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Become a better angel

Three Approaches to Conflict

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November 08, 2017

By David Blankenhorn

Nowhere is the goal of Better Angels better expressed than in the phrase the founders chose for our national motto, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” It tells us that people from many and often conflicting backgrounds and views can live on this continent in conditions of unprecedented freedom while also thriving together as one people. It tells us neither to deny nor inflame our differences, but instead to seek to reconcile them at higher levels in order to form what our Constitution calls “a more perfect Union.”

Implicit in the founders’ vision is a theory of conflict. It seems that there are three basic approaches to conflict, which we can also think of as three stages, from simplest and worst to hardest and best.

  • In the first approach or stage, we submit to conflict. Conflict is in charge. Some people in this stage ignore conflict, failing to acknowledge that it exists. Others internalize conflict and thus make conflict their cause, becoming both its relentless advocate as well as its captive. Either way, polarization is perpetuated, as conflict dominates society rather than the other way around. Tragically, this simplest and worst approach to dealing with conflict has increasingly become America’s approach.

  • A second approach is when we seek to clarify and manage conflict. By trying to assume good faith in our adversaries and trying to correct partial understandings and false stereotypes, we aim in this stage to achieve actual rather than inflated disagreement. This better and more difficult approach to conflict requires both civility in our treatment of one another and a willingness to acknowledge areas of common ground. At least as importantly, insofar as we want conflict not only clarified, but also managed for the good of society, this approach also requires the capacity for negotiation, compromise, and mutual accommodation.

  • A third approach is when we seek to transform conflict. In this approach, we do not avoid or deny conflict. Nor do we become its servant and enabler. Nor do we stop and declare victory once we have understood conflict accurately by using the tools of reason and managed it pragmatically by using the tools of compromise. In this hardest and yet arguably most fruitful way of dealing with conflict, we try to go beyond polarization and beyond compromise, toward a higher synthesis that reflects shared values and incorporates what is valid and useful on both sides. The result is a creative new framing, a new place in the conversation.

The founders feared that the first approach to conflict would destroy the nation. (In 1861-65, it almost did.) They ordained and established the U.S. Constitution to embody the second approach. And they left us many words and deeds, including the ideal of E pluribus unum, to help us aspire to the third approach.

Today, these priorities guide us at Better Angels. We want to depolarize our society. We want to achieve actual disagreement and recover the practices of compromise. And we want, as often as we can, to transform conflict by going forward together.