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2018-04-11 / Blogs

Want to Help the World? Resolve Conflicts

By Lee H. Hamilton

(04/16/18) In a world riven by tension, there’s one skill that stands above all others: the ability to resolve conflict. It is the paramount challenge of our time.

I’ve seen first-hand its importance: in Congress as part of a legislative process that, at least at the time, was mostly focused on resolving differences, and as co-chair of two key national committees that were constituted along partisan lines — the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group. Here’s what I’ve learned.

First, to resolve conflict, you have to be committed to doing just that. When the 9/11 Commission met — at a time when many people just wanted to assign blame for the attacks on our country — we were often encouraged to take a confrontational approach by issuing hundreds of subpoenas that would force officials to testify and to turn over documents. We rejected that approach. There’s an old saying, “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.” That was our experience.

There’s another key to resolving conflict: you start with facts. Focusing on them helps the various parties — which are sometimes very far apart ideologically — find some common ground and develop a relationship that permits them to go forward.

Building on that start, it’s crucial to develop collegiality. Because if you’re serious about resolving conflicts, you’ll be spending a lot of time with the people you’re dealing with — good communication is crucial. This does not just involve talking. It means listening, asking questions, weighing arguments and options, and probing together whether disagreements can be resolved.

Compromise is a dirty word for many people, but it’s very hard to resolve conflicts without it. Trying to understand other participants’ problems — and then trying to let everybody leave having gained something — can make the difference between success and failure.

Finally, it’s important to make sure to include all the parties to a conflict and to address all the core issues — and when in doubt it’s better to include than exclude. For a resolution to be sustainable, the key players have to be brought into the process and the core issues considered.

All of this takes skill, patience and understanding. And these attributes are not as common as they should be. But developing them is worth the effort. Because if you look around, the need for them does not appear to be going away.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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