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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Replies to This Discussion

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? 

Parting Reflections


Thanks to everyone who has participated in this dialogue.  In one way or another, this conversation will continue because coming to grips with how to play a constructive role divided times is a question we will struggle with as long as the times are so divided, and that is likely to be for quite a while.  But we are ready to move on from this particular format for discussion. As we do so, some final thoughts (Gail will be sharing hers and we invite others to do so as well).

I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about this topic since well before the last election.  Just last week I gave a talk on Conflict Engagement in a Polarized World at the 25th Anniversary Conference of the Mediation Institute of Ireland.  The cross cultural interchange that afforded was very helpful to me in gaining perspective on this challenge.  Throughout this time several themes have consistently emerged: 

  • Deep forces are at work here, and, no matter what we do, we are unlikely to see a quick or dramatic breakthrough in the divisions we face.  Fundamental change will require altering the dynamics breeding polarization.  These include the tension between globalization and sectarian self-interest; the increasing disparity in income between the ultra rich and the rest of us; the extreme inequality in resources available to different communities, nations, and ethnic groups; the frightening impact of climate change and our difficulty in facing this; the resurgence of overt racism (it’s always been with us of course); and more generally the inability of the capitalist/democratic/neo-liberal system to address our most basic problems.  Until these are addressed, the best conflict engagement processes in the world won’t fundamentally alter the picture.  But that does not mean we have nothing to offer or no role to play.  The surest way to get at the root problems is to  engage in both advocacy and dialogue.  That is, movements outside of traditional political processes need to mature as do frank discussions among diverse points of vie
  • For dialogue to be meaningful, it has to be multi-directional, multi-dimensional, deep, authentic, and ongoing.  Listening is great, but alone accomplishes very little. The two-wayness of genuine dialogue is critical, that is, it requires both deep listening and speaking our most important truths.  Dialogue is built on learning to listen so that we encourage others to listen and to speak in a way that encourages others to speak.
  • We have to be strategic about this. That means being realistic about where dialogue can occur, about what issues, with whom and how.  I don’t see this as a time where constructive interchanges between diehard Trump supporters and those who can’t stomach anything he says and does are likely to be widespread or transformational.  There may be local issues where common concerns exist across a wide spectrum, and we may occasionally be able (or forced) to participate in an interpersonal or small group interchange  about our most profound differences, and these can be instructive.  But I think for now these will have a limited impact at best.
  • Instead, we should seek to bridge smaller divides.  For example, I think there are currently many Republicans who are experiencing significant cognitive dissonance.  They don’t like what they see is happening in their party, but it is their party.  Many Democrats may feel this way as well.  There are non-partisan versions of this dynamic as well—for example between the African American community and reform minded police officials.   This suggests the possibility of constructive interchanges among groups that have struggled to work together in recent times. This, I believe, is where there is the greatest potential for significant progress at this time.
  • Dialogue should not mean that we fail to stand up for fundamental decency, human rights, and global health.  Hiding behind neutrality in the face of violations of our basic values will undermine our credibility, usefulness, and influence.  Sometimes that means we cannot act as a facilitator of certain processes, but if doing so were to require us to ignore violations of our basic values, we would not be very effective in any case.  We don’t have to take public stands on all related issues.  For example, if I am asked to facilitate a discussion about Confederate statues, I don’t have to declare my personal views on what should happen to them, but I should never shy away from standing up to racism, white supremacy, or the KKK either.   Being an effective third party does not require abandoning our most important values. In fact, it requires that we adhere to them at all times.
  • But the third party role is not always the most important or powerful one one for conflict engagement specialists to play.  The hardest part of engaging in dialogue with those we fundamentally disagree is to say what we really think in a way that opens up discussion rather than shutting it down. This requires that we do the hard work of discerning what our most fundamental concerns and values are and how we can most effectively convey these in a constructive way.  We all need allies to help us do this, and we can all be those allies at times. 
  • We all need to consider where and how we can be part of constructive engagement processes, and we all have opportunities to do so—in our families, our religious institutions, our communities, our work, on social media, with community groups, and in the advocacy groups we might belong to, for example. What we do makes a difference, and what we do collectively makes a very big difference.  We are all part of the problem and the solution.  It is what making our world a better place is all about.


I want to end by thanking my wonderful partner in this conversation. Gail and I share our most important values about conflict and conflict engagement and also a deep mutual respect, but we have disagreed to a degree on the right strategies to follow at this time.  In the spirit of constructive engagement, that is why we thought it valuable to enter into this discussion.  For me it has been and I hope it that is true for others as well.

Thanks for participating, keep in touch and stay engaged!

Thank you Bernie and Gail for facilitating this conversation. It is an important one to have at this time.

However there is an aspect of the final remarks that has a touch of resignation about it with a sense of frustration about having no clear pathway forward.    

Can I suggest a reframe. 

What is happening in the US at the moment and mirrored in the rest of the world is that we are going through a time of great social and economic change.  The world, through the internet, is now connected in such a way that poses a direct challenge to the established order.  It is truly a world wide web with connections that cross established borders.

The rise of Trump, Brexit, Putin, Erdogan and China’s Xi are just reactions to this change rather than being portents for the future.

These individuals and movements represent a longing for the fading empires of the American dream, the old British Empire, the old USSR, the old Ottoman Empire and the once great Chinese dynasties. They are all driven by the motto of making (fill in the gap) great again.  Xi even said in his recent speech to the Chinese Congress that he wanted to make China great again.

These leaders are trying to recapture their empires mojo through a command and control model as a way of trying to regain control of the complex fluid social and commercial world they now inhabit.

It is often said that generals generally fight the last war. These leaders are still thinking and fighting with 20th-century logic. The world has changed in ways that they cannot or do not want to understand.

These changes are naturally very unsettling for people with a conservative view who are uncomfortable with their internalised world order changing. This is normal and understandable as is their tendency to look to messiah’s to rescue them. They want the imagined world that they knew and loved back. Someone has stolen it.  Someone is to blame.

The first challenge in dealing with such a transition is to accept that there is no clear pathway forward. Once we accept that there is no clear pathway we can then actually move forward.  Once again the paradox.  

So hence the reframe is away from resignation and frustration to one of calm and confident acceptance that what is happening is just a normal process we have to go through.

There is a potential model for how the US and the rest of the world might deal with this change in a constructive and positive way.

It comes from the story of Amy Cuddy and the excellent article published in the New York Times magazine on 18 October 2017 by Susan Dominus titled When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy see

Amy was a high profile and popular speaker and quasi-celebrity in the field of social psychology. She was brought crashing to earth by a new reform movement that challenged the reliability of research over the entire field and because Amy was such a high profile figure she was personally attacked.

At conferences, in classrooms and on social media, fellow academics (or commenters on their sites) have savaged not just Cuddy’s work but also her career, her income, her ambition, even her intelligence, sometimes with evident malice. Last spring, she quietly left her tenure-track job at Harvard.

The debate that ensued over the whole field resulted in academic leaders from each side ignoring the norms of scientific discourse in an effort to discredit each other. Status was to be found in toppling established figures. Amy was caught up in this ugly battle.

I believe Amy’s response to these attacks is a model for how the US can deal with the divisions caused by the great changes that are taking place.

Firstly she never lost her dignity in spite of the volume and negativity of the attacks mounted against her. She then spent a long time looking inward at herself and her own research behaviour before attempting a response.

When she did respond she simply wrote a bland statement essentially disagreeing with the critiques stating that she looked forward to more research on this important topic. She chose to stand above the vitriol. She retained her humanity and in a way impliedly challenged her critics to rise to her level.

In the end Amy has come through this experience to a new place as expressed in the last paragraph of the article:

Cuddy now seems ready to move on to a new phase. We met near her home in Newton, Mass., in August. Cuddy, smiling, fresh from physical therapy for a torn ACL, was in a tennis skirt, looking young and more lighthearted than I had ever seen her. She had abandoned the dream of tenure. She was planning a new project, a new book, she told me. It was coming together in her mind: “Bullies, Bystanders and Bravehearts.” It would be personal; there would be research; she would write, and she would talk, and she would interview people who had suffered fates worse than her own and bounced back. She would tell their stories and hers, and because she is a good talker, people would listen.

The US and the rest of the world like Amy will go through this trial and come out the other side.  The pillars and structures of our society will be stress tested by Trump and others. Provided we, like Amy, retain our dignity and rise above the vitriol we will find a way forward.

In addition to Amy’s story the author of the article provides a valuable guide to how mediators can work to help society get through this transition. Susan Dominus demonstrates the great qualities that good professional journalism can bring to society countering the one-sided Fox News approach of demonising opposing views.  It is an antidote to false news.

In the following passage Susan Dominus demonstrates the skill of balanced journalism as well as the skill of a professional mediator in allowing the story of her encounter with a critic to emerge.

Gelman, whom I met in his office in late June, is not scathing in person; he is rather mild, soft-spoken even. Gelman was vague when asked if he felt there was anything unusual about the frequency of his comments on Cuddy (“People send me things, and I respond,” he said). He said it was Cuddy who was unrelenting. He later emailed me to make sure I was aware that she attacked him and Simmons and Simonsohn on a private Facebook page, without backing up her accusations with evidence; he was still waiting for a clear renunciation of the original 2010 paper on the hormonal effects of power posing. “I would like her to say: ‘Jeez, I didn’t know any better. I was doing what they told me to do. I don’t think I’m a bad person, and it didn’t get replicated’ — rather than salvaging as much as she can.”

Gelman considers himself someone who is doing others the favor of pointing out their errors, a service for which he would be grateful, he says. Cuddy considers him a bully, someone who does not believe that she is entitled to her own interpretation of the research that is her field of expertise.

Cuddy has asked herself what motivates Gelman. “Why not help social psychologists instead of attacking them on your blog?” she wondered aloud to me. “Why not come to a conference or hold a seminar?” When I asked Gelman if he would ever consider meeting with Cuddy to hash out their differences, he seemed put off by the idea of trying to persuade her, in person, that there were flaws in her work.

“I don’t like interpersonal conflict,” he said.

The last sentence is the most powerful of the whole piece. It exposes the loss of the personal connection that has driven the division within this academic community. It is the fear of personal conflict but the acceptance of non-personal conflict that is at the heart of the problem.  It highlights how easily we can easily lose our humanity when we don’t meet with people face-to-face.   

 This reinforces the benefits of the facilitative mediation model where the parties can reconstruct their human connection through the face-to-face meeting.

The lesson for the US and the rest of the world is, like Amy, not to lose our humanity and dignity. Like Amy we will come to a better place.

Regards Greg

Hi Greg and thanks for another thoughtful contribution.  I had read the article about Cuddy in the NY Times and I do think it is an important discussion of how hard it is to have professional differences and conversations about these in a constructive way.  As it turns out, I have adapted a speech I gave in June to the AFCC (Association of Family Conciliation Courts) into an article for the next Family Courts Review about how important but hard it is for conflict professionals to deal with their differences.  This is based on having facilitated a couple of dialogues for AFCC, one on mediation and domestic violence and the other on shared parenting.  But it is also based on current concerns that we are not really facing the crisis in access to justice caused by the unaffordability of legal services.

I feel neither resigned nor ultimately pessimistic. Nor do I think there is no road forward. I am not sure where you got that from since I have tried very hard to discuss what that road is and how we can walk it.  I am frustrated or perhaps concerned about the polarization that I see and the easy solutions that people want to jump on.  Their is a road forward but it is neither simple nor straightforward.  And it is not simply about listening.

I will have to think about your reframing.  I hope you are right that what we are seeing is a reaction to disruption of systems of global interaction and not a portent of the future, but knowing what the future will bring and what is a portent of it or not is well beyond my pay grade. 

Thanks for sharing your experience with Amy Cuddy. That was indeed interesting and enlightening.

Best to  you


It's been an honor and a pleasure to partner with Bernie on this blog.  We do share so much, and our (somewhat) different ways of applying them have offered me much food for thought. 

I have been reminded that many things remain the same - no process is neutral and that I am not "neutral" about the processes for helping people engage with one another and about the principles that underlie them.  Returning to my original post, two choices are unavoidable in any dialogue or negotiation -- what questions are on the table and who is included at that table -- both of which are influenced by who frames those questions.  Bernie's inclination in today's world to use his skills to help those whose values and positions he shares will add much value to the world, and it is not my inclination.  I do try to reflect seriously and take responsibility for my choices of what processes to engage in and what the underlying framing and power dynamics imply. Bernie's perspective, however, inspires me to be more forthright in conversations with others about those choices and to continue to advocate for processes that are framed by those affected by the outcome. 

I hope as we go forward that we can avoid what I would consider false choices.  I don't think we need to decide which role is most important; they both are.  And, I don't think anyone ever said that consensus-building is the only tool or that listening alone is enough or that the goal is to get people across the full spectrum of our society into a dialogue. We might all benefit from re-reading the classic by Ury, Brett and Goldberg, Getting Disputes Resolved, where they make a useful distinction between Interest-based, rights-based, and power-based processes. 

Al Sample's post challenged me in my response to today's divided nation, however, namely my inclination to focus on interest-based dialogue (with the caveat above about shared framing of the conversation).  Where the very fabric of our democratic and Constitutional norms is being torn, then I am an advocate as well.

Finally (for this blog), I continue to advocate for the value of listening in any and all contexts.  It is not enough, but it is essential.  

Thanks all for being part of this.  In Peace, Gail 

It's been an honor and a pleasure to share this blog with Gail and Bernie, and  the others partakers. Many countries in the world are suffering situations of political, racial,   (and others) division. They are also suffering terrible environmental problems. The world needs more tolerance, more respect, more solidarity, more dialogue. and those of us who are dedicated to resolving conflicts have a great responsibility that grows with each step ..The reality that Greg has explained  is a big truth. Now, we have to add  Catalonia and.Spain of course, and Europe  (because it's a trouble for Spain and Europe too).

A special thanks to Bernie for his parting reflections, which are an inspiration for us and  I will use them  in my classes so that my students understand what means working in peacebuilding to get a better world for all ...

We'll go on building peace..

Thaks all.-

María Victoria


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