I recommend four books that are helpful in probing, analyzing and addressing the stresses and tensions that develop in all kinds of relationships, within marriages and families, between siblings and friends, in the work place and community, between ethnic, racial, and religious groups, amongst nations and peoples, and in relationship to terrorist organizations.
At a time when crises increasingly define what transpires between nations, when polarization escalates in American partisan politics, when many media sources report biased and non fact-based reports in the service of partisan agendas, when so many interpersonal relationships remain dysfunctional and destructive, we individuals and our society need thoughtful guidance about how to effectively restore sanity, stability and integrity to our relationships and effectively reduce stress, tension, harm, and suffering to all concerned.
Difficult Conversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Penguin, 2010 – A NY Times business bestseller that reflects fifteen years of research. The authors offer a step-by-step approach to reduce stress when tough conversations are inevitable, and to reach successfully new understanding and compromise in all kinds of relationships. This is a practical guide that analyzes the impact of what happens when conflict occurs and how to move through it productively and in one piece.
The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, Vintage, 2012 – A superb work that analyzes the moral presumptions (based on people's genetic and psychological makeup, religious, national and cultural backgrounds) upon which we respond to events and form our relationships. The author explores how and why we do not understand others, judge and demonize them. Dr. Haidt is a Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business and earned his doctorate in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He employs the metaphor of a rider (representing reason and logic) and an elephant (representing intuition and non-rational responses) and why the choice of the elephant is almost always determinative while the rider acts as a kind of adviser and “press agent” for the elephant and rationalizes whatever the elephant chooses to do. Haidt is persuasive in showing that in order to understand who we and others really are (friends and foes), we need to be able recognize what the elephant intuitively wants and how the rider rationalizes the elephant’s choices.
From Enemy to Friend – Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Orbis, 2014 – Rabbi Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She spent many years working in pastoral care, hospice and spiritual direction, and is a seasoned peace activist. (A personal note – Amy is a friend and a significant voice in the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet that I co-chair nationally. I would recommend highly this book even if I did not know her personally). Amy brings to her work high emotional intelligence and psychological sophistication. She unself-righteously advocates for kindness, compassion, generosity, curiosity, and the softening and opening of the heart in all tough and contentious interactions with individuals and groups even as she advocates for courage, clarity, determination, and boldness in speaking and acting upon one’s own truth. Amy's voice is deeply Jewish, and she utilizes a wide array of classic Jewish texts with sensitivity and skill as she lays out the necessary ground-work of peace-making, to which she has devoted her life. I hope this book will be translated into Hebrew and Arabic, as it would open up new possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.
Bargaining with the Devil – When to Negotiate, When to Fight, by Robert Mnookin, Simon and Schuster, 2010 – Dr. Mnookin is chair of the program on negotiation at the Harvard Law School and has practiced and analyzed the art and science of negotiation in a wide variety of settings. He considers in depth seven polarized situations and the choices that were made. The seven include the Hungarian Jew Rudolf Kasztner’s choice to bargain for Jewish lives with the high Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, Winston Churchill’s decision not to negotiate with Adolph Hitler and instead to go to war, Nelson Mandela’s negotiations from prison with the Apartheid regime, a 1980s software war that challenged the budding industry's understanding of intellectual property rights as it played out between an American and Japanese firm, contract negotiations between the San Francisco Symphony’s management and the musician’s union, a contentious divorce proceeding, and a sibling struggle over a father’s estate. Dr. Mnookin takes us through all the ethical, moral and practical choices involved in each case including the interpersonal dynamics involved and a cost-benefit analysis, and he explains how each incident resolved.
None of these four works argues that every hostile, tense and polarized conflict is able to be resolved in compromise. Yet, there are times when even bargaining with the “devil” (as Robert Mnookin described Rudolf Kasztner’s choice) is better than not doing so. Mnookin also demonstrates why refusing to bargain with the devil, as Winston Churchill did relative to Hitler, was the right choice.
Taken together, these four books represent a mini-course on conflict resolution.