Friday, July 27, 2012

Excellent! F

In writing about how to finesse a response to a conflict, stated or unstated, Johan Galtung explains:
You need:

· a very quick definition of the problem: to find a both/and answer;
· creativity to find an answer of that kind;
· the presentation of the solution as a proposal, not as an ultimatum
(2004, p. 11).

What does he mean, "both/and" answer?

Galtung means that some language tips toward the evocation of defensiveness and will push a conflict toward destructive characteristics. We frequently listen for hints that our diplomatic (or passive-aggressive, as the two are synonymous in many cynical cases) discussant, opponent, intimate or interlocutor is attacking or judging us in some way. In some cases, we are quick to be offended because we recognize that judgment is possible and that judgment may not be favorable. Others can be prickly and take umbrage easily too, and some linguistic choices shove our minds and emotions in that direction ("Hey, Mr. Friedman, you are right about solar power; however, you were barking loony mad to support the US invasion and occupation of Iraq"). 

So, if our relationship is important, we find ways to say things that can be heard without drawing our visceral weaponry. But our partners are not stupid; they can smell a conflict betrayal when we use poor transitions such as "but" or "however" or "on the other hand." 

  • "You know I generally support you, but in this case I cannot."
  • "We would give you permission in many instances. However, this time we cannot."
  • "Your ideas are often great. On the other hand, sometimes they are not."

What Galtung recommends is a tweak toward the both/and or the yes/and response.

  • "You know I generally support you and in this case we need to continue to work on our challenges."
  • "We normally give you our blessing and in this instance we hope to dialog toward that."
  • "Your ideas are usually great and this time we intend to gain clarity as we progress toward agreement."
Since we are seldom able to summon burly orderlies and administer 20 mg of Midazolam intramuscularly, we need instead to use language and nonverbals to reshape potential conflict into possible collaboration. Is it always possible? No, probably not. But is it worth trying? Yes. Galtung's little method is possibly the lowest cost/highest benefit technique available. 

I was chatting about this with another Conflict Resolution professor and he laughed and told me the slippery slope extrapolative endpoint example was his old mentor's decision, upon reading a paper that had excellent ideas and was written without proofreading in a garbled syntactical trainwreck of incoherence, to mark it, "Excellent! F"

Indeed, that professor gets the Yes/And award. And, Robin Williams and the Two-Headed Monster win the Nice But award (so to speak).


Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and transform: An introduction to conflict work. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

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