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10 Actions We Can Take to Turn Adversarial, Autocratic, Power-Based Political Conflicts into Collaborative, Democratic, Interest-Based Social Problem Solving

We have taken democracy for granted, and allowed it to be undermined and chipped away by elected officials, for whom it is only a means of gaining status, wealth, and power.  And we have come within a hair’s breadth of losing it.  

Imagine, for example, where we might be today if a mere handful of disciplined, heavily armed white supremacists had held Congress hostage, “arrested” a few recalcitrants, and blocked them from certifying the votes of the Electoral College; or if Trump had personally, as promised, led them into Congress; or if, as advised, he had ordered the arrest of Pence, Biden, Harris, and a few others, canceled the election as fraudulent, and declared martial law.  

Because democracy is open, it is vulnerable to demagogues and autocrats; yet because it is open, it is also resilient, able to learn and improve, and responsive to popular wisdom.  In order to avoid similar occurrences in the future, it now needs to evolve — especially in its responses to conflict, and in its ability to welcome diversity and dissent.  

Key to doing so, is its’ ability to turn adversarial, autocratic, win/lose, power- or rights-based political processes that automatically trigger political conflicts, into collaborative, democratic, win/win, interest-based ones that transform political conflicts into social problem solving.  

The “whys” of doing so are now obvious; it is the “hows” we need to address.  We can begin simply, and locally, with ten steps every aspiring mediator can take, starting with these:

  1. Strengthen our skills and receive training in the full range of conflict resolution methods, including diverse forms of mediation, as well as dialogue and circle facilitation, consensus building, informal problem solving, collaborative negotiation, nonviolent communication, appreciative inquiry, restorative justice, and especially large group, multi-stakeholder, organizational, environmental, and public policy mediations, and conflict resolution systems design.  
  2. Join and become active in organizations that are working to shift political discourse, spark democratic dialogues, discuss difficult and dangerous issues, or influence political leadership — organizations like Essential Partners, Living Room Conversations, Better Angels, National Coalition for Dialogue and Democracy, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, Days of Dialogue, Everyday Democracy, Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI), and its initiative, Democracy Politics and Conflict Engagement (DPACE), and many others.
  3. Email, call, or personally contact local city and county officials, including city managers, housing and planning departments, and offer to facilitate conflicted public meetings, mediate local political conflicts, or design a consensus building process, for example, to come up with solutions to homelessness.   
  4. Reach out to local activists and political organizations, like Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, Greenpeace, and others of all persuasions, and offer assistance in facilitating meetings and resolving internal conflicts; or make presentations, conduct trainings in conflict resolution, or observe and mediate at demonstrations or coalition meetings with other groups.
  5. Contact local law enforcement, including police and sheriffs departments, and offer to conduct quick morning briefings for officers on practical de-escalation, active listening, emotional calming, and mediation techniques; or to facilitate community meetings to discuss, for example, ways of prioritizing funding to reward efforts at de-escalation, non-violent communication, problem solving, hostage-style negotiations, mediation, and restorative justice; or to discuss community policing, review boards, and similar methods, as first responses to conflict.
  6. Write articles, op-ed pieces, and letters to local and national newspapers and on social media, critiquing politically biased, adversarial, and propagandistic forms of political rhetoric from a conflict resolution perspective. 
  7. Start or support local school and community mediation programs; or volunteer to help train students, parents, teachers, and administrators in peer mediation; or offer to speak to leaders of civic and community organizations in conflict resolution approaches and techniques.  
  8. Contact local political leaders, elected officials, and political party representatives, and offer to facilitate meetings to redesign electoral processes so as to reduce opportunities for demagoguery, graft, dishonesty, and corruption; guarantee one person/one vote; reduce resort to violence and viciousness; and increase trust in election outcomes.
  9. With city and county officials and community organizations, explore the local use of facilitated public planning, brainstorming, problem solving, and democratic decision-making practices, such as town hall meetings, citizen’s assemblies, focus groups, community dialogues, citizen’s juries, deliberative democracy, alternative forms of voting, sortition, public policy and environmental mediations, community-wide strategic planning, facilitated large group consensus building sessions, informal creative problem solving conversations, and similar processes.
  10. Ask to appear before local city councils and boards of supervisors to support expanding, strengthening, institutionalizing, and increasing funding for collaborative, participative, mediative, and other interest-based processes, and encourage the sponsoring of widespread local community dialogues regarding difficult and divisive political issues, or empathy building circles, or community mediation programs, and of designing free, comprehensive, integrated conflict resolution systems at all levels of government.  

None of these alone will be sufficient by themselves, yet each contains, in miniature, a core idea that can be scaled-up to higher levels, expanded, and supported in broader applications.  None of these is beyond the ability of mediators, or outside our expertise, and none requires us to take sides on the substantive political issues over which people disagree, except in so far as our professional experience supports the values of diversity and equality.  

Conflict resolution is an idea whose time has come, yet it is clear that implementing it will not be easy, quick, or without challenges.  Shifting from adversarial, autocratic, power-based political conflicts requires a critical mass of local leaders, officials, and infrastructures with experience in collaborative, democratic, interest-based social problem solving.  These, in turn, require higher order skills on our part.  Developing and applying these skills and making these ideas real is up to us, because there is no one else who can deliver them.  

None of these ideas or programs presently exist, except in miniature, in small pockets, and in the hopes and hearts and minds of millions, who know it is possible.  They live also in us, because we have done them countless times, over and over, and daily for decades — with couples and families, schools and communities, litigators and adversaries, even warring parties, and we know that they work.  All that is required now is for us to step up and prove it.  The world is watching, hoping, and waiting.  


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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