Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

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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Senator Max Baucus (D) of MontanaAs a mediator, I have a hard time watching how our country is operating right now, both internationally and domestically.  I see this every day in the micro context of my mediation cases and in the macro context of our headlines.  And yet people just keep trying to get ahead by attempting to suppress each other without recognizing that they are actually working against their own best interests.

For example, in “Obama Offers to Use Some G.O.P. Healthcare Proposals,” New York Times reporter David Herszenhorn writes, “Mr. Obama announced his plans to work on the Republican suggestions in a letter to Congressional leaders of both parties.  But his main point was one Republicans did not welcome:  that Democrats would press ahead with comprehensive legislation over the minority party’s objections.”

The reason we have so much litigation in America (especially in California) is that defendants so rarely understand that their actions often guarantee a lawsuit.  When one party suppresses another to the point of pain or powerlessness, the injured party feels he or she has little choice but to retaliate.  Plaintiffs choose litigation because it may be the only legal way to inflict suffering – loss of control, unfavorable publicity, monetary awards, punitive damages, etc. – of the caliber the defendant will understand and respond to.

As a result, defendants are often responsible for creating the emotional monster on the other side of the table. When plaintiffs believe every other door has been slammed in their faces, they become enraged enough to flex their muscles in the only remaining venue where they stand a chance of having a level playing field.  Of course, the same is true in the other direction, with plaintiffs sometimes overreaching, leaving the defense with no choice but to go to trial, and fight back with a vengeance.

What makes mediation work is the introduction of a neutral third party.  Having an unbiased person at the table can bring big picture perspective into the room when all others are mired in the fog of their power games and can’t or won’t see another approach.  Perspective is a mediator’s greatest qualification.

That’s why President Obama can’t be the mediator of all the controversial congressional reforms:  healthcare, job creation and financial system accountability, to name a few.  He has a dog in the fight and he’s one party’s (read: extreme’s) leader.  If he were serious about leading, he’d appoint a neutral person who could bring with them reason and perspective.  A real neutral, who wouldn’t be a politician campaigning for re-election, would turn off the cameras, close the door, and encourage everyone to disclose his or her needs, pressures and underlying interests in the privacy and confidentiality of the mediation process.

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