Can We Talk? Should We?

In our field, we specialize in facilitating conversations between people who think differently about things. But even our field has been divided by the question of whether we can or should converse with people who hold particular views. Consider this graphic:

(HT to Above the Law. You can click on it to make it bigger.) My first reaction to this graphic was to think that some people are lucky when it comes to their relationships. If you have friends and family members who voted the same as you in 2016, who do not hold views you find repugnant, or who do not do things you consider bad, then you are lucky. For the rest of us, we have to figure out what it means to love someone who does not believe/do what we think are the right things to believe/do.

Along these lines, recent discussions on the listserv and elsewhere have raised the issue of whether there are some things that we can’t or shouldn’t talk about, because doing so feels like it gives “airtime” or “legitimacy” to particular positions and beliefs. As a strategic and moral matter, then, it may make sense not to entertain such conversations. But many of us specifically teach that listening is not agreeing, that exclusion just exacerbates conflict, and that no person is reducible to his or her worst belief or action. How do we reconcile these tenets with our understandable interests in maintaining our own moral center, not promulgating false equivalencies, and promoting inclusive, respectful civil discourse?

This is not to say that this is an easy or obvious choice. Instead, I’m trying to acknowledge how painfully difficult this situation is, inside and outside our field.

ADR is especially vulnerable to this tension in part because ADR practices generally do not seek out or endorse any one version of the truth. With the exception of arbitration, ADR does not have a formal fact-finding process or a decisionmaker empowered to impose the official story of what happened and what it means. Participants in alternative processes, such as mediations or negotiations or facilitated conversations, share their views but do not present evidence that conforms to particular rules or is independently assessed by the fact-finder. Instead, we assume as a default that everyone’s arguments have at least some credence simply because they are the person’s beliefs, reflective in some way of that person’s experiences and constitutive discourses. We scale down the dispute to the particulars of the situation and resist the tendency to extrapolate outward from the details to more general conclusions about people and conflict. This can be frustrating in some cases, because the differences are so profound and seem so significant that we want more opportunities to cross-examine and to appeal to the judgment of the community. Additionally, we sometimes want to have the ability to use the dispute to make larger claims about what is important and right. But conventional ADR does not offer these opportunities.

This is not to say that in ADR it doesn’t matter what people say, what really happened, or which arguments are better, more well-supported, correct, morally defensible, and so on. It is simply a recognition that each side’s view is informed by particular factors (assumptions, experience, data, memory, personality, agendas, emotion, and so on) that have created a “truth” for that person. The question becomes whether and how we use ADR methods and mindset when addressing these kinds of significant divides around truth.

4 thoughts on “Can We Talk? Should We?”

  1. Yes, indeed. Many of us have to find ways with loved ones and with students to navigate these tensions.

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