Conflict Resolution in the News

The Politics of Listening

November 17, 2016

imagesWhat does the current political climate in the US say about our ability to engage in conflict? Some of us may like to think we know something about conflict and how to disagree with others in a constructive way. But when it comes to political discourse, is there more we could learn?

When engaging in an honest political debate, it’s essential that people listen well, whether it involves the Democrats debating the Republicans, or a left-leaning family member arguing with a cousin on the right. In this last Presidential election, I wonder if the Democratic party was really listening to the Republicans or the concerns of the middle class, especially those in the rust belt. This failure to listen and understand opposing views is also evident on Facebook, where we are mostly in an echo chamber, reading the views of those we already agree with. The echo chamber also exists geographically; most of us live in communities with people who are like-minded. It is rare that we communicate and debate with people of opposing viewpoints.

News stories from November, 2016, right after the Presidential election, noted that many Americans were cancelling Thanksgiving plans, unable to face relatives who had voted differently than they had. What would happen if we just sat down and listened to each other?

I recently read one story that suggests what connection and listening, as opposed to anger and alienation, can do. A young Jewish college student befriended white supremacist, Derek Black, and invited him to Friday night Shabbat every week. They listened to each other and shared ideas. Over time Derek renounced white supremacy.

Maybe it’s time to start listening.

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1352699355LuYB9xTwo recent events that have blasted our airwaves – the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and the Congressional debacle over the Fiscal Cliff and now the Debt Limit – have led me to ponder our nation’s struggle with conflict. While the two events are entirely different, both can be seen as a clarion call for a radically different approach to conflict in our culture.

Our culture does not promote effective conflict resolution. In fact, most of us don’t learn effective conflict management techniques in schools or in our families. If we learn anything at all, it is to either stay away from conflict — a technique that is ineffective in the long run and usually leads to brewing resentment — or to approach conflict head-on with the gloves pulled off. This latter technique is taught on t.v and in movies where the angry hero or heroine blasts into the boss’s office screaming and yelling. In that magical movie world an angry blast succeeds and the heroine gets her way — but the sad reality is that full blown anger and blame are ineffective and damaging to relationships and often cause the conflict to escalate.

Could a different approach to conflict have made a difference in the case of Sandy Hook and in the case of recent Congressional stalemates? Certainly, a greater understanding of conflict resolution tools could help all of us, and might even reduce bullying in schools. Whether it could have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting is at best unclear. But what about mediation — could mediation have made a difference at Sandyhook or in Congress? To clarify the term mediation, in this process the mediator does not decide the matter, but rather assists the parties to understand their respective interests and helps them create a solution that meets those interests. In addition, a skilled mediator is able to reduce tension and acrimony so that the parties can better listen and understand rather than point fingers and blame. In the case of the Sandy Hook shooting – while the details of the shooter’s life are still limited — it is clear that the shooter was a troubled and angry young man in need of help. While both greater access to mental health services and stricter gun control might have made a difference here, a culture that teaches and promotes a collaborative and non-combative approach to conflict might also have made a difference, especially if made available early enough. Dewey Cornell, a psychologist from the University of Virginia and professor of education noted after the Connecticut shooting that our country needs to make both counseling and mediation services more available and that “we have got to start before [conflict] escalates into a violent situation. And if we can provide these services more generally, we will have a healthier society and we will have fewer of those cases that rise to this extreme, unusual level.” PBS News Hour 12/14/12.

The Fiscal Cliff debacle has also led me to think about our nation’s troubled approach to conflict because it appears to be a performance played out on the national stage in “how not to deal with conflict.” Both parties used finger pointing, blaming, and gamesmanship to reach their goals, yet neither party got what it wanted out of the final deal. The Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to bankrupt the country, and the Democrats accused the Republicans of protecting the rich. While these characterizations of the motivations of each party might or might not be accurate, they distracted the country and the two parties from what really needed to be discussed: the interests at stake, and what proposals would meet those interests. Could mediation have made a difference here? One can’t be sure, and maybe the halls of Congress are just not made for mediation. And yet… two years ago the Washington Post published an op-ed piece which proposed just such an idea. Michael Hager, former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome suggested that “[w]hen senators or representatives find themselves locked into irreconcilable positions on issues of national importance, third-party mediation could help overcome a stalemate. What if Congress were to establish a politically neutral service for legislative mediation, organized along the lines of the Congressional Budget Office?” (Washington Post, 6/18/10) Although such a mediation program could not possibly act as a panacea for all that ails Washington, or this country, perhaps it could at the very least reduce the acrimony we see in Congress and present a more positive model for conflict resolution than we see in Washington today.

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The Dalai Lama on Conflict

October 14, 2012

“Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.” “We must work to resolve conflicts in a spirit of reconciliation and always keep in mind the interests of others. We cannot destroy our neighbors! We […]

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Foreclosure Mediation in Washington

February 11, 2012

In April 2011 the Washington state legislature passed the “Foreclosure Fairness Act,” which gives distressed homeowners working with housing counselors or attorneys, the right to in-person mediation with the bank or company servicing their mortgage. The purpose of the program is to give homeowners facing foreclosure the chance to negotiate alternatives to foreclosure such as […]

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Workplace Conflict: Conflict Training, Conflict Coaching, and Mediation, as Solutions

October 17, 2011

How often do you experience conflict at work? According to a poll by Civility in America, 43% of American workers have experienced incivility and 38% say there is increasing disrespect in the workplace. An additional survey, commissioned by CPP, Inc., indicates that employees around the world deal with conflict, on average, 2.1 hours a week, […]

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“Fairly Legal” is Fairly Inaccurate

June 1, 2011

If you’ve seen, or plan to see, the new television show, “Fairly Legal,” about a San Francisco mediator, be forewarned that it is a highly inaccurate representation of mediation. In the first episode, we meet Kate Reed, a young lawyer turned mediator, who works for her father’s law firm. During the course of this first […]

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