Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Everyone is talking about President Obama’s little dig at his opponents when he reminded them of his two election victories. But the part of the State of the Union speech that should get mediators excited is the following: “So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for – arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the […]

Adopting a magnanimous tone in his victory speech last night, the presumptive future Majority Leader of the Senate had this to say on conflict in the political system: “We do have an obligation to work together on issues on which we agree . . . .  I think I’ve shown that to be true in critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me the chance to show it again. . . . Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.” Senator McConnell’s emphasis on finding common ground with political adversaries sounds commendable, and seems to represent a break from the strategy he pursued as Minority Leader. I’m not sure […]

This week, by passing a new budget agreement through the House (still waiting on the Senate), Congress finally seems to be learning how to get back to business. To do that requires managing truly unresolveable conflicts, instead of allowing those conflicts to gum up the works completely. Positions on both sides have hardened to the point where Republicans will not accept even a penny of tax increases, and Democrats will not accept cuts to entitlement programs. That means the usual split-the-difference approaches no longer work. Meanwhile discretionary spending has already been cut more than both sides feel comfortable with. Support for restoring defense cuts in particular cuts across party lines. So how do you craft a budget agreement in this […]

During the 1980’s, when South Africa was in the news all the time, when the divestment movement was in full swing on college campuses and countries around the world were imposing sanctions, when South Africa was being ripped apart by repression and terrible violence, I remember thinking that South Africa served in some ways as a microcosm of the whole world. In that country a small minority of European ancestry was imposing its will on the majority African population, consuming most of the wealth for itself, and adhering to the fiction that the majority population could be confined to a few artificial “homelands.” It was an unsustainable system, but the leaders of South Africa seemed unwilling to yield. I remember […]

I’ve finally been catching up on the first season of the TV series House of Cards. The hero, House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a ruthless and cynical politician interested in obtaining power and using it. He repeatedly gets the better of his adversaries by his willingness to resort to lies and tricks, implying that such unscrupulousness is necessary to get ahead in politics, and that those who are unwilling to resort to underhanded tactics are going to be left behind. It’s a popular view of negotiation in general, that successful negotiators need to use trickery and deception to get the better of their adversaries on the other side of the table. The trouble is that […]