by Emily Plews, MBA/MS student at the Erb Institute, Class of 2010.
- A story of people who were able to collaborate in spite of disagreements about the science of climate change
- A description of how the positions we negotiate can be red herrings that prevent us from achieving mutual interests
- Focusing on positivity and commonality can move us past polarization on red-herring issues
I had volunteered to obtain 20+ signatures necessary to close downtown streets and reserve a large city park for an inaugural city-wide Earth Day celebration in Columbus, Oh. The task was as daunting and tedious as it sounds. I had to go to at least ten different municipal offices, in a certain sequence, to get officials to sign off on the complex details of road closures, fireways, and crowd control. If even one person refused to sign, the event was canceled.
I had slogged through the process of getting every signature I needed, except one. The last signature needed came from a local businessman. I walked past his assistants and into his giant, decorated office and knew the cards were stacked against me.
I showed the businessman the proposed layout of the Earth Day event and made my request. He immediately and firmly said, “No way.” I retorted with some reasonable arguments and questions to surface options and got no where.
Then he asked me if I believed in climate change.
This question began a series of crazy turns in a conversation that lasted for an hour and a half. The businessman had read many books that questioned the validity of climate change and challenged me with that information. I was not knowledgeable about his specific claims. I could tell my responses were weak.
At one point, the businessman said, “I bet you don’t like this politician, either.” It was true that I did not like that politician very much. The businessman then told a story of very personal, kind, human experiences his family had with the politician that I admitted to disliking.
I was moved by the personal story. That empathy mixed with a mess of confusion, anger, exhaustion, and anxiety already brewing in me. I started to sob. He handed me tissues and continued telling his story. I listened.
When the tears and embarrassment subsided, I felt empty but strangely strong. I waited for a long enough pause to acknowledge the kindness of the politician to his family and change topics slightly. I asked him if his family recycles. He took pride in telling me how his kids always recycle and how they changed all the lightbulbs in their house. I then wondered out loud, ”Does it matter if you believe climate change?” One could argue that it matters, but in that moment it didn’t.
This question confused the businessman. As he pondered, I told him about the educational mission of the Earth Day event and how many of the ideas we had hoped attendees would “take home” appeared to be already under consideration by his family. I let him know that I cared deeply about encouraging others to take those steps too, and that is what the event was all about. I started to leave in calm defeat, but he revisited my documents on his desk, made me promise to change a couple things, and signed on the line. As I left, I told him that I hoped to see him and his family at the event.
One of the striking lines in this story (and the one we will reflect on today–leaving others to later blog entries) is Emily’s question, “Does it matter if you believe in climate change?” Two observations make this question strinking:
- There is considerable money spent on, arguments over, and even rancor felt, in our society today, over the question of whether or not there is climate change.
- In the end of her story–and perhaps in the end of many, if not most, of the other stories in our society where people are fighting over climate change–the answer is “No.” It does not matter.
Please do not misunderstand the point here. Does it matter whether or not we are destroying the planet we live on? Of course it does. But in many of our fractious and polarizing debates–the battles that are crippling rather than enhancing our ability to move forward collectively and productively (as in Emily’s conversation)–climate change is a red herring. It does not matter.
This observation is a great example of what Fisher and Ury  describe as the difference between positions and interests. In a negotiation, a position is a stance you take, a material outcome. For the businessman in Emily’s story, it appears that the material outcome he wanted was something along the lines of getting others–Emily in particular–to recognize that climate change arguments are not correct. Because he nwas aggressive about his argument, and because Emily does believe in climate change, she fell into a trap of taking the opposing position and arguing with the businessman–even though her expicit reason for entering the room was to get a signature approving the street closure for Earth Day.
An interest–in contrast with a position–is the reason why we take the specific positions we take in our negotiations (or conflicts) with others. We do not know why the businessman felt so strongly about refusing climate change. Perhaps it was because of the economic impact that legislation about climate change would have on his life or business, because he believes that the scientists who do climate change research are not honest, or because it conflicts with the political doctrine he subscribes to. What we do know is that, in the end, the position that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change had little to do with his opposition to Emily’s efforts to organize an Earth Day. He and Emily actually both care enough about conservation or polution or the planet they share that the climate change debate, in the end, was irrelevant. The businessman negotiated some changes in her proposal, but in the end found that he was largely on the same side as Emily.
In our experience, this is a common phenomenon in organizations. The issues that people get worked up about, and that create anger, contention, disruption in operations, and even significant financial problems are often red herrings. Sometimes the problem is that issues have been unnecessarily tied to other issues that they need not be tied to. Sometimes, people just need to know that they and their opinions are valued and then the “big” issues melt away. But whatever the reason, productive conversation and positive organizing often require us to ask what is behind the contentious issue and what we really want. When we do, the possibilities it opens up to us can often be astounding.
Our goal in this blog entry has been to help us see how issues that seem real may not actually be the real issues at all. Because of the human propensity to focus on the negative  we often get caught up in unnecessary conflict and fail to recognize that we often have more in common than we think we do. Emily’s efforts to focus on what they did have in common opened up a unique opportunity for collaboration. In subsequent blogs, we will use ressearch to analyze some of the other conversational moves that made this exceptional outcome possible.