We live in Arizona, and unless you’ve been vacationing in another galaxy, you know the rhetoric over the new law designed to crack down on illegal immigration is so hot you could fry an egg on it. Conversations, if they’re not avoided, tend to be incendiary.

We recently attended the showing of “9500 Liberty” directed by Coffee Party founder Annabel Park (a naturalized immigrant) and her boyfriend, Eric Byler. The film tells the story of Prince William County in Virginia, which passed a law similar to Arizona’s a few years ago. Soon after, a friend sent us an article published in Newsweek about the Coffee Party, recently organized by Park, along with this note:

"Thought you’d be interested in this article in light of your work. This passage, in particular, really hit me:

By the end of the event, some in the crowd had decided the movement, barely two months old at the time, needed a new leader. China Dickerson, a 26-year-old community organizer, said the Coffee Party wouldn't last "unless we get someone a little more powerful to head it." She wanted a rabble-rouser, "not someone that says we can all work together." Park seemed a little rattled after the meeting. "If they want to fire me, this may not be the group for them," she said later. "We don't want conflict and confrontation."

Seems to beg at least two questions relative to your work:

  • Is it possible to "have a point of view" AND "extend goodwill" when it comes to political (and other) dialogue?

  • What's wrong with "conflict and confrontation"? (Isn't there a place for it?)"

Her second question is easiest to answer from our point of view. Conflict and confrontation can be useful, absolutely. Lately, however, they seem to be the tools people choose first, instead of as a last resort.

According to Merriam-Webster, confront has two meanings: 1) to face, especially in challenge; and 2) to cause to meet: bring face to face. The first definition is more common, and in our view, it’s taken on a negative connotation. Although we have often used the word “confront” in our work, we focus on the second definition. We consider it synonymous with “raising difficult issues with goodwill,” which is a more precise, if less succinct, way of describing what we mean.

What struck me about the community profiled in "9500 Liberty" was the inability of people who lived there to manage conversations about their differences in a way that would have allowed them to find common ground. Unfortunately, we haven’t even seen much evidence that people want to find commonalities.  We see people reacting based on fear or other emotions rather on data and evidence. We see attempts to convince others that they're wrong, without acknowledging the complexities inherent in most issues. We see people trying to demonize the people who have different views, and shouting a little more loudly and more shrilly to drown others out. That lack of civility is demonstrated 24/7 in the media, where people make careers out of tearing others down, and that leaks into our everyday conversations with each other as well.

Even in these times marked by such divisiveness and incivility, I am absolutely convinced that people on either side of a divide have things in common. We can probably, for instance, agree that immigration is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. We likely agree that we want our views to be understood and respected. And even though our perspectives and approaches may be different, we all believe we have the best interests of our country at heart.

Managing differences and difficult issues through conversation is central to the work we do.  We don’t advocate avoiding conflict, we want people to address it effectively by supporting each other while confronting issues.

Supporting the person means extending goodwill, raising difficult issues in a compassionate way, and being a willing partner in resolving differences. Confronting the issue is a matter of neutrally stating the differences you see and letting go of the desire to “win” or get your way.

So back to the question my friend asks: Is it possible to "have a point of view" AND "extend goodwill" when it comes to political (and other) dialogue?
We absolutely believe it is. Here are 10 suggestions for navigating potentially difficult conversations we wrote for a workplace audience, but they are effective in any circumstance. Conflict and confrontation are natural and neutral — it is the ways we manage them through conversations and behavior that will make the difference between resolving and issue or escalating it.