• Catherine

Can you separate the person from the problem?



At the weekend, quotes from unnamed Conservative MPs contained references to "knives", a "noose", and "the killing zone". They also stated that "she'll be dead soon".


As we all now know, these comments were directed towards the PM, Theresa May.


The violent imagery, together with the very personal nature of such aggressive commentary, has been widely condemned. But why has discourse and the vocabulary used when dealing with conflict (because this is a conflict issue - conflict over Brexit, leadership and competition for the "top job") become so vitriolic and obviously personal?


In Getting to Yes, Fisher & Ury write extensively on separating the person from the problem, in a negotiation scenario:

“If negotiators view themselves as adversaries in a personal face-to-face confrontation, it is difficult to separate their relationship from the substantive problem. In that context, anything one negotiator says about the problem seems to be directed personally at the other and is received that way. Each side tends to become defensive and reactive and to ignore the other side’s legitimate interests altogether.”

One of their suggestions to move away from this approach is for each party to try to frame themselves in a collaborative relationship with the other. This way, everyone is working collaboratively against the same problem. The stress and tendency to personalise conflict is reduced.


Easier said than done of course. But how might the Brexit negotiations and the current state of political discourse in the UK have looked if everyone tried to separate the people from the problem?


There'd certainly be less of the ugly, unhelpful and disrespectful language that we've heard recently. And the prospect of maintaining good economic, social and cultural relationships with our near neighbours over the coming years might just have been a bit easier to visualise.

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