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Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution

GUIDELINES FOR ETHICAL AND CONSTRUCTIVE DIALOGUE AND DEBATE

1. DON’T EVER ASSUME THAT THE OTHER PERSON IS “TOTALLY WITH YOU” OR “TOTALLY AGAINST YOU.” Multiple viewpoints exist within each person, ourselves included.

2. BEWARE OF LABELING PEOPLE.Labels are often shortcuts to real thinking or a serious consideration of another person’s ideas and values. Sometimes, labels are intended to personally offend. In logic, attacks on an individual’s character rather than their argument or position are identified as ad hominem, a mistake in reasoning as well as in “ethical dialogue.”

3. BE SENSITIVE TO THE PRESENCE OF HIDDEN AGENDAS – ESPECIALLY IN DISCUSSIONS OF VALUE-LADEN ISSUES.Often, personal fears and insecurities can keep us from being open to new ideas that might be good for us; anyone with a fear of taking risks or anxiety about conflict and disagreement may need you to do more listening and less talking before they are willing to really hear and understand your ideas and perspective.

4. MAKE SURE THAT THE OTHER PERSON UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU ARE SAYING.Never assume. Don’t be reluctant, or resentful, if asked to elaborate or to further explain your position.

5. MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING TO YOU. Six people will ask the same question in six different ways; six people will verbally ask the same question but have six different meanings. Listen carefully to other people, and try not to mentally prepare your own response while they are talking.

6. DON’T PUSH PEOPLE INTO A CORNER SO THAT THEY END UP HAVING TO SAY “UNCLE” BEFORE THEY AGREE WITH YOU. When you make an “airtight” case the other person may feel suffocated and resentful. Give them room for self-respect and allow them to change their own minds.

7. LET THE OTHER PERSON KNOW IF YOU DON’T KNOW. Don’t attempt to be a pretend expert.

8. HELP PEOPLE SEE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR BELIEFS EVEN THOUGH THEY MAY STILL BE CLOSED TO NEW IDEAS.

9. KEEP THE DISCUSSION ON THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.In particular, do not begin raising questions about another individual’s personal integrity or character. In logic this is called an ad hominem appeal. This is a fallacy in rational argumentation, a morally questionable “tactic,” and, frankly, it is guaranteed to offend, alienate, and close-off discussion.

10. AVOID POLARIZATION AND THE TEMPTATION TO MOVE TOWARD BI-POLAR POSITIONS.In debate it is often tempting to define two opposing positions and then move toward one position or the other. In reality, there are often multiple perspectives and positions, and a bi-polar debate often overlooks the diversity of ideas and values and shuts down the possibility of creative alternatives or compromises.

11. DON’T BE AFRAID OF VALUES, EXPERIENCES, DOUBTS, FEARS AND PERSONAL COMMITMENTS – YOUR OWN OR THE OTHER PERSON’S. When you and others seem to have little in common, it helps to ask the other individual how they came to believe what they believe and then share your own journey. In the long run this is what builds trust and genuine community –not an artificial “peace” of contrived civility.

12. BE WILLING TO “LET GO” OF A DISCUSSION OR DEBATE AT THE RIGHT TIME. The process of change involves a good deal more than “winning” an argument. In your effort to reach people, be sure that you are sensitive to that moment in a discussion when it is best to leave things as they are, rather than trying to gain a “personal conversion.” This may be the most difficult task for many of us: perhaps we should initially think of sharing or reaching rather than persuading or convincing. Sometimes your responsibility is to say the truth as you see it: to affirm your own beliefs, present reasons to support your perspective or position, and then to “disengage” from discourse and debate in order to allow for change over time.

13. DON’T EXPECT IMMEDIATE AND POSITIVE “FEEDBACK.” It may be that you will never get feedback – positive or negative – from those with whom you debate, argue, or disagree. Sometimes, you’ll hear feedback several months later. Sometimes – rarely – you will sense or hear positive changes right at the moment. Each of us has our own pace and style of changing. We need to challenge each other but also to respect our differences.

14. BE PREPARED TO ALTER SOME OF YOUR OWN VALUES AND BELIEFS. If you enter into every debate or dialogue absolutely convinced of the “rightness” and accuracy of your own position, you leave little or no room for genuine dialogue. A dialogue by definition is at least a two-way conversation. You can be firmly committed to your own values and beliefs without being dogmatic, closed-minded, or intolerant.

15. BE AWARE OF, AND SENSITIVE TO, THE DYNAMIC OF POWER RELATIONSHIPS AND THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL ROLES.If — for example — you are debating a difficult and controversial moral issue with either a subordinate or a superior in an organization or company (particularly if it is a work-related issue), then it is likely that the tone and nature of your disagreement or debate will in some way be affected or shaped by your respective roles and social relationship. Race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual-orientation and other features of social and personal identity often play a role as well.

16. GO AHEAD AND ENTER INTO DIALOGUE, DEBATE, INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL ARGUMENTS WITH CONVICTION. Don’t allow superficial forms of politeness or tolerance of values and feelings to stop you from entering into the excitement and the intellectual challenge of dialogue and debate. These are guidelines for ethical and constructive discourse — not excuses to refrain from intellectual and moral debate over substantially different points of view. Again, in the larger scheme of things genuine dialogue over the most fundamental issues and values can lead to a stronger community.

+ compiled and revised by Dr. Roderic Owen, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, Va.
+ adapted from Ms. Wendy Mogey of the American Friends Service Committee
rev: 10-05