CONFLICT AS A TEACHER
By Bill Southworth

Last month this column examined people's tendency to separate and exclude others on the basis of their differences - behavior, appearance, statements made, opinions held. It also examined some of the reasons why we behave in this manner. This month's column will look at some other root causes of this tendency to separate and exclude, often leading to conflict.

We've all probably excluded others based on these differences. Where did we learn to exclude others? As we were growing up the main candidates were family, relatives, neighbors, schools, the media, and the organizations we belonged to--any place where significant people in our lives influenced how we thought, felt, and behaved. They were our opinion, belief, and habit formers as we grew up. We heard and saw exclusionary, even divisive remarks and actions from those significant people, and these behaviors often became our models of how to respond to differences. As far as I know there is no gene dictating that we separate other people based on their differences. It's a learned habit and as such can be unlearned.

In working to prevent and resolve conflict I have used a number of successful strategies and tools, one of which is called the Ladder of Inference, developed by Chris Argyris. (See The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook-Peter Senge, et al). The Ladder points out how easily we categorize people and their behavior, and then act on the results of our thinking, often mistakenly. The Ladder consists of 7 rungs, but I use an edited version. On the first rung is only what we see and/or hear. It's what a video camera would record - data only, no assumptions, judgments, or conclusions. However, we are quick to climb the Ladder, selecting only certain of the data (information) we have "recorded." This screening process is heavily influenced by our beliefs. Already we have begun the process that can lead to separating and isolating other people. We next add some cultural and personal meaning to this data and continue up the Ladder by making assumptions about the data (information) we have selected. From there we move to the rung where we draw conclusions. The rung above is where we adopt certain beliefs, based on the way we have handled the data (information) on the lower rungs. Our prejudices lie at the belief rung.

Ascending the Ladder can happen in a split second. The key to using this tool is to be aware of each of these rungs, how quickly you go up the Ladder when something happens, on which rung you might stop, and how you act as a result. In the variation that I've adapted, I ask people to examine how their actions might differ at each rung. For example, imagine you are in the first meeting of a committee you recently joined. The meeting starts at 8:30 and Bob, a business owner in his late 50's, walks in at 9. The thoughts in the room would probably vary from "He's late," to "People are always coming late to meetings," to "He had something important to do," to "This meeting must not be important to him," to "This is typical of how men of his age behave." People quickly climb up the Ladder. Our actions toward Bob might also vary from welcoming him and doing a 1-minute recap to making some snide, exclusionary remark to him.

Where we are on the Ladder and what action we take can either prevent a conflict situation or start one. We are in daily contact with that Ladder of Inference at home, at work and in the community so there's lots of opportunity to use it. Go slowly up the Ladder and maybe even stop half way up if that will work. Like a real ladder, if you go up too quickly or too high, it might very well bring you (and others) crashing to the ground.

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