Success over Victory: Some Thoughts on Conflict Resolution

One afternoon several years ago, I was busy coding away at my software job when I noticed a disagreement spiralling out of control on our internal chat system. Conflict is stressful, and this one had nothing to do with me, so it would have been easy to ignore. But I’m a nosy do-gooder at heart, so instead of ignoring it I did what I always do: I made it my business to resolve, much to the surprise of the initial participants (note: I had already earned enough trust that I could insert myself into the conversation without ruffling too many feathers; it’s not always recommended).

After the dust had settled, a junior developer on my team approached me to ask how I had accomplished the minor miracle of getting everyone back together pulling in the same direction. This turned into an extended conversation about conflict resolution, during which I was forced to organize my many thoughts on that topic into words (and more than one whiteboard diagram) for the first time. I am forever grateful to that person for pushing me to work through my thoughts and express myself.

By the end of the conversation, I had a substantial amount of material in my head, and I promised to write a blog post explaining it all. Several years later (oops), this is that post.

Introduction

We encounter conflict every day. Perhaps you’re having an unavoidable Thanksgiving-dinner conversation about politics, or maybe you’re chatting with your neighbour when you realize that you have very different views on a recent change by the local sports team. For me, as for many people, a lot of these conflicts tend to arise at work: dealing with unreasonable customers, unreasonable coworkers, or unreasonable managers is just part of the job. Whether your work is blue-collar, white-collar, retail, or even raising chickens, conflict happens whenever two people want or believe different things, and that isn’t exactly rare.

With so many conflicts in our day-to-day lives, resolving them becomes an important life skill. Typically, we do this using communication; it’s thankfully rare that minor conflicts devolve into violence. And yet, communicating well is one of the hardest parts of modern life. Technology has created a number of new ways to communicate our ideas, those ideas grow more complex every day, we spend less and less time face to face, and partisan political bias seems to be driving us further and further apart. Even so, communication is still our main approach for resolving most of the conflicts we encounter.

Given its importance, it shouldn’t be surprising that conflict resolution is a topic already rich in conventional wisdom, academic studies, and self-help books; practically speaking I don’t have much that is new to contribute. However, at the heart of many great innovations is the combination of multiple ideas in different fields, and that’s what I’m going to try and do here. I’ll be mixing together insights collected from a number of places, including the epistemological debates that I went through as part of my religious journey, the online “rationalist” community (a group with a particular focus on tools and processes for more effectively seeking the truth), a brief but interesting career as a manager of people, and of course several self-help books which touch on conflict resolution in some fashion. Anchoring all of these is my unusually intense dislike of interpersonal conflict. It’s just a part of who I am, so I’ve spent a lot more time resolving conflicts and thinking about this in my own life than I think is normal, or probably healthy.

I debated leaving out the parts that are truly unoriginal to focus on “the good stuff”, but I think that would be doing a disservice to the topic. It’s all important, and just because some of it has been covered elsewhere, doesn’t mean it’s not required to be successful. I’ve broken the material into four sections which I call Attitude, Communication, Comprehension, and Resolution, and if you’re starting fresh I recommend reading them all, in that order. That said, most of the material that is in any way “new” is in the last section on Resolution.

Finally, I want to note three things up front. First, that all of this is focused on conflict resolution via communication. If a conflict has reached the point of physical violence then the rules are very different; some of what’s in here might still be applicable, but I make no warranty to that effect. Second, that this is partly written from the perspective of a neutral third-party moderator. Everything here is just as applicable if you’re involved in the conflict, but it becomes harder to use effectively. And third, that this essay is entirely focused on resolving conflicts, not making decisions. Effective decision-making and consensus-building in the context of an unresolved (or unresolvable) disagreement is a whole other problem deserving of its own essay.

OK, here we go…

Attitude

War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.

Carl von Clausewitz

The tools of conflict resolution bear a striking resemblance to the tools of conflict. In practice, this means that one of the most important parts of successful conflict resolution is your attitude. Otherwise you’re liable to misuse the tools you have available. A good attitude will naturally guide you to the right decisions, smooth out minor miscommunications, and build trust. It’s the foundation on which all the other parts of this essay are built. But what does “a good attitude” actually mean? While people have many different attitudes toward different parts of their life, there are four specific ones which I think are important for conflict resolution.

The first attitude has to do with what you’re aiming for. Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to try and “win” arguments in a purely social sense (e.g. via ad hominem attacks), but victory of that kind is typically not the success you’re interested in if you’re reading this essay. Sometimes, the success we seek is truly as simple as “resolving the conflict”, though usually it’s not. More often, “success” really means uncovering the truth, or finding a solution where everyone gets what they want, or clearing up some underlying miscommunication. Know what it is you’re really aiming for, and set your attitude accordingly. Aim for success, not for victory.

The second attitude is far simpler since it already has name: humility. Accept that sometimes you just don’t have all the information. Accept that sometimes you makes mistakes. Accept that sometimes you honestly just change your mind (or have it changed by someone else). Our ego doesn’t like admitting to these things, but they do happen, and digging in your heels to protect your ego is the fastest way to unnecessarily prolong a conflict.

The third attitude is an attitude toward others. Just like we have an unfortunate tendency to try and “win” arguments, we also have an unfortunate tendency to view other people in a conflict as “enemies”. Instead, it is far better to respect and trust your conversational partners, and always assume they are operating in good faith. That one is so important I’m just going to repeat it: assume good faith.

People often object that this is a naive or dangerous assumption, and in some settings it certainly can be. Past experience with a particular person certainly trumps any possible generalized advice. But I would argue that true bad faith is far, far rarer than most people realize. I see numerous conflicts every year which could have been trivially resolved if everyone involved had assumed good faith instead of jumping to “you’re a terrible person”.

Finally, on a somewhat different tack from the others, I want to talk a bit about emotions. There is often an attitude (especially among programmers and other more analytically-inclined folks) that emotions are somehow irrelevant to a debate and should be ignored. I’m certainly guilty of this belief myself sometimes. But most of the time in practice I find this to be both false, and quite unhelpful in dealing with conflict. This is probably worth an entire post to itself, but I’ll keep it brief: your emotions carry real, valuable information about what you believe and what you value. You shouldn’t let them rule you, and quite often they’re incorrect or haven’t caught up to the moment yet, but they are still both important and useful. Pay them their due.

In this section I’ve covered four key attitudes which I find helpful and which are foundational in how I deal with conflict resolution. I hope they’re as useful to you as they are to me:

  1. Aim for success, not victory.
  2. Be humble.
  3. Assume good faith.
  4. Pay attention to your emotions (but don’t let them rule you).

Communication

The medium is the message.

Marshall McLuhan

Attitudes are general things, and if you’re anything like me you crave more specific advice. Say this. Say it in this way. Don’t say that. Don’t use words that are longer than 10 letters when translated into Brazilian Portuguese. That sort of thing. But instead of focusing on what or what not to say, the most useful specific advice I can give is actually to focus on where you communicate.

Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message”, and oh boy was he ever right. Every medium has different characteristics which impact how we communicate, and how conflict will spread or resolve. Here are just a few of the characteristics that matter:

  • Speed of communication, aka bandwidth. Most people can speak much faster than they can type.
  • Speed of response, aka latency. This can be anywhere from snail mail, which takes days per message, to instant messaging which is usually real-time.
  • Ability to absorb cross-talk. Laggy video-conferencing is particularly bad at this.
  • Audience size. Compare an in-person conversation to an email list with hundreds of subscribers.
  • Participant size. Are those hundred subscribers just reading, or can they add their own opinions to the mix?
  • Available side-channels. In-person communication gives you a whole bunch of important extra communication channels like tone of voice, facial expression and posture.
  • Norms. Most media are bound to specific codes of behaviour, either explicitly or implicitly.

With all of these variables, it’s no surprise that picking the right venue for your conflict is hugely valuable. Of course, you often don’t have a choice of where the conflict starts; they just do. But you always have the opportunity to move it, and it’s usually pretty easy when everyone involved is operating in good faith. Just go “hey, this would be easier to talk about in-person, do you mind if I swing by your desk?” and you’d be amazed at how easy it gets. Changing to a better venue is often both the easiest and the most effective thing you can do to resolve a conflict.

That said, with so many possible characteristics to consider it can be pretty daunting to figure out which one to suggest. Fortunately there’s an easy rule of thumb: in-person trumps everything, always. If in-person isn’t possible because people are physically too far apart, video-conferencing can be a decent substitute as long as it isn’t too laggy. If neither of those are realistic, I’ve had pretty good luck aiming for whatever venue has the highest bandwidth, lowest latency, and smallest audience.

There is one major caveat to the in-person rule however, which is on the number of participants. If you have more than six people involved then the value of in-person conversation falls off pretty sharply, and you might be better off with a venue that can handle that better. Of course, it’s pretty rare that more than six people really need to be there; usually you can pick representatives from each group or otherwise cut the participants down to a reasonable size.

This section is short enough it doesn’t necessarily need a summary, but I wrote one anyway:

  1. Use the best available venue or communication medium.
  2. In-person trumps everything.
  3. Keep the number of participants small.

Comprehension

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Stephen Covey

A good attitude and a good venue will carry you a surprisingly long way, but of course they’re not always sufficient on their own. The next thing I try is to temporarily ignore whatever I believe and work to understand both sides of the argument equally. I called this section “comprehension”, but it could equally just be called “listening”, or maybe more precisely “active listening”. Honestly, Stephen Covey has already said most of this far better than I can in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. That book is of course the source of the quote that opens this section; “seek first to understand” is habit number five.

The value of truly understanding both sides of a conflict cannot be overstated. Even when I’ve nominally resolved a conflict, I get antsy if I still don’t really grok one side or the other. More than once, trying to scratch that itch “after the fact” has turned up a hidden requirement or pain point which would have just caused more grief down the road. Remember, success is rarely as simple as just making the conflict go away; you can’t know if you’ve truly found success (not just victory) unless you properly understand both sides.

But understanding both sides isn’t just an after-the-fact thing. It also has concrete value in guiding the resolution of a conflict when you’re caught in the middle of it, because it allows you to properly apply the principle of charity. The principle of charity says that you should try and find the best possible interpretation for people’s arguments, even when they aren’t always clear or coherent. It goes back to assuming good faith; maybe an argument sounds crazy, but it makes sense to the person saying it. The only way to apply the principle of charity in many cases is to start by understanding the argument, and the person making it.

Understanding both sides is also a key part of something called “steelmanning“, which is the process of actively finding better versions of another person’s arguments. This may seem like an odd thing to do in a conflict, but only if you’ve accidentally slipped back into the habit of aiming for victory instead of success. Assume good faith, and work with both sides to fully develop the points they’re trying to make. Doing this brings clarity to the discussion which can often illuminate the crux of the conflict.

Of course sometimes being charitable is hard. People may make arguments which just seem… wrong. Crazy. Even harmful. (The topic of whether an argument can be harmful in and of itself is a fascinating one I don’t have space for here. Whatever you believe, it isn’t relevant to the point I’m trying to make). A lot of people would suggest that trying to understand or improve an argument like that is a waste of time, or even ethically wrong. I disagree. I believe that truly understanding both sides of a conflict is fundamentally valuable, no matter what that conflict is. It clarifies. It builds empathy. It expands your knowledge of the world. And even if by the end you still deeply disagree, understanding the argument will let you articulate a better response.

The principle is all well and good, but getting to that level of understanding in practice can also be really hard. It’s a skill that gets easier with repetition, so I would encourage you to practice it as much as possible, even for small conflicts where it might not seem necessary. Build that habit when it’s easy, and you’ll find that it becomes automatic even when it’s hard. Still, if you’re trying and you’re really stuck, I’ve got a trick which helps me when I just can’t seem to connect with what somebody is saying.

To better understand a different perspective, try splitting an argument up into the separate pieces of a problem and a solution. A lot of arguments fit into this pattern quite naturally, and I often find that while I couldn’t quite grasp the argument as a whole, I both understand and even agree with the problem; it’s the solution that’s causing me issues. Even then, having the problem separated out and well-defined can lead me to understanding the solution too, because it frequently highlights some unstated premise which I wasn’t aware of. This is also a great way to practice steelmanning, since making implied premises explicit is a great way to improve an argument; people are pretty bad at this by default.

I should also note that if this trick kind of works for a situation, but doesn’t quite, you should try making the problem even more general. For example, if the argument is “Mexicans are taking our jobs, so we should stop immigration from Mexico”, it’s tempting to define the problem as just “Mexicans are taking our jobs”, but it’s probably more productive to define it as something like “something is taking our jobs” or even “our economic prospects suck”. This pulls out an implied premise (that the cause is Mexican immigrants) which may be the real point of disagreement, but even apart from that, finding a problem which you can be sympathetic to is worth its weight in gold. With this kind of problem in hand, you can reframe the conflict as a cooperative mission, working together to find the best solution to the problem. You can start to look for success, not victory.

It’s often said that the real acid test for truly understanding somebody’s argument is the ability to explain it back to them in a way they will agree with. This is good, and you should definitely aim for this (trying to explain it back is also a useful trick for conflict resolution in general), but sometimes I find it useful to use a slightly higher standard. I consider myself to really properly understand an argument when I can not only explain it to the person who made it, but can also explain (to myself, not to them) how they came to believe it. Both sides of the conflict are part of the universe, so to understand the universe you have to know how both sides came to be.

This may seem like an esoteric or excessively demanding standard, and it isn’t necessary all the time. But there are interesting and practical sources of conflict where this is a really useful approach that provides a lot of insight. Religion is my favourite example of this; most theistic worldviews can pretty naturally explain the existence of atheists, but a lot of atheists have a hard time explaining the existence of theists. “People are dumb” may be emotionally satisfying, but doing the work of constructing a real explanation builds a lot of empathy and ends up sharpening the resulting argument.

I’ve covered a lot of different ground in this section, but I think I can boil it down to four key points to take away:

  1. Seek always to understand.
  2. Actively look for the best version of everyone’s arguments.
  3. Separate the problem and the solution.
  4. To truly understand, you must explain how both sides came to be.

Resolution

Now, finally, we get to the meat of this post. You’ve got the right attitude, you’re in a good venue or communication medium, and you think you’ve got a pretty good grasp of what both sides are saying. How do you actually get to a successful resolution? For me, it all boils down to understanding the building blocks of how we argue, and how we disagree.

Philosophers and linguists have spent millennia studying the nature of logic, rhetoric, and argument, all the way from Aristotle through to predicate logic and beyond (the Wikipedia articles are unfortunately technical, but this Stanford site seems to have a more accessible introduction). This body of work is another great tool that can be helpful in the previous section on understanding both sides of an argument.

While rhetoric and disagreement are obviously related, the nature of disagreement is much less studied. The rationalist community has recently started to dig into it, coming up with some interesting ideas like double-cruxing, but I don’t know of any comprehensive theory from that group.

In a very brief post in 2017 (my first failed attempt at what would become this post) I sketched out a basic categorization of disagreements with almost no explanation. Two years later, my core model remains almost the same. While there can be many forms of valid argument and many kinds of propositions to slot into those arguments, there are in fact only four kinds of atomic disagreement: fact, value, meaning, and “empty”. As far as I can tell every disagreement must belong to one of these categories, or be a complex combination of smaller disagreements. I’ll tackle them one at a time, including tips for resolving each type, and then talk about how to understand and break down more complex combinations.

Disagreements of Fact

Disagreements of fact are disagreements over how the world was, is, or will be. They are fundamentally empirical in nature: if I believe that there are only ten chickens on the planet and you believe that there are more, that’s something we can physically check; we just have to go out and count enough chickens. Disagreements about historical facts are often harder to resolve (we can’t just count the chickens alive in the year 1500 to see how many there were) but the factual nature of the disagreement remains; there is a single right answer, and we just have to find it.

Resolving disagreements of fact is the specialty of science and the scientific method. When a disagreement of fact is not directly resolvable through empirical observation, hunt for places where the core disagreement results in differing predictions about something that is directly observable. Maybe if there were as many chickens as you believe, the nutrient content of human skeletons from that era will back you up (I really don’t know, historical chicken population is not my specialty and this example is getting out of hand).

Of course, some disagreements of fact may not be perfectly resolvable with the technology we have available to us. The nutrient content of skeletons may give some indication of chicken population, but it’s not going to give us a precise count. In these cases, it’s best to fall back on reasoning based on Bayesian statistics. What are your prior confidence levels, and how do the various pieces of evidence affect them? What else can you easily empirically check which will impact those confidence levels?

Even then, there are some cases where there just doesn’t seem to be any checkable predictions that come out of a conflict of fact (the various debates around string theory were like this for a while). The nice thing is that when you hit a disagreement like this, it somehow stops mattering. If there are no differences in the predictions that can be tested with current technology, then until that technology exists, the two possible worlds are by definition indistinguishable.

Finally, for cases about the future, it’s important to distinguish between disagreements about how the world will be (for example whether there will be more or fewer chickens tomorrow), and disagreements about how the world should be (for example whether we ought to breed more chickens). Disagreements about how the world will be can sometimes be resolved like historical facts, by looking for more immediately checkable predictions. They can also be resolved just by waiting until the future comes to pass. On the other hand, disagreements about how the world should be take us into our next type of disagreement: disagreements of value.

Disagreements of Value

Disagreements of value are disagreements over what we ought to value. This tends to play out more concretely in disagreements over how the world ought to be, and what we ought to do to get there. For example, if I believe that we should value chickens’ lives as much as human lives and you believe we should value them less, that is obviously a disagreement over value. There’s no checkable fact or testable prediction, now or in the future; the disagreement is fundamentally about what is important. Of course in practice you’re unlikely to see a direct disagreement over the value of chicken lives; you’re more likely to see a disagreement over whether humans should eat chickens or not, but it’s often the same thing.

Disagreements of value are difficult to deal with. This is often because there is actually a complex multi-part disagreement masquerading as a simple value disagreement (for example a disagreement over whether we “ought” to be vegetarian may be about environmental factors as much as it is about the value of a chicken’s life). The key thing to pay attention to is whether the values under debate are instrumental or terminal.

If the values under debate are instrumental (for example vegetarianism as a means to value chicken life), then things are by definition complex, as there are at least two possible underlying disagreements. The root cause could be a disagreement over the terminal value (whether a chicken’s life should be valued) or a disagreement over the best way to achieve that terminal value (our consumption of chicken has caused a great increase in the total number of chickens, which might be a more effective way to value their lives). When you see a debate over an instrumental value, apply Hume’s guillotine to slice apart the pieces and find the more fundamental disagreement. Keep in mind that there’s nothing to stop both pieces from being sources of disagreement at once, in which case you should at least try and take them one at a time.

Recognizing instrumental value debates can be tricky, as can breaking them down into their constituent parts. In practice, one of the best ways to do both of these things is to simply try the question “Why does that matter?”, and not accept “it just does” as an answer. When pressed, most people will be able to articulate that, for example, they actually value vegetarianism because they value the lives of animals.

The other way to recognize many instrumental value debates is to look for two apparently-unrelated values being traded off against one another. Imagine we’re building a coop for all of these chickens; if one person thinks we should prioritize security against foxes, while the other thinks we should prioritize the number of chickens it can hold, it might seem like they’re at an impasse. But this is actually an instrumental value debate that can easily be resolved; all we have to do is “normalize” the units under debate. Fox-security and number-of-chickens are not directly comparable values, but in practice they’re probably both backed by the same terminal value: maximizing the number of eggs we can collect per day. By normalizing the two sides into a single terminal value unit, we’re left with a simple disagreement of fact which can be resolved via experimentation: which approach results in more eggs?

Unfortunately, if the values under debate are truly terminal (back to whether chickens’ lives should be valued as human lives) then there isn’t a good way to resolve this conflict. The conflict will exist until somebody changes their core values, and that’s incredibly hard to do. The best “hack” I’ve found is to come up with an unrelated value or problem which both participants agree is more important, and thus makes the current conflict either irrelevant or at least not worth arguing over. Whether a chicken’s life is worth a human life tends to take a backseat when the human’s house is on fire.

(note: I am not advocating arson as a means of avoiding debates about vegetarianism)

Disagreements of Meaning

The third kind of disagreement is a disagreement over meaning. This is best understood by examining the classic question: if a chicken tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? While on the surface a disagreement on this point may seem to be a disagreement of fact, it’s almost always instead a disagreement of meaning.

Most reasonable people will agree to the same core facts of what happens when a tree falls in the forest. First, they’ll agree that it produces vibrations in the air, also known as sound waves. Second, they’ll agree that those sound waves dissipate before reaching anybody’s ears, as stipulated in the question. These two points actually cover all of the questions of fact relevant to the disagreement; the conflict is really over the meaning of the word “sound”. Does it refer to the simple production of sound waves (in which case the tree makes a sound) or does it refer to the sensation created by sound waves heard by a person (in which case it does not).

The nice thing about disagreements of meaning is that they almost never matter. Language is socially negotiated, and at the end of the day word meanings are entirely arbitrary. The only thing you need to do to resolve a conflict like this is be very clear about your definitions, and the conflict magically evaporates. Replacing problem words with new nonsense words that have clear definitions is a great trick for this (borrowed from this Less Wrong post on the same topic).

The one case where the meaning of words does legitimately matter is in law. As a friend of mine so nicely put it, “laws are stored in words”, and interpreting the meaning of those words can impact how the law is applied, who goes to jail, etc. Ultimately though, word definitions are still arbitrary and will even shift over time, meaning that these disagreements are not resolvable without getting really deep into the philosophy of law (the question of literal meaning vs author’s intent, just to start). Fortunately we have a standard method for making these decisions anyway: judges and juries. The result is that the law evolves over time, just like the people that interpret it, and the language that stores it.

The other case where people like to argue that word meanings matter is when certain words are offensive, disrespectful, or even harmful (if that’s a thing you believe words can be). Fortunately this one is a bit more clear-cut: the use of these words is a thing people can disagree about, but it’s not a disagreement of meaning. It actually has two parts, tying up an instrumental or potentially terminal value (we should not offend or harm people) with a factual claim (some proportion or group of people are offended or harmed by a given word). The meaning of the word no longer matters at all.

Empty Disagreements

Empty disagreements are a late addition to this essay, and are quite different from the other three types. In a certain sense they are not real disagreements at all, and are merely what happens when disagreement becomes disconnected from any tangible point. But in practice they are fairly common, and my goal with this essay is ultimately a practical one.

Empty disagreement happens when there is no fundamental disagreement of fact, value, or meaning between two parties, but something in the situation causes them to start or continue a conflict regardless. This is usually related either to social status (when someone knows they’re wrong but won’t back down to avoid losing face), or to internal emotional state (when someone is caught up in the heat of the moment). In both cases, it is ideas from the prior sections of this essay that are the key to a successful resolution.

Status-based conflicts are frequently best-solved by changing venue, usually to one with a smaller audience. In most cases people are happy to resolve the conflict themselves once doing so would no longer cost them status. Things become trickier if this isn’t possible, or if the status issue is actually between the two people involved in the conflict. You can try to build enough trust to overcome the status issue, or compensate for it by making an unrelated concession, but ultimately you’ll have to resolve the status issue to resolve the conflict.

Similarly, heat-of-the-moment conflicts are usually best solved by committing more strongly to the four attitudes I described in the first section of this essay. Breathe deep, and aim for success instead of victory. Use humility to build the trust necessary to reach that point, and never lose sight of the fact that both sides are operating in good faith (mistakes in the heat of the moment are still fundamentally different from malice). If necessary, suggest taking a five-minute break to go to the washroom or get a drink of water; time away is often all that is really needed for people to cool down.

Complex Disagreements

As we’ve gone through the four atomic types, we’ve seen a couple of examples of complex disagreements masquerading as simpler forms of disagreement. This is typically how they show up in practice, since if the complexity is obvious the participants will break it apart themselves without thinking about it. The fact that instrumental values show up frequently in this way is also not a coincidence; the combination of a value with a fact to produce an instrumental value is one of the easiest signs of a complex disagreement that needs to be split up.

The other major sign of a complex disagreement is the use of the forms of propositional and predicate logic (another great reason to study those topics). Argument forms like modus ponens are how complex arguments get built up, and thus naturally how complex disagreements can be broken down. Of course, people rarely phrase their arguments in pure logical form, so you’ll probably have to do some steelmanning along the way, but if you’re lucky somebody will make their arguments in roughly the right shape.

As mentioned in the section on comprehension, regular practice is the best way to build these skills. Even when an argument is really trivial, (for example “A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut!” while talking about the carrying capacity of swallows) it can be worth breaking down. In its pure logical form, that example becomes something like:

  • P1: If a bird weighs five ounces, it cannot carry a coconut.
  • P2: Swallows weigh five ounces.
  • C: Swallows cannot carry coconuts.

Just like with instrumental values, we now have two different pieces (P1 and P2) where either could be the source of disagreement. By narrowing in on the root cause, or at least taking them one at a time, you’ve made the conflict smaller and more focused. Once you’ve gone down a few layers you’ll usually end up either at a testable disagreement of fact or a shared terminal value, and will be able to resolve it appropriately. The goal with a complex disagreement is always to break it down and deal with the pieces, not to swallow it whole.

Conclusion

Wow. What started as a quick blog post has turned into a six-thousand-word essay, and I still feel like there’s more I could say. Since I like bullet points, I’ll try and summarize all of my recommendations into a nice little list to leave you with.

  • Aim for success, not victory.
    • Be humble.
    • Assume good faith.
    • Pay attention to your emotions (but don’t let them rule you).
  • Use the best available venue or communication medium.
    • In-person trumps everything.
    • Keep the number of participants small.
  • Seek always to understand.
    • Actively look for the best version of everyone’s arguments.
    • Separate the problem and the solution.
    • To truly understand, you must explain how both sides came to be.
  • Use the right tool for the right conflict.
    • Use science and Bayesian statistics to resolve disagreements of fact.
    • Use overriding values to avoid disagreements of terminal value (but watch out for values that are actually instrumental).
    • Use clear definitions to resolve disagreements of meaning.
    • Use trust and communication to resolve empty disagreements.
    • Use logic to break down complex disagreements into simpler parts.

I hope reading this essay proves as helpful to you as writing it was for me. I want to once again thank the person who prompted me to write it, as well as all the other people who read early drafts and provided invaluable feedback. You make me better.