Understanding the Other

Understanding a fellow person’s point of view is often extremely hard, yet it can be extremely powerful. Beyond our opposable thumbs, language and large brains – our ability to coordinate our actions into group priorities is probably the most defining human skill. We are remarkably good at discussing, finding compromise and choosing a path of action for a collective group. Yes, we have a war here and there, but we’re generally good at it.

I recently read three great books on negotiating, discusing hard issues and understanding another person’s moral perspective. Getting to Yes is a quick and easy read on negotiation tactics, it could be boiled down to: discuss principles, not positions. This classic negotiation book outlines easy skills you can employ in any negotiation.

Difficult Conversations is the follow up to Getting to Yes. It explains how to understand another person’s history and perspective on an issue. It walks through how to put yourself in the some else’s shoes and find solutions – or at least communicate better.

The recent book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, lays out a six pillar moral fondation that all humans use to evaluate decisions. It is an amazing book that is already having an impact in the political world. The six pillars he identifies through various studies are Care for the other (poverty), Harm to others (golden rule), Sanctity of institutions (church), Respect for Authority (father-son), Loyalty to a group (sports team, military) and Liberty and oppression (government, laws). You can read a detailed description of these pillars here and you can see Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk where he summarizes his findings. Haidt argues that Liberals (lefties) put much more emphais on the first two, while social conservatives place an equal(ish) emphasis on all six. There is a lot more meat to it than that, so I encourage all to take a look.

These three books are well written that really help you see where you’re priorities and concerns lie and where someone else might be speaking from. As with many great books, these ones analyse and then systematize many ideas and principles we know in the back of our mind, but have difficulty implementing or applying. I’m personally looking forward to using these tactics in a charged political discussion soon.

If all of us – especially those in the political world – read these books, the world would be a much more civil place. Of course, we will never agree on everything and political parties and opinions are here to stay, but these books paint a fascinating portrait of the human condition and how it alters our perception of the world.

Published on May 20, 2012