Attack the Problem, Not the People



Newsletter #233 — May 6, 2024



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by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Today we are continuing our series revisiting and updating BI's 2017-19 collection of Things You Can Do to Help  ideas by looking at  Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton's notion (from Getting to Yes) of "separating the people from the problem." Like many of the other things we are posting in this series, this is a very basic conflict resolution idea.  But it is often violated, even by conflict professionals themselves, especially when they are engaged in a conflict as disputants, not third parties. It is being particularly frequently violated now, as so many of us have become so personally invested in the outcome of the fall 2024 US Presidential election. Many of us tend to think that people who are likely to vote differently than us are "the problem,” or the other candidate, himself, is the problem. And both sides say that they must double down to "protect our democracy" which they both feel the opposing side is threatening.

Most of us don't consider that all of us are facing the same problem — we are looking at an election that has two candidates that a substantial proportion of Americans do not trust and do not want to vote for. For these people, the problem is not as much the other side, as it is the American electoral system that is rigged to favor highly partisan candidates. These are the candidates who are supported by what More in Common calls "the wings," which, according to their analysis, make up only about 15% of the electorate. Everyone else — a full 85% according to More in Common, are largely disenfranchised, or at least are not given candidates they want to vote for. That eighty five percent  should agree — that's a big problem.  But most of them don't. They simply forge ahead, blaming those on the other side when their needs aren't met. Given how often most of us do this in ways that violate the principle of separating the people from the problem, we think it is worth revisiting just exactly what that means, and how it applies in to today's hyperpolarized societies. 


We started out our 2017 post by observing that "when people are personally attacked, they tend to lash back and get defensive.  But if you offer to team up with them to work to solve a problem they are concerned about, they are much more likely to be responsive." Alert readers will notice that we introduced this idea in our recent newsletter Don't Take the Hate Bait.  We want to expand on it here.

In their best-selling negotiation book, Getting to Yes, Fisher, Ury, and Patton list five "principles" of a negotiation strategy they call "Principled Negotiation." This strategy, they argued in Getting to Yes, can solve essentially any conflict.  We are not that optimistic — we think intractable conflicts take more than principled negotiation to be resolved. (Indeed, if they could be resolved that easily, they wouldn't be "intractable.")  But several of the principles of this approach are still highly useful in intractable conflict situations, as they can help prevent the conflict from intensifying further, and may even lead to the mutually agreeable resolution of at least some disputes within the context of the overall conflict — even though other aspects of the conflict remain intractable)

Their first principle: "Separate the People from the Problem" is particularly important in that context. People in conflict, Fisher, Ury and Patton pointed out, tend to become personally involved with the issues and their side's positions.  So they tend to interpret negative responses to those issues and positions as personal attacks.  And, when they feel personally attacked, they tend to get defensive — and they lash back. So each side defines "the other" as the problem, they square off arguing their respective positions, they refuse to listen to or cooperate with the other side, the conflict escalates, and  becomes even more difficult and destructive.  We call this the "personalization break over" — the point at which substantive discussion is replaced with interpersonal animosities, causing what is widely called "affective polarization." 

Instead of attacking the people who think differently than you do (calling them racists or bigots, elitists, or snowflakes, for example), talk with them (listening mostly) to understand why they think differently, and how you can collaborate to solve the problem in a way that meets your interests and theirs.  (That, actually, is Fisher, Ury, and Patton's principle number three — "Generate Options for Mutual Gain."). When I taught a conflict skills course, I illustrated this with a slide that showed people sitting across a table arguing with each other, and then a second slide where one person slides around the table to be on the same side as the other disputant, so they are working together to address the problem that is now on the other side of the table — as I'm trying to illustrate in the lead graphic above.

So what would this look like in the context of the US presidential election? It is very unlikely that we will be able to change the presidential candidates at this point. But we can start considering ways we can reform the candidate selection process before 2028 and perhaps even before the 2026 midterm elections. Right now, many of the reforms being advocated are ones that tend to favor one side or the other.  If we want to truly change our hyper-polarized system, however, we need to work together to level the playing field in ways that give the more moderate, compromise-oriented candidates, that a great many voters seem to prefer, a realistic chance of competing. We need to come up with reforms that will be fairer to everyone, including, for example, ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries. Voters, as well as moderate and bipartisan groups such as No Labels and the Forward Party, can put pressure on the 2024 candidates (Congressional as well as Presidential) to moderate their stances, by indicating that they will campaign for and vote for the more moderate candidates. (We acknowledge that Trump is unlikely to be swayed by such pronouncements, but Biden might be, and might, therefore, become a more widely-acceptable candidate.) 

Separating the people from the problem has applicability to hyperpolarization and intractable conflict in contexts other than elections. Fisher, Ury, and Patton point out that conflicts are usually made up of two kinds of problems: substantive problems and what they call "people problems." Both need to be addressed, but they need to be kept separate.  People problems, they say, are of three kinds — and all three tend to result in attacks on people instead of the problem.  These are (1) differing perceptions, (2) strong emotions, and (3) miscommunication.

  • Differing Perceptions: In our current hyper-polarized environment, people tend to dismiss those who disagree with them as being wrong, or evil, or stupid. Rather than doing that, a more constructive approach is to try to find out why they perceive the situation as they do.  Often their reason for having a different "take" on the situation is legitimate, and makes sense if one starts with a different set of circumstances or assumptions. For example, why might the other side be "pro-choice" or "pro-life"? People who participate in abortion dialogues usually learn that each side has a sensible reason for taking the position they do. They even find out they can respect and befriend people who hold diametrically opposed views on abortion, but perhaps similar views on other issues. 

    Similarly, rather than arguing over whose facts are right (perceptions), find an unbiased source to resolve factual disagreements. The left and the right argue continuously, for example, about whether illegal immigrants are taking American citizens' jobs.  This is a question which is empirically testable.  Test it — or find a reliable analysis that has already been done — and study the findings to resolve that aspect of the conflict.  Then work together to figure out what to do with the answer. If immigrants are taking Americans jobs, is there a way to let people in, but divert them to jobs that need more people?  If they aren't taking American jobs, then that removes one argument against accepting more immigrants. If the fear is that immigrants are criminals, or will "dilute American culture" or will vote illegally for the other side, check the facts.  Are they arrested more than citizens? Are they diluting — or are they enhancing — American culture?  Are they voting illegally?  . There is much that high quality, objective analysis can do to resolve these questions — especially if the work is jointly conducted by people who approach the issue from a full range of perspectives.

  • Emotions:  Emotions must be recognized, named, and dealt with directly — not ignored or attacked.  So if one side is afraid or angry, rather than telling them "you shouldn't feel that way," or acting in ways that reinforce that anger or fear — use active listening to acknowledge how they are feeling and try to address negative emotions in a constructive way.  After Donald Trump was elected president, many people of color were overcome with fear of what might befall them as a result.  Rather than trying to reassure them or protect them, Trump continued to attack them in tweets and through his policies.  Similarly, liberals continued to attack Trump voters, calling them "haters," "racists," and "bigots," and advocating policies that would redistribute government assistance in ways that would hurt Trump voters even more — thus further escalating their fears and driving them more securely into Trump's camp. Many of our friends are astonished that anyone would vote for Trump after seeing what he has already done and what he is proposing to do if he gets re-elected.  But look at what Biden has done and is proposing to do to disenfranchise and disempower Trump supporters . Neither side is addressing the fears of the other — they are fanning the flames instead.
  • Miscommunication:  Lastly, conflict communication is fraught with misunderstanding, escalatory language, propaganda, and other destructive patterns. Fisher and Ury first wrote about this in 1981 — long before social media.  Now those problems are orders of magnitude worse.  By recognizing and addressing communication problems, the path toward resolution of the substantive conflicts becomes much easier. As an example, a friend of mine on Facebook implored his readers to use civility when they talked about U.S. political conflicts.  Yet his post was filled with hateful invective! (I don't think he even realized it!) Watch what you post!  Would you want your mother to read it?

While, in its elegant simplicity, the notion of  being easy on people and tough on the problem (another common framing of separating the people from the problem) makes a great deal of sense, it can be difficult to successfully apply in real-world situations. To start with, intractable conflicts involve difficult issues that, when seen from differing perspectives, lead toward very different "solutions." What's more, the people who come up with these solutions generally believe that their approach is vastly superior to the alternative strategies (and goals) being pursued by their adversaries — alternatives that they believe would be a big and, potentially, catastrophic mistake. Given this, it is not surprising that individual egos and personalities get attached to particular policy prescriptions in ways that make them very difficult to separate. This, in turn, makes serious interpersonal conflicts very hard to avoid.

People also understand that it becomes virtually impossible to hold a politically viable coalition together if one is continually to fighting about the coalition's goals and its strategies for achieving those goals. To avoid this, coalition members tend to be especially easy on people within the coalition. They also tend to avoid asking hard questions about the fairness of the coalition's goals and the efficacy of its strategies. Instead, they commonly defer to the views of the lead group within each coalition (generally the group most affected by a particular issue) with everyone else playing the unquestioning role of loyal supporter and ally. The glue that holds the coalition together is a quid pro quo arrangement in which coalition partners agreed to support one another's goals and strategies, provided that they receive the same support with respect to the issues they care most about. For such an arrangement to work, it has to be able to build a coalition big enough to win. Coalition members realize that without this kind of quid pro quo compromise, their chance of electoral success is virtually zero.

One of the byproducts of this approach, however, is that hard questions are never asked of coalition partners and there is a tendency to support self-serving policies that may, in fact, be quite unfair to those outside of the coalition. The result is likely to be strong opposition from the outside, and quite possibly electoral defeat. It also tends to lead to bad decisions because it tends to be overly critical of the other side's policies and not critical enough of policies offered by one's own group. The result is usually deep divisions and a bullheaded commitment to deeply flawed political orthodoxies. The fear of offending one's allies also makes it hard for political coalitions to effectively respond to reasonable critiques that the other side might offer.

The solution to this is to recognize that the principle of being easy on people and tough on the problem has to be applied in a nuanced way. You have to toughen up people on your own side so they can be tough on the problem. People need to avoid becoming so personally invested in particular policy prescriptions that that they won't take a critical look at their own views and views of coalition partners. They also need to be willing to consider outside criticisms, even though they may be offered in ways that are not particularly easy to hear.  This, in turn, involves cultivating a sense of humility and a recognition that others have important insights to contribute and legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. In other words, separating people from the problem is not just a willingness to treat others with respect, despite deep differences; it is a willingness to allow others to challenge your beliefs about substantive problems and possible solutions without taking this criticism so personally that it undermines your joint ability to solve the problem. 

Now again, if the substantive problems were easy, the conflict probably wouldn't be intractable.  But as we pointed out in our Hate Bait newsletter, and James Coan also pointed out in his discussion with Heidi, the American citizenry is actually not nearly as far apart on the issues as we think we are.  Working through the "people problems" will illuminate that, and will pave the way toward more effective relationships and methods for resolving the much smaller differences between parties that are real. 

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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