition of their community or country and help them (a) to deepen their understanding of the issues involved, (b) to understand each other’s perspectives, and (c) to come up with policy recommendations or social responses to improve conditions, supported by a significant majority or consensus of the participants.
IN THE PROCESS, participants of any kind often learn a lot, sometimes significantly shift their views or awareness, and may discover breakthrough solutions, transform or transcend themselves or the presenting situation entirely and/or generate exceptional collective intelligence and wisdom together.
Quite in addition to addressing human conflicts, quality conversations can also be powerful tools for generating community visions, facilitating community self-organization, and promoting social capital of all kinds, as well as being interesting, enjoyable, and empowering for the participants.
Of course, again, all this depends on the choice of processes and how well they are convened and facilitated or mediated. There is much to know about all this, but there are people who know these things and can apply them well. There are people who can help. Their remarkable gifts are readily available to serve the needs of individuals, relationships, groups, organizations, communities, and society at large – from the most stressed to the most healthy and inspired.
In short, the right kind of conversations can’t do everything, but they can do so much more than most people realize.