How to Make Friends
Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.
In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.
We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.
But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.
For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.
But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.