The dying art of disagreement

Ross Paull |

“As digital communication accelerates the pace at which people form and broaden relationships, it is also decreasing the rate at which people are willing to resolve issues professionally and directly in–person” Anthony Tjan (CEO, Cue Ball)

The advent of the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other and, as a result, the way we handle conflict. Thanks to the splintering of media, the shared public square, where ideas and arguments are robustly exchanged, has shrunk.

Our interactions on the Internet has also fostered closed habitats. On a positive note, it allows us to hang out with like-minded people. However, all sorts of cognitive biases are flourishing in these cocoons. Echo chambers only serve to heighten the confirmation bias.

This damages our ability to deal with conflict because people have become unaccustomed to engaging in serious debate to test their thinking, perceptions, and responses.

We call it the dying art of disagreement. We’re forgetting how to listen before we disagree and the old football idiom “play the ball not the man” has been well and truly reversed.

I recently came across Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains” (2011). It explores the cognitive consequences of the internet on our neurological pathways and compares and contrasts linear (paper) versus digital (screen) environments.

He makes the observation that reading a book is now seen as old-fashioned as sewing your shirts. Linear narratives like those we associate with reading books, is calmer, focused and undistracted. On the other hand, digital reading is associated with words such as browse, scroll, scan, skim, links and staccato.

Digital immersion creates a cognitive environment that is short, disjointed, overlapping and fast - the faster the better! Carr’s thesis is that the more you multitask, the less deliberative you become, and the less you are able to think and reason out a problem.

The always-on world piles on even more challenges. As well as being unpractised in debate and having our thoughts constantly interrupted, we’re also less inclined to resolve matters face-to-face. Email has become the defacto tool for issue resolution. Email isn’t the problem though, it’s how we’re using it. Endless strings and threads congest the system to reduce our productivity. Email is the digital artery that clogs and we end up with:

  • Haphazard workflow which suits message-oriented content;

  • Information that has to be pieced together;

  • Rushed, abrupt replies that can damage the tone of conversation.

Email chains can prolong debate with back-and-forth strings where intentions and interests are easily misunderstood. Email can also be a convenient mechanism for avoiding issues.

What does this mean for dispute resolution?

Consumer expectations have changed. Living digitally in the always-on economy means that travel-based, in-person meetings and hearings no longer cut it for many people. Many industries are moving towards a central portal for accessing their consumer base (for everything, from cars and real estate through to dating). The demand is for immediate, relevant and quality experiences.

As well as handling the pain points of the disputing parties during their customer journey, organisations that handle a large volume of disputes deal with a great many pain points of their own.

Guided Resolution’s focus has been on how to best use technology to improve the process for everyday people. But the thing is, we see technology as an opportunity to augment and streamline existing dispute resolution protocols rather than disrupt and replace. We don’t see ourselves as “Uber” technology looking to usurp existing business.

We simply concluded that resolving disputes (early) required four key elements that could be modelled into a software solution:

  • Objective assessment to downplay emotion;

  • Identify and document points of contention;

  • Understand the other side’s position to avoid misinformation; and

  • Direct communication between the decision-makers.

Guided Resolution’s online intervention uses problem-solving negotiation to help parties:

  • Inventory their needs and wants;

  • Classify and compare them; and

  • Search for actionable win-win solutions.

Feel free to take advantage of a trial use of our public mediation portal and hopefully you’ll see how we’ve tackled some of the “always-on” problem spots such as listening and linear-thinking.