Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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The fourth volume of Robert Caro‘s biography of Lyndon Johnson is finally out. Covering the period from about 1958-1964, the years of Johnson’s vice-presidency and transition to the presidency, this book features the legendary feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.  These two men hated each other from the moment they met, when Bobby Kennedy was a staffer for Senator Joe McCarthy, for whom Johnson had no respect. Matters only went downhill from there. This was a bitter rivalry of Shakespearean dimensions, that had immense consequences for our country’s history.

I’m not yet halfway through this thick book, but can already report how fascinating it is to read Caro’s reconstruction of the day in the middle of the 1960 Democratic convention when Jack Kennedy offered Johnson the vice-presidential spot on the ticket in the morning, and Bobby Kennedy then spent the whole afternoon trying to take it away. This drama played out between the 7th and 9th floors of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which I can see from my office window. It’s a great example of how mutual suspicion and distrust can cause tremendous miscommunication and confusion. Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson demonstrate how people who hate each other almost killed a deal by their insulting behavior toward each other.  How their mutual hatred blinded them to its advantageous possibilities. And how this acrimonious start to Johnson’s vice-presidential tenure poisoned his subsequent relationship with the Kennedy brothers.

The story made me wonder if it is ever worth making a deal without working first on improving the relationship between the parties. A lot of the mediations I conduct start off with one or both parties telling me how much they dislike and distrust the party or attorney on the other side. In those cases I might spend the first hour trying to persuade the parties to meet in the same room, which they sometimes never agree to do. And in cases where the parties want nothing more to do with each other, and are just trying to end the lawsuit with a payment from one to the other, it may not be necessary to repair the relationship in order to settle the lawsuit. In fact, one can use the parties’ mutual dislike as a reason they should be interested in ending the conflict, and achieving a final separation. Even in those kinds of cases, however, it can still be beneficial for each side to obtain at least a better understanding of where the other side is coming from, which tends to make both sides more satisfied with the result. In other cases, however, some of which I have previously described, that might include a family relationship or a broken business partnership, improving the relationship may be a more important goal than making a deal. If the parties can repair their relationship, they will have a much easier time making an agreement. And the more trust that can be re-established in a relationship, the better the chance that the deal will work.

If we can find a way to improve the relationship of parties enmeshed in the kind of feud that existed between LBJ and RFK, there is almost no limit to what can be accomplished. In Garry Wills’s review of this volume of Caro’s biography in the New York Review of Books, Wills imagines what might have happened in an alternate reality in which Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, instead of hating each other, had managed to understand and appreciate each other’s talents:

To understand the sheer wastefulness of this conflict, try to imagine the impossible. What if the two men, instead of bringing out the worst, had played to the best in each other? Suppose Bobby had recognized his brother’s need of Johnson in 1960, had helped capitalize on his resources in the South, and had made him an effective partner in Jack’s administration, instead of a sullen man isolated in his discontent. Would some of the effective legislation of Johnson’s turn in office have been accomplished earlier? Or suppose that Johnson, open to the alternative insights of Bobby, had seen the force of objections to the Vietnam War before he floundered so deep into that Big Muddy. What if he had won over the young people who ended up chanting outside the White House, “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”

We already know that if Bobby Kennedy had succeeded in talking Johnson off the ticket in 1960, his brother probably never would have become president. Is it also possible that if these two men had not hated each other so much, civil rights might have happened sooner, and Vietnam might not have turned into the disaster it did? Think how many of history’s tragedies could have been avoided if the parties involved could have learned to get along better.

That inspires me to think about how every time parties enter into a mediation, they have the opportunity to change history, on a smaller scale, but in the same large way. A bitter and costly conflict might be brought to an end. A trial that could result in disaster for one, or possibly both sides, can be averted. A destructive relationship might be transformed into one that allows for new productive possibilities. Such are the hopes with which we should begin every mediation.