Conflict Intervention in a Divided Nation

(An online conversation with Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer)


ADRHub is pleased to introduce a new online dialogue featuring two of the most experienced mediators in our field, Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer.  Follow the conversation – and feel welcome to join in.

Gail Bingham is President Emeritus of RESOLVE and currently serves as Chair of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee and as convener of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative. 

Bernie Mayer is Professor of Conflict Studies at the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Creighton University and a Founding Partner at CDR Associates. 

Together, Bernie and Gail have over 80 years experience in working with environmental, public policy and other types of conflicts.

Gail and Bernie will be continuing a discussion with each other that they began in a webinar last May on the appropriate role of conflict specialists in these polarized times. 


A note from Gail and Bernie

 In May 2017, the two of us participated in a webinar on the role of conflict specialists in the “Age of Trump” sponsored by the Environmental and Public Policy Sector of the Association of Conflict resolution and ably facilitated by Larry Schooler and Dana Goodson.  We discussed ways to contribute to constructive conflict engagement in this extremely polarized environment.  While we agreed on a lot (for example, that conflict specialists have an important role to play in challenging stereotypes that people have of one another), we also had some very different perspectives (for example, how important is it to stay neutral). 

We both felt that the challenges – even threats – of polarization will have a huge effect on public issues for years to come.  So, we thought it would be valuable to keep the conversation going. We have been friends and colleagues (and sometimes, competitors) for many years, and we look forward to this opportunity to continue to collaborate.  We hope many of you will join us in this discussion.

We have no set format or frequency planned—instead we will follow where the dialogue takes us. Please join in and make this a rich conversation.

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The bottom line is do you manage (or mediate) for emergence or for outcome. 

The facilitative mediator who uses the joint session with strategic caucusing can create a safe space for the emergence of the new and novel. It is a process that opens the door for luck and serendipity.

The command and control mediator that only caucuses tends to find just outcomes. Freud again -"If you follow your expectations you will never find out anything more than you already know".

Bernie my sense is that we conflict specialists can not change the outcome driven, alpha command and control corporate leaders and their managers.  We don't have to because they will not survive the new digital fluid commercial age.  They are being disrupted by risk takers who understand the relationship between risk and reward.

The next generation of corporate (and political) leaders will be those who can manage the flow of networks between people in a way that allows for a safe space for minority views, diverging opinions, conflict and internal disruption. It requires a higher state of alertness and the ability to provide a real-time response to emerging patterns and behaviours.  This is the best pathway to creating strategic surprises and opportunities.

There will be opportunities for conflict specialists to work within these new organisations to help manage internal disruption. If managers do not allow this type of internal disruption to occur then their competitors will disrupt externally.

In my view conflict specialists will need to possess fluid (or soft) skills which include the ability to remain totally present in the moment by maintaining an evenly suspended attention, acting without memory, desire and the need to understand everything that is happening, the use of time and space and intuition that goes beyond just pattern recognition .


Hi Bernie

In Australia we generally start with the proposition that taxes are important for the development of the country both in maintaining basic services but also helping the country to prosper. So taxation is viewed a good thing. This relates to both collecting and spending taxes because they both go together.

So the main issue that we in Australia face with taxes is one of fairness. Is everyone paying their fair share in proportion to their income and are we spending it across the nation in a way that is fair but also takes into account that the more isolated and less wealthy parts of the country need some assistance in bringing their standard of life up to that which is comparable to the more wealthy parts. 

Of course there is always complaints that taxation is too high or some of the wealthier states give too much of their wealth to the poorer states.

The underlying approach to tax can be seen in the official title of Australia which is “the Commonwealth of Australia” which implies that wealth belongs to everyone.

I suspect that the underlying US philosophy is based more on Adam Smith contention that in competition individual ambition serves the common good. Where as in Australia we are more aligned to John Nash’s contention that the best result is for everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself AND the group.

Perhaps the problem with the US taxation issue is that there is a false ideological separation between collecting and spending tax.  No one wants to pay tax but everyone wants to get the benefits of the taxation spend. There is a fundamental illogical disconnect with this proposition.

I come back to the point I made in my above contribution to this discussion. Trust is the basis of any well functioning society and organisation.  The balance between collecting and spending tax forms part of that trusting bond in any community and in Australia it has generally reached a positive Nash equilibrium.

It looks to me that the disconnect between collecting and spending tax in the US is an example of a classic Nash trap. It is abandoning trust in a fair and balanced taxation system for pure self-interest.

The Nash Equilibrium proposes that decisions that are good for the individual can be terrible for the group. This is because the benefit that people gain in society depends on people cooperating and implicitly trusting one another to act in a manner corresponding with cooperation.

Taking a similar big picture approach to the US taxation issue maybe you should view and respond to it through the lens of it being a classic Nash trap.


(Let’s catch up for a coffee when you’re in Australia)

This discussion on "the role of conflict specialists in the age of Trump” must have been interesting. It probably would have been even more challenging had in been held after the recent tragic protest marches in Charlottesville. As you know, most of my professional life has been focused on conflict resolution, mostly through research and analysis on policy alternatives that can bring all sides together on a practical if not ideal solution. Occasionally there have been times when I hit a wall, realizing only after lengthy efforts that one or more parties to the issue did not in fact want a resolution. Often it was because they were in a position of power, and calculated that they were capable of forcing their will on the other parties, and then they proceeded to do so.

This juxtaposition of “the age of Trump” and a series of discussions with my daughter about her work in human rights and genocide prevention has led me to question the value of “staying neutral.” I am a scientist by training, and was at first a little taken aback by the Scientist March on Washington and the impact it might have on the credibility of science itself in objectively informing the policymaking process. But as things with the current Administration have gone from merely irritating to downright alarming, I’ve concluded along with many others that I can no longer remain neutral on the horrendous directions in which this Administration is leading our country. As a responsible citizen, my inclination is to support a duly elected President, whether or not I voted for him. Now I find myself agreeing with the “Not My President” crowd, mostly because this President has made it abundantly clear he has no interest in being my President. His utter disregard for what more than 70% of the American people believe should be done in any one of a hundred different areas of national policy demonstrates that he has nothing but contempt for the majority of us and our views.

Reading through some of books by daughter has shared with me, I am struck by a particular quote from Elie Wiesel with which I’m sure you are familiar:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident

Desmond Tutu put it even more succinctly:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Even Dante Alighieri weighed in on this issue—in the 14th century:

"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” -- Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno

So after a lifetime of working to find compromise among differing interests on matters of public policy, and with a deep and abiding respect for our democracy and democratic processes, I find it impossible to “stay neutral” in the age of Trump, sorry to say. I’ve listened thoughtfully to his arguments and those of his followers, trying to understand how things look from their perspective, but I must say I find many of their positions repugnant and having no place in a modern civilized society. Like Patrick Henry, I will defend their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression. But I will also work in every way I can to see that their positions do not come to define our nation or our society. There is a danger that we will all become so desensitized to these daily assaults on decent values that they come to be “the new normal”. No responsible citizen who truly cares about the future of our grand 200-year experiment in democracy can sit by and let this happen.

I look forward to following the conversation among conflict resolution specialists on this question, but at this point my natural inclination to help unify is leading me to oppose the forces whose sole intent seems to be to divide us as a country.

I am not sure who here is familiar with Richard Rohr, but he just wrote a meditation on dualistic thinking and the 'either/or' mindset. I think it goes right in line with our discussion (s) here. 

Rohr writes "Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside the contradictions are people I would call prophets." 

Read the entirety of the article here:

Peace to you all

Hi Michael

Thanks for the article by Richard Rohr and his links back to the Hebrew prophets. It just shows that the challenges posed by dualistic thinking have continued to exist since the dawn of time. 

You can go back 5,000 to 6,000 years to the ancient Hindu religious text, The Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita. Krishna’s gives advice to Ajuna to transcend the field of duality of black and white, left and right, democrat and republican, good guys and bad guys, I am right and you are wrong and so on.

This duality is an illusion because each is a composite of the same element only in a different arrangement. The boundary between them is an arbitrary line dividing into two what is really just one continuous field. The advice from the Gita  is to be you and bring yourself from the field of multiplicity to that of eternal Unity. He exhorts the immense value of non-dualistic vision.

The Gita proposes a three-step process:

a.     Firstly we must thoroughly learn and practice our profession whether it is as a mediator, warrior or sportsperson.  The expertise literature suggests that it takes at least 10 years to become an expert although some people will never get there even after 20 years of practice. An expert is partly defined as someone who is still learning and who is able to remain fresh and open to the new even after many years of practice.  People who claim they have nothing more to learn from experiences have ceased being experts.

 b.     The second step is to find your true self. This means paradoxically overcoming all your learning as a professional so as to be free and totally present in the moment. You have to also overcome any attachment you have to your memories, desires and fears as well as any narcissistic tendencies drawn from your social status and any attachment to the need to help, rescue, educate, moralise, judge or punish people who are in need or who have transgressed. This is a lifelong task.

c.     The third step is to go beyond the illusionary dualities that divide us such as Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shiite, Jews and Gentiles, liberals and conservatives and so on. This can prove a challenge for people who are firmly attached to fundamentalist beliefs. This also applies to societies with historic puritan roots such as Saudi Arabia and the USA.  It requires the ability to be able to loosen our addiction to the ‘us and them’ mentality and to look for the unity inherent in our shared human existence. Thomas Moore (1994) touches on this search when he states that the ways of the soul are filled with paradox.

 These lessons have to be learnt afresh with each generation.

Harvey, Irma, and Climate Change

The weather events of the last three weeks are a stunning reminder that the climate is changing. We are experiencing as Thomas Friedman puts it in his column in today’s NY Times, “climate weirding:” storms, droughts, heat waves, and cold spells are all getting more extreme. The scientific consensus appears to be that while the existence of Irma and Harvey can’t be directly attributed to climate change, their severity cant be. And yet there is precious little public discussion of this in the media. Scott Pruitt, the climate change denier in charge of the EPA says any discussion of this is insensitive. (Friedman does an excellent takedown of him on this), and in general we are reluctant to “politicize” tragedy. But if we don’t learn from tragedies, we do no service to their victims or to future potential victims. And the important learning here is not an abstract, intellectual endeavor. The critical learning is about engendering a broader public and political awakening to the reality of what we are facing and the urgency of taking action.

As a conflict specialist, I would like to do what I can to encourage and help public discussions and exchanges about this, and to bring a broad set of voices to bear. But part of what I think we need to do here is to be advocates for the importance of talking about what the extreme weather we have been seeing is a manifestation of. Urging that these discussions take place is in essence a political act. In this sense (and in the sense I talked about in The Conflict Paradox), we must see that we can’t see neutrality and advocacy as mutually exclusive. They are essential to each other.

Gail (and others), what are your thoughts about raising this issue as conflict specialists?

Conversations at the edge—the opiate crisis

We have been discussing the role conflict specialists might play in a divided nation and we have focused to some extent on whom we should be trying to talk to. I have been thinking as well about what we might want to focus on. Specifically, I have been wondering what issues have the potential to bring together diverse elements in our communities, cutting across political divisions, in an effort to address important common concerns. I suspect conversations about immigration, environmental policy or gun violence, for example, although vital, are by their nature divisive and are unlikely at this time to attract a broad range of voices to a communal effort at conflict engagement. This does not mean such conversations should be avoided. We have to take these issues on, but as I have previously suggested I think our primary focus in these arenas ought not to be on bringing together the broadest possible range of opinions, at least not yet. But we should also think about whether there are important issues that are more likely to engage people from across the spectrum of political beliefs.

One that might be amenable to a broadly based process is our current epidemic of drug overdoses. Our decades old “war on drugs” is widely understood to be a failure. The consequences of our current approach to illicit drugs have been widespread and devastating and the problem has only gotten worse. Concerns about this crisis and how to respond to it are widespread and cut across social and political boundaries. While there is a broadly based sense that our current approach is expensive and ineffective, there seems to be no clear or comprehensive ideas about how to solve what is truly a wicked and enduring problem. An effective approach to opiate and other drug abuse requires a rethinking of how heavily we have relied on the criminal justice system and on incarceration. It also requires a consideration of how to both insure people in need get adequate pain medication and how to discourage the over-prescription of pain medication. Progress on these issues requires discussions not only among policy makers considering the national scope of the problem. Local communities need to come together to consider how best to respond to this growing crisis. This is an issue that neither the left nor the right has the answer to, and I think all along the political spectrum we know this.

In Friday’s NY Times (September 22), Nicholas Kristoff has an important column on how Portugal has dealt with its addiction and overdose problems that raises some of the critical issues we need to address, such as how much to rely on policing versus health care, the role of methadone, needle exchange programs, and limits on prescription medication.

Any issue can be politicized and so can this one, but so many people have experienced pain in their own families as a result of drug addiction that I suspect the need to find solutions to this problem may overshadow the pull to politicize it.

What do you think and what other issues might be natural topics for bringing people together across political differences?

My apologies for not having contributed to our conversation recently.

I'm excited you added this question about what might be promising topics for dialogue across the political and social/cultural divisions in these times.  I have been musing about something similar, and think you've suggested a promising option along with an important rationale.  It's probably not the only criterion, but topics that touch many people personally offer an opportunity for people to connect with one another and, thus, open up lines of communication. 

The national Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, which I helped convene, is another example of an effort that is bringing together people who don't always agree on policy but do agree on the goal of accelerating the replacement of lead pipes in our drinking water infrastructure to help avoid any future lead poisoning tragedies like Flint (and elsewhere).

A few additional thoughts and adding my voice to your invitation to all who are following this blog:

1. You've alluded to the importance of community scale forums not just "national" conversations, which I think might be worth exploring further.  In the past, weren't there several different groups that produced white papers and a facilitator's guide that anyone could use to foster dialogue in their communities?

2. I suggest we not focus "on bringing together the broadest possible range of opinions."  That feels like a fantasy even in the least divisive of times, at least if the objective of the dialogue is consensus.  (We also may want to open up the topic of the varying objectives for bringing people together to add to the "with whom" and 'about what" dimensions.)

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT BERNIE'S QUESTION...  What topics do you think might be promising for dialogue either at the national or a community scale, even in these divisive times? 


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