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✍🏻 Can We Write a Third Story? 📓
Getting Out of the Tar Pit
"...[High Conflict] draws us in, appealing to all kinds of normal and understandable needs and desires. But once we enter, we find we can’t get out. The more we flail about, braying for help, the worse the situation gets. More and more of us get pulled into the muck, without even realizing how much worse we are making our own lives.” -Amanda Ripley
Remember the dress that broke the internet?
Back when I thought about social media primarily in terms of Carpool Karaoke and Lonely Island, the internet became bombarded with a debate over whether or not this dress was blue and black or white and gold:
While it turns out that the entire debate was simply a matter of light interpretation, I’m sure that many of you recall how invested people became in what was, in hindsight, a silly and inconsequential argument.1 After all, who cares what color the dress is?
But that’s not the point. The object lesson from the story of that mysterious dress is that once people adopt an opinion on even a matter of minor consequence, they get invested in proving the rightness of their position. Imagine how invested they get when their opinion is of major consequence.
As the events in Israel and Gaza continue to occupy my mind, I want to move away from anything that resembles a current moment and keep zooming out to specific Moneyball-infused ideas that can inform how we understand current events. And while last week we focused on the narratives we employ when explaining a group failure, this week we will focus on how groups can share completely different narratives about the same conflict.
The saddest moment in my leadership practice came when I realized that someone shared such a different perspective from me that it felt impossible to move ahead productively; this moment started a descent into a tar pit from which neither of us could get out. But, like most leadership tragedies, it does not need to be this way. And if we cannot overcome intractable disagreements between individuals, how can we ever expect large groups of people to do the same?
Returning to the metaphor from last week’s issue, visualize a current interpersonal conflict you want to resolve. Write down your account of the situation. We are going to call this Story 1.
Let’s say that the person with whom you have this conflict also reads Moneyball Judaism and writes down their version of the situation. We will call this Story 2.
In any conflict, if you ask each side why the conflict exists, you will never get precisely the same answer (because if they ultimately agreed, there wouldn’t be a conflict.) Instead, most disputes involve Story 1 and Story 2 competing with one another to become the dominant narrative. Sometimes, one story “wins” over the other, but most of the time, the conflict persists because Story 1 and Story 2 both have some merit but not enough to overwhelm the other.
However, what if instead of trying to get Story 1 to “defeat” Story 2 (or vice versa), the people in this conflict created an entirely new story together? Ultimately, they would make a “Third Story,” a concept from a fantastic book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (DBS).
In conflict, DBS argues that we start from “inside our own story,”2 the view from our perspective about why there is a conflict in the first place. And not surprisingly, the person on the other end of the conflict starts from inside their story. As a result, the story each person operates from “invariably (though often unintentionally) communicates a judgment about…[the other person]...the kind of person they are – and the fact that inside our version of the events, they are the problem.”3 However, while telling a horrible story about someone else, the other person does the same thing about us. And the longer each of us insists on living inside our story, the deeper and more intractable the problem becomes.
DBS advises that getting out of this morass begins with both sides telling a “Third Story,” a new story about the problem that “a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem.”4 Once two people can agree on this new story, new opportunities sprout. They write:
“One of the most helpful tools a mediator has is the ability to identify this invisible Third Story. This means describing the problem between the parties in a way that rings true for both sides simultaneously. It’s easy to describe the problem so that only one of the disputants would agree with it – in fact, that’s what each of us does when we begin inside our own story. The trick is being able to get two people with different stories to sign on to the same description of what is going on.”5
Writing a Third Story means that each side partially abandons the story they began with and acknowledges that something different is happening. As such, no one can write a Third Story without “giving up” something. But the hope is that creating a new story means everyone gains something.
If the word “story” bothers you now, I get it (read the footnote below.)6 The term “story” immediately evokes an image of something that is partially true (at best), and there are examples where one narrative takes hold, and for a good reason. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.
And, one need not look far to think about how the writing of a third story applies to our current moment.
Getting to Yes
If the concept of a Third Story resonates with you, I highly recommend learning about one of the unsung heroes of Israel’s first peace agreement with Egypt in 1979: Roger Fisher.
Fisher founded the Harvard Negotiation Project and advised Secretary of State Cyrus Vance about the negotiation tactics critical to this peace treaty's success (what today is known as the “one-text process” or “single-text negotiation.”) Fisher and William Ury describe this technique and others in Getting to Yes. If I could, I’d mandate that every person subscribing to this newsletter read it.7
In our current moment, pay special attention to Fisher and Ury’s advice that when trying to end a conflict, “Don’t deduce…[someone’s] intentions from your fears.”8 When dealing with a seemingly intractable problem, “[people] fall into the habit of putting the worst interpretation on what the other side says or does.”9 The more either side feels that the other side only wants to make our worst fears a reality, the opportunities decrease for negotiation, creativity, and coexistence.
And bringing us back to the present moment, countless people from different groups will openly share that they are afraid of destruction, death, poverty, persecution, safety, etc. And I’ve rarely heard a claim made by anyone close to this conflict whose fear is wholly unreasonable. The problem is that those fears are reasonable and entrenched to the point where any negative critique from another side reaffirms the pre-existing fear. Fisher and Ury write:
“Ultimately…conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads. Truth is simply one more argument—perhaps a good one, perhaps not—for dealing with the difference. The difference itself exists because it exists in their thinking. Fears, even if ill-founded, are real fears and need to be dealt with. Hopes, even if unrealistic, may cause a war. Facts, even if established, may do nothing to solve the problem.”10
If more sides could mutually acknowledge how reasonable it is to be afraid, one could begin writing that elusive third story to move slowly from an environment of fear to an environment of progress.
Simon Sinek and William Ury
Since I didn’t give Ury enough love…
What I Read This Week
What If I’m Wrong?: Daniel Dennett is a tour de force in philosophy and cognitive science, and I love his writing, even if he’s an atheist. I loved this recent piece by Dennet, where he argues that rigorous thinkers should ask, “What if I’m wrong?” in the same way doctors should constantly check their practice against the Hippocratic Oath.
How Many Secular Jews Are There?: Ryan Burge’s “Graphs About Religion” is one of my favorite writers on religion, and Burge is a rare combination of a minister who is also a data-driven academic. Burge has mainly written about Christianity but just wrote a great piece on Judaism.
A Few Lessons on Showing Up: Simple lessons on leadership always inspire me, which is why this piece on the power of just showing up is a must-read. In hard times like these, showing matters more than ever.
Cuisine of the Self: Rabbi Francine Roston, one of my earliest rabbinic mentors, encouraged me to read a book about cooking and think about its connection to the rabbinate. A fascination between the rabbinate and culinary arts has occupied me ever since, one of many reasons I loved this profile of Kwame Onwuachi in The New Yorker.
Zero-Problem Philanthropy: This is a much larger conversation, but it remains fascinating how much money can be thrown at specific problems with nothing to show for it. Yet progress is still being made. This piece challenges our thinking by arguing that a healthy context is required before resources should be devoted to solving it.
Don’t even get me started on whether or not corn is a fruit, vegetable, grass, or grain…those who get it, get it.
The authors include a section on 10 common questions people ask about difficult conversations, and, not surprisingly, this is the first question. While I would read the entire section (and the entire book, frankly), here is one passage I’ll highlight:
…even when discussing facts, where there is disagreement it is imperative to find out what the other is seeing and how they make sense of it. Is it simple error, a lack of information, misinformation, or selective and revised memories, or are the facts themselves more ambiguous than you had appreciated? (239)
DBS argues that there is a crucial distinction between identifying what the facts are versus what the facts mean. The only way to understand that distinction is for both sides to have a learning conversation.
One of my teachers in rabbinical school, Rabbi Craig Scheff, once told me that he requires every couple he marries to read Getting to Yes during pre-marital counseling.