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Conflict and David Brooks’ Moral Bucket List

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Recently David Brooks published a popular opinion piece titled “The Moral Bucket List” in the New York Times. In it, he contrasts two categories of virtue, one which he dubs “résumé virtues,” the other “eulogy virtues.” Describing his admiration of striking and enlightened individuals who excel in the latter, he argues that culture in the United States encourages people to focus too heavily on cultivating the first category, frequently at detrimental personal expense.

“We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

While acknowledging the importance and gratification associated with résumé virtues and career success, Brooks insists that this trend results in a kind of institutionalized disassociation.

“You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”

Brooks paints a compelling picture, and when it went online the piece struck a chord with a substantial readership. As a mediator I was struck most poignantly by the way Brooks’ perspective relates to interpersonal relations, and the consequences of putting the human aspects of our lives beneath our professional imperatives. All too often such an imbalance manifests in our relationships in the workplace, in the community, or at home. And all too often, it results in avoidable conflict or escalation. Reading Brooks’ piece inspired me to write this blog post about conflict related insights that can seem at odds with marketplace pressures, but that are essential for maintaining our humanity and, ultimately, the sense of humanity in all the social spheres we inhabit.

Developing Emotional Vocabulary

Brooks’ piece is brave and reaches people because he wrote about how our lives feel, not just how they are supposed to function in relation to “success.” One of the most important aspects of handling conflict in our lives is having both the courage and the vocabulary to talk about our emotional experiences. When it comes to courage and handling conflict, I confess that I recently experienced the humiliating gap that Brooks refers to with a potential client: a gap between my best self that I hope to realize in my work, and my conduct, which caused me to loose an assignment.

Being fully human with one another means acknowledging that there is an emotive layer at work for everyone in the room, and though it might often remain unspoken (especially in a professional atmosphere) if it becomes problematic it’s essential to be able to address it. We are all imperfect human beings doing our best in a complex world. I’m not proud of my conduct on that particular day but honestly reflecting reaffirmed my commitment to guarding against these “gaps” or imbalances between values and behavior. In this particular situation, there was no more space for dialogue, but I learned a tremendous lesson. Developing a richer emotional vocabulary forces us to formulate that emotive layer into language, and include it in our thoughts and analyses.

Compromise or Compete?

It’s an age-old formulation: will you lose too much in a compromise, and should you emphasize your competitive edge instead? In fact, in situations of conflict these aren’t your only two choices, and for a more nuanced overview of conflict strategies, you should visit this earlier post. But in light of Brooks’ piece, moments in which you are asking yourself this question might be moments in which you are choosing between your deepest sense of integrity and some marketplace pressures to succeed or emphasize your personal career success. Competition is healthy and can play an important role in a variety of contexts – but when it comes to conflict, it should be chosen intentionally and for the right reasons. Choosing to compromise and move forward more peacefully might satisfy your more human needs, the needs that Brooks is reminding us should not be ignored.

Step Back or Get Ahead?

Balanced relationships require that all parties are willing to at times step back, give up the limelight, perhaps take a more facilitative role, and quiet their voice in favor of someone else’s. Most of us intuitively know this, and yet sometimes it seems to rub up against that drive to get ahead and achieve. On the one hand, there are very rational and logical reasons to learn how to step back (for example more inclusive group work tends to result in greater strategic success). On the other hand, you might also find yourself making choices in this regard when the impetus to succeed is encouraging you to assert yourself, but when you also know there is a dangerous conflict brewing, or a sense of humanity at stake. There will be times when asserting yourself feels like the correct and justifiable thing to do, and it very well may be, but Brooks’ piece is a reminder that we should consider carefully. When it comes to conflict and relationships, you can be confident that your commitment to values will more likely reward your personhood, and your shared world.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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