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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Beyond Listening


Most of the country, actually much of the world, has been consumed by the soap opera political drama that is our national government this past year and particularly the past six months.  There is a surreal quality to how the new administration is operating in terms of both policy and process. Contradictory messages from different parts of the administration, threats from the President against people in his own administration and against the media, the FBI, and Republicans who won’t bend to his will seem standard fare.  Trump’s tweets are self-parodying and at time self-destructive. So far he has been thwarted on major policy initiatives, but the melodramatic aspects of all this can obscure the significance of what is going on and can lure us into a state of prurient passivity in the face of major changes in US policy and practice.  Trump may be outrageous and at times boneheaded, but he is still extremely powerful, retains his core base of support, and speaks to concerns of a significant number of Americans.


Nowhere has this been more dramatic than in the environmental arena.  We are seeing the abandonment or unraveling of environmental regulations and policies, most dramatically the Paris accord on climate change. Environmental policy is  always made amidst a complex matrix of overlapping and competing interests.  The larger the issue, the more complex the matrix, and the process is often extremely politicized.  This complexity has been the source of a great deal of business for conflict engagement professionals—through administrations of all political ilks—and likely this will continue to be the case.  With the new administration, however, the power dynamics have changed dramatically and the struggles around environmental policy are taking place against an increasingly polarized background.


This raises some major questions for conflict specialists about what roles we ought to be playing and how.  After the election, many have called for better listening, for challenging the stereotypical way in which many Trump supporters and those who have opposed him view each other, and finding ways to initiate dialogue among people from different parts of the political spectrum.  All these are worthwhile approaches that we should be open to where feasible.  But I doubt that we will get very far in changing the political climate by taking them at this time in our history and don’t think they represent the core challenge.  In fact, I think they could in some respects represent part of the problem in that there is a certain patronizing tone to some of this.  After all, it is not Trump or his supporters who are calling for more listening and reaching out to those they disagree with—it is a call mainly heard from liberals.


I certainly want to hear what people I disagree with have to say, but to me this is the easier part of the challenge.  Put me in a room with someone who believes abortion is immoral, that human generated climate change is either not a problem or not even a thing, or that Islam is our enemy and I can listen, be curious, ask questions and essentially control my emotions.  But if that is all I do, I am not being authentic, genuine, or honest.  And people know it.  The harder part is to find a way of clearly articulating what I believe, where and why I disagree with what others are saying, and to be true to my deepest values, but to do so in a way that encourages two way (or multiple way) communication—and to help others to do this as well.  This is not easy, especially if we see it as a moral imperative to work against some of the positions being advocated.  That’s why conflict specialists have an important role to play.  But what our optimal role right now?  I am sure we will continue to offer the services we have always provided, but these times call for something different as well.


Where we have an opportunity to help people communicate across profound differences in a powerful and constructive way, I am all for it, but I think the most important task right now is to work within different communities along the political spectrum, not between them.  For me that means finding ways of working with those who stand in support of sound policies that fully accept the importance of protecting the environment and dealing with climate change.  Specifically, it means working to help environmental advocates craft their message, build alliances, use the tools of conflict analysis to understand the nature of the problem we face in promoting sound polices, and  reach out to potential allies who are not in accord on all issues but share our basic concerns.


How to do this is something we should talk about.  And also whether.  Perhaps, the very best role for me is to go all out as an advocate right now, and give up the trappings of a conflict intervener.  Lots to discuss.


Lots to discuss for sure! 

I know there are big risks in what might be denial, but I choose not to give the soap opera that you describe “free rent” in my brain.  I choose to focus on the issues themselves, the interests that citizens of this country have in how they are resolved, and where I can make a contribution.  It doesn’t mean I’m not worried about the threats to our democratic norms and institutions coming from this current president.  I’m actually terrified.  However, this “soap opera” is being fed by many in the media on both sides of the political divide.  Let’s be real.  They are making money by adding fuel to the fire, and I choose not to be consumed by it.

As you say, President Trump does speak to the concerns of millions if not tens of millions of Americans.  The focus of those in power in Washington has missed, misunderstood, or simply ignored them for too long.  The arrogance of the progressive elites in emphasizing being “right” over truly listening to those who disagree looks to many as no different than does the current president’s hubris.  As distasteful as the current president’s language and behavior can be, a bull in the china shop at least will break the juggernaut that for them the federal government has become.  That may be a subject for future conversation.

For today, however, I would like to talk about the choices you pose for conflict and collaboration specialists with respect to our role in environmental issues.  As I read what you have written, you are drawn to “working to help environmental advocates craft their message, build alliances, use the tools of conflict analysis…, and reach out to potential allies…”  I agree that there is much room for the knowledge and skills of those in our field in contributing to the success of advocacy coalitions, and I think the country will benefit if you make that choice. 

For myself, I am drawn to more inclusive conversations, to “work between communities along the political spectrum” not within a subset.  That said, I do not and I don’t think I ever have believed that there is any such thing as neutrality.  I wrote an opinion piece in the early 1980s in an environmental professional journal stating that two choices are unavoidable in any dialogue or negotiation – what questions are on the table and who is included at that table – and that both choices are inherently NOT neutral.  They set the boundaries for whose interests are being addressed.

We as conflict resolvers always have a responsibility for our choices about which conversations to be a part of and about the implications of the assumptions that shape those conversations. Our colleague, Don Edwards, deserves a special shout out for his honesty in putting his values out there by naming his company Justice and Sustainability Associates!  I currently am the convener of a process with the goal of accelerating the replacement of lead drinking water pipes across the country.  The question is not neutral, but the conversation is inclusive.

I suggest that it also is important, however, to make a distinction between who is choosing the questions to work on and the parties to work with – is it me (or you) or are we facilitating an inclusive and collaboratively shaped conversation?  I think the choice of roles you pose has that as an implicit dimension.  Both are fine as long as we are honest with ourselves and transparent with others.  The advocacy options starts with our own position or interest in a set of issues (e.g. your example of climate change) and leads to the question you pose about whether you want to help others of like mind work effectively together toward a common goal.  Although I take responsibility for my choice of what conversations to facilitate, I prefer a role where my own opinions about the issues (which I always do have) are of less interest to me than the process of assisting those who are affected by an issue to shape their conversation and its outcome.  In our divided nation, I think that is of even greater urgency than ever.

What a fascinating conversation, and I'm glad that the ADR Hub is having this important dialog. 

I've had a long and personal struggle with the moral issue of "justice" vs. "peace."  In most occurrences, justice and peace travel together, but conflict resolvers can find themselves in a quandary when these fundamental concepts are in conflict themselves.

As Gail notes, this quandary is even more complicated when we, as dispute resolvers, are also stakeholders.  Our personal biases and identity can easily be wrapped up in these social dialogs, and it is almost impossible to be a facilitator when we have deeply-held views of "right" and "wrong" on the topics we are facilitating.

I wish I had answers, but instead I only have more questions.  Is justice or peace more important?  Do we sacrifice one for the other?  If we do, will that make a situation better or worse?  How do we even know if a situation is better or worse, of if we are only sweeping issues under a rug?

Is it enough to consider these questions, or must we also resolve them?  To that extent, is there even a right or wrong answer?

Hi Kristen.

Asking questions is  good start, but I think we have to try to answer them, even provisionally, as well if we are to move the discussion forward--even though there are no absolutely right answers--but there is an evolving understanding we can collectively approach if we try to formulate our thinking. 

Having said that, your questions are an excellent start.  I would say the challenge is not to chose peace vs. justice--but to understand that in the end you can't have one without the other.

Thanks for contributing.  We love to hear more about your thinking.


Neutrality and False Equivalency


Thanks for your thoughts Gail.  They are interesting, perceptive, and valuable.  Of course I do have a somewhat different take.  So let me have at it.


Lets start with your comments about the failure of progressives to listen.  Is it really true that the current polarization in our nations can be attributed to “the arrogance of the progressive elites in emphasizing being “right” over truly listening to those who disagree” and that this is equivalent in many ways to “the current president’s hubris”?  I don’t think so, and the events of this past week highlight in my view the fallacy of this narrative.    All of us struggle at times with listening and understanding those we disagree with, but a narrative that says this has been a special problem of progressives and that what is most needed is more commitment to listening to turn around the toxic nature of our political culture is not only incomplete but I would go so far as to say dangerous.  Progressives do not have a monopoly on truth or morality, but neither do they dominate the arrogant and self-righteous part of our landscape.  And the list of who has not been genuinely listened to or understood is far larger than white working class males, although they are certainly on that list.


I think this narrative is dangerous because it leads to the problem of “false equivalency” and interferes with our capacity to speak out against truly immoral behavior and beliefs.  The events this past week in Charlottesville bring this issue to the fore and bring into question the whole narrative that the most important challenge for progressives is to be better listeners. I do not think that at this moment it is helpful, accurate, or appropriate to denounce equally the intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum nor to call for a greater focus on how to listen better to those who spew forth vile beliefs (and I am sure that Gail noes not believe this either).  There is a reason to get to know what Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are thinking and what there life experiences have been, and that is to be better equipped to fight against their beliefs and values and actions.  But that is hardly about encouraging dialogue.  (For more on understanding the thinking of alt-right, check out this psychological survey of supporters.)


OK, what about those people who support Trump, but are not Neo-Nazis or members of the alt-right (i.e., racists,  misogynists, and anti-Semites)?  The legitimate interests and concerns of all people have a right to be heard and understood no matter how awful some of their other beliefs may be.  But that does not make it ok to give a pass to people who are willing to avert their eyes from the enabling of racism, the racism implicit in Trump’s politics and policies and those of many of key appointees (e.g., Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon).  It’s not the overt white supremacists I fear the most but those who abet them or ignore them.   And of course, no matter where someone is on the political spectrum, engaging in anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist, or homophobic behavior is not acceptable and needs to be called out.  But let’s be clear, this is coming much more (although not solely) from the extreme right of American politics than from elsewhere. 


What does this mean for conflict specialists?  I don’t think this is a time to reflexively call for listening and dialogue across the most stark political divides that we are experiencing. Instead, I believe our most critical challenge right now is help craft a message that reflects the non-violent principle that all adversaries are potential allies while also speaking truth to power and confronting evil.  We can help craft such a message—one that calls out racism (among other evils) but that invites people to change as well.  We can do this by helping foster dialogue among a wider range of people committed to strengthening our democracy, building an equitable society and combatting racism and bigotry.  We can also do this my working on crafting such a  message ourselves. In a future post, I will try my best to craft such a message, but I think we should all be working on this. 

Of course if we are engaged in work that naturally brings people together from different parts of our political landscape on issues where they can hear each other and where they can experience each other as partners in problem solving, that is all to the good. Gail is engaged in one such effort.  But that is different than focusing on dialogue about the essential value differences that divide us on core issues of identity and ideology.  The time will come for that.  But lots of other work is needed first.

It’s taken me a while to even try to write anything this week.  All my words seem so inadequate.  Also, the words of others, such as our friend and colleague Frank Dukes from Charlottesville, have been so eloquent coming from their more direct and authentic involvement.

There are no two sides and no “equivalency” for the hateful words and actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  And, no, Bernie, I don’t think it’s true that the current polarization in this country should be attributed to a lack of listening by the progressive elites.  However, I also don’t think that’s what I said or meant to say, if it landed that way for you.

I do honestly believe, though, that the Washington power elites have not truly listened to the concerns of tens of millions of Americans, particularly but not exclusively in rural areas and small towns across the country.  That lands for our fellow citizens who question progressive policies as arrogance and elitism, as polarizing from the left.   We can be honest about that without going to the extreme of saying it is the cause.  Pointing out where more listening is warranted is not false equivalency for me or about equal blame.  It’s simply and importantly our opportunity for honest self-reflection, which is always timely.

I also see an irony in the name calling – and even the “resist” language – that I see on my Facebook feed from those rightly appalled by the white supremacists.   There's a natural human response to hit back when hurt or horrified, and we should resist evil.  If that’s all folks do, however, (and I know that’s not what Bernie is advocating), that likely only escalates the problem.  My limited understanding of Buddhism suggests that there’s always a risk of becoming like what we resist.  It’s another form of attachment.

Outrage needs to be channeled into standing FOR something, while we also remain mindful of the non-violent principle Bernie pointed out that all adversaries are potential allies.  I commend us all to take a look at the ideas put forward by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the linked article below.  They suggest some positive actions to go beyond protests.  My only quibble is perpetuating the narrative and language of a "fight," but my hope is that it will appeal to the natural, righteous anger that liberal and conservative Americans alike feel at the sickening bigotry and terrorism we saw in Charlottesville and that is likely to happen again.

I suggest that there is another way to frame our thinking than “false equivalency.”  As David Brooks wrote in his op ed piece in the New York Times on August 15.  “ …The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined. But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.  In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths….

 What is lost in a political discussion is nuance. defines nuance as - a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.

When there is polarization, the nuances are lost.

Fitting nuance into the political spectrum ( I like the previous person who identified this as a tool) allows the

mediator to challenge the participants to consider the many meanings of reasoned opinions, terminology, and "facts" presented under each party's interests and positions.

Hi Vince, Great point about nuance.  See the quote about "modesty" from David Brooks in my post tonight (Sunday, 8/20).  If I'm understanding your point about nuance, I think there's a lot of alignment here.  "Modesty... means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system.  It means understanding that there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems.  Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it's made by finding balance between competing truths..."  Regards, Gail


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