Lessons from mediation for the world of politics

Steven I. Platt, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Professional polls across the country and the world reflect a lot more agreement among the populace with the outlines of President Donald Trump’s proposed policies than his detractors would like to believe. They also reflect a lot more anxiety about his temperament – his readily apparent and blatant narcissism and its potential effect on his decision-making processes – and his priorities than his admirers would like to think or care about.

This distracts from the most important point, however, which is the toxic political atmosphere in our country is, without question, interfering with our capacity to solve pressing problems. As former Arizona Court of Appels Judge Bruce E. Meyerson, now a mediator, arbitrator and trainer, points out, “problem-solving, which we do every day as neutrals, is never made easier when those in dispute attack the motives, integrity, or character of others.”

Inject such “unproductive communication” into the larger world of politics and we see the cause-and-effect relationship of over-the-top political rhetoric, commercials with references to “Second Amendment remedies,” and websites that put the crosshairs of a rifle on “targeted” congressional districts. These messages preaching intolerance emanate from both the left and the right fringes of our politics but bring credit to neither. Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance without, in any way, facilitating problem-solving and respect for other points of view.

The conflict resolution profession has some very valuable insight and lessons to offer in this environment. As Meyerson said at a recent panel discussion at Emory University on civility in politics, “skillful communication can turn information into power and conflict into opportunities for greater understanding, more meaningful solutions and a stronger sense of community.” Perhaps we ought to send his remarks to members of Congress with a training video on how to “skillfully communicate.”

Politician vs. mediator

There is, however, an interesting dissent to this viewpoint, illustrated by F. Peter Phillips, a mediator and blogger in New Jersey. Phillips notes that at its core, the question is, “Can a public leader be a problem-solver while still leading?” The answer is debatable but highlights the differences between a mediator and a political leader.

A political leader, for example, advocates policy and seeks public support for it; a mediator (in theory) has no view as to what the outcome of a dispute ought to be. Having been entrusted with power, a political leader advances policy in the face of opposition from other political factions; a mediator (in theory) treats disputing parties even-handedly and without regard to his or her own interests or point of view. Finally, a political leader in our representative democracy is empowered to advance certain articulated goals; a mediator (in theory) seeks only to help the disputants identify a mutually beneficial outcome to a conflict so they can return to more socially productive endeavors.

So, asks Phillips, do these distinctions compel the conclusion that political leadership necessitates belligerence?

Former President Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency promising to rise above partisanship. But in his first two years in office, he pointedly abandoned any pretense to being a mediator probably as a result of a combination of necessity and frustration to push through legislation on health care and financial regulation and stimulus. His inability to reconcile his roles as political leader and mediator or to explain his inability to play both roles may well have caused him and his fellow Democrats to lose significant electoral support among independents who wanted him to be a mediator. The Democrats, on the other hand, may have lost a portion of its base on the left who wanted him and his nominated successor, Hillary Clinton, to be strictly a political leader.

The failure to reconcile these two roles left the county at the mercy of the promises of populist “negotiator” who campaigned as neither a mediator nor a political leader, but rather a “fixer” whose policies largely remain unknown and unpredictable (“only I can fix it”).

Phillips points out the test of the success of a mediator is whether he or she achieves a “mutual level of dissatisfaction among the settling disputants.” The very different test of a leader is “whether he or she effects change.” These two measures inevitably yield two helpful (if perhaps unwelcome) truths. The first is that the power of a leader achieves its highest social utility when it is exercised. The other is that you cannot effectively and credibly mediate a case, an issue, or a policy if you want it to come out in a certain way. This, in turn, yields a universal lesson to both political leaders and mediators for very different reasons.

It shouldn’t be about you, so get over yourself. Whether, when and how that lesson will be learned by the new president and his administration remains to be seen.

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Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a regular column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.

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