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Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., is a world-renowned expert on negotiation and conflict resolution. He founded and directs the Harvard International Negotiation Program, which has pioneered innovative strategies and teaching methodologies to[…]

Americans are increasingly falling into the “tribal trap,” according to Dan Shapiro, author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

The tribal trap often centers on politics. Those ensnared in it will do anything they can to shut down the other side in an effort to prove that their side is right and the only possible way forward. But from abortion to immigration, the problem is often not what we’re arguing about but how.

In other words, how can we have more productive conversations? In this Big Think interview, Shapiro uses his negotiating expertise to outline several strategies to escape the tribal trap and communicate effectively, including understanding the core values of the other side, listening intently to what they’re saying, conveying that you understand what they’re saying, and finding common ground.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: I personally feel uncomfortable around conflict.

BLACK & WHITE FILM: Now, we're here today to find out how to argue.

SHAPIRO: But conflict is useful. The question is, how do you deal with conflict the most effectively? Here we go. I am author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally-Charged Conflicts. Have you found yourself in an argument that felt so frustrating, so at a core aggravating?

BLACK & WHITE FILM: That's the silliest opinion I've ever heard.

SHAPIRO: It felt just nonnegotiable? Well, congratulations, you're a human being. We all experience conflict in our lives, and seeing what's going on in our world today, my hunch is you were probably having at least one of these conflicts about politics. Our country has fallen into what I believe is a tribal trap. Anything that that other side says, I shall not believe, I shall not give any credibility to, and I'm gonna do everything I can to prove I'm right, you're wrong, and to stifle you down to raise me up.

The problem is not with the what, what are we arguing about, the problem is with the how.

BLACK & WHITE FILM: How should we argue?

SHAPIRO: How can we be more effective? And what I've found is that there are three big barriers that we can actually overcome to have more effective conversations. The big things, one, identity, two, appreciation, and three, affiliation. Let's start with identity.

BLACK & WHITE FILM: Now, first of all, this is a hot issue.

SHAPIRO: Why do we get so emotional in these conflict situations? It often goes back to something deeper: identity. What are the core values, the core beliefs that are feeling threatened inside of you as you're having that conversation with the other side? The moment your identity gets hooked in these conflicts, all of a sudden your emotions become 100 times more powerful. Boy, this is a wholly different conflict now. It's now your pride. Your sense of self is on the line. 

You need to know who you are and what you stand for. What are the values and beliefs that are driving me to fight for this stance on this issue? The more you understand who you are, the more you can try to get your purpose met and stay balanced, even when the other threatens those core values and beliefs. Each side wants to feel appreciated, and yet the last thing they want to do is to appreciate the other side. That's a problem.

BLACK & WHITE FILM: Listen and understand.

SHAPIRO: When you're in the midst of the conflict, don't talk. Take the first 10 minutes. Consciously listen to the other side. What's the value behind their perspective? What's the logic, the rationale? Why do they hold this perspective on immigration or healthcare? Once you truly understand and see the value in their perspective, let them know I hear where you're coming from, and you know what? That makes sense. There is nothing more in the world that we like than to feel appreciated. Recognize your power to appreciate them.

Third, affiliation. What's the emotional connection like between you and the other side? We typically approach these conflict situations as me versus you. My opinion on healthcare versus yours, my party's perspectives on immigration versus yours. That's just gonna leave the two of you like rams butting heads.

BLACK & WHITE FILM: Find common ground.

SHAPIRO: Turn that other person from an adversary into a partner, so it's no longer me versus you, but the two of us facing the same shared problem. Ask the other person, "Look, what's your advice on how we can get as many of our interests met at the same time?" Change the nature of your conversation. 

Now, you put these three things into practice, it can transform your relationships. Imagine what would happen if we started a revolution, but a positive revolution of greater understanding, greater appreciation, greater affiliation, how we could transform politics, how we could transform our country and ultimately our world. I believe it's possible, but it starts with each one of us.