Resolving Conflict by Holding the Tension of Paradox

“Holding the tension of paradox” is a critical thinking practice where space is created to safely discuss two or more contradicting points of view. This problem-solving practice may lead to more robust, agreeable and sustainable solutions. It requires us to seek to understand and learn from what we may initially perceive as flawed or wrong thinking.

The challenge is most of us like to be right and may not want to listen to another’s viewpoint. We don’t always consider that our ‘facts’ may be wrong.

I recently experienced an unhealthy debate with a friend that quickly escalated and like times before, almost ruined our friendship. Thankfully, we both care about one another and appreciate the fact that we can venture off into ‘dangerous’ territory and then learn from it. During our most recent interaction, there was a lesson I will never forget.

My way of thinking is informed by my lived experiences and data I find that supports my beliefs or what I consider to be ‘facts’ — my truth — not THE truth. This is also an example of confirmation bias. He reminded me that the facts I was presenting were based on reinforcing evidence I found on the internet. The challenge is that regardless of our point of view, if we use the internet or social media to reinforce our facts, either side could be easily validated through the world wide web. Who is right?

Why is this important to consider?

We live in a world of ‘alternative facts’ (a fact presented as true, but may be false or misleading). A fact is something that is proven, void of any bias. For example, the earth is round, not flat – that is a proven fact and there is no room for interpretation. The world of alternative facts can lead to fixed ways of thinking and an “us” versus “them” mentality. This not only increases unhealthy conflict in organizations, it creates a divide in relationships, communities and countries.  The cause of climate change is a clear example of this. Two opposing points of view is doing nothing in curbing climate change in a united way.

There are countless examples where divided thinking is increasing fear of conflict, unhealthy conflict and the dehumanization of others. Social media has accelerated the ripple effect of points of view and has led to the bandwagon effect, more polarized thinking and what we now know as ‘cancel culture’.

Try this to demonstrate the tension of paradox:

Think about a colleague, political leader or family member you may have a different of view on. Write two lists: 1) What you don’t like about their point of view, and 2) Why they may have that point of view. The latter may be more difficult to answer and it forces you to consider that most of us have good intentions. What do we tend to focus on?

What can we learn?

Opposing viewpoints are natural and normal. Different ways of thinking leads to progression and a greater ability to find creative solutions. I believe it is important to consider that humans do make mistakes, have a unique history, and all have biases. In taking some time to understand one another – in “holding that tension of paradox” – we can collectively produce stronger relationships, communities, organizations and peace. Most of us do not have ill intent.

The next time someone disagrees with you, consider that your ‘facts’ may be flawed and seek to understand another’s point of view – see them as a fellow and well-intentioned human being.

Kwela’s Conflict Resolution workshop offers clear communication tools for better managing workplace conflict.

Glen Sollors, Partner