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Colliding Values: Dealing with Anger

Posted by thecastlegroup on October 8, 2010

Today, guest columnists Prof. Larry Susskind and Patrick Field (from Castle clients MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program and The Consensus Building Institute) write about the origins of public conflict and how to manage it.

 

Colliding Values: Dealing with Anger

Turn on the nightly news, pick up a newspaper or listen to your favorite radio station, and you’ll be bombarded with references to public anger: “The voters are angry.” “The Tea Party is speaking on behalf of the frustrated public.” “Partisan hostility is alive on Capitol Hill.” At The Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, we examine public anger and develop strategies to deal with it.

The public becomes especially angry when its beliefs have been ignored or ridiculed; this is because basic notions of self-worth are at stake. Values are not only about what we hold dear, but fundamentally about who we are. Debates involving values are not only about what we want, but also who we think we are and who we think “they” are in relation to us. Debates involving values upset our view of the world and ourselves.

In value-laden debates, to compromise or to accommodate neither advances one’s self-interest nor increases joint gains. Compromise, in its most pejorative sense, means abandoning deeply held beliefs, values or ideals. To negotiate with one’s values is to risk giving up one’s identity. Thus, such conflicts are intense.

Intense conflict begins when individuals feel threatened. The threat is perceived as an awful trade-off: either you survive or I do. In light of the perceived threat, distortions occur and over time individuals, groups or even nations begin to develop increasingly rigid explanations of their own actions and the actions of others. 

In order to maintain the integrity of our beliefs and our sense of self, we increasingly rely on stereotypes. As the process of demonization continues, the other side becomes “the enemy.” They are not only seen as different, but become dehumanized. Maintaining the conflict becomes central to each party’s identity. To maintain their own values, the groups in the conflict must keep the conflict alive. By continuing the conflict, each side encourages behavior in their adversaries that provides further evidence and incentive for continuing the conflict; identities have now become enmeshed in the ongoing feud.  

The good news is that conflicts that have reached this escalated stage can be resolved, or at least greatly reduced. At first, intervention can focus on an agreement on peripheral changes that does not eliminate the ongoing hostilities, but addresses specific problems. Next, we can introduce changes that alter some aspects of the ongoing relationship, but don’t challenge fundamental values, such as how the parties will relate to one another over time. The last step towards resolution is the most challenging, because we must answer difficult questions: How can we impact the fundamental identities that people hold dear? How can we change the way people view themselves in the context of this dispute?

At the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program we have developed a method called the Mutual Gains Approach that de-escalates even the most heated conflicts. We encourage leaders to respect differences, listen to people’s concerns and make decisions openly. 

Find out more about the The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program & The Consensus Building Institute’s intensive two-day executive education program on November 2, “Dealing with an Angry Public.” 

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