Everyone is good at starting an argument. It’s easy. Just lob a verbal bomb at the other side and duck for cover. Presto! You’ve created an argument. But what about finishing an argument? What about finding an agreement with the other person? Dan Shapiro would know. As the Director of the prestigious Harvard International Negotiation Program, he knows a thing or two about getting two diametrically opposed sides to not only speak to one another but also work together to resolve the conflict. It all comes down to how either side presents itself to the other: think less “I’m right, tell me how you’re wrong” and (much) more along the lines of “What do you hear me saying?”. That way, Shapiro suggests, you’re starting off on the same step rather than positioning yourself as the person in authority.
Dan’s advice is wholly relevant given today’s political and media environs: people really should look to come together rather than winning some supposed argument. Because it isn’t that hyperbolic—given how angry each side of the political aisle is with one another—to say that this approach could save American democracy.
Dan Shapiro’s latest book is Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.
DAN SHAPIRO: So here we are trying to negotiate what might seem nonnegotiable. Why do these things feel so nonnegotiable?
One reason is that we hold certain values and beliefs as sacred. The other side holds alternative values and beliefs as sacred. And if my beliefs don’t match up with yours we have an impasse, we have gridlock.
The question is, can you get out of gridlock, and how do you get out of gridlock? Is it true that you cannot negotiate the non-negotiable? You can.
The most powerful tool I know on how to negotiate the nonnegotiable is the power of appreciation. What I mean by that, it is the ability to deeply listen to the other side’s perspective not just so that you can argue back but so that they feel heard.
Now this is the hardest thing to do in the world. If you’re a strong Clintonite or Trumpite, to say,
“you know, start by understanding that other side’s perspective”—You’re going to look at me like, “you’re crazy.”
And even if you don’t think I’m crazy, you’re going to try and do it, and let me tell you what I see happen a lot. People try to understand the other side and two minutes later they say, “Oh no, I understand your perspective, but you’re just wrong!”
It’s not a two minute conversation. It’s at least a half hour to an hour.
It’s not, “Yeah, I get it.”
It’s, “No, I don’t get it. Help me understand it. Tell me more. Talk to me.”
That’s the kind of conversation we want, whether it’s in the political sphere or whether it is, you know, an individual negotiating with their spouse.
The moment anybody—with even the most sacred beliefs—starts to feel heard and valued, their arms are going to uncross, they’re going to lean forward and they’re going to say “you get it.” Now the danger is they might then say “so why don’t you come to my side?” — ha ha! But that’s okay. You’ve moved forward. They feel heard. The next most important piece then is to say, “And just as you have your perspective, I have mine. I have my own sacred values. Would you be open to listening to me and to my perspective? I understand we are coming from”—notice the next word. It’s not, “But you’re wrong!”, you know. And that’s how most of our conversations take place. You look at the political sphere today: “I understand, but…”
I was recently talking with a congressperson. He said, “Look, I went and I talked to a whole group of constituents about this one particular issue, and then I said ‘I understand your perspective,’” which was different than his.
And after he explained why he understood, all of a sudden two minutes later he said, “But.”
And I said to him, “Boy, you lost that whole set of constituents right now. They don’t feel appreciated.”
You want to say, “And.”
“I hear where you’re coming from, and I see the value in your perspective. And I’m letting you know.” That can start to break through the walls of the sacred. Once the other side feels truly heard and understood, now they’re much more likely to listen to you. And you might start sharing a little bit about your own perspectives. And instead of saying, “Do you get where I’m coming from,” you can say, “What do you hear me saying?”
And simply by asking that question, "What do you hear me saying?”, it forces the other almost to empathize with your perspective, at least to try and take that stance of understanding. Now success for the other side is accurately reflecting back what you said. Failure is the failure to actually have listened, which allows you to then correct.
“So what do you hear me saying? I’m not sure I’m being clear about why I believe in this candidate and what they stand for. What do you hear me saying?”
So I think step one is for each side to truly understand in a really real way that other side’s perspective.
And it’s true, it’s not just one side understanding the other. Each side has to work to understand the other’s perspective.
Now this can easily turn into a fire when one side says, “You know, you’re crazy. I can’t believe you are my relative—you’re my son, my daughter… Oh, I... Boy, you know, I didn’t raise you the way I wanted to raise you. Your value systems are different than the way I thought they should be. You are wrong for believing what you believe.”
Now that moment in time, that’s the critical moment.
Are you going to respond at that point in time, when the other side is attacking your belief systems, by saying, “F you, no, it’s your fault! You’re wrong!”
Or at that point in time are you going to say, “You know what? Help me understand more.”
And that might seem soft and weak. It is the toughest and hardest thing to do. I’ve worked with hostage negotiators, with crisis negotiators in situations of war. This is what moves things forward. That ability to deeply listen to the other side even when they’re throwing that toxic energy at you.
You don’t need to absorb it all. You don’t need to sort of swallow all that negative energy. My advice is just let that negative energy fly right by you, hit the wall behind you.
You’re listening for the message. You are holding onto the meaning that they’re sharing, but you’re not going to let their approach, their adversarial approach to this conversation dominate the framing of how you’re going to have a conversation.
So people say “listen,” and listening is the hardest thing in the world to do, you know.
When it comes to emotionally charged conflicts, why is it so hard to listen? Because my identity is feeling threatened. You’re not just attacking some cerebral ideas I have. You are attacking my value system, my... what I believe represents the core safety of my family, of myself. The meaning I bring to life.
And once you attack that, oh, it’s really hard not to have that snake’s head, you know, go and bite off your head.
Another tool that you can use in a conflict situation is to ask advice. The moment you find yourself in conflict with the other side don’t entrench yourself in your position: “This is my position. What’s your position on healthcare?” Boy, that’s going to get you nowhere except toward impasse and gridlock.
Instead ask, “What’s your advice? Look, you know more about the other side’s perspective than I do. I know more about mine. What’s your advice on how we might work most effectively together? What’s your advice on some policies that might address your interests and maybe some of my constituent's interest as well?” The moment you ask advice it almost automatically invites the other person from that role of adversary into the role of colleague.