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