Monday, August 21, 2006

The solution to world peace? Ask your spouse.

As a relatively apolitical communications skills author and trainer, one thing sticks out for me in the latest Mideast conflict: how everyone talks past each other and can’t acknowledge the other person’s agenda.

If I’m to believe what I hear in the media, you have a group of insurgents – no, make that freedom fighters – no, make that scummy terrorists – pitted against a government that is defending itself … or overreacting … or wiping out the scourge of terrorism … or invading a sovereign country. And as I listen to this endless parade of partisan pundits, I have one question for all of them.

How did your last argument with your spouse or partner turn out?

When you argue with someone close to you, you try to convince them how wrong they are. Right? And, let me guess – you both get absolutely nowhere until at least one of you starts acknowledging the other person. And then, only when you actually start engaging each other, can you find a way to settle your differences and move on.

I teach workshops on this all the time to people who work with customers. When a customer tells you that your product stinks and that you’re an idiot, most of us defend ourselves – at which point things usually go completely down the tubes. But when you learn the mechanics of acknowledging other people with statements like, “I can tell you’re really frustrated about this,” or “Let’s explore what options we have from here,” magic starts to happen. It’s all simple behavioral psychology.

So now, I turn on the television and hear Jews – whom I like a great deal – and Arabs – whom I also like a great deal – saying things to each other that would never, ever work back home in their own bedrooms. And it would be comical to watch if it wasn’t for so many people getting hurt, killed and made homeless on both sides in the process.

We’ve been here before, of course. I grew up in a Cold War world of “commies” who “hated freedom” and “only understood force.” But then we all started talking, and now suddenly it’s no big deal to visit these places – when I went to China soon after the “Iron Curtain” opened up in the 1980s, I was almost surprised to find myself surrounded by very nice people who didn’t eat their young. And long before that we dealt with another insurgent group who burned ships, incited mob violence, disregarded the conventions of warfare, and were publicly committed to the violent overthrow of the government – but then we settled our differences, and the faces of those people now adorn our currency.

So how will this conflict end? I don’t know. People smarter than me are going to have to figure it out. If it were up to me, I’d probably invite them all over for a barbeque and get them talking – and I’d tell them to bring their spouses. What do you think?

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