Human Services Consulting and Training

Separating People From Positions

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:

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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