html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Because it works.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Because it works.

This is why, and it is important. This is what Obama does that is different. He embodies the conflict resolution approach, and that influences the people around him. Obama’s techniques are straightforward, instantly recognizable to anyone trained in mediation. Demonize nobody. Listen hard to everybody. Restate people’s positions. Identify underlying interests, so you don’t get stuck wrangling over positions. Do not shut anyone out, even the crazies. Address the problems causing conflicts. Have faith in people.

I know you think that I favor the conflict resolution approach because I am a hopelessly naïve hippie, that I only see people’s inner goodness through the stars in my eyes. I dunno, maybe that is true. But that’s not why I favor the conflict resolution approach. I favor it because it is the only thing that works. It actually solves the problem. Using power to force outcomes on people simply never works for long. Forcing people to accept outcomes doesn’t actually work; people have nearly infinite capacities for resentment and resistance. Short of genocide, it is impossible to apply enough force to make a human conflict go away.

I see it everywhere. I was talking to a friend about the controversy in Sacramento over developing our railyards. Standing in line at a buffet, I said “Sometimes I think that everything that happens in this town goes back to the Alhambra Theater.” The stranger in line next to me turned and said “That is exactly right. In this city, it is always about demolishing the Alhambra.” That was thirty-five years ago, people, and the groups that formed then are still fighting that fight. Over on Unfogged, people were discussing what to do about an obsessed stalker, sentenced to prison but due for release in a few years. Confining the stalker is as much force as our civil society can exert, but it didn’t solve anything. The stalker hasn’t changed and the victim’s life is still derailed. When the stalker gets out in a few years it could start again, because they reached no resolution. In Los Osos, people have spent entire careers trying to make the town accept a sewer. There have been no stakes so high (the financial ruin of the town, a generation of discord, threat that people will lose their houses) that make the activists back down. They only renew their vows to resist. You can use power to bring about a short-term outcome, and that outcome may be well worth fighting for. But power cannot bring a solution that gets people what they want and makes them stop fighting you. Only mediation or conflict resolution does that. Conflict resolution is the only technique that actually works.

Conflict resolution seems all soft and squishy, but practicing it is damn hard. The piece that is so hard and so unnatural and so counter-intuitive is believing that your enemy can change. You know that you are a reasonable person who can walk away from your well-justified anger, once the real problem is solved. But your enemy, man. She’s different. She’s an emotionally damaged, constantly conniving fuck, motivated by deep springs of pathological fury. Bitch crazy. Reason doesn’t reach her. Nothing could get her to shift.

Practitioners of conflict resolution do not think that. I haven’t seen a consistent way they overcome the human impulse to demonize people. Some use deep personal religious faith. They believe everyone is made in God’s image and refuse to believe anything else. I’ve seen people get there through Buddhist meditation. I don’t have access to either of those, so my certainty is based on the fact that I have seen people change through mediation techniques. I’ve seen it in real life and I’ve seen it in the comments here. I don’t know what motivates Obama, but my guess is that he saw it work while he was doing community organizing in rough Chicago. I imagine he found himself dealing with entrenched conflict in a bad neighborhood and watched conflict resolution change people who had previously been written off as bad news. I don’t know how he came by it, but he believes now. You can see it. ‘Iran is not an enemy.’ ‘I’ll talk to anybody.’ ‘Republicans aren’t enemies; they’re the other half we need to get somewhere.’

Obama is right about the power of this approach and its potential to change people. Mediation techniques work when you apply them directly to the people in conflict, but they are so powerful that they work simply by inspiration. Obama’s example even swayed Andrew Sullivan, if only for a while. For as long as Sullivan remembers, he wants to be like Obama, reasonable and high-minded. I like Obama’s platform fine, but that isn’t why he has my support. I like Obama because he uses conflict resolution approaches reflexively and constantly and those approaches are transformative.

via Ezra. (Slightly edited, several hours after posting.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think that the conflict resolution approach works with all people in all situations? Would it work, for instance, with Osama Bin Laden and other jihadis who wish to impose a world-wide caliphate of sharia law? I ask this sincerely as I believe there are those who do not wish to reason or to feel included because they believe that they already have all the answers. Can conflict resolution work with them?

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This approach is exactly what we needed to deal with Hitler.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

In two comments? I am in awe.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was the logical ends to which your argument was headed. I hate to deal with all the Mickey Mouse in between and just get down to the point.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

With admirable swiftness.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous not anonymous ! said...

I'm sorry but I can't accept the all or nothing approach profferred by anonymous. Using conflict resolution strategies doesn't preclude acknlowledging reality,e.g. Osama.
Barack has already said he would go after OBL if he knew where he was!

5:01 PM  
Blogger jens said...

Much thinking about conflict resolution today?

I'd almost wish for a conflict to use it on!

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Conflict resolution"? He avoided conflict by avoiding almost all controversial votes as a state legislator.

5:43 PM  
Blogger susan said...

Having no formal training in conflict resolution or mediation, my feelings on this issue come basically from that knee-jerk human reaction to which you were referring. I would love to believe two parties with starkly opposing viewpoints can find resolution calmly and rationally, without resorting to violence or displays of power. And clearly, as you point out, strong-arming someone isn't the solution either. BUT. Don't both sides have to be willing to resolve conflicts rationally for it to work? Aren't there times when your "bitch be crazy" situation really is the case? It seems obvious to me that we should try to deal with situations diplomatically first, and I am glad that Obama seems to be willing to go that route. But what happens next if the other side continues being aggressive?

6:12 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

you all are harshing my mellow here. I was basking in the love that Megan radiates toward just about everyone, crazy or not.

I read the first two comments and I realize I haven't seen such proficient projection since I last saw an IMAX film. How do you know what Osama bin Forgotten wants? Did you talk to him?

Two comments and we're already at Godwin's Law? Impressive, in an ignorant sorta way. The issues that allowed He Who Godwin's Law Is All About to rise to power could have been addressed at any time from 1919 to 1932. They were not. He and the catastrophe he created were not inevitable.

It's people like anonymous I and II who make me wonder if humanity is worth caring about.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That means they still need something. Figure out what that is. The huge majority of the time, what the other person needs is more listening. Just listening to people changes them. (Active listening, where you repeat the content and emotion back to the person.)

People want things, even crazy people. Figure out what they want and tie that in to what a solution can offer. Maybe what a person wants is so far outside your system you there is no reaching the person. But that isn't going to be the case for a policy dispute in our political mainstream.

Mostly, though, more listening. Lots of people have a huge unmet need to be listened to.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

C'mon APC. You gotta do the affirmative kindness to everyone. 'Specially on this post, 'k?

6:58 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

OK, mom, I'll try.

But I do get tired of the Received Wisdom that purports to represent the other side's real agenda. Do I think OBL wants the world to be under Shari'a law? Perhaps he does, but no more strongly than Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee wants everyone baptized into their faith.

What I am more certain of is that he wants the US and its allies out of the Persian Gulf, out of Saudi Arabia. Or at least he did. Now he is reaping the benefits of their presence as a recruiting tool.

What I understand of Megan's argument (I had 'Getting to Yes!' as part of my coursework back in the day) is that a smart negotiator/mediator understands that there is more than what the spokesman wants to any position. What do the people behind them want? Do they really want everything he is asking for? Do we really understand the situation?

This isn't just an underhanded way of kneecapping the guy in front. Done properly/morally, it is a way of getting under the issues and solving the problem. Listening and learning is not something you put away as with childish things. You forget how to do that at your peril.

So when someone claims that some guy wants to put us all in chains, I have to wonder who he is speaking for.

7:12 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

Do you think Obama will use this conflict resolution approach when faced with international conflicts or problems? I'd love to believe so, but I fear the military-industrial complex is too strong for that.

Progressive Crank makes a fascinating point...a point first made by Fisk: the demands were not, I think, for global supremacy or the imposition of anything-though it may have morphed into that. It seems that the *initial* demand was for American withdrawl from Saudi territory.

Megan's point is interesting because politicans talk to "terrorists" all the time. Ordinary folks are shocked by this but isn't that what genuine politics is about?

7:46 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

Would Obama use it? I hope so, especially if we're paying him $200K.

It would be nice to see someone step out of the simple Manichean mindset we've been hobbled by for the past 7 years.

8:17 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

Progressive C, it isn't just America; I hear this all the time : "the west" , "the Jew" and so on.

As Megan points out, to think in fixed categories, caricatures, means there's no possibility of change. And some people need to feed of the negative energy created by such demonization. As Cavafy says, we need our barbarians!

8:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Susan, I forgot another piece of it, which is that people are ferociously driven by shame. Especially people who have done stupid or mean shit, the ones we want to shut out of the process. They know they did bad shit, and act out more to hide from feeling like crap about it. You can reach them by offering them relief from shame, or better yet, pride.

You hear both things all the time. "They didn't LISTEN" and a need for respect. Work both of those into your process and you have hooks for very nearly everyone.

(Sociopaths or psychopaths may be on a different scale.)

9:05 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

This is starting to overlap with the conversations over at The Edge of the American West, with the Native Americans and slavery/the confederacy as the issues no one can resolve because the core issues can't be talked about.

I don't say that to demean this conversation but to reflect on how pervasive this interlocking shame/blame business is.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

Why is the choice only between violence and conflict resolution? Here's a third solution, which is in effect what we use for many intractable problems: generational change.

I suppose there are generations-spanning blood feuds, or fights over resources that are ongoing, but most of the time, I don't think children are interested in fighting the same battles their parents did. A new generation grows up that simply doesn't see as problematic a previous generation's source of conflict.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

On a personal level, I have often found that simply ignoring problems is a good strategy. By waiting months or years to deal with a conflict I have with another person, circumstances have changed in the meantime and the old source of conflict just doesn't seem important anymore.

Of course, some things need to be addressed right away, but a good 1/2-2/3 of problems can safely be squirreled away for later.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

After reading both the post and the first two comments, I recalled the phrase:

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Good people like Megan think that they can help other people come to a moderate, agreeable position. In many cases, people can. It should always be the first thing that you try. I, also, have observed this generate worse situations than previously existed in many cases. Situations where everyone looses and no one is happy.

Monsters, like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, do doubt think that they are doing good, that the end justifies the means. Even if you can get them to compromise or moderate, there's a good chance that it won't turn out well. Sometimes someone has to be right, and someone else has to loose.

I believe myself to be a very reasonable person, and I certainly am open to changing my mind. Despite that, I simply cannot find middle ground with some people, despite my best efforts. Normally, there is no necessity that we agree, it it hurts neither of us to disagree, and may enrich us for that matter, but sometimes that is not the case.

You don't have to agree with someone to like and respect them.

7:37 AM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:27 AM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

Thelonious_Nick's first comment is very apt: yes, generational change is a solution, but it only works if you listen to and engage that generation before they are sucked into the blame/shame/hate game. Consider Europe in the 20s. If someone had looked at the wreck that the post-war treaties made of Germany and lifted that burden, the brownshirts would have lost their leverage and perhaps WWII could have been avoided. If that generation of young men and women could have been convinced that the world did not hate them for what the Kaiser and his general staff did, they would not have been so susceptible to demagoguery that left Germany even worse off.

Similarly, digging wells and building schools in places where people need them and where radicals are doing their best to stir up discord would be a better use of resources than waiting for a fight to break out.

[comment deleted and reposted with corrections: sorry to break the flow.]

11:29 AM  
Anonymous David said...

billoo: It seems to me that the presidency is exactly the place where such a different approach might be most effective. Even if you assume that "the military-industrial complex" is itself immune to negotiation (which seems odd to me; it's usually portrayed as having entirely knowable goals) and capable of suborning vast swaths of government for its evil schemes (but in the conflict resolution approach we're to assume nobody *has* evil schemes, right?), the office of the presidency can still do a lot of things unilaterally. Especially things like "getting a bunch of people to sit down at a table and discuss issues until they hash out an agreement." It seems to me that's one of the presidency's greatest areas of strength.

Another of its great strengths is moral leadership, the "bully pulpit." When Jimmy Carter went on TV and said people needed to turn their thermostats down, the whole *economy* contracted. Megan is saying that Obama seems to be able to get people to play nice just by providing a good example as a candidate. Think what that would do from a president.

thelonius_nick: I think generational change is super handy; but I think a precondition for it to make conflicts die out is having the conditions that caused the original conflict be entirely over, and the only remaining issues be emotional ones about the memory of who did what to whom. If your kids and my kids are entirely happy and on completely even footing they may well not care that you and I fought all our lives, or at least can get over it; but if my kids own all the good land and your kids all rent squalid tenement apartments even if we don't talk about it at all some day your kids are going to ask why, and start the conflict all over again. And I think that counts as "not having solved the issues."

Megan: I hope you're right.

1:18 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

If your kids and my kids are entirely happy and on completely even footing they may well not care that you and I fought all our lives, or at least can get over it

Or you do what they did in Northern Ireland for many years. Since defining difference in religious terms would make no sense to a kid, it was framed in language they got. So and so "kicked with the other foot." Some difference is what matters, not what the difference is. Once you establish that seed, it can grow quite readily in the right (poisoned) atmosphere.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I acknowledge that conflict resolution strategies can produce large mutual gains, and often find the global maximum value.

I do wonder whether knowledge that your opposite number in a conflict will use such strategies enables new strategies on your part. Can Clinton (or Romney, Guiliani, Sarkozy, Putin, Achmedinijad, etc.) behave in ways that will exploit and take advantage of a CR approach?
In particular, might they see ways to get what they want at less cost than if they also adopted a CR approach?

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Prophetess said...

Conflict resolution works *if and only if* what both sides want is "not conflict".

As long as one side perceives an advantage to continuing the conflict, no amount of conflict resolution can "fix" the situation.

4:40 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

True enough, but where some leader -- or crude facsimile of one -- wants a fight (to avenge some personal score or something), the guys who will actually be at the pointy end of things may see things differently. Of course, by the time the tanks are rolling, it's too late.

Does this mean we should never try to work out a non-military solution? Just because some people are too bloody-minded to see anything else doesn't mean we all have to be.

5:19 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

sdoDavid, I'm not saying that there are *no* "evil" people/organizations and I'm not suggesting that the military-industrial complex is "immune". Less radically, I'd suggest:

that in practice governments talk to "terrorists" and evil people all the time. Stalin, for example in WW2, but in more recent times govts have negotiated (at the official or unofficial level) with groups that some people believe are 'unredeemable', beyond atonement: the IRA, Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq, the ANC, Hamas, Gadaffi...maybe the Taleban will follow (and one has to ask who helped create these "evil" people in the first place!)

This is not to doubt the 'evilness' of certain acts and actors but just to recognize:

1. some people can be reached, negotiated with, persuaded. Not all is lost.

2. the desire to demonize 'the other' *sometimes* serves one's own twisted ends and has littleto do with reality: "he who would play the angel ends up playing the beast". Remember, large parts of the world think that *some* of America's actions are "evil" as well.

As for the military-industrial complex, I'd say that such organizations are less *likely* to engage in compromise and discussions. This is really the debate between self-interest and a public culture. Citizens get together and talk. Those following their self-interest rarely do. If conflict is in the interest of certain people then, from their own limited rationality, they will pursue it.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

The Hitler argument is all too frequently brought up against opponents of the "Nuke 'em all and let God sort 'em out" school of thought. I take the bait and advocate retroactively ignoring Hitler here.

11:19 PM  
Blogger a progressive crank said...

That argument (TGGP's) is based on a pretty dry view of that historical period. The fact remains, circumstances can drive people to violence, to genocide even, and it makes sense to try to understand and solve those underlying issues. Arguing against that draws dangerously close to the libertarian "property rights über alles" position.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Just dropping in to say that I think this is a wonderful post, one of the most eloquent and sensible statements I've seen on this.

Prophetess' point is a good one too though. But even if political leaders benefit by continuing conflict, their followers may not, and in a democracy with free institutions one can often appeal to followers "over the heads" of the leaders.

If democratic, non-violent solutions are going to be negotiated between equal citizens, then I think Megan is 100% right that some version of the conflict resolution approach is the best way to do it. But unfortunately that's a big "if".

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I was referred here from a post where someone praised Obama's recent race speech. Maybe some of the other posters are right and it wouldn't work in 100% of situations, but it would work in many more situations than you'd think at first. Obama's speech on race shows his method of confronting things and demonizing no one.

2:02 PM  

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