Conflicts of Interest

A local psychologist offers a step-by-step guide to resolving disagreements.


Negotiating the Nonnegotiable by Daniel Shapiro

Published by Viking, $28, 336 pages

Whether a conflict is between the leaders of giant countries or corporations—or within the tiny nation of a marriage—defensive feelings run high. Psychologist Daniel Shapiro, founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, has developed approaches that blend emotional, cognitive and political ingredients, inviting parties to consider their differences in ways that actually make them interesting.

His latest book begins with a role-play exercise at Davos, where Shapiro asks CEOs and other VIPs to create imaginary “tribes” that rapidly become us-vs.-them enclaves. When attendees are tasked with choosing a single tribe to represent them all, they’re unable to reach a consensus; each tribe trumpets their frozen beliefs and certitudes, despite having formed only an hour ago. It’s a revealing anecdote about identity, which Shapiro shows is not just a solo stance, but something that operates on an interpersonal level. He goes on to offer self-reflective exercises that open up new choices—“Should I forgive?”—and allow us to consider the beliefs and feelings of the “Other.” Diagrams invite disagreeing people to acknowledge the past and see the larger systemic picture with curiosity and respect. And Shapiro presents examples not only from his work with governments and Fortune 500 companies, but from his own family, as in a step-by-step look at how they decide where to go on vacation. With Shapiro’s help, conflicts develop a therapeutic richness as the characters in the plot untangle their narratives and move toward reconciliation and relief.

From Page 174An emotionally charged conflict causes pain for everyone involved—which is precisely why it demands understanding and compassion. By bearing witness to each party’s emotional pain, mourning the loss incurred, and moving towards forgiveness, you can begin to heal. As poet Roethke observed, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”


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