One of the most important conflict resolution and negotiation lessons I ever learned came from scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He taught me that real shifts come not from seeking conclusions, but from pursuing curiosity.
The summer before I left for college, I had the very good fortune to spend a week with Isaac, Isadore Adler, and other luminaries at The Rensselaerville Institute, then known as the Institute on Man and Science.
That summer’s institute invited the group of us to answer one question with our best thinking: Imagine that we’ve made contact with extraterrestrial life…how should the public be told? While my 16-year-old self didn’t realize it at the time, that memorable week watching, learning from, and talking with these brilliant thinkers was the first step I took in what ultimately became my career in conflict resolution. Contemplating how to communicate effectively, manage fear, and embrace possibility are, after all, key elements of my work today.
I treasured Isaac. He was a thinker like few I’ve met since, a warm-hearted thinker – and an instigator and prankster. And every time he passed me on the Institute’s walkways, he’d hum a few bars of the Tammy and the Bachelor movie’s theme song. When he signed a copy of his book Extraterrestrial Civilizations for me, he riffed off that song and wrote, “To Tammy, with whom I’m in love.” I still treasure that book.
Isaac Asimov was the first person to teach me how to think expansively and to cultivate my curiosity instead of my judgmentalism (which, frankly, didn’t need a great deal more cultivation…I bet yours doesn’t, either). In my diary from that summer, I wrote something he told the group of us one day at the lunch table:
People always think scientists love the Eureka! moment. Eureka! is fun, yes. But I prefer Hmmm, that’s interesting… because that gets us on the trail of a new discovery.
Indeed. Training ourselves to be curious during conflict, instead of certain, is a fundamental shift toward better negotiating, more creative problem-solving, and setting the stage for possibility to sprout. It’s the difference between acceptable resolution and elegant resolution.