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Conflict Resolution

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We've witnessed far too many polarizing world events for a single year. From a contested presidential election to the death of George Floyd, and of course the COVID pandemic, we stand a rather divided people. While conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction, resolving any disagreement amidst this maelstrom of controversy can sometimes feel like a Herculean task.

For that, I introduce to you in this post my tried-and-true framework for resolving interpersonal conflict, the EVIL framework (muwahaha ๐Ÿ˜ˆ). Memorable yet questionable marketing names aside, I hope you find this way of approaching disagreements to be an additional tool in your toolbelt in any setting in your life from personal and professional relationships to broader social conflicts.

What is EVIL?

Everything is a function of Values, Information, and Logic.

E=f(V,I,L)E = f(V, I, L)

The EVIL framework posits that every single conflict you encounter arises from a fundamental disagreement in one (or more) of these three categories:

  1. Values: What you judge to be good, how you evaluate the results of a course of action or situation.
  2. Information: What you believe to be true about the world, the set of hypotheses you choose to accept as fact and the ones that you reject.
  3. Logic: How you make inferences and assumptions about what will happen given your information, the way you combine your information into conclusions.

The vast majority of resolvable conflicts I've seen that turned vitriolic did so because participants acted as though the parties disagreed about Values or Logic but actually disagreed about basic Information that wasn't made explicit. Two people can far too easily get lost in argument calling each other "stupid" or "heartless" when they actually have identical values and logic, differing solely in available information. By understanding each of these three components separately, you can begin to untangle some seriously challenging disputes in a relatively civil manner.

How EVIL Works

Most conflicts center around the perceived harm from a decision, action, or policy. The specifics of this decision, action or policy represent the conclusions where most discussion tends to occur, but is not the root cause. The EVIL framework is a straightforward process to identify and address the root causes of any conflict by openly communicating one party's position and inviting dissent rather than asserting the superiority of a particular position.

This makes EVIL a cooperative activity of hunting down the root cause of conflict together, then selecting a more appropriate method of addressing that specific type of conflict once it's identified. To make it easier, we structure this activity in three steps: Share, Identify, Resolve (just to make SIR EVIL your new favorite framework acronym ๐Ÿ˜).

To make it concrete along the way, we'll walk through an exaggerated example of Sir Evil and his son Evil Jr having a dispute over household chores. Sir Evil is upset with Evil Jr about the way he unloads the dishwasher, and Sir Evil is going to try to resolve the conflict using the EVIL framework.

1. Share

The first step in EVIL is to share. Share your entire thought process, what information are you using to reach your conclusions, what are you valuing to prefer outcome A over outcome B?

This requires a great deal of self-reflection and can be quite time consuming or challenging at first. You also might not like what you find upon self-reflection and end up changing your position. That's wonderful, conflict resolved! I'm sorry to say EVIL doesn't help prove that you'll always be right ;)

The key to success of this sharing step is to ensure you state your thinking as plainly as possible without injecting evaluative judgments in your explanation. Let's take a look at our example.

Sir Evil: Hey Junior can we talk about unloading the dishwasher?

Evil Jr: Ug, not this again! You need to chill about the dishes. You should be happy I even help at all.

Sir Evil: Here's where I'm coming from. I have a severe anaphylactic wheat allergy. I notice there are frequently crumbs on the counter. If I used a fork that had been resting on those crumbs, I would need to go to the hospital, and that would be pretty bad.

Notice how Sir Evil just shared information, without a single statement about Evil Jr's behavior. Let's break down what he shared using our EVIL toolkit.

  • He has a severe anaphylactic wheat allergy. (Information!)
  • There are frequently crumbs on the counter. (Information!)
  • If silverware touched the crumbs and he used them, he would go to the hospital (Logic!)
  • Going to the hospital would be bad (Values!)

2. Identify

The next step in EVIL is to identify the root cause. Once information is shared, the first opportunity to identify the root conflict lies with the opposing party to compare to the information they just received to how they were thinking about the situation.

Evil Jr: Oh, so this isn't about you being picky with the dishes, it's about the crumbs sending you to the hospital? Sir Evil: Well, yeah.

In this example Evil Jr catches on pretty quick, but if you're working with a more complicated issue (or a more realistically stubborn conflict partner), you might need to walk through each bit of shared information and confirm understanding individually.

Evil Jr: I don't get it. Why can't I just put everything on the counter?

Sir Evil: OK. Do you know that there are crumbs all over the counter most of the time?

Evil Jr: I never really thought about it, but I suppose there are.

Sir Evil: OK. Do you know what happens if I eat with a utensil that rests on those crumbs?

Evil Jr: Yes, your throat explodes.

Sir Evil: OK. Do you agree that my throat exploding and going to the hospital would be bad?

Evil Jr: (Reluctantly) I guess.

You'd be surprised how many conflicts are actually resolved just from effectively communicating what the problem was! In that case, the root cause wasn't any real conflict at all; it was all just miscommunication.

If you did identify an underlying conflict though, you'll need to move on to step 3, actual resolution of that root cause. At least this time you'll be armed with the knowledge of the type of dispute you're dealing with and all the common ground you already have.

Evil Jr: I still hate unloading the dishwasher the way you say though. Let me think.

3. Resolve

The last step in EVIL is to actually resolve the root conflict. There's no universal magic solution to this task, but in the subsections below we'll look at some common techniques to address each type of conflict. This step is still hard and doesn't always have an easy answer, but with EVIL's help we've hopefully greased the wheels of collaborative understanding enough to get you and your debate partner across the finish line.

Evil Jr: Oooooh, OK. If I clean the counter down can I unload the dishes however I want?

Sir Evil: Sure. That seems harder than my way, but works for me!

Evil Jr: Cool beans, Evil Dad.

Information Conflicts

Many conflicts of information between trusting, amicable parties are solved with communication. If you find yourself in a true information conflict, chances are you and your opposing disagreement have different profiles of what sources of information you trust. Here are some steps you can try to take to get back to operating with the same set of facts:

  • Find a mutually respected source to verify the information.
  • Seek out the needed information yourselves, together.
  • Treat this conflict as a new high-level conflict and start the EVIL framework all over again (yay recursion!).

To put this in concrete terms, if you had an argument with your partner about whether it was raining outside at this exact moment, here's what your options might look like.

  • If you trust Google's weather and your partner trusts Weatherbug and they're disagreeing, see if there's a third app you both like that could verify.
  • You could both go outside and feel if it's raining.
  • You start a new EVIL framework discussion around the specific disagreement of "Is it raining right now", breaking it down into what your definition of "rain" is, what locations you're referring to, etc.

Most strangers will not go through this much effort with you (nor is it necessarily worth your time either), so consider cooperation here a good sign that the opposing party values your perspective!

Logic Conflicts

Conflicts of logic arise when both parties have the same set of core operating information and the same value system, yet still arrive at different conclusions. Usually, this means one party has made an erroneous logical leap or has failed to make an important connection using their information. Either way, these are delicate conflicts to resolve. You don't want to adopt a condescending attitude or insinuate the other party is "stupid," especially when you're not sure if you're the "stupid" one yet!

A safer method for resolving these conflicts comes in the repetition of two simple actions:

  1. Clearly explain each step in your thought process. By breaking down your reasoning into clear, discrete pieces, you're inviting the opposing party to find any flaws in your logic rather than attacking theirs.
  2. Pause to check agreement. After every step, pause to check whether the other party agrees with that specific point before moving on to the next step. This ensures that both parties are on the same page throughout the discussion.

If you make it all the way to your conclusion while agreeing, congratulations you just resolved your conflict! If you didn't, you hopefully now have a narrower conflict to discuss and potentially apply the EVIL framework to yet again (yay recursion!).

Value Conflicts

Conflicts of values are the most challenging to resolve. What we judge to be good has been molded and shaped from the earliest days of our lives. Perceived assaults on our values tend to elicit strong emotional responses, which is precisely why the EVIL framework tries so hard to avoid accidentally triggering them! If you find yourself in a values conflict though, here are some strategies to try:

  • Find an authority you both respect to issue a values judgment.
  • Compromise and attempt to satisfy some aspects of both values.
  • Agree to disagree.

To put this in concrete terms, if you had an argument with a coworker about whether it was better to produce a higher quality result and deliver your project a week late (value quality over speed) vs. cut corners to deliver on time (value speed over quality), here's what those options might look like.

  • Seek out the opinion of mutual stakeholder in the project to settle the disagreement on which is more important to them.
  • Identify the most important parts where quality is a concern and renegotiate the deadline a day or two to accommodate the shift.
  • Acknowledge that there's disagreement that should be taken into account for the future but press on with just one of the options anyway.

No matter what you choose try to keep discourse civil and expectations realistic. Even when successful in all three scenarios above, you likely aren't changing the person's ultimate value system, you're simply getting temporarily alignment to accept yours for a narrowly scoped decision, and that's OK.

EVIL Examples

Below are some more examples of the potential root causes of a number of conflicts. Note that for each conflict, the parties may agree on everything else about the issue and disagree about the correct conclusion due to any single one of the root causes.

The Home

Consider a conflict at home about whether to buy a new washer and dryer.

  • Values: One partner values saving money for future security more highly, while the other values current quality of life improvements more highly.
  • Information: One partner has not witnessed any problems with the washer or dryer, while the other observes problems on a regular basis including ones that have led to the damage of several items of clothing.
  • Logic: One partner thinks that buying a new appliance now will save money in the long run by avoiding repair costs, while the other thinks that waiting until the appliance breaks down is actually more cost-effective.

The Workplace

Consider a conflict at work about whether to implement a return-to-office policy.

  • Values: One manager values in-person collaboration more highly, while another values employee autonomy more highly.
  • Information: One manager has anecdotally observed decreased productivity during remote work periods, while the other has data showing that productivity has remained stable or even improved.
  • Logic: One manager thinks that having employees in the office will lead to better communication, while the other believes that remote work can be just as effective.

The World

Consider a conflict about whether masks need to be worn in all public places.

  • Values: One person values public health more highly, while another values individual freedom more highly.
  • Information: One person got sick with COVID while wearing a mask, while another has read a report that wearing a mask makes it less likely to transmit COVID.
  • Logic: One person thinks there is minimal negative effect on others if they get themselves sick, while another thinks the impact of COVID is larger than cancer.

Practical Tips

Using the framework effectively requires a thoughtful approach and some practical considerations. Here are a few miscellaneous tips to help you navigate conflicts while staying EVIL.

Why It Works

In my experience, this framework is effective for a combination of reasons:

  • Building Common Ground: EVIL builds common ground early in the conversation and helps people realize how much they agree on before asking them to tackle their disagreements. By identifying shared values, information, and logic, you create a foundation of mutual understanding that makes resolving the eventual conflict easier.
  • Appeal to Rationality: People love being right and many more love proving others wrong. By genuinely sharing your thinking and saying "point out my flaws," you get to exploit this tendency. This approach invites the other party to engage with your logic and information critically, putting yourself in the defensive position instead.
  • Honesty & Self-Reflection: EVIL forces both you and the other party to be honest about your motivations, or at least provide an acceptable enough version of your motivations you're willing to share out loud. Even if the latter doesn't resolve the conflict, it can still be a win. If someone isn't willing to articulate the root cause of their disagreement, they might realize their reasoning is too weak or selfish on their own. (When this is you, own up to it early and say the other party was right!)

Stay Detached

The EVIL framework only really works when you can remain detached enough from the outcome of the discussion to objectively state your Information, Values, and Logic without emotional appeals. I recognize this is no small ask and a significant privilege in the grand scheme of conflict. If you're too close to the subject to engage directly, find an ally who might be able to do it for you! An ally can help articulate your points more objectively and keep the conversation on track.

Active Engagement

The EVIL framework requires active engagement from both parties, so it's certainly not a panacea for single-comment flame wars. Both parties need to be willing to participate in a meaningful dialogue. This occurs most often when everyone already has a strong incentive to get along (spouses, family, friends, coworkers, etc.). This lets you quickly get into the needed cooperative mode because they either know you well enough to assume some positive intent from the start or are willing to grant you enough of the benefit of the doubt to get past the high-tension fighting phase.

Working with Strangers

The framework can still work with strangers and more divisive issues, but you need a lot more effort in positioning yourself as someone who wants to understand the problem. Establishing trust and showing genuine interest in the other person's viewpoint is crucial to extract genuine engagement in a discussion from the other side. This might involve more initial groundwork to build rapport and demonstrate that you are approaching the conflict with an open mind and a willingness to listen.

Blurry Lines Between Logic and Information

The line between logic and information is blurry. One person's logic is another person's information; it all depends on what axioms you're starting with. A key strategy to try here is that if information is disputed, you can treat it as a new conflict. Find lower-level supporting information that you can agree on and try to work your way back to inferring the originally disputed information. This approach helps break down complex disagreements into more manageable parts and can reveal where the true points of contention lie.

Irreconcilable Differences

Some conflicts are indeed just the result of irreconcilable differences. For example, you may have a difference of information and struggle to find an authority which you both would accept hypotheses from. In such cases, it might be necessary to agree to disagree and find a way to coexist despite the differences. Recognizing when a conflict is irreconcilable can save time and emotional energy, allowing you to focus on other conflicts where resolution is possible.

Not a Silver Bullet

As mentioned above, the EVIL framework is not a silver bullet, just another useful tool to employ when navigating thorny relationships with other humans. It offers a simple yet powerful method for resolving conflicts by addressing the root causes of disagreement with the support of the common ground you share. Whether you're dealing with a minor misunderstanding or a major dispute, may your conflicts be ever EVIL ๐Ÿ˜ˆ