Tag Archives: negotiation

Where are the Conciliators?

Sadat, Carter and Began Source: Wikipedia
Sadat, Carter and Begin
                     Source: Wikipedia

Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is our preferred rhetoric.

Lawrence Wright’s book on the intense negotiations that led to the historical Camp David Accords is a timely indicator of what is so frequently missing in our politics.  Thirteen Days in September (2014) documents the efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat as his partners.  Without doubt the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had—and still has—the instincts of a peacemaker.  By contrast, prior to the negotiations in 1978 Begin and Sadat had contributed more than their share to the periodic blood-letting that still defines the disputed borders that surround the Sinai Peninsula. In modern usage both would have justifiably been labeled terrorists.  And yet Carter put his already shaky presidency on the line to cloister these foes in the mountains of western Maryland.  There was only an outside chance that Begin and Sadat could be induced to produce a lasting peace.

It was the ultimate act of political courage.  Presidents and congressional politicians rarely put themselves on so uncertain a course unless there are guaranteed outcomes.  And that’s a problem.  A politician who won’t risk failed efforts at conciliation is little more than a poseur: a pretender to the role of policy-maker.

The challenge of negotiating differences is made worse because of an old American habit of honoring heroes who are supposedly unsullied by the impulse to compromise. We cherish the self-made person, the inner-directed leader, the lone single agent who rejects anything less than what they brought to the bargaining table.  This preference plays out in the narrative tropes that show up in our love of John Wayne’s film characters or James Bond’s free-style execution of British foreign policy.  We like our heroes to be dominant, assertive, fearless and ready to bolt at the first suggestion that they might make a concession. And so they continue to come in waves of narratives that celebrate intellectual unilateralism: everyone from cinema superheroes, to larger-than-life thinkers like Apple’s Steve Jobs.  Even the small screen cherishes the mini-rebellions of office workers stuck in the anonymity of drab cubicle farms.

Our preference for the defiant loner has grown so great that words to describe the team player now read like labels of surrender.  “Compromise,” “concession,”  “conciliation,” and “mediation” all carry the odor of appeasement.  And so our interest in performing the rhetoric of defiance is self-defining;  its a cheap way to create a persona suggesting “strong values” and ostensibly settled thinking.  Even history’s great conciliators—among them: Nelson Mandela, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln—seem more distant than the characters we conjure up to illustrate “decisive” and “uncompromising” leadership.  One can only guess at what former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had in mind when he called Russia’s increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin a true “leader.”  The statement is a reminder that unearned certainty can be the perfect sign of a fool.

Carter’s reputation is always caught in a vice of opposing impulses.  His willingness to listen to all sides makes him look weak.  And yet the rhetorical opposition rituals we seem to favor have the effect of releasing their participants from any obligation to find common-ground with others.  It’s an unhelpful kind of opaqueness that fits our age of self-absorption. But it comes at the expense of the chance to promote joint action and shared beliefs.

If we are wondering where to begin, I suggest that we reconsider the kinds of people we want to serve in legislative offices. Deliberative bodies require deliberators. And yet our Congress is filled with self-styled media stars who show little interest in finding ways to attain mutual consent.  They show up for their close-ups in hearings.  But they are often absent from caucus rooms where differences must get hammered out.

Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric. It’s a recommendation that especially holds for our chosen leaders, but also for most of us as we weigh the need for ideological purity against the more functional need to work with others.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.eduPerfect Response logo


Getting Clarity: The Usefulness of “Mirroring”

U.S. Department of Labor
                        U.S. Department of Labor

Humans are all about the business of adding and subtracting to whatever the facts on the ground may be. 

Mediators and counselors spend a lot of time working with individuals who are struggling to find common ground.  These sessions could be as formal as talks between labor and management representatives trying to forge a new workplace agreement.  Or they can be significantly less structured, as in a typical impasse in couple’s therapy, where memories about recent disagreements are different probably producing more heat than light.

It is part of our nature to see things and understand even simple events in unique ways. We may live in the age of the perfect digital copy. As we have noted, humans, by contrast, are all about the business of adding and subtracting to whatever the facts on the ground may be.

A favorite teacher once explained it this way. Imagine two people are hiking along opposite sides of the same valley. They are perhaps a mile or two apart, separating by the valley floor and its varied geography. If we stop them at the same time and ask for a report of what they see, they will describe essentially different valleys. Their foreground views of particular features provide unique impressions about the landscape. So while both are “right” in their own ways, there are clearly variances in their reports.

Such perspective-based observation is simply built into our unique operating system. Perception is a mix of observation and imagination. And though this built-in variability creates all kinds of problems in life, we probably wouldn’t want it any other way.  Perspective is what makes us who we are.

Even so, it can be useful to work out disruptive differences of understanding in a process known as mirroring. It’s a simple method where the facilitator or mediator asks one side in a dispute to first restate what the other side has said, to the other’s satisfaction. This summary must be accepted by the other side before he or she can move on and state their own views.  In couple’s counseling mirroring may take the form of a therapist asking John to restate what he think he heard in Mary’s last remark. The therapist reminds him to not interpret the remark, but simply restate it as accurately as possible. True to form, John makes the effort, but perhaps not quite to Mary’s satisfaction (Mary: “You’re still not hearing what I’m saying”).  So he tries again, probably getting closer in registering her feelings or complaints.

The process stops a common and destructive pattern called “bypassing,” which is the term of choice for “listening” that is really just waiting for a turn to speak.  And while mirroring has the disadvantage of slowing down the natural flow of conversation to a measured crawl, its advantage is that it forces each side into acknowledgement of the other. The payoff is clearer understanding and maybe genuine empathy. To restate another’s view’s accurately gets a person a little closer to the elusive goal of full understanding.

This process does not necessarily require a moderator. We know we are on the right track when we hear something like “Let me see if I can paraphrase what I think you are saying.” But a third person can often help.

Try this sometime when you need to step in to the mediator role. Helping others to actually grapple with raw feelings is a useful service we sometimes must provide to friends or coworkers.