The controversy surrounding the tragic death this week of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau reminded me of one of the foremost rules of conflict resolution: You must listen to the other side’s argument with the goal of understanding the opposing perspective.
Brancheau drowned when one of the Orcas, or “killer whales” held her underwater. Eyewitness accounts say the whale jumped from the water, grabbed Brancheau and shook her violently before submerging. See “SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Killer Whale”.
Some say that wild animals should never be in captivity because they will almost always respond to the less-than-ideal conditions in ways that will harm or kill their human caretakers. Others argue that for scientific reasons, and to gain information about how to care for populations in the wild, the animals held in captivity contribute to the greater good of their species. The benefits are worth the risks caretakers knowingly assume, they say.
When most people are in a dispute, the first thing they do is stop listening, or only listen with a view toward formulating arguments to prove their point. While that might help win an argument (and possibly lose a friend), it won’t resolve the conflict. The only way to settle a dispute or solve a problem of any kind is to listen carefully and with an open mind to what the other person is saying. Perhaps his or her point is actually true or has a valid basis.
In mediation, I learn people’s underlying interests by encouraging them to tell their perspective until they disclose what is really keeping them from resolution. That’s what listening accomplishes: a better understanding of what your opponent believes you are doing wrong and how he or she wants you to help fix the situation. If you listen the way a mediator does, you can also uncover a surprising number of commonalities and points of agreement.
If both sides of the whales-in-captivity argument would stop talking and start hearing, they might discover they have the same goal: the assurance that whale populations in the wild remain healthy and safe from extinction. Beginning from that point might allow them to resolve together the peripheral issues of how to provide the most natural and welcoming accommodations for whales in captivity and exacting safety measures for their trainers.