A while back, Dr. Crazy posted an excellent essay on Consensus v. Compromise. It meant a lot to me, because I’ve always preferred to think of myself as a consensus-builder. I think to some extent this is true, but I also am pretty sure, in retrospect, that what I have seen as consensus is in fact consensus amongst 90%, with a move to a vote. I also work on a campus where consensus is valued. Now, it’s a campus where consensus is still dependent upon administration approval, and where consensus is often assumed. Moreover, I have to admit that what I see as consensus is often consensus reached by compromise. I like compromise. For me, compromise generally represents a solution where a wide range of voices and interests are represented. This is good.
Ok, not always.
But generally, I like to think that I work with people who have good ideas and who are working towards the same goals. I fully admit that I don’t have all the answers, and that other people, especially those coming at things from a different angle, might have better answers. My mind can be changed. In fact, it’s pretty easy for someone with a good argument, or a better/different understanding of a situation, to convince me to change my mind, especially if it’s on the best or most efficient way to accomplish something. On the other hand, until I hear that argument, I am likely to argue my own views passionately. And if I’m in a meeting, and offer my ideas, and the other people affected by a decision say the things that indicate that they like those ideas (like, “yes, we really need to focus on X”, or “that’s a good idea — we should try it”) and don’t offer any other ideas, well… I kind of assume consensus. If there is lasting disagreement on something that affects a group I am in, and the issue is put to the vote, I assume that everyone will abide by that vote, even if they choose to lobby for reconsideration. The decision is made. It’s not cast in stone, but it is semi-permanent, and lasts till it’s overridden or circumstances change.
What does this have to do with conflict avoidance? Well. I have recently realized (I know, this is embarrassingly naive) that there are a lot of people who may well want consensus, or even compromise, but are so conflict-averse that the normal arguments and discussions that bring about compromise seem to them to be actual conflict. This is true in both important personal relationships and professional ones. This week, I got hit with both at once, and I hate that feeling of not knowing where the ground is, or whether it’s solid under my feet. I get why people are conflict-averse. I really do. I was raised in a family where normal intellectual arguments could shift quickly from ‘arguing sides of a political question’ to ‘OMG, this is all about winning, and people really hit below the belt and try to hurt‘. A family where decades-old hurts are dredged up over and over again. No, really… decades old. I am currently in charge of communicating with someone I’ve never met, one of my mother’s cousins, who is her age. She refuses to speak to him, even though there are family business matters that require them to be in contact, because of something that happened SIXTY years ago. It’s Aunt Ada Doom, but even weirder. But this is not how grownups are supposed to behave, especially in close personal relationships or at work. And arguments over things that concern a lot of people, especially policy or process decisions, need to be made in good faith and need input from everyone involved; otherwise, the decisions can end up being meaningless. People who don’t agree, but don’t say so — people who don’t work towards a decision everyone (or sometimes the majority*) can live with — just end up saying yes, but doing their own thing.
I don’t know how this feels to other people, but for me it creates a very uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance. It erodes trust, because it hits all of my buttons for dishonest behaviour. I realize that conflict-avoiders don’t see it that way. In fact, they may even feel they have been pushed into things, and refusing to follow through is their way of pushing back. In small groups of people who have to get along, whether it’s romantic partners, siblings, people in student-professor relationships (the kind we are supposed to have), or colleagues, it can be really destructive.
I suppose it all depends on one’s world view. I tend to think in a communitarian way. Social contracts, common good, general common goals, etc. So it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around a world where everybody just does their own thing. I’m more of a “do my own thing in pursuit of a common set of values” kind of person. Hmmm. That didn’t end the way I thought it would.