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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Sorry Gail, good point: How can we promote non-divisive communication within our communities?

I appreciate Michael's reference to wounds and attendance to other's wounds.

Usually I just at read these thread discussions, but his comment and all these comments reflecting a profound search have coaxed me from being witness to participant.

Listening is not necessarily respecting. Mediation's discipline to remain dispassionate sometimes is mistaken for the respect that underlies the work as I experience it.

The most powerful impact mediation has is respect that gradually generates openness about real issues. 

The disputing parties often have been so wounded. Many have felt the dispute as true abuse, or even re-wounding from past trauma. Feeling regard from me is a first step for some.

Our discipline keeps respect, if you will, evenly showered in our work as dispassionate parties. But it's there, working on both sides.

In current day politics (and culture wars), what I observe is not a lack of listening, or even a lack of the will to listen. I notice a lack of self-awareness about one's own lack of respect, true and profound regard, for what Martin Buber called "the other."

One of Nich That Hanh's quotes I often use is: “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over."

Yes. That applies to the current rancor. Yes. It is true whomever we consider to be our polar opposite in really important political and cultural matters can speak as if there is no regard, or may have no regard at all for our views or even our lives. But. It is also, too often, true that we lack self-awareness and fail to respect when we listen. This is very different from mediation, and this is not a mix for healing.

There's a great - even moving - discussion between two great professors, Cornel West (left leaning) and Robert George (right leaning), at Swathmore  how intellectuals diametrically opposed politically can learn from each other. Spoiler alert: They are friends and remain friends. It might be instructive. Here.

Wishing all peace. I've been learning a lot here.

Thanks for this MIchael. Your work in Senegal seems extremely interesting.  Is there a place to read about this further?

Hi Bernie, 

I appreciate you asking. Currently there is no website. We are trying set up and host a film festival in Dakar within the next year or so. The grant is a 3 year grant so the students are still working on their projects. Hopefully there will be a website that hosts the films too!


An interesting topic!  I have not read all of the previous replies, so I apologize if something is repeated. I think the Age of Trump, the Divide Nation, the political/social chasm, etc. are all symptoms. As a conflict resolvers we are trained to dig. Dig. Dig. Find the source(s) of tensions and address them. While symptoms can be problems in and of themselves, there is something deeper.  This goes well beyond, and before, Trump.


Without getting into thesis mode, I’m just going to throw stuff upon the wall and see what sticks!


  • Discussion about how to engage dialogue is needed, but it puts the cart ahead of the horse, in my opinion. Dialogue is voluntary, and misunderstood. Debate gets the attention, and even it is misunderstood. The public not only doesn’t not know how to engage in dialogue, they don’t even know what it is.
  • I run a somewhat monthly free public dialogue that engages various topics. What I’ve noticed is that political loyalty is not much different than sports loyalty. For sports fans, there is a personal identity attached to “their” teams. They bask in victories and lay blame with defeats. They’ll change their attitudes on certain viewpoints to reflect how their team is doing. In politics, this is tied to candidates, office holders and platforms. The single-issue voting strategy has been altered to single-person voting. “We won” or “we lost”. The personal attachment to someone we have never met, who does not one thing about us individually is one wedge that divides us. And that ties into psychology and projection and all that stuff J
  • And this leads to the us v. them, zero sum identity challenge, which in turn fosters ad hominems and “shoot the messenger” mentality.
  • And then this leads to “resistance” and protesting, which as of late is not tied to problem solving. The band Bon Jovi has a great line in their song, “Living on a Prayer”. It goes… “you live for the fight when it’s all that you got.” Perhaps that has a tinge of “instant gratification” to it.
  • Ignorance may not be bliss, but it’s better than Belief. With 24-hour news, social media and online comments, the public is aware of thousands of issues all at once. There is a greater social/political divide now partly (maybe mostly) because we are aware of more things that can divide us. What we lack is the time, energy and (seemingly) willingness to educate ourselves on each topic. Instead, we trust others to tell us how we should think, feel and react. Those we trust manipulate our emotions and fears to gain said trust. And we believe they are correct, Right or Left.
  • Tie that in to the notion that biologically we are resistant to Dialogue. If we think about what dialogue is, we can see the risk. Dialogue requires time, energy, risk, effort and change; things that could have spelt doom to our ancient ancestors. Be wary of strangers: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
  • So, if dialogue is voluntary and against our primitive nature, how do we do it? Very carefully, methodically, impersonally and generationally. There is no magic wand to fix the mess we have now. We have to triage it: stop the bleeding and stabilize the situation. Going against Trump directly will exacerbate the problem(s).  Stick to issues at their base levels. Teach the next generation how to discover, address and solve problems. Highlight our mistakes.
  • A lesson we should have learned from Reagan calling the USSR the “Evil Empire”; judging someone/thing doesn’t address the problem. Soon, banks and Wall Street and others were “evil”. Motivations were assigned to policies and to its supporters without asking the basic question, “why?”
  • If people think Debate is the answer, then let’s do it. A straight, logical and reasoned debate on issues. Call out fallacies, hedges, qualifications, etc. Educate while debating. If an argument doesn’t hold water then it fails.
  • People are reluctant to change themselves, which would require admitting being wrong. We need to change that focused thinking. It’s not that we are “wrong”, it’s that we could be more “right”.  In our public dialogues mentioned above, I help people with argument formulation…no matter which side they advocate. Because, I tell them, if your argument is weak, then your position cannot endure. After they brush up on some logic tips, they usually change not only their argument and position, but viewpoints on various topics. In a way this takes the passion out of politics, which may not be ideal, but it’s better than rioting.
  • And then that leads me to Values.  The “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” doctrine, if you will. We find it noble that Marines, for example, risk their lives to recover a fallen soldier. Yet we cannot risk our own viewpoints to help ourselves, our town, state or nation.  “Being right” has replaced “doing right”.






Powerful insights. I'll be thinking about these for a few days - at least. All best, Teresa.

Thanks for this Michael.  I love the Bon Jovi quote.  The interesting thing about debate as a framework rather than dialogue is that debate suggests that argumentation is an important part of the process--dialogue suggests that it's more about saying what we think and listening to others.  I think we need both.

One disagreement--I think  your statement that dialogue is against our primitive nature is not born out by either anthropological or evolutionary evidence.  We evolved to be cooperators every bit as much as competitors and we are hard wired for that.  Check out the work of Martin Novak (Nowak, M. “Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation.” Scientific American, July 2012.)

Agreed, with a caveat.  We have evolved to overcome challenges, yet remnants remain; wisdom teeth, tails, appendixes were all "evolved out", but still exist. I think when pushed, we go back to fearing others. Or maybe it's not others we fear, but the thought of being wrong. 


A Macro Strategy and Korea Too


There is so much to discuss this week that I almost don’t know where to start.  Macro strategies?  Deeper communication?  Daca? Hurricane lessons and challenges? Taxes and the budget?  NAFTA? Where conflict specialists fit into any of this?  But it seems obvious to me that all of these pale in comparison to the truly existential threat of war with North Korea.  So I am going to take that on first.


Hard to believe, but the world seems a lot more dangerous than it did just one week ago.  I doubt we will end up in a nuclear war in the immediate future, but I say this without conviction or certainty.  And if we do, for what reason—how would war help solve any problem for anyone? Now more than ever we need the calming voice of diplomats, peace builders, and conflict specialists.  This is not to say that diplomacy or negotiation alone will solve the crisis.  It has been long in the making (going back at least to WWII but really much further than that), and a wise, strategic, and prolonged strategy is needed to wind it down.  At the moment, I don’t have faith that the right voices or strategies are in strong supply anywhere.  While it is not even close to anyone’s interest that war erupt, we also know that people do not always act in their own interests—especially when they believe their basic security or fundamental identity is at stake. 


As a mediator of complex, multi-party disputes, the question that is always at the forefront for me is “who should talk to whom, about what, when, and how—and how can I help make this happen?”.  So that is what I have been thinking about now.  I am sure there are many conversations going on that we have no idea about, but one that is not happening is between the US and North Korea.  I don’t think that is going to happen in the short term, and maybe it does not yet need to. The critical direct conversations with North Korea right now need to involve China, South Korea, Japan, and possibly Russia.  But these need to be coordinated conversations and the US needs to be part of the coordination.   Such coordination is not furthered by trade wars and bellicose public threats against potential partners in this effort.


But what should they be talking about?  It seems from public statements, particularly from the US, that almost all the discussion is about how to pressure North Korea to stand down from its nuclear program.    If the “fire and fury” threats are the foundation of our approach, we are in for some very scary and difficult times.  And it won’t work.  There is a role for consequences (provocability in game theory terminology), but that only works if it is part of a more complex and sophisticated strategy in which rewards and cooperation play a crucial role.  Furthermore, the consequences have to be realistic, tailored, and not so over the top that they cause a deeply defensive response.  This of course is true for North Korea’s actions as well, but we can’t wait for them to take the lead on this for obvious reasons (although you never know).  All this is to say that it seems to me we need to spend a lot more time thinking about what is truly important and meaningful to the North Koreans at this time, and how can we address there most important concerns.  The problem is that we don’t have very good information about this, and  that makes it hard to craft a workable strategy.  So the intermediate question becomes how can we work together to best assess this, how we can gain more insight into the North Koreans understanding of what is going on and into the matrix of needs and forces they are dealing with.


If the upshot is that what is most important to them is to gain a credible threat to impose unacceptable damage on China, Japan, South Korea, and the US in order to gain a long term ability to stand up to historic enemies and put pressure on historic friends, as it well it may be, then we are going to face a very difficult choice.  Do we accept this reality and try to work to bring them into a more reasonable posture as a nuclear power (and of course can we work over time to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether), or do we continue to amp up the pressure on them in the hope that this will ultimately induce them to reevaluate their nuclear policies.  There are major problems with both approaches, but the second one is particularly problematic because it means imposing significant hardships on the people of North Korea. 


The problem with any of these approaches is that they won’t work if  they are implemented in coordinated and coherent way, although there is room for different roles and tactics.  Coordinating will not be easy under the pressure of an immediate crisis.  One thing that we desperately needed is to dial back the assumption that immediate action is essential or we will be forever stuck with an nuclear armed and dangerous North Korea.  It seems to me that the chances of preventing North Korea from continuing its nuclear program right now are extremely small, smaller than the chance of getting them to wind it down later on—which may be small as well.  Our best chance over time is to work with others, specifically those who  have a better capacity than we do to influence North Korea, and together to adopt a more nuanced, coordinated, and in the long run powerful strategy.


I am not a Korea expert.  What I have been laying out is how I as a conflict specialist understand this situation.  There are others in the conflict and peace building world who know much more about North Korea than I do.  Nonetheless, I want to put my thoughts about this out here in brief (and though it may not seem so, this really is brief for such a complex subject) because doing so is part of how I may have something relevant to offer, how we all have something to at this critical moment.


There are other things we can offer as well:  we can try to organize discussions in our communities, religious institutions, at our conferences, or on-line.  We can reach out to those who take a different view about this than we do.  We can support organizations like the Alliance for Peace Building, Search for Common Ground, Partners for Democratic Change, the Public Conversations Project, and others who see their role as encouraging a more creative approach to our most troubling divides.  We can talk with and listen to our friends, neighbors and families, write op-eds, offer webinars, organize town-halls, and more—please share other ideas.


But now is also the time to contribute to building a peace movement that can counteract the forces pushing us to the brink of war.  OK, that is for another post. It’s not that any of us can do all of this, but all of us can do something.  And if not on this issue, on what, if not now, when?


Before I end this overly long entry, I want to try to answer some of Gail’s questions—namely what do I mean by macro strategy, what does it look like, can I offer examples?  That is what I have just tried to do. I think trying to talk to extreme hawks on this issue may be fruitless at this time—but if given the opportunity to do so, I would certainly try.  If any of you favor military action against North Korea, please let me know—I really am up for listening to you—but will ask the same of you.  But as a macro strategy (by which I mean an overall strategy—not necessarily focusing on national or macro level processes—sort of a version of thinking globally, but acting locally), I think our job is to work with others who are looking for a peaceful way through this, to talk about what is going on, to share our views, to raise our level of knowledge, and to encourage a more nuanced, thoughtful and reasoned approach to what is perhaps the most dangerous time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.


And that is what I think is needed on other issues as well—climate change, DACA, race, etc. There is a broad spectrum of people who we should be trying to talk with in whatever way we can, and there are already significant ways this is happening.  But the purpose of doing so is to build better understanding and stronger alliances that will enable us to better address over time the essential issues we face.  If any you reading this do not believe that human action is a major factor in climate change—I would love to talk.  But who I most want to talk with now are those who are concerned about climate change and who want to understand it better and consider and what to do about it.  That certainly includes those who feel that the economic consequences of ameliorative action need to be considered.  And it includes those who feel that environmentalists have been overly rigid and self-righteous in their approach.  But I don’t think the focus ought to be on ewhether human potentiated climate change is occurring or who support the gleeful approach to deregulation of our current leadership.  I think we need to broaden the opposition to that approach as effectively as we can. Hopefully this opposition will come to include many of those who supported Trump—they have much to contribute.  I want to hear them and of course I want to be heard as well.


Thanks for bearing with me.  I would REALLY like help in refining my formulation and understanding of any of these issues.

Hi Bernie

I wonder if it would be helpful to step out from within the eye of the storm and look at the big picture issues raised by the arrival of Donald Trump. 

For me the fundamental question is whether Trump represents a vision of the future or the last vestiges of a passing era. 

I would argue the latter.  Trump’s rise and that of Brexit is in some ways an understandable reaction to a world that has changed beyond recognition in the last two decades.

We now live in the age of complexity and interconnection. We are influenced by multiple factors in our environment that we can never fully understand. It therefore requires leaders who have a deeper understanding of the broader context in which we operate and the ability to not shy away from this complexity and paradox. Leaders who can modulate that complexity to allow for the emergence of new.  

It’s the fear and the uncertainty of the new that is unsettling people uncomfortable with change. It is very hard to have trust in something you don’t understand or feel comfortable with.  Trump’s success came through presenting himself as the new Messiah with the offer to provide certainty and comfort for those hankering for the imagined certainty of the past and the ‘lost America’.

Trump tries to make the complex simple and ordered by focusing on facts and outcomes rather than allowing patterns to emerge. He draws from the long tradition of the command and control approach to corporate management.   However this style of management inhibits emerging solutions, diversity, variety, innovation and the positive and creative aspects of disruption and conflict. This inevitably constrains the freedom of views and diversity of opinions.

The Trump approach is based on the cult of the alpha leader who seeks fail safe predictable outcomes. He does this by hypothesising an end state solution and then applying pressure to close the gap.   It is ultimately counter-productive because it leads to black-and-white answers and rigid group think not only by his supporters but also by his opponents. The result is a breakdown in community trust, communication and shared understanding which are essential ingredients for surviving in our modern complex world.

The 20th century command and control model of corporate leadership that Trump represents is breaking down because commanding and controlling doesn’t work in a complex environment particularly in our modern political, commercial and social life.

A complex world requires a different form of management leadership. One that requires a higher state of alertness and the ability to provide a real-time response to emerging patterns and behaviours.   It requires an experiential mode of management in which political and corporate leaders step back and allow patterns to emerge. It is how the new digital economy and the rise of disruptors have evolved.  The focus is on managing the present and seeking out its evolutionary potential. Leaders like no-drama Obama come to mind.

So if we accept Trump’s rise as just the natural consequence of this changing world then we can use the crisis and the energy that he brings as a way of facilitating the new to emerge.   Yes it will test the strength of America’s institutions and spirit. Maybe this is a good thing because out of it will rise of a new state of trust.  This is essential for the future of the US and the world because trust is the basis of any well functioning system. 

So battling the idea of Trump is just battling the idea of the past.  Of course there needs to be a boundary put around his excesses. But the new boundaries that emerge out of the Trump experience will represent a renewed USA.

See the following blog on ADRHub titled “Brexit, Trump and the Nash Trap.  A loss of Trust”

Regards Greg


What do you think about the idea of using truth and reconciliation processes to help heal our polarized society?   A column in today’s Washington Post advocates such a process in Virginia to deal with racial conflict, describing the rationale and a possible approach.  Efforts like this might take place at the state or local level.  Politics at the national level seems too polarized and hard for most people to engage for this to work well there now.

Such processes have been used in other countries including, but not limited to, South Africa.  I think that there have been scholarly analyses of the effects of such efforts and factors that may make them more or less effective, but I haven’t read that literature.  Can anyone share these insights?

Hi John

Interesting suggestion.  I think we used the concept of restorative justice in many different ways.  There is a difference between the type of commission in SA and Rwanda where perpetrators of crimes were offered an alternative to criminal prosecution if they "came clean" and there was a reparation process and a more general dialogue among different members of the community about what has happened historically.  In Canada there was a version of this used to deal with the with the experience of First Nations people with residential schools that ripped them away from their communities and often abused them.  When I was in SA,there were very mixed feelings about the TRC--many felt it was a way for perpetrators to get off the hook and then there were no meaningful reparations.  For others it was much more healing and it was essential to moving on from the apartheid era.

So it helps to specify a bit what you might have in mind.  It gets back to the basic question, who would be talking to whom about what and how?  I think building some common historical narrative among those who have been brought up believing that the Civil War was about slavery and those who believe it was about States' Rights would be very useful--but it would require people to start out by accepting the horror of slavery.


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