Every year I train hundreds of professionals and university students on what I call “conflict competence,” or how to accept, embrace and skillfully navigate conflict. After taking my classes, students (most of whom are well into their professional careers) commonly say things such as, “Everyone needs to learn these skills!” and “Why did I not learn these things decades ago?”
Many former students have contacted me years later to tell me how impactful the coursework continues to be on their work and everyday life.
I felt very much the same when I was first exposed to conflict resolution training as a graduate student. From that moment on, I have been on a mission to help other people gain the awareness and skills they need to effectively work through differences to find solutions to big societal challenges. That calling underpins my work with the Wallace Stegner Center Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program, and it has become all the more urgent in the midst of increasing political polarization and social divisiveness.
Hence, I was thrilled to see Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent announcement of the National Governors Association “Disagree Better” Initiative, which aims to help Americans move past polarization and engage in conflict in a more healthy way. I am grateful that someone in high-level political office is trying to make progress on this important issue, and I am excited to see Utah’s governor taking the lead in this effort.
Here are a few insights based on my decades of work and research in the area of conflict resolution and collaboration that I hope will help Gov. Cox and the National Governors Association succeed in their new initiative.
Teach people to make conflict productive
If we want to help people disagree better, we need to be mindful of the fact that most of us are taught explicitly or implicitly from an early age that conflict is bad and to be avoided, and few of us have been taught the awareness and skills needed to productively navigate conflict. As a result, most people get emotionally dysregulated when they encounter differences of perspectives, needs or wants around things that really matter to them. That dysregulation sets off a chain of unproductive and potentially destructive dynamics, including a tendency to deal with conflict by avoiding, accommodating or attacking. Such behaviors predictably lead to poor results, reinforcing the idea that conflict is bad, and thereby continuing the vicious, negative cycle of destructive conflict.
To help people disagree better, we need to not just encourage people to do so; we need to teach them how to accept, embrace and productively work through conflict. That means teaching them how to maintain or return to a calm, regulated emotional state when navigating conflict; how to approach conflict with compassion and curiosity; how to focus on interests and not get stuck on positions; and how to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes. I encourage readers who want to learn more about making conflict productive, and not destructive, to check out my recent articles on the EDR Blog.
Since it is much easier and more effective to teach people these concepts early in their lives, we need to integrate conflict competency into K-12 education. Additionally, we need to expose parents to these ideas, so they can practice these skills with their kids.
Be the example
To create widespread change, we also need models for how to effectively and productively work across differences. We need the people who are out front — such as elected and appointed officials, celebrities, heads of organizations, and other public figures — to believe in and value the power of productively working through conflict and to model effective ways of doing so for the rest of us. Unfortunately, we typically see people in the limelight modeling the total opposite instead.
We also need institutions and governance systems that are designed to help people surface and work through conflict in productive ways. There is a huge opportunity, and a need, to make our institutions more conflict competent.
We have our work cut out for us if we want to help our country get beyond polarization and divisiveness–and to instead disagree better. I commend Gov. Cox and the National Governors Association’s’ Disagree Better Initiative for opening this important conversation.
I hope the Initiative will lean on and work with the many people, organizations, and resources across the country, such as the EDR Program here in Utah, that are eager and ready to help with this.
If we can learn to “disagree better,” we can work together to create a better today and tomorrow.
Danya Rumore, Ph.D, is a professor of law and planning and the Director of The Wallace Stegner Center Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.