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Divisive, positional conversations are lose/lose because for one person to be right, another person has to be wrong

I have been facilitating conversations on race, class, bias, stereotypes and other conflicting issues for much of my life. These conversations have always been challenging. Over the past several years, many community and national conversations have become very positional, divisive and denigrating when people disagree, often digressing into who is right and who is wrong, and loaded with judgment, blame and shame. We see this on local, national and global levels.

In the short time I have been in Oregon, I have observed this divisive approach to some of these conversations. There are many issues dividing our community related to race, class, bias; and from a divided perspective, nothing will change. As a mediator, I know that divisive, positional conversations are lose/lose because for one person to be right, another person has to be wrong.

My problem-solving role is to move someone from positional conversations to interest-based conversations. Interest-based perspectives shift the conversation to what is in the best interest of the other person, group or community over solely what I want. This is challenging because moving from positional to interest means I may have to give up what I want and do what is in the best interest of both of us.

I recently had an experience when something was said by another person that I felt was offensive, and we had an interest-based conversation about it — we talked about the offense and resolved the issue while maintaining the relationship.

I was facilitating a meeting for the Leadership Lake Oswego cohort about the biases inherent in communication. As we were setting up the room, my colleague used the term "pow-wow" in reference to a meeting that he was going to with a group of people. I immediately said that we do not use that term because it is offensive and we both went back to setting up the room.

Later, he came over to gain clarity about the term pow-wow. I appreciated the opportunity for further conversation, and explained that in my Native American culture, pow-wows are a spiritual gathering for community, celebration, family and prayer. I further explained that it can be offensive to Native Americans when the term is used to reference a general meeting. I shared that using the term is a form of cultural appropriation and that a pow-wow is nothing like a meeting.

My colleague recognized he had a blind spot, apologized and thanked me for clarifying what I meant. The exchange lasted about 15 minutes, we both learned something and moved on. Later, while he was facilitating the Leadership LO group, he shared the experience with them, from the perspective of how we can learn from each other. This is an example of a conversation that could have been very positional, yet we both chose to make it interest-based.

Removing judgment, shame and blame from difficult conversations allows for vulnerable sharing and a maintaining of the relationship. I would challenge everyone to think about whether you approach challenging conversations in our communities from a positional or interest-based approach. The more we can step out of our positional stances, and step into a stance of building understanding and learning alongside one another, the greater our chances of contributing positively to our community on local, national and global level.

Bill de la Cruz is a resident of Lake Oswego, national facilitator and author focusing on bias awareness and inclusion. Bill facilitates the Lake Oswego City Council's DEI Task Force.


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