Archive for January, 2017

Holding the middle, especially this week, is hard work.

The middle is not a compromise.  It’s not a lack of opinion or feeling.  It’s also not a passive place.  It’s a very active role in holding center while others around you get pulled (sometimes manipulated) to the extremes.

The middle doesn’t hate. It neither puts itself above anyone, nor is it a victim to anyone else.  It’s not a place where people are looking to win over someone else.

In the middle, people understand that conflict is inevitable, and that how we deal with conflict is sometimes even more important than the conflict itself.  Being in the middle requires reaching across the aisle, or the dinner table, and showing respect, and seeking understanding.  In the middle, disagreement is an opportunity for learning, and that dialogue and discourse are the way toward being a peaceful, informed society.  In the middle, we find shared values, interests, and goals.  The middle is the only place where collaboration and synergy can exist – where 2 plus 2 can equal 5.

The middle is quiet, and right now, that is part of why it is at risk.  It’s intelligent and sexy, but in a quiet way.  Not unlike Trump supporters in blue states, those in the middle are increasingly quiet about their position because it’s not popular, and holding it is sometimes seen as a failure to support friends and loved ones.  That quiet means we have to work harder to hold it.

And right now, the middle isn’t very popular.  Those in the middle are being pulled by those on the ends to join in.  When waves of euphoria, or rage, or entitlement sweep people up into a movement, saying to them, “No, thank you.” can be seen as oppositional.

Meanwhile, the ends are seductive.  It’s liberating to yell and vent, whether one is in a position of power or feeling oppressed.  It releases chemicals into the brain that are as powerful and exhilarating as a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning in your home ballpark, or a third encore of your favorite artist’s concert.

But, not unlike an eye for an eye, when we fight and yell and try to overpower, the other just regroups and comes back to yell even louder, or show their power or their teeth to win the next time.  Witness America’s pendulum-like swings from Kennedy to Nixon/Ford to Carter to Reagan/Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump.  If the pendulum were slowing and calming, and our swings as a nation becoming less pronounced and adversarial, we would be working our way toward a more sustainable middle.  But our swings have held or increased in their wildness between some people and the other people; between us and them.  So, in fifty years, is it working?  Some might say that this is how democracy is supposed to work.  I believe that we can do better.

This week, I had people I with whom I’m very close at both the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s March on Washington, and in various cities.  The middle was hard to hold this week.  Next week, I invite you to join me.  As a country, I think we could use some more people holding the middle right now.  I’ll hope to see you there.

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As a mediator and leadership coach, I have to say this:  While generally I don’t disagree with most of what Meryl Streep said during her acceptance speech for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Lifetime Achievement Award at tonight’s Golden Globe awards, she did miss an incredible opportunity.

First, she used her audience, her station, and her status the same way she accuses President-Elect Trump of using his.  Then, by attacking him, all she did was up the ante and unify his supporters (half of our country), while ensuring that Newton’s third law of physics persists:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  As long as any of us advocate for one “side” over another, or argue over who/what is right/wrong, and frame it as “us and them”, we simply continue volleying in the same game.  The only way to unify us as a people, and appeal to the vast middle of the bell curve, is instead to catch the ball, stop the game, walk to the middle of the court and have real dialogue, with listening, understanding, and acknowledgement.

If you were cheering her speech, you may be caught up in the game, too.  We call it confirmation bias, where you seek out what you agree with because it feels good.  If you are booing it, maybe you should listen again and hear her words.  The fact that she delivered them in advocacy doesn’t mean that they are wrong; it only means she said them in a way that some couldn’t hear them.  And perhaps with a little too much judgment.

As a mediator, I know that telling people they are wrong doesn’t change their minds.  And as one who regularly mediates with the biggest celebrities in “Hollywood”, I know that even the ballroom before her was divided.  I also know that her talk made it unsafe for any who disagreed to speak up.  That’s why the election polls were so inaccurate.

We should be seeking to make people stop and scratch their heads and think in a new way about things they hadn’t before considered, rather than seeking to make the majority cheer and raise a fist.  As long as both sides persist in the latter, we are trapped in this volley for the unforeseeable future.

I call upon my mediator and leadership colleagues, and on all of you reading this, to help change the game and create dialogue, modeling more inquiry and active listening than advocacy.  It is up to all of us.

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