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November 15, 2010

Conflict resolution

Essentially, there are three parts to the resolution of conflict:

  1. I have my story, which you need to understand;
  2. You have your story, which I need to understand;
  3. Both of us need to ask serious questions to probe the depth of each other’s thoughts, actions, and desires. Each of us needs to accept a challenge as to whether the answer we hold is really the best or the only good one.

Mediation is asking a third party to come in and make sure that we are able to take all three steps. Simple as they are, how could we need help?

Because thoughts like this interfere just with the first two steps:

  1. You already think you understand my story and act bored when I tell it. It makes me so mad I can’t even focus on what you might need to know. I just want to slap you.
  2. I don’t think I “have a story.” I have principles which I have thought through very carefully, and I think any rational person would accept them if he just listened instead of crawling around inside his own head.
  3. I am not curious about your thoughts; I don’t care why you have your silly ideas. When I listen, I am waiting until you are done so I can say, “I listened. And I still think you’re wrong.”
  4. Now that you have listened, I am sure you only have to think it over a bit to see that I am right. I don’t need to hear your side.

If you want to change another person’s ideas, the first thing you have to do is find out what they are. In order to do this, you have to stop believing that you already know. Probably you don’t. Probably you know part of others’ thoughts, but not all of them. It is insulting to tell someone that you don’t need to hear his or her thoughts. If it is really true, then maybe this is not an important friendship after all. In that case, mediation cannot help you.

But think: God knew us perfectly, and yet Jesus was born and lived in poverty among us for 33 years. Surely God always knew us, but would we have believed it? The history of world religions says, “No.” Few people come to trust a God whose only home is in heaven. Well, hey! Can we can afford a tiny proportion of our time to be like Jesus and draw near to people whose ideas matter to them?

Usually, it’s not enough to find out the last conclusion of their thought process; it often means discovering the long path that led to that conclusion. Walk along that path. Notice, perhaps, the place where you would have taken a different turn. Notice it, but keep your mouth shut: keep walking, keep listening. If you ask questions, they are only for clarity. If you repeat what you understand, it is only to make sure you understood. A mediator can help you remember to stay in listener mode.

Both sides listen

Sometimes, a person is so convinced of his own right that as soon as you really listen, he assumes he has won your assent. He doesn’t remember that he has to listen as well. A mediator reminds him that now it’s your turn to bend his ear.

When you do speak, it may help to mention whether you have always thought as you do. By what journey did you arrive where you are? Was it in your mother’s milk, or was it recent in coming? It is possible that part of the reason for your position is that someone on “the other side” was unkind or foolish in some obvious way, “and I swore to myself that I would never be like that.” This is an important fact; try to say it in a way that shows the seriousness of your position without making an accusation of it. A mediator can help you.

Serious questions?

After listening, ask and weigh serious questions seriously:

  1. You remember you said that you turned left at such and such a point. But could you have just made a detour and then continued straight?
  2. I see your position, and I respect it. But I do not hold it. Is it so important to you that I hold it?
  3. You gave three steps in the development of your thought. I think I understand all three as steps, but #2 seems like it could have gone another way.
  4. You listed several people who are commonly admired and who believe as you do. I too have people I admire in my corner. I hesitate to name them, because you might think less of them, but they are in my heart all the time. I can never repudiate them. Holy names are a consideration; but is it really fair to weigh names?

It is impossible to list questions in the abstract – a “serious general purpose question” is probably a contradiction in terms. But the questions are there. This is very important.

Old conflicts with new applications

I often think of these matters when I am studying the history of science. In the time of Galileo, the most famous Copernican was Giordano Bruno. He was merely famous; he was not a great scientist, but traveled a lot and he had a prodigious memory and he had some clever ideas about the use of memory. People were fascinated. He was also a heretic, in the plain sense of denying the uniqueness of Jesus, and one country after another, Protestant as well as Catholic, threw him out.

It was easy in those days to say, “No, I will never be a Copernican like Giordano Bruno. The Bible says the sun rises, and that’s good enough for me. What does it matter anyway?”

We cannot always see what will matter. Not only space travel, but ordinary weather understanding depends on ideas about gravity and motion that had to imply the complex motions of the earth. Truth always matters, often in unexpected ways. We don’t want to be like Bruno; but in the end, there were actually lots of other Copernicans who resented being lumped with him and whose thoughts were less freely expressed for fear of being so considered.

It set things back.

My hero from this time (besides Galileo) is St. Robert Bellarmine. This doctor of the Church thought Galileo was wrong, and while he stated that the Church would be able and willing to reinterpret those scriptures (about sunrise, for example) which were naturally taken literally in those days, it would happen only if Galileo could produce proof. Galileo had the makings of a proof, but it was not possible to offer it. (His thoughts were not accessible to everyone.) Instead he offered something rather weak, but easier to follow. It was not a proof. The proof that would be clear to everyone was 150 years away, but the acceptance of Galileo was immediate throughout Europe, and Newton built on him within the next generation.

But on the other hand, Bellarmine knew that Galileo loved the Church, and that he was honest. As long as he lived, he made sure that nobody harmed Galileo, and it was only upon his death that Galileo was exposed to the anger of various men who had envied him for years but could not elbow past Cardinal Bellarmine.

It’s interesting. Bellarmine, doctor of the Church, was wrong about the motions of the planets, but he was just.

St. Robert, pray for us.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 5:28 am

    Please spell out the outcomes of conflict resolution…how does it end?


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