Review and Reflection to “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable” by Daniel Shapiro

I picked this book up after watching a Youtube video that included the author. The subject was about dealing with conflict in healthy ways. This is something that I think is so very needed since our society in so many aspects are full of conflict. And if seems as though there are few that are seeking healthy ways to resolve the conflict that exist – there is more of an emphasis on winning conflict, rather than resolving it. The difference is important. Winning is an all or nothing game in which no one really wins, we all lose, it’s just a matter of by how much. Resolution though is about taking everyone into consideration. The subtitle of the book is “How to resolve your most emotionally charged conflicts.” So, let’s dive in because there is a lot of great insight in this book. 

The premise, which will run through the entire book is this – “You can’t resolve such conflicts unless you address them at the root – which stretches beneath rationality, beneath even emotions, to the heart of who you are: your identity.” (Pg. xvi). At its core, this is about understanding identities and communicating effectively with those identities. 

One of the first points that Shapiro makes is about the different dimensions of conflict resolution. He names three key dimensions of who we are as human beings:

  1. Homo economicus – This is the idea that people are rational beings. “…your main motivation is to get your interests met as efficiently as possible.” (Pg. 9)
  2. Homo emoticus – This is about our emotions. “…emotions can facilitate conflict resolutions – provided that you can listen to what they are telling you. Just as hunger alerts you to the necessity of food, emotions alert you to unmet psychological needs.” (Pg. 10)
  3. Homo identicus – This is about our identity. “…human beings seek meaning in their existence.” (Pg. 10)

The key point in this last dimension is that it “entails not just your individual identity but the space between you and the other side.” (Pg. 11). This is a key understanding when we get to conflict resolutions. Is the space between us deep and wide, or is it easy to bridge? 

From understanding of key dimensions, Shapiro spends time diving into aspects of identity. He talks about how identity is both fluid and fixed. Within this the author identifies what he calls the five pillars of identity which help us to find meaning in life. The five pillars of identity (Pg. 17) are:

  1. Beliefs refer to specific ideas you hold true.
  2. Rituals are personally meaningful customs and ceremonial acts, such as holidays, rites of passage, regular prayer, or evening dinner with the family.
  3. Allegiances are felt loyalties to an individual or group, such as a family member, friend, authority figure, nation, or ancestor.
  4. Values are guiding principles and overarching ideals, often conveyed through a single word, such as justice, compassion, or freedom.
  5. Emotionally meaningful experiences are intense events, positive or negative, that define a part of you. They comprise everything from the day you got married to the hour your first child was born, the moment your parent slapped you to the memory of mass violence conducted against your group.

The key here is this – “The sooner you realize which of your own pillars feel threatened, the more readily you can address those vulnerabilities and refocus on resolving the conflict.” (Pg. 17)

Shapiro then turns to another aspect of identity – the relationality of it. “Your relational identity is the spectrum of characteristics that define your relationship with a particular person or group.” (Pg. 19) In other words, how do I coexist with someone who is different from me. He talks about affiliation and autonomy. “Affiliation denotes your emotional connection with a person or group.” (Pg. 20). “‘Autonomy’ refers to your ability to exercise your will – to think, feel, do, and be as you would like without undue imposition from others.” (Pg. 21). Impact either of these too much, and you will find yourself in conflict. Or as Shapiro says, “In a conflict, the core relational challenge is to figure out how to satisfy your desire to be simultaneously one with the other party (affiliation) and one apart from the other party (autonomy).” (Pg. 23). 

So, now that we an understanding of our identity, the question is how do we “avoid getting lured into conflict?” (Pg. 26). We need to be aware of what Shapiro calls the Tribe effect, which is “adversarial,” “self-righteous,” and “closed.” (Pg. 27). The five lures of the tribal mind (Pg. 29) are:

  1. Vertigo is a warped state of consciousness in which a relationship consumes your emotional energies. 
  2. Repetition compulsion is a self-defeating pattern of behavior you feel driven to repeat.
  3. Taboos are social prohibitions that hinder cooperative relations.
  4. Assault on the sacred is an attack on the most meaningful pillars of your identity.
  5. Identity politics is the manipulation of your identity for another’s political benefit.

The second section of the book focuses on each of these lures, one per chapter, offering the reader advice on how to break free from each one after recognizing what the obstacles are. So much of this is about stopping repeat patterns, listening, being aware, and being open to learning. In sum, be intentional when you find yourself slipping into conflict. And recognize that you are in conflict. That’s half the battle and sets you up to resolve the conflict in a healthier way. 

The third section moves to reconciling relations. In here, Shapiro argues that the traditional methods of conflict resolution – “positional bargaining and problem solving – are insufficient to achieve transcendent unity in an emotionally charged conflict.” (Pg. 142). Instead he argues for “integrative dynamics – emotional forces that pull you toward greater connection, with the most stable connection being transcendent unity.” (Pg. 144). Integrative dynamics are essentially the opposite of the tribes effect because they are characterized by a communal mindset that is “cooperative,” “compassionate,” and “open.” (Pg. 144-5). Shapiro offers a four-step path to follow (Pg. 146-8):

  1. The Objective: Strive for harmony, not victory.
  2. The path to harmony is nonlinear.
  3. The path to harmony comprises both the past and the future.
  4. The path to harmony requires emotional and structural transformation.

Along with this, Shapiro talks about the “Mythos of Identity.” (Pg. 149). This is a powerful concept that we use unintentionally all the time. He’s asking us to be intentional with the mythos of identity instead. “Of all the stories that fuel conflict, none affects you more than your mythos of identity – the core narrative that shapes how you see your identity in relation to that of the other side.” (Pg. 149). What is the story we are telling about who the victim and the villain are and can that narrative change to something more cooperative, compassionate, and open?

Shapiro then moves to an aspect of conflict that many avoid – the emotional pain that is associated with it. And this is important because, “Forgiveness appeases our conscience, but retaliation feeds our thirst for revenge.” (PG. 173). If we don’t deal with this in a healthy way, we will go down an unhealthy path. He talks about three stages that people need to go through (Pg. 175-182):

Stage 1 – Bear witness to the pain. “To heal you must feel. You cannot bear witness to pain if you tiptoe around it.” (pg. 176).

Stage 2 – Mourn the loss. “Notice what you have lost and what can never be again.” (Pg. 178)

Stage 3 – Contemplate forgiveness. “To forgive is to free yourself of victimhood.” (Pg. 180).

Another aspect of building relationship is connections and reshaping relationships. This is about examining the relationships you have. 

In the last section, Shapiro looks as how we are able to negotiate the nonnegotiables. He starts off with the ancient concept of dialectics. “The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus proposed a unity of opposites: the notion that everything in the world is determined by its opposite.” (Pg. 220). Think of how this might be applied to a variety of relationships. So often we do this naturally. Many people define who they are based on what they are not, or the opposite of who they are. Shapiro says that there is a three-pronged strategy to navigating this:

  • “First, become mindful of the dialectics struggling within you.”
  • “Second, feed the force that gets you where you want to go.”
  • “Third, recognize that dialectics affect the other party, too.” (Pg. 221)

He then goes on to identify three dialectics for us to struggle with:

  • Acceptance versus change – “Most conflicts hinge on two essential truths – (1) everyone involved wants to be accepted, and (2) nobody wants to change.” (Pg. 222)
  • Redemption versus revenge – “Whereas vengefulness undermines relationship, redemption makes space for communal spirit. To redeem a relationship requires you to believe in the possibility of reconnection, making amends, and restoring positive bonds. But redemption is more of a mindset than a skill. It is characterized by courage to recognize your insecurities, compassion for others’ suffering, and moral determination to build better relations. The potential for redemption resides within everyone.” (Pg. 229)
  • Autonomy versus affiliation – “This dual desire to be one with another (affiliation) and one from another (autonomy) represents the third dialectic. I believe this is the essential dialectic of coexistence – and it confronts us with two dynamics that can escalate conflict: one that threatens your autonomy and another that endangers your affiliation.” (Pg. 234)

The last chapter talks about reconciliation and Shapiro makes three quick, but important points here (Pg. 239-40):

  1. Reconciliation is a choice. 
  2. Small changes can make a big difference 
  3. Don’t wait

Throughout the book, Shapiro doesn’t just offer ideas, but shares stories of how the ideas have been applied and when they have been ignored. 

My takeaway from the book is that there are methods to resolve conflict in healthy ways. The key though is a willingness to apply them. And that means sometimes you have to go it alone – your opponent may not know or be willing to resolve the conflict. But you approach the other party as something other than an enemy to be defeated, but rather as a person to be understood and someone with whom you have a gap in the relationship, then you are on a path to resolution. St. Francis of Assisi, in his famous prayer, talked about things he desired and what we are called to – “to be understood, as to understand.” Conflict is inevitable because human beings are complex creatures. Our identities give us a sense of meaning in the world. And they cause blind spots in how we see the world. And while conflict might be inevitable, cruelty, violence, vengeance, and hatred are not. We have a choice in how we handle conflict. We can seek what is best for ourselves and the other party, or we can approach the world from a scarcity mindset that there isn’t enough to go around and so we need to get what is ours. One leads to peace. The other leads to destruction. In theological terms, negotiating the nonnegotiables is about moving us towards shalom – wholeness, completeness, and peace. Refusing to resolve conflict leads to destruction and pain. We have a choice. 

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