Michael Toebe

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Bridge Building is a Superpower Anyone Can Develop…but Many Won’t

Bridge Building is a Superpower Anyone Can Develop…but Many Won’t

Disputes and conflict do not always bring out our best selves. We tend to want to avoid both or fight for what’s important to us. Rare is it that we think “the way” through the negativity or drama is to build bridges.

Yet that is one of the ultimate “people skills” and no hyperbole to claim the capacity to build bridges as a superpower.

This is not some new idea either. As humans, we’re just slow to learn certain truths and wisdom, much to our detriment, not only culturally but in our closest relationships, personally and personally.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges,” Sir Isaac Newton communicated, and he was and remains “right” about it. This habit of building walls in difficult times shows our base instinct, which isn’t always an accurate assessment of a situation. We often lack understanding and a clearer vision, as do other people. Thus, solutions become less likely and more challenging.

“Pride builds walls between people, humility builds bridges,” Rick Warren has communicated. Warren is saying that our ego is what inspires building walls in how we interact with people. It takes humility, without a doubt, to build bridges instead with people, whether to prevent disputes and conflict or skillfully, morally navigate and resolve them.

Humility is always possible for us yet we too often make it a nagging struggle. Humility is not always as palatable as we would like in certain situations and that means bridge building is not going to happen. Wall building, driven by our fight-or-flight instinct, is what we do most, which makes us feel powerful.

When there is a crisis, what then? There is a Nigerian proverb that speaks to this situation.

“In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”

Did you see it? Who builds bridges?

Who builds dams?

Maybe two more important questions become, who then are we in such situations and which person would we like to be and known as — wise or foolish?

Too often, the evidence reveals we don’t mind being foolish. We find that becomes our comfort zone, believing ourselves to be wise when we might, at least in some situations, be foolish instead. And yes, this can be and is how other people react emotionally too.

Have you heard of a golden bridge? Not the Golden Gate Bridge, but a golden bridge? William Ury, author of both “Getting to Yes” and “Getting Past No” has written about it at length. The term dates back to a military strategist named Sun Tzu and his writings entitled “The Art of War.”

In the context in which Ury was communicating, he learned that you build your “opponent” a golden bridge to retreat across so it makes it easier for them to want to do such. Let them save face, right? Ury, meanwhile, believes a golden bridge can be used in an equally helpful way — as a way for you and another person (or group) both to cross over from disputes, conflict or crisis.

Take a look at how Ury describes it:

“Frustrated by the other side’s resistance, you may be tempted to push—to cajole, to insist, and to apply pressure.

“But pushing may actually make it more difficult for the other side to agree. It underscores the fact that the proposal is your idea, not theirs. It fails to address their unmet interests. It makes it harder for them to go along without appearing to be giving in to your pressure. And it makes the prospect of agreement seem, if anything, more overwhelming.

“Consequently, the other side is likely to resist all the more. In fact, they may welcome your pressure, for it takes them off the hook of having to make a difficult decision.

“Instead of pushing the other side toward an agreement, you need to do the opposite. You need to draw them in the direction you want them to move. Your job is to build a golden bridge across the chasm. You need to reframe a retreat from their position as an advance toward a better solution.”

Ury is blunt about this, writing that “Building a golden bridge isn’t easy,” and he’s truthful about it. But he has a plan for you to counter that difficulty.

“Instead of starting from where you are, which is everyone’s natural instinct, you need to start from where the other person is in order to guide (them) toward an eventual agreement.”

Now you might think this makes you weak and leaves you groveling and no one enjoys feeling like that at all, even temporarily, especially with a someone who is proven difficult. That’s not what Ury is suggesting at all. Here, take a quick look at this example:

“One of the best descriptions of this process comes from a French novel. In it, a master diplomat explains, ‘I turn towards the other person; I become familiar with his situation; I mold myself on his destiny and, living in his place, I begin to experience his fortune and misfortune. Henceforth my concern is not so much to impose my point of view on him, as to persuade him to adopt the one I consider best for him—which always agrees with the interests of my own cause.'”

For some, this might seem like manipulation. Yet is it, if you are seeking to understand the other person, not forcing yourself and desires on them and are curious to learn how to sincerely, safely help them get what they need, in a way that can also help you get your needs met too?

As long as your intent is high character and moral and you invest in helping someone get their stated needs met (with no hooks in it where they will regret trusting you), then it may not be manipulation at all.

Ury talks about how a golden bridge can succeed, when he writes, “Building a golden bridge means making it easier for the other side to surmount the four common obstacles to agreement.”

As for how that happens, he explains, “It means actively involving (people) in devising a solution so that it becomes their idea, not just yours. It means satisfying their unmet interests. It means helping them save face; and it means making the process of (problem solving) as easy as possible.”

You will solve a lot of pain in your personal and professional life by becoming competent or excellent at building bridges and helping others do the same.

If you do it well, respecting people and helping them achieve unmet needs, your reputation for this mastery will be greatly admired and valued.


MJ Toebe is a guide at Quality Stress Response and helps people best understand stress and develop healthy, effective responses for their personal and professional relationships.


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