Building bridges between opposing groups takes commitment by both groups to take the time needed to build the trust that is key to humanizing the other group. One of the first steps in intentional trust-building that enables dialogue to occur is to learn about the interests that the other group holds instead of focusing on their stated positions. Positions are conclusions and are usually non-negotiable. Behind the positions are the reasons, the interests that lead us to our position. The first part of getting people to move from shouting their positions to dialoguing about their interests is to get them to see the difference between positions and interests.
An illustration of the difference between positions and interests is from Gil Rendle, a congregational consultant who has worked with Protestant, Catholic and Jewish systems around the world and author of “Quietly Courageous.” In a video posted on YouTube (https://youtu.be/D8ZGS6Dpl9g), Rendle relates the story of two people working separately on two different projects while seated at the same table in the library. One person opens the window next to the table and then a little later the other person closes the window. Those two people have claimed their respective positions (You could say it’s an open and shut case). A little while later, the first person opens the window up half as far as the first time. What do you think happens? Most would say that the second person would close it a quarter of the way — a nice compromise. But a quarter open window is still an open window, and the second person’s position is that the window should be closed, so the person closes the window the whole way which makes the first person upset.
The librarian observing what has transpired, talks with the first person about why he wants the window open. He tells her that he’s got a very important project due tomorrow and the warm stuffy room is making him so drowsy he can’t stay awake to finish the project. He needs some fresh air. The librarian now knows about the interests of the first person.
The librarian then talks with the second person about why he wants the window closed. He tells her about the very important project he’s working on that involves all these papers spread over the table. When the window is open, the breeze blows the papers around, so he loses time working on the project because he has to re-organize all the papers. Now the librarian knows the interests behind the second person’s position. Knowing the interests provides opportunities to come up with other options: opening the window from the top, having the second person move to a table that is not next to the window, offering coffee to the first person, turning on the AC, etc.
Rendle concludes the video with, “It’s when we get to the interests, and we begin to understand what’s important to one another, that we enter into a much deeper conversation that allows us to find a way forward together. When we speak only in conclusions, when we speak only in our positions, we only know that we can’t change each other. But when we begin to explore what’s behind it, what’s important to us, the Spirit moves.”
That video is part of the United Methodist “Courageous Conversations” curriculum that was developed for churches and secular groups to encourage opposing groups to stay at the table when anxiety and emotional turmoil is painful. The introductory lesson in a courageous conversation is to build relationships which “might seem like a lot of additional work but your effort will be highly rewarded.” Intentionality and time is required for participants to come to the table in postures of learning instead of combat. Unfortunately, that curriculum was not used by delegates at the recent United Methodist General Conference called to settle the question of inclusion of LGBTQ persons. With that general conference we saw what happens when people only state their positions instead of taking the time to learn about the interests that the other side holds.
May we do a better job and make better decisions.
Nick Strobel is a professor of astronomy at Bakersfield College and writer of the bimonthly star-gazing column. He can be reached at Lnstrobel@earthlink.net.