Polarization and Conflict

Posted on May 14th, 2012 by Patricia Viscomi

During recent months heated exchanges that have been highlighted in the media have led some to describe a “coarsening” of our national discourse. The conflicts seem to point to polarization that could make collaboration unachievable.

In Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Tim Flanagan and Craig Runde introduced the concept of “intensity levels” of conflict.  On the lower end differences and misunderstandings are part of our normal experience and can be overcome by taking time to listen carefully to one another.  When these are not managed they can grow into disagreements which require more effort to resolve.

When conflict is avoided or concerns of others are ignored, conflicts can rise to the level of discord.  At this level conflict spills over from the original issue and begins to affect other interactions.  If this continues, it can turn into polarization which is characterized by severe negative emotions and behaviors and little hope of reconciliation.  At that point people are no longer willing to listen to understand one another.  Relationships are broken.

Has the country reached the polarization level?  The answer is not an easy one.  A large part of the population is still quite pragmatic and yearns for solutions to their real life problems more than ideological victories.  At the same time growing numbers of people, stressed by economic and social factors, are taking more strident stands.  The problem is not that they have strong feelings about issues, but rather that they are often unwilling to listen to those who have different views about these issues.  Differences are seen in terms of  a zero sum game – one side wins and one side loses.  So everyone gets busy trying to win.  This may include trying to disparage the other side’s position.  It rarely includes trying to understand it.

The media often focuses on the more sensationalized aspects of the conflicts which tends to make people dig in even harder.  Politicians often play into the conflicts and try to use partisan approaches to score points rather than find common ground.

At the same time there are many of all political persuasions who still seek collaborative solutions.  They recognize that there is more to gain from working together to find creative solutions to the issues raised by our differences.

Recognize common interests.  Rigorously debate issues of difference.  Develop creative solutions.  These approaches have served the country well for over 200 years.  They can serve us just as well today.

Craig Runde and Patricia Viscomi

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