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Jack Cooley – A Paradox of Quiet Brilliance

John (“Jack”) Cooley Information

Chicago Tribune Article

For me, the highlight of many conferences and meetings over the past years was a quiet dinner or drink with Jack Cooley, if possible before or after heading out to listen to jazz. We were supposed to get together in New York just this past April at the ABA Dispute Resolution Conference. He e-mailed me at the last moment that he regretted not being able to attend. I sensed he was not well and meant to contact him, and I will regret for some time to come that I did not.

You see, Jack Cooley would always go out of his way to be encouraging and helpful. He first contacted me, out of the blue, shortly after I published “The Guerrilla Negotiator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict and the Pursuit of Peace.” His supportive comments were especially surprising, welcome and even treasured given who he was and what he had done. As a Special Forces combat veteran who worked behind the lines during the Viet Nam War, he saw immediately the clear parallel between negotiation and guerrilla strategies and how they called upon many of the same techniques, skills and thinking frames.

Over the years, that encounter would be only the first of many surprises I would have in conversations with this soft spoken and quiet brilliant man. He was, after all, at first glance, a paragon of establishment virtue and seemingly the least likely of people to end up in the ‘alternative’ field of conflict mediation. A graduate of West Point, a combat veteran, a former Judge and Assistant US Attorney, he had been conditioned and primed to follow rules and impose structure. From time to time, I tried to ask him what had drawn him to mediation practice, but was never entirely satisfied with his answer. I suspected that some of the turn may have been from having to deal with the harsh realities of war or a daughter with special needs. In any event, to my view, he had always been of a gentle and thoughtful nature that ill fitted his work and caused him not a little inner turmoil. He did not like imposing on people.

At the same time, his character, background and experience allowed him to develop the most valuable traits essential for quality mediation and conflict management practice, flexibility and a systemic thinking frame. He was never bound by structure or orthodoxy of style, nor did he confine this thinking to one or a few disciplines. In service of creativity, he took from any and all disciplines. Those traits, while learnable, are frequently overlooked by practitioners who too often prefer the comfort of habit and prescription.

He appears to have gained the discipline necessary to remain steady by having been regularly exposed to the flame of conflict. That allowed him the confidence to let go of the need to be over structured and to not confuse being in control with being controlling. He borrowed well and freely from his study and love of Jazz, and notes in his most recent book published just months ago, Pracademics, how musicians need to know the basic structure sufficiently to depart from the base line and improvise riffs—or, to take risks. He exemplified the adage attributed to the Dalai Lama: “one must study and know the rules in order to break them.” Jack’s study of the rules uniquely qualified him to break them.

The second critical piece of understanding for which Jack Cooley is not just good, but is pre-eminent in the conflict management field, with few rivals, is his abiding commitment to an integrated and interdisciplinary perspective. He concluded early on that mediation practice was being ill served by limiting the discussion of conflict management to the analysis of interests and needs alone. That was too simplistic. He modeled what Edward de Bono would term lateral, or more tritely said, “outside of the box” thinking. He likened negotiation and mediation practice to Jazz improvisation, the structure of a magic trick, joke design, and even geometric imagineering. While on the surface those other activities might seem unrelated and marginal, with just a little scratching, the strains of similarity become not only apparent but powerfully valuable aids for the creative thinking essential for problem solving.

Jack understood, having spent as much time as he did, literally and figuratively in the trenches dealing with harsh and sometimes absurd realities, that you could not just think your way out of a dispute or an issue. The more difficult the matter, the more creativity and intuition must be called upon. Attention to the relationships between the parties and the analysis of the conflict are important but not sufficient. Beyond those conventional borders a third party must be able to sense the ‘rhythms’ of the conflict at hand and how to play off that line and take the matter in a different direction. Curiously, while some might have thought Jack to be fanciful and out of the mainstream in his thinking, he was the ultimate realist. He understood better than most, that in war and real life, illusion and a bit of constructive deception are sometimes essential ingredients to bring about agreement.

His was a quiet brilliance. He was not just a decent and thoughtful person. Jack Cooley possessed an exceptionally rare quality and in the end accomplished one of the most noble of human endeavors: he modeled what genuine learning is all about. He will always remain for me a sorely missed model of what it means to be a real professional. While squeezing the most out of his early training and experience, he escaped the constraints of the traditional habits of thinking that generally accompany such success. And, to the benefit of those of us who remain, he brought the lessons of inspired and creative approaches to managing conflict as few others have done. I hope those lessons are not lost. I know if he were here now he would caution me in his steady voice to take heart. A fitting tribute to Jack Cooley, and not least a favor to oneself, would be reading some of his many writings, especially his last book, Pracademics: Creative Problem Solving In Negotiation and Mediation, 2009. With Jack Cooley’s passing, we should not allow his good thinking to slip away. *And maybe listen to John Coltrane or Miles—-or, for that matter, Johannes Bach—while you are thinking through how to manage a tough dispute; he’d like that and it very well might help you.*


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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