The future of conflict resolution: preaching to the choir or negotiating with tea partiers?

Getting people talkingI often find myself wishing I lived in California, if only to be able to regularly attend the magnificent events the Southern California Mediation Association plans and presents each year. These programs showcase the talents and intellectual achievements of some of the greatest thinkers and leaders that the field of conflict resolution can boast.

This past weekend attendees of SCMA’s annual conference fell under the spell of the magisterial Kenneth Cloke, who spoke eloquently about “conflict revolution” and the role that mediators can play in effecting global change. Victoria Pynchon has kindly posted Cloke’s PowerPoint presentation on her negotiation and ADR blog, Settle It Now.

Reading his presentation, I was moved by the power of Cloke’s words. If you read them, too, no doubt like me you will shake your head with weary recognition as you ponder the elements of demonization, mechanisms of moral disengagement, and the early warning signs of fascism. Alternatively, you will nod with approval as you read about the proposals for change that Cloke lays out – the 12 conflict resolution methodologies, the Mediators Without Borders 12-step program to address conflict systematically, and the personal choices in social change.

But I am also left uneasy, troubled by questions that have haunted me for many months. And I raise these questions now, not in disrespect or to impugn the message that Cloke delivered to mediators this past weekend.

There is no doubt that our inspiring leaders and, yes, our foot soldiers, too, command prodigious skills in negotiation and persuasion.  Why then do negotiation and conflict resolution remain in such disrepute here in the U.S.? Why, despite the Ivy League credentials and access to the corridors of power that the best and brightest among us enjoy, have we failed to influence political discourse on American soil?  We remain mired in incivility, fallacy, and fear, as daunting problems confound and oppress us, whether health care, climate change, unemployment, or threats to national security.

Negotiate with terrorists? Okay. But first we’d better figure out fast how we can talk with our opponents here at home.

2 responses to “The future of conflict resolution: preaching to the choir or negotiating with tea partiers?

  1. Diane,

    Thanks for picking up Ken’s power point presentation. Believe it or not, his talk (done sans power point) was even more inspiring and challenging. I don’t know why he’s not one of the TED (http://ted.com) speakers. We need the depth of his intelligence, the breadth of his study, the toughness of his analysis, and the urgency of his message more every single day.

    As you know, I “feel your pain” on the troublesome issues you raise – why we don’t move more quickly into collaborative, interest-based processes to resolve disputes – from the neighbor’s barking dog to catastrophic species extinction.

    I take heart that we have a President who stands on a national stage addressing the moral and intellectual poverty of zero-sum games; that law schools teach negotiation and mediation; that seasoned lawyers by the hundreds thousands take mediation courses every year that may not lead to careers as ADR professionals but will necessarily lead to a “tilt” toward collaborative problem solving; and, that peer mediation in elementary, middle and high school are thriving here in Los Angeles as well, I imagine, in many other cities around the country. And a look at today’s post on my blog about negotiating neighbor disputes in Iraq.

    When I am about to throw my own hands up into the air in frustrated resignation, I remember that point in The Inconvenient Truth when Al Gore says, “this is the point at which most people go directly from denial to despair.” Our own government moved from denial to action on global warming in January of this year, ending eight-years of our leaders heads in the sand if not lodged firmly inside much darker places.

    Remember our youth – how short a time ago it was – and how many of us were treated as second class citizens – more than half the population! For those of us who believe in transformational power of collaborative problem solving, change will always feel too slow. And yet every day someone else somewhere in the world “gets” it . . . . and . . . an angel gets his wings!

  2. This post reveals my pessimistic side. Vickie, thanks for the countervailing dose of optimism. You’re right, there’s much to add to that side of the scales. I hope one day in our lifetimes to see us reach the tipping point, when the voices supporting dialogue, reasoned debate, and principled negotiation outweigh the loud braying voices that stain civil discourse.

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