The host of a program on NPR recently asked the guest that common, conversation-starting question, "If you could have lunch/dinner with 3 famous people dead or alive, who would they be?" Maybe I'm influenced by the time of year and the recent commemoration, but when I ask myself who one would be, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., humanitarian, and leader of the civil rights movement.
The exciting part to me about meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. would be the opportunity to converse face-to-face with a man who espoused ideals that I hold, and through those, achieved much success. He encouraged and maintained nonviolent resistance as a tool to overcome America's struggle with civil rights in the midst of rampant violence. His commitment to his ideals was recognized by the world community when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, as well as when countless others awards and medals were bestowed upon him before and after his untimely death in 1968, just days before I was born.
Were he alive today, I imagine that his exceptional oratory skills and willingness to tackle the hardest subjects would shape a fascinating conversation of some of our most challenging, but not altogether new global humanitarian issues - war on poverty, war on drugs, terrorism and global civil wars, financial greed and corruption, and more.
As a professional in the world of negotiation, conflict resolution, and communication, I would ask Dr. King questions related to the intersection of our interest in reducing tensions among individuals and groups. Of course, any responses I imagine that he would provide are projections from my own experiences and viewpoint combined with interpretations and conjecture of how history has captured his philosophy.
As a fun exploration, here are three questions that I would ask to dive in to the areas we hold in high regard and my imagination of his responses, using his voice at times.
Why is it important to remain calm in times of conflict?
Your ability to act calmly can have a transformative effect on other people. When the anger (or fear masked as anger) they are expressing is not fed by your equally heated negativity, you are more likely to reduce their energy and arguments to a level that is more manageable for addressing the conflict through conversation. And, let us not confuse calm with passivity because one can be both calm and assertive.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." - MLK, Jr. from a sermon published in his book “Strength to Love,” in 1963
How do you right yourself when you’re knocked off balance?
If you expect to experience challenges along the path to agreement, then you will have already given yourself the ability to anticipate different ways of responding (but not retaliating). When those challenges present themselves, getting out of the way, and using time to let the intensity subside will give you a clearer mind from which to regain your focus on the results you want. The question is how you get there and simply trusting in yourself is one way.
"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." - MLK, Jr.
How do you begin to make peace with your adversary?
Be open to and give a sign that you are willing to work on the relationship. Small gestures are encouraging and can lead to dialogue. Being persistent and creating and responding to positive signals moves the relationship in a peaceful, conciliatory direction. This allows you to bring your best mindset to the situation and stay more sure-footed when opening discussions. As you model peace and focus on common ground, you will see the conversation turn in the direction of repair rather than watch the relationship deteriorate further.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” - MLK, Jr. at Oberlin College Commencement Address, June 1965
I believe that the manner with which we pursue conflict resolution must come from a place of caring and peace, one that models the expected result, balances the energy in the situation, and offsets further movement in a negative direction. In his quest to attain civil rights for African Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused this belief: "Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." He drew heavily upon the philosophy and practice of Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who also deeply influenced many of his people in the pursuit of freedom from British rule.
And that’s a perfect segue to deciding who would be the next remarkable person to invite to lunch. Try it yourself - who would you pick and why?