One reason disagreements turn into conflict and ongoing tension is our failure to see — or acknowledge that we see — the other person in the way they most deeply wish to be seen in the world. One way to disagree better is to respond to their bid to be seen, not with miserly reticence, but with generosity of spirit.
In Zulu, a traditional greeting is Sawubona — I see you. A traditional response is, Yebo sawubona — Yes, I see you, too.
The greeting is a recognition and acknowledgement that truly being seen by others is deeply important to humans. We want others to recognize our humanity, to affirm that we’re valued for who we are.
Truly seeing another is about seeing the equal human in front of us, beautiful and ugly, perfect and flawed, just like us.
When disagreements turn into ongoing friction and conflict, our ability to recognize and acknowledge the other in their entirety diminishes. We tend to stop seeing them whole and instead focus on, and even amplify in our minds, the parts that irritate, frustrate, or anger us. They are likely doing the same about us.
This is one of the reasons that runaway arguments and ongoing interpersonal conflict can feel like such struggles to sort out. We’re no longer discussing the precipitating issue; we’re defending our very identities.
What needs to be seen
When we conflict, we tend not to talk explicitly about the parts of our identities that we want seen and acknowledged. We talk around it. We make them guess.
Maybe we get angry, too, first because we’re not being seen, later because we expect them to just know how we want to be seen. The closer they are to us, the more frustrating this feels.
Anger can be understood as amplification of the desire to be seen.
We want to be seen as someone who matters, matters enough that others will pause and pay attention, even for just a little while. This is true at work and it is true with our loved ones at home.
We want to be seen as someone whose words, ideas, and opinions have value, even if there’s disagreement over the specifics in those words, ideas, and opinions.
We want to be seen as a generally fair and reasonable human being, even if we don’t seem very reasonable at this very moment. Surely they understand that moments of unreasonableness do not make us entirely unreasonable beings.
We want to be seen as a valued member of our tribe (team, family, friends), valued enough that our place in the group is secure and we can remain in fellowship with others.
We want to be seen as capable, even if we are not competent in every single thing we do. When we make a mistake or suck at a certain task, we still want to be valued for being a generally effective human.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. Some of the most common big identity triggers in conflict tend to be fellowship, reliability, autonomy, competence, integrity, and status. I wrote a lot about these triggers in my second book, The Conflict Pivot.
How to see more deeply during conflict
One way to disagree better is to try seeing the person we’re arguing with, and make sure they know we are trying to see them.
This could take some effort because we may have to wrangle our ego and our confirmation bias into submission for a while. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with this, I remind myself that having a thought and believing it are two different things.
What does it sound like to communicate we’re trying to see someone?
Maybe we say, “What you’re saying matters to me. Help me understand better.”
Maybe we ask, “What is the most important thing you want me to understand right now?” or “What do you most want them to understand about you?”
Maybe we stop being miserly with our acknowledgements. We become miserly in conflict because we don’t think they deserve our generosity of spirit. This is a shame, because that’s when generosity can have the truest impact.
When we stop being miserly, we allow ourselves the space to say things like, “You know, when I said that you aren’t pulling your weight with the housekeeping, I wasn’t meaning to imply you don’t pull your weight at all. I am grateful for how much you contribute to our lives together.”
Or like, “I want you to know that task wasn’t handled well. And I also want you to know that it stood out to me because so much of what you do here is done with excellence.”
Another way to disagree better is to help them save face, because losing face is a blow to identity. Identity is about how we see ourselves in the world and want others to see us. When we lose face, we work extra hard to try to get it back. This makes conflict and disagreements more tangled.
How do we help someone save face in the midst of an argument?
Maybe we don’t confront them in front of others, because being called out in front of others makes them lose face.
It is very hard to keep a conversation productive when one person is losing face just by being there.
Maybe we try not to blame, because while blame makes us feel good, it makes them lose face. They will struggle very hard to be seen more fully when we blame.
Maybe we bite our judgmental tongues, knowing that phrases like, “Can’t you just be a little reasonable” don’t work and make them lose face. They will work unreasonably hard to show us just how reasonable they really are.
Maybe, when we realize we’ve got the upper hand, we don’t take it.
Maybe, if we’re leading the conversation and we see their frustration escalating, we take a break and give them time to get their feet back under them.
How to be seen during conflict
If we fear they’re not seeing us, we can ask, “Can you help me out here? What do you understand I’m trying to say?”
We can also do the harder thing and name our fear out loud. It might sound like, “The most important thing to me here is acknowledgement that I’m good at what I do, even if in this one instance I screwed up.” Or, “It feels to me like my integrity is in question here and I want to talk about that.”