There’s an energy present in the world right now unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. People are rising up in the streets to demand racial justice. A global pandemic upended our lives, having us spend more time at home than we’re used to. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s next.
With everything that is present, how we do move forward together, stronger than ever?
Our world faces many existential threats — like rising income inequality, healing racial discrimination and systemic injustice, the demonization of migrants and Hispanics, and an Earth crying for sustainability — that I get discouraged when change doesn’t happen. If we’re going to tackle these issues together, we’re going to have to learn how to work together with people who think differently than us to co-create a World 2.0.
How we do that is part of the vision that I articulated in Part 1 of this three-part series:
Working together to achieve the impossible creates possibilities that give way to the conceivable.
As a mediator and consultant, I regularly get in the middle of intense conflict. I see firsthand the destruction that years of arguing have on startup teams and how this affects their inability to get anything done. The pattern I have noticed from my work facilitating difficult conversations is a world dominated by the mind. In our pursuit to stay logical and “keep emotions out of it”, we’re disconnecting from the things that make us human — our kindness, our compassion, and our empathy. It’s leading to only more anger, more separation, and more chaos, between ourselves, others, and our planet.
“Individual psychological and emotional problems become collective concerns when loneliness and frustration meet populist and identity politics — an emerging reality in what is becoming known as the ‘age of anger’”. (Source)
Our politics is starting to show just how angry we really are. Collaborating in World 2.0 will require a new way of working with one another by using our disagreements as gateways for change. Our disputes should not stop us from working with one another. But before we get there, we must first shift our individual anger and collective frustration into inspired. It’s a big challenge, but one we can meet together. Are you ready?
Getting Unstuck: The Argument Spiral
When we disagree with someone, it can usually start out small. There could be a lack of unity as to what to do next. Maybe someone said something wrong. Or we perceive that the other side just doesn’t get it. Our disagreements do not have to stop us from creating positive change. Conflict creates energy. The type of energy it creates depends on how we react to a disagreement and how we go about resolving the situation.
Recall a recent disagreement you had with someone:
What was your reaction to it?
Did you avoid the disagreement or argue your point?
When we’re caught in a disagreement, our “fight or flight” responses take over. We’ll either fight for why we are right or withdraw from the problem altogether. Think of shouting versus passive-aggressiveness. If you decide to fight, your ability to actively listen, ask questions and stay open to new information decreases. Over time, this may cause the communication between you and other side to break down, making the issue worse.
Conflict arises from misunderstandings, unmet expectations, or unfounded assumptions.
Because no one is actively dialoguing, misunderstandings start to occur. A story about the other side may even develop. When people experience a prolonged disagreement, it creates a pattern known as an argument spiral, which will affect how they behave toward one another.
I know I am caught in an argument spiral when I start thinking the worst of the other person and lose my respect for him or her.
Recently, this played out for me with a previous roommate. I would ask her repeatedly to take out the trash, to clean-up after herself, and leave the common room organized. When she didn’t, I would refer to her in my mind as “lazy, entitled, and self-centered.” And anything she did or didn’t do would reinforce this perspective and it took up a lot of mental space. In hindsight, I was stuck in Level 4 of the Argument Spiral, stereotyping her behavior while reinforcing my mental story I had of her. It only de-escalated when she did something different than what I was expecting of her. This would cause me to begin seeing her in a positive way and our communication would improve.
As arguments get worse, they become about control and who is “right” more than about understanding where someone may be coming from.
It can be easy to engage in a tit-for-tat situation when you are trying to win an argument. Humans are wired this way. We will try to use any power, leverage, or influence so we can win. And sometimes, we even end up mistaking this as “collaboration.” If we want to collaborate with someone who thinks differently than us, we must first get unstuck and learn when and if we are in an Argument Spiral.
Tips for de-escalating each level of the Argument Spiral:
Level 1: Problem-Solving
- If you’re here, you’re good.
- Continue listening, asking questions, and confirm understanding. This is done best by summarizing what you heard and asking, “Did I hear you correctly?”
- Co-create the solution together
Level 2: You Make it Personal
- Diagnosis: Are you attacking the person’s character? (i.e., calling them lazy, a Karen, a Bob, “ok boomer,” etc.)
- De-escalation: What is the core problem that you are fighting about?
- Keep the conversation focused on the actual problem and try to avoid any character assaults or name-calling while creating a solution.
Level 3: More Issues Pop Up
- Diagnosis: Are problems from the past or which feel irrelevant continually popping up?
- De-escalation: Ask yourself and the other person, “Is this the right time to be discussing this?”
- A pattern starts to present itself here, do not fall for it. Instead, name the pattern (whether someone shuts down, adds in extra information, etc.). Get them to confirm that core problem and keep the conversation focused on solutions.
Level 4: Stereotyping
- Diagnosis: Have you lost respect for the other person?
- De-escalation: Have they done something positive or beneficial? Get very specific here, because anything positive should stay top of mind.
- Things start to get tricky here. You may feel triggered, annoyed, or frustrated. Do not let the emotional part of the disagreement cloud your ability to see the positive. Maybe they responded to an email in an orderly fashion or did something small that is part of the solution to your problem. Whatever it is, try to acknowledge this in a sincere way to them. And get confirmation from them. See if their behaviors toward you change. If so, go with that new vibe.
Level 5: Reciprocating Behaviors
- Diagnosis: How are you contributing to the escalation of the conflict?
- De-escalation: Are you able to own this and take responsibility?
- Apologies do wonders for clearing and re-setting a communication space, but it takes maturity to get there. When you’re at a Level 5 in an Argument Spiral, most likely than not you have done something to contribute to the escalation. Get honest about what that is and apologize. See if they also apologize to you. Acknowledge this, per the previous level.
Level 6: “Me vs. Them” Division
- Diagnosis: Do you see the other side as an enemy or “Other”?
- De-escalation: How can you humanize the other side?
- Take a step back and ask for advice from a neutral third-party. Because at this stage, it can be really hard to see the problem clearly. The stories are so built up that only a new perspective from a trusted person can help get you unstuck and re-engage the disagreement in a new way. Stay open. And try to gain a new perspective that’ll help you engage the disagreement in a different way.
Your enemy is one who misunderstands you; why should you not rise above the fog and see his error and respect him for the good qualities you find in him?
— Elbert Hubbard, American Writer & Philosopher
Getting unstuck from an argument spiral takes personal responsibility and respect. As we learn to work with people who think differently, we must learn to lean on our humanity to find the bridges that bring us together. That means acknowledging the positive, asking for forgiveness if we’d made a mistake, and working with someone to de-escalate a situation. If we continue fighting one another, Collaborating in World 2.0 will be impossible. The existential threats our world faces will go unresolved. And the collective rage and frustration we see in our world will only lead to more division and hatred. Part 3 of this three-part series will discuss how to collaboratively disagree with someone once you become unstuck so dialogue, understanding, and collaborative solutions can develop. Let’s do it!