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Is the Other Side as Bad as We Think?

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

How can they possibly support ____ for president?! Are they stupid? Have they been brainwashed by the media? Do they actually believe what their candidate says? How can they be so ignorant? What character flaws must a person have to support that candidate? All sides of the presidential campaign are asking these questions about each other.

Not understanding where the other side is coming from is a natural part of conflict. It happens in all different contexts of conflict. Employees who are fired wonder if it was discrimination. Spouses who’ve been betrayed wonder if they can believe anything the cheating spouse says. From my interactions with Comcast Corporation, I wonder if any human beings work there. Police officers assume the person they’re dealing with wants to shoot them. When a police officer shoots, others wonder where racism fits in.

Not only do we wonder where they’re coming from, we form beliefs. They ARE stupid, brainwashed, gullible, ignorant, selfish, racist and/or pathological liars. And if you believe that such labels can have some truth in them, we may even be right about our beliefs. So where’s the hope?

The transformative theory of conflict assumes that people have the desire and the capacity to understand each other better. Evidence that we want to understand each other better appears in how distressed we are by how unbelievable it is that the other side is doing what they’re doing. We aren’t happy when we’re asking “What can they possibly be thinking?!” We feel much better when we can say, “Ok, I get it.” Evidence that we have the capacity to understand each other better appears throughout history and our own experiences. Did you know that the descendants of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s now get together for an annual reunion? Have you ever made up with your partner after an intense fight? These things happen – we can do it.

With the help of time, reflection, face-to-face conversations, and/or a transformative mediator, people’s questions about each other lead to some answers. And the answers shed light on just where that other person is coming from. It often turns out that the other person isn’t quite as bad as we thought. Sometimes we can follow how they came to do what they did. Other times we might realize more clearly that the other person really is limited in some way, but we gain compassion for them.

Mixed in to that greater understanding of the other is our own increasing clarity about what matters to us and how best to pursue it. If we’re supporting a presidential candidate, maybe we gain insights into how to explain our candidate in a way that will be more appealing to the other; or maybe we get clearer about who might be more open to our message; or maybe we even have a change of heart about which candidate we’ll support. But the good news is that these sorts of changes happen – we get clearer about what we want and who we are – and we get clearer about what they want and who they are. And it always turns out that we’re all human beings.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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