Conflict and the Search for Common Ground

27 December, 2016

A med­i­ta­tion on the impor­tance of dialogue.

Jordan Elgrably

How we deal with con­flict shapes many of our rela­tion­ships. Near­ly all rela­tion­ships expe­ri­ence con­flict at one time or anoth­er, and some of us have an almost dai­ly diet of con­flict, depend­ing on our job descrip­tion or fam­i­ly life.

I think it’s safe to say that most peo­ple shy away from conflict—they can do with­out the stress, thank you very much. Some of us, on the oth­er hand, thrive on it. For me, there’s nev­er a dull moment at work, which con­sists of head­ing up The Markaz, a Mid­dle East­ern cul­tur­al cen­ter that brings togeth­er diverse groups that have expe­ri­enced con­flict for decades, even centuries—among them Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, Turks and Arme­ni­ans, and so forth.

A Cambridge cohort: Nazia Katun, Erica Kang, Jordan Elgrably, Paul Bourne, Sophia Horwich & Andrea Hodos.

My com­fort with con­flict has every­thing to do with cre­ative and crit­i­cal think­ing. If we don’t tack­le the chal­leng­ing issues before us, what is there left to dis­cuss? But deal­ing with con­flict need not nec­es­sar­i­ly be painful. With the right tools, con­flict can become our friend in the search for com­mon ground. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, while in high school or col­lege we learn the rudi­ments of debate, rarely do we learn the impor­tance of dia­logue and deep listening.

There’s com­pas­sion­ate or deep lis­ten­ing, where two peo­ple or two small groups take turns lis­ten­ing to each oth­er with­out inter­rup­tion, and then con­verse after­wards. This form of dia­logue “requires ques­tions which are non-adver­sar­i­al and lis­ten­ing which is non-judg­men­tal,” accord­ing to The Com­pas­sion­ate Lis­ten­ing Project

And there’s appre­cia­tive inquiry where one of the tech­niques requires you to atten­tive­ly lis­ten to the oth­er per­son tell her/his sto­ry with­out inter­rup­tion for sev­er­al min­utes. S/he then lis­tens to you describe your­self in sim­i­lar detail. At the con­clu­sion of this exer­cise, you’re required to repeat the oth­er per­son­’s nar­ra­tive, to describe them as ful­ly as you can.

This sum­mer, 26 strangers, most­ly Mus­lims and Jews, led by Dr. Patrice Brodeur, engaged in appre­cia­tive inquiry the first day of our arrival at a two-week inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence, orga­nized by the Ari­ane de Roth­schild Fel­low­ship. The Fel­low­ship pro­vides an inten­sive train­ing at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty in the UK, in which fel­lows study the fun­da­men­tals of inno­v­a­tive entre­pre­neur­ship, social sci­ences, and expe­ri­en­tial dialogue.

It’s fair to say that most of us were already expe­ri­enced lis­ten­ers, hav­ing used dia­logue in our work as non­prof­it activists and social entre­pre­neurs. Nev­er­the­less, it isn’t easy to put your­self in anoth­er per­son­’s shoes. And yet this kind of exer­cise will stretch you. It allows you to engage in what Emmanuel Kant called “enlarged men­tal­i­ty,” where you “stand up in the mind of the other.”

I think the rea­son I’ve long been drawn to con­flict and dia­logue is that I’m excit­ed about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of find­ing com­mon ground. I believe in the dig­ni­ty of the human spir­it, in the sheer abil­i­ty peo­ple have, at times, to express their high­er selves. In this way, you might say that con­flict is good. How else are we to grow, if we do not attempt to stretch our­selves? As the old say­ing goes, you learn more in ten days of adver­si­ty than in ten years of happiness.

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.

Compassionate listening