Will anyone listen?

Conflict is an inevitable part of life. You may try to avoid it or withdraw from it when it arises, but when you do, your needs will not be addressed. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It can spark creative thinking, help people get to know each other better, and solve problems. Whether conflict is good or bad depends on how it is managed.

The three commonly described outcomes to a dispute are the win/win, where both sides end up relatively happy, the win/lose, where one side gets most of what it wants at the expense of the other side, and the lose/lose, when the conflict itself results in neither side being satisfied. Some couples, when they divorce, may call this last outcome the lose/lose/win, where they lose everything, but both lawyers win.

How parties approach a conflict affects the outcome. When both parties respect their opponents and are willing to accept the other party’s interests and needs, collaboration can be the strategy employed to manage their differences. The outcome of collaboration is most likely to be positive. People can think creatively under these circumstances and generate new ideas to resolve differences. The relationship may grow stronger as a result. People are more willing to be forthright when they trust each other and when they know the other party is not trying to take advantage of their honesty and willingness to share information. Making it past disagreements enhances trust.

When one or both parties have no respect for the other side and do not care how the decision will affect anyone but themselves, then the win/lose outcome and the lose/lose outcome are likely. In these circumstances, people are often deceptive. They hide their true intentions. They assume the other side will do whatever it can to win. People then bluff or use force to get what they want. Trust is gone. The relationship decays.

I once worked for Waldenbooks. This company was a bookstore chain whose stores were generally located in shopping malls. Its biggest competitor was B. Daltons. Neither store exists today. These two chains did not like each other. Upper management, according to middle management, would build a store in a mall where the competitor was, knowing that the area could not support two bookstores just to keep the other chain from making a profit at that store. The new store would lose money too, but the strategy was to do whatever it could to hurt the other chain’s bottom line. Healthy competition may be fine, but this was a lose/lose strategy. The payoff for the one chain would only come if the other chain was put out of business. Well, both chains got their wish. They were too busy fighting each other to realize that the market was changing around them.

Relationships often start with partners who respect each other and want to collaborate. They don’t see conflict as a battle to be won at all costs. But, when one side takes a shortcut and resorts to power or fails to respect the other person’s rights, the other side may react in the same way. The relationship deteriorates and the conflict becomes bitter. No one listens. No one cares. Force is all that is left.

There is often a moment when one or both sides realize that the dispute has escalated to the point that it has generated widespread tensions that are nearly impossible to untangle. The conflict has become personal. At that moment, the two parties need to step back from the conflict and assess what’s happening. They need to think about the process and where it is heading. Will they allow the downhill slide to continue? Both sides know that once upon a time, they got along and worked through their disputes civilly. They know they have common interests. But, the apparent differences, at that critical moment, have become the focal point. If the slide is allowed to continue, the similarities once shared are reimagined as being unimportant, illusory, or forgettable.

We may be witnessing that moment in history when the two sides in Congress are at the point of no return. There is little respect for the opposition. Trust is gone. The common good is forgotten. Power is what’s left. It looks like the slide will continue if no one steps back and thinks about where they are heading. Without that reflection, we’ll have win/lose or lose/lose politics for quite some time in Washington, D.C. There is a chance that the parties will recognize that there is common ground and work together, but the signs indicate that the ongoing conflicts won’t be managed well. Winning will be the only consideration and using power to one’s advantage, no matter what the cost, will be the Republican and Democratic strategies.

It’s sad to see the Senate, what’s been called the greatest deliberative body in history, become more like a school yard brawl. What kind of creative thinking, what kind of shock, what kind of resuscitation is necessary to bring this body back to life?

Our country’s current political system reminds me of an amusement park. The senators and members of the house are like the barkers on the midway, doing their best to strip patrons of their cash. What politicians have been saying reminds me of the house of mirrors with all of its distortions of reality. The policy changes are comparable to the carnival rides. The public has had its share of scary rides these past few weeks. Fast changes of direction. Slow climbs followed by fast downhills. Sideways turns and upside down travel. However, the new win/lose politics has not been amusing. The resulting fear and chaos has diminished the people’s trust in the system and weakened our bonds with one another.

The two political parties may be at the point of no return. If so, the slide will continue and the landing will be painful. The “victory” will be shallow, when the costs are too high. Lose/lose.

The main question is: Are the people (who elected officials are supposed to represent) too divided to work together? Do the people on both sides want victory at all costs? Will the people realize that they are heading toward a lose/lose outcome and start listening to each other once again?

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