Thursday, September 15, 2005

Antagonism is unnecessary

Finished a hefty tome the other day, and went to a book discussion about it at my local library: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.

I won't dare to summarize the book here, but would like to mention something it explores: what I call the original win-win philosophy, which came from Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago in the 1800s.


Here's a quote within a quote about famous educator John Dewey, one of the thinkers profiled in Menand's book:

In 1894, Dewey had been much impressed by—Menand describes it as almost a conversion experience—the teaching of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, that conflicts of interest are finally "unreal."

[Menand quote] His strategy was to promote, in every area of life, including industrial life, democracy, which he interpreted as the practice of "associated living"—cooperation with others on a basis of tolerance and equality. He hoped that in the long run this would lead to a more just order. The hope had its philosophical justifications, which Dewey spent his career trying to spell out. But it was also the expression of a singularly irenic personality. He had taken Addams’ teaching to heart: that antagonism is unnecessary, that it is based on a misunderstanding of one’s best interests, and that it leads to violence.
--Richard John Neuhaus, The Public Square
Quoted from First Things, the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life.


Antagonism is unnecessary, and it is based on a misunderstanding of one's best interests.


This idea blows me away whenever I stumble upon it, so you'd think it wouldn't surprise me anymore. What's fascinating to me is how long this idea has been around. Its most recent incarnation is Steven Covey's "Win/Win" philosophy in 7 Habits for Highly Effective People.

Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. … Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. … It's not your way or my way; it's a better way, a higher way.


Finding that higher way is in everyone's best interests.


I’m reminded of a challenging time for me at my last job. A fellow manager and I had to produce a newsletter each week under tight deadlines but with the highest quality. First, she tried to write it and I would edit, but that took too long. So then, I would write it and she would edit it. Trouble is, with the speed with which we were working, my writing wasn't always great and her edits weren't always gentle.


The process became increasingly upsetting until there was a bit of a blowout. But we were good enough friends to stop, take a moment or two, and try to find another way to go about crafting the product.


Fundamentally our work was based on trying to provide the most valuable information to our customers, the subscribers. The customer came first. We trusted each other completely in that regard, and were committed to not letting interpersonal rough patches get in the way of that goal.


When we put that common goal out front, we could see this wasn't about us, but about them. Eventually we devised a system where I would write the piece, and then the two of us would sit down together to go over it line by line. Her gut reactions to the text were easier for me to process when I could hear her reasoning, and I learned a lot about customer communication.


And the funny thing is, these weekly meetings became about much more than newsletters. We'd get that out of the way fairly quickly, then spend time discussing challenges facing the project or encouraging each other in other ways. It solidified our relationship and made us much better managers. We'd found a higher way.


I wanted to see what Mary Baker Eddy, a contemporary of Dewey and Addams, had to say about conflict. Here's what I found:

The suppositional warfare between truth and error is only the mental conflict between the evidence of the spiritual senses and the testimony of the material senses, and this warfare between the Spirit and flesh will settle all questions through faith in and the understanding of divine Love.

--Science and Health


Huh. Turns out then the best way to settle conflict is not to have one side win, but to eradicate the conflict itself.


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