Fighting is the easy way out. It saves us from the humility of seeking forgiveness. It saves us from accepting any responsibility. It saves us from the modesty required of accountability and reconciliation. It saves us from the difficult, bruising work of finding a way forward together despite our differences. Isn’t it time to lower our guard?

It is easier to define ourselves by what and who we are against. This is what I find is saddening, and maddening, about these times.

It is too easy to define ourselves by what and who we are against.

Here’s a silly but illustrative example: I’m an Iowa native who grew up about 45 miles from Iowa City, the home of the University of Iowa and Iowa Hawkeye sports. I am a lifelong fan of the Haweyes and the Big 10 conference (though I now live in Maryland and my sport’s soul is trapped in Terrapin (Terps…”Fear the Turtle” country). Despite the team rivalries in the conference there is one thing that unites fans of all Big 10 teams, save one: We hate any Ohio State Buckeyes team. I have no rational explanation for this. I just know it makes our day brighter when the Buckeye’s lose in any sport. This is not to say Ohio State isn’t a good school where people get a very good education…probably. 🙂

It’s only sports, right? Those of us who are not Ohio State fans have a little more fun following our teams because we are united as one against the Buckeyes. There are many things in life where we square off against one another for fun based on preferences that don’t actually matter to the universe, regardless of how passionate we may be: Starbucks v. Dunkin; McDonald’s v. Burger King; Netflix v. Prime Video; pilates v. yoga; Samsung v. iPhone; Subaru v. any other car on the road, but especially BMWs; etc.

Squaring off does matter on those things that have an impact on others. Take, for example, the public health debate about vaccination; gun rights v. gun violence; inclusion v. exclusion of others who are not just like us; freedom of the press v. suppression of “fake news;” death with dignity v. “death panels,” just to name a few. Once we take a position, we tend to hang out, in person and online, exclusively with those who fuel and justify our opinions, ideologies, and perspectives. We believe we have a clear view of the world. We have certainty because, hey, we all agree in this group don’t we? In fact, within our groups we have squared off against any “other” who does not fit with us.

Can we find the courage to lower our guard enough to engage one another again?

Therein lies the problem. We rarely try to engage with the “other” who holds an opposing idea or position. Well, unless it is to try to win them over or, at least, to give ’em a good ideological whoopin’. It is easier to stay inside our group and fight the enemy outside our walls than to meet our opposition and risk having a change of perspective.

Several years ago I undertook a research project for my doctoral dissertation on a sensitive ideological issue (sex education) within American society. My research required me to find and interview people who passionately held opposing positions on the issue. Of course, I would have to personally engage with people who held views very different from my own. It became one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my life.

The research did earn me my doctorate. What I discovered in doing the research was even better. I discovered the power of genuine engagement and authenticity. When I approached people with humility and a true desire to hear from them and dialogue with them, we established a baseline of trust, and we heard and learned from each other.

This research experience taught me several important things about controversy management and conflict transformation. In 2014 I used the research to create a training event designed to help opposing sides in an ideological conflict engage one another more productively. Now, in 2019, we are even more polarized than we were then. We struggle to speak to one another and, even more, to hear one another from opposite sides of our ideological divides, including (especially?) on political issues. Recently, even on Facebook where personal debate on difficult issues had been common, it seems people have given up and retreated to the comfort and safety of their groups. To be clear, I’m not recommending Facebook, or social media more generally, for any kind of meaningful discussion; I’m only calling out the change.

Over the Winter I dusted off that training event, updated it, and am making it available again, but with a difference. To support the restoration of civil discourse and dialogue in American society, I’m making it available to organizations at a reduced price that includes my travel costs. I know this is a very small effort in such a large country. Nonetheless, I’m hoping people will use the event in their organizations or communities to accelerate dialogue on the issues that are most divisive for them.

To learn more about Strategic Controversy Management: Managing Controversy and Transforming Conflict in Organizational and Community Change, download this flyer. Take a look and if you think it could help people in your organization or community take their gloves off and reconnect as colleagues and neighbors again, send me an email at twklaus@tenaciouschange.us or text me at 240-319-8525. I’ll be in touch to set up a time to talk.

Be Greater, Do Good, Everyday, and remember to lower your guard as you Change Forward,

Tom Klaus