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A leader is a dealer in hope.Napoleon Bonaparte

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Overcoming polarization in a conflict

Overcoming polarization in a conflict

Inevitable elements of corporate life that they are, some conflicts can seem unsolvable. And yet pathways out do exist, sometimes counter-intuitive ones. How can we move forward together despite rifts?


Cooperation has become such a powerful injunction that it nearly makes conflict a taboo. Yet conflict is inherent to human relations and, accordingly, present at all levels of society—and, of course, it doesn’t stop at the company doors.

It does happen though, and more and more frequently, that a conflict degenerates to such an extent that it seems insurmountable. Opinions become polarized. Divergences take on a personal nature: the opposing position seems irrational and imbued with sinister intent. Discussions appear to be bound to fail. Ramming things through may then seem preferable to compromise, but frequently leads to a dead end. This situation was encountered by a major industrial group that was challenged to reduce the pollution generated by its activities. Initial discussions with regulators, NGOs and the unions that were challenging the company revealed antagonistic and inflexible positions. The group consequently chose to resort to engage in a showdown and employment blackmail. A consumer-initiated boycott wound up costing the CEO his job.

Companies indeed find themselves at the crossroads of complex tensions that particularly expose them to conflict: societal divides (vaccinations, religion, politics...), social issues (salaries, flexibility...) or internal stakes (mergers, reorganizations, competition for resources...). These concerns have something in common: there is never one way to look at them. In many cases, there is no single truth or solution that is clearly superior to the others. Each side has its vision, both legitimate and pertinent... from its own point of view. In those conditions, why seek compromise? On the contrary, the urge is to stick to one’s position—or perhaps become even more radical.

This deleterious spiral is well known to diplomats and negotiation specialists. Their experiences provide many counter-intuitive lessons for breaking a stalemate. The priority is not to agree on a shared view of the problem: this would mean convincing the other side of our own correctness; they, in turn, would become even more entrenched in their position. Far better to keep disagreements contained, listen to one another without seeking to convince and find micro-arrangements that are beneficial to all.

In this synopsis:
– Knowing and thwarting the mechanics of polarization
– Bringing a conflict out of stalemate
– Working on oneself to facilitate conflict resolution

Synopsis n.305b