In her book, Common Ground on Hostile Turf, Lucy Moore shows that resolution of conflict depends more on the sharing of personal stories than on the facts, legal arguments, or moral claims of the parties.
Living in Santa Fe, Lucy Moore served for decades as a mediator in southwestern land, water, and waste arguments. With a profound sympathy as well as professional analysis, she offers ten cases in which the opposing parties either devised a resolution, or failed to do so, depending on whether they had trust or grew into trust by sharing personal histories, feelings, and preferences.
Solution or resolution?
A solution is any action that will terminate a conflict. It’s a decision that declares a winner even if the cost hurts all parties. In contrast, a resolution provides a tolerable outcome for all parties. Think of the biblical story of Solomon and the divided baby. Although she doesn’t make this claim, I noted that Lucy’s stories of developing a resolution apply to many of the social tensions in modern America, including conflicts in the Congress.
Many of our political and social arguments are about resource management—or resource division. How to slice the pie. That’s true whether the pie is global climate or low-cost housing proposed for redevelopment into luxury office buildings. Sometimes, those who have the power take the pie. But at other times, multiple sides attempt resolution, if only to prevent an arbitrary decision.
Although Moore’s own ten stories in this book bring the reader into empathy with land and water issues of the Southwest, the lessons are universal, lessons familiar to professionals who work with the conflicts in marriages, churches, schools, corporations, and governments. Moore shows how culture, historical events, sense of power, and personality affect negotiations. Trust and respect are possible among adversaries, but first each must come to understand the life and experiences underlying the opponent’s position. That understanding develops through each person’s telling his/her own story—how he came into the conflict, how he grew up, what children the person has, what experiences affected him most. Personal sharing creates vulnerability, and vulnerability generates trust. Trust might allow a resolution other than winning and losing.
In America, we often decide social issues by competition for political power, as though competition universally would generate optimal solutions. Power doesn’t resolve anything; it just generates injury until the weaker side collapses. Our courts, and now our federal government, operate on the assumption that an adversarial process will generate the best outcome. Issues can indeed be decided by a win/lose process, by manipulation of authority, but that doesn’t solve the underlying tensions. Solution without resolution will make worse the problems of climate, crowding, income disparity, water supply, resource exhaustion, and inner-city restlessness mentioned in previous posts. (See, for example, Blogs 25, 48, 18, 60, 61.)
In sports, competition between unequals makes a game with no purpose. When we speak in analogies, the proverbial apples versus oranges indicates an arbitrary comparison. Likewise in society, political competition cannot resolve the stresses between things that can’t be equated, like business versus climate, or water for agriculture versus industry and domestic necessities. These issues of justice and survival must be resolved by the processes Moore described, where stories are exchanged until distrust and old injuries are relieved by appreciation, willing cooperation, and shared vulnerability.
I’ve participated in task forces that failed to resolve questions of the state’s water budget or pollution control. I remember one monthly meeting when a politically powerful rancher, also a land developer, declared, “We’ve got to defeat the environmentalists!” However, water for environmental preservation (to avoid drying a river) wasn’t even on the agenda, and there was the only one member (myself) of the governor’s twelve-person water task force that represented environmental concerns. The gentleman continued, reporting his delight with news that a bird-lover in another state was killed by a falling tree while protesting timbering. We might have made more progress by sharing our personal stories, instead of the veiled epithets he offered me, and whatever he thought I offered him.
Instead of focusing on victory, those who resolve conflicts must tell stories about their homes, what they treasure most, the friends they relish, their worries, and what they would like to see when they look out on the world, even for their last time. Moore didn’t say it quite that way, but I think that statement captures her message. Before we can resolve hostile turf, we must find common ground.