Mediation Principles for our National Conversation

Much of President Biden’s inaugural address sounded historically resonant American themes of unity across differences. As I watched, I thought about the work ahead for not only Congress, but all of us. In attempting to forge consensus around policy and legislative solutions–to move forward with actions to heal some of the social, economic, and health-related crises we’re confronting — a large part of our work is going to call less on traditional forensically-oriented political debate , and much more on the kind work we do as mediators.

Consider how some of the principles that we apply as mediators can help get us past a polarized and fragmented political environment:

  • Looking to our interests, and not our “positions”: So much of the style of discussion in network media, and in online political posting, is about scoring points and establishing that one position is right. The discussion reduces itself to a series of slogans and entrenched positions that never permit understanding what is truly important — and the area where common ground exists: the interests of the parties. If we began with the idea of identifying those interests first — a strong and inclusive economy, a stable and secure natural environment, cooperative trade, affordable and accessible healthcare — the policy solutions then follow naturally.
  • Identifying the actual issues: So often, in political debate, the discussion proceeds without defining the problems to be addressed clearly? What really needs to be decided? Before working on potential solutions and consensus around them in mediation, we need to know from all parties that we have the complete list of items in dispute. I’ll write these down and then review them with the parties to make sure nothing is left out. If that is an effective practice in mediation of a past dispute, how much important is it to employ in developing laws with national and international impact? Yet, we still see so much “talking past” the other side in political debate, where the two positions do not even line up on either side of a common question.
  • Defusing the personal: Ad hominem, or personal, attacks may score short-term points, but they do not advance a legislative agenda or enact policy. In mediation, we recognize that underlying trust concerns and any personal animosity, even if unspoken, generally must be addressed in some fashion, and early on, to promote open conversation and to arrive at the shared goal of resolution. That does not mean everyone across the table has to be friends, but at a minimum, it requires a willingness to recognize a shared humanity, to treat everyone with respect, and to make a genuine effort to understand. It was what President Lincoln meant in observing, “I don’t like that man; I must get to know him better.” That brings us to another critical feature of good mediation, and a feature of contemporary political debate whose lack is keenly felt: listening.
  • Listening to understand: Active listening is more than simply hearing, acknowledging what is being said with the goal of immediately rebutting it. As mediators, we’re not only encouraging the parties to put themselves in the other side’s shoes, and to slow the need to be right for enough time to understand the other party, we are listening intensively ourselves. The elected representatives who have been most successful in their roles, when measured from the standpoint of consistent participation in meaningful legislation that is actually enacted, have been the ones who can listen long enough to recognize what their colleagues across the aisle need, and thus, where the opportunities for compromise exist.
  • Considering the longer-term: There are certainly plenty of disputes in litigation that come to a mediation process with a problem to solve, and no realistic possibility of having the parties interact again. But often — for example, in customer-vendor disputes, or conflicts between companies working in the same industry — the parties expect to be interacting in the future. Thinking of that longer-term relationship helps not only to generate longer-term solutions and mutual benefits, but it dissolves some of the immediate, zero-sum bargaining tendencies we have. At a national level, this concept of relationship — really, of community — means that there is always a longer-term perspective. Administrations come and go. The economy will experience some cyclic change. The balance of power in Congress shifts. What might be viewed as an advantageous short-term win today, when viewed on this longer-term time horizon, may be easier to yield on in the interest of compromise.

If these principles of good mediation also strike you as useful, consider employing them in your own political discussions. There are also some interesting and important national initiatives, like the Institute for Civil Discourse, that if not using the term mediation, are looking at similar approaches and backing them up with good research. Consider volunteering to advocate for common-sense consensus policies and signing on and committing to guidelines for civil and reasoned debate. As our best presidents have also recognized across generations, this is the work of both parties, and it is going to take concerted effort on all of our parts in political conversation to spurn the combative, and to embrace the unifying and practical. That’s the same kind of effort that has always made mediations successful. –Andrew Flake

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