How to see when language fails

How to turn conflict into progress

Let’s consider conflict online or in-person in three levels:

I. Default combat.

When our ideas clash with someone else’s, our gut reaction is to start an ideological dog fight.
Blood, excrement, and dirt fly until one dog “wins.”
But everyone feels a little queasy after, from the participants to the bystanders (not to mention the dogs.)

Fighting it out with our dogs (ideas) as a proxy makes conflict marginally less personal than going head-to-head ourselves, but everyone still knows who held the leash.

Nothing productive is accomplished in default combat: at best, it feels like shouting to the wind. More often, there’s lasting relational damage.

Most of us wisely avoid this default combat, especially online, where the language gap between the heart and the head leads to Grand Canyons-sized chasms between perspectives that no one sees, but everyone falls into.

II. Win-Win Sparring.

Hopefully, we mature beyond combat and begin to debate in order to learn; This stance requires redefining “win” to mean honing a better understanding through opposing forces.

Win-win debate is like sparring: if practiced well, both players step away with mutual respect, better-honed arguments, and no lasting damage.

Win-win conflict requires engaging in a disagreement out of goodwill: Curiosity, not condemnation. Affection, not aggression.

III. Innovative Synthesis.

The rarest arguments move beyond win-win to synthesis, which is a win-win-win: both perspectives benefit. And so does everyone else due to the newly emerged innovation that forms alchemy-like in the process.

In synthesis, conflicts don’t end only with better-opposed understandings but with a map of how the seemingly dueling perspectives actually align and support each other in dynamic tension.

Unlike a vicious dog fight or strength-building sparring, synthesis is akin to hitching our ideological dogs to a sled and zipping off in the same direction together.

  • The mix of Paul McCartney’s bubbly optimistic pop and John Lennon’s cerebral avantgarde angst brewed a musical revolution.
  • The odd coupling of Steve Jobs’s vision and charisma paired with Steve Wozniak’s obsessive technical nerdiness birthed the most valuable computer company in history.
  • Modern democracies emerged in part by holding judicial, legislative, and executive forms of governance in dynamic tension.

None of these examples are without their pitfalls, of course. But they share a common thread with most world-changing ideas: they were synthesized from what many people saw only as opposing forces at the time.

The path to synthesis.
How to reach synthesis.

Arguing to synthesis is complicated enough but made more so by language itself: defining the terms of a conflict about anything important is an immensely tedious undertaking.

First, we miss the forest of the trees & the trees for the forest. Simultaneously, we fall into the language gap between the heart and the head.While intelligent, good-faith disagreement is a prerequisite, my hypothesis from there is that we can reach synthesis more quickly by zooming out and thinking in space, symbols, and pictures, not words.

Mental maps keep me optimistic that today’s seemingly intractable conflicts may also be synthesized into something better.

Religion vs. science,
capitalism vs. socialism,
social media vs. real-life conversation,
empathy vs. reason,
progressives vs. conservatives;

These often-supposed opposites might be synthesized into something new and better if we can move past the gaps in our language to visualize how they support each other instead of pitting them against each other.

That’s the space I hope to explore with the Chaos Map in 2021, and I’m glad to have you on board if you’re along for the ride.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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