Too many times, well-meaning people cannot emotionally separate the personage of the other party in conflict from that party’s positions.


To do this successfully requires an understanding of (and caring about) the difference between principles and interests.

  1. Principles are based on values, traditions, and narratives that give meaning to each party in a conflict.
  2. Principles are typically non-negotiable and—when it comes right down to it—parties in conflict view their principles (when they think about them at all) as their “Alamos.” In essence where they land emotionally, psychologically, and narratively in a conflict as a last resort.
  3. Principles do not change, they are “baked in.” Principles go to the core of who a person is, and why they value what they value.

Interests are none of these things.

Interests are negotiable, ever-shifting, mercurial in their manifestations and outcomes, and temporary at best. Interests may have a high negotiating price, but they are negotiable.  Interests can unite disparate parties around the pursuit of a common goal, but this unity may sometimes come off as cynical to others, based on avoidance and accommodation of other conflicts, and ultimately damaging to both parties.

In the current society and culture in the Western world, there is a lot of confusion around principles and interests. Many individuals and organizations confuse their interests for their principles by using the language of principles while actually expressing an interest. What follows from such confusion is social shaming, public bullying, and even emotional, legal, and cultural efforts to engage in the destruction of the character of the other party in a conflict.

This is part of the reason why many social media-based movements fizzle and die: It’s easy to dump a bucket of water on your head to support a cause (interest), but it’s hard to go to a place where people who have different principles from yours gather and actually get to know them as people (principle).

Conflicts in the culture, the workplace, schools, and churches grow ever more violent, corrosive, and detrimental to all parties as the line between principles and interests becomes more and more confused.

What’s the way out? Well, there are three steps, each harder than the last:

  • Decide what you believe. In a conflict scenario, take some time and examine your own motives, interests, and your deeper principles. This seems easy, but much like empathy, active listening, anger management, and many other areas of conflict, if you’re choosing not to do it, then it won’t be easy. It will be hard.
  • Separate people from positions. Positions are always based on interests. Principles are always based in character. Hate the sin, but love the sinner. Easy sounding, but hard to do for each party in a conflict, no matter what the root cause.
  • Unite with the other party on principles. This is the hardest thing to do because it requires leaving the comfort zones of separation, demonization, bullying, and “othering” and requires each party to go and see “how the other half lives.” By the way, if you think that you know how the other party thinks, feels, and what their principles are because of a few examples of behavior in the past (or present), you really don’t.

When we separate people from positions, they transform, from the image that we have of them in our heads to the reality that they are in the world. We get an opportunity to preserve their autonomy, freedom, and integrity. And, we don’t take actions to escalate conflicts, pushing the other party toward their personal conflict “Alamos.”

And we avoid pushing ourselves there as well.

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  • I had to read this a few times to get it into the context of what you’re trying to say. Once I got there I saw where you wanted to go, and I can’t disagree with it. From a leadership position I tend to believe that it all starts with leaders allowing others to shine and express themselves as long as it’s all under control. When it’s concerning conflict one has to be ready to discuss things as equals without the barriers of status within a company because the top dog, or the one who believes they’re responsible for something at that time, probably feels a need to be “right” at the risk of causing bigger rifts.

    Glad I worked my way through this; now you can tell me if I got it right. lol

    • Thanks for commenting Mitch! Many leaders (and the people who think that they are leaders) use the language of principles to talk about interests and positions. This leads to confusion for the follower, the audience member, or–in the case of a company–the employee. This confusion deepens conflicts and results in resentment and bitterness on the part of all parties involved. This confusion is also why escalation occurs–with parties resorting to blaming, name calling, bullying and other forms of intimidation. Uniting with people we don’t personally like (but who share the same principles) is what organizations need to have more of, not less of.

      I think you go it right Mitch.