The practice of mediation and negotiation in political dealings appears so obvious and inextricable so as to deny the need for explanation. So I have often been taken aback by criticisms of many of the articles I have written observing and commenting on the use of these strategies by political figures and in political or politicized contexts. Those criticisms are not mild. Some allege a “radical agenda” and assert I am doing injury to the reputation of professional mediators. In fact, the conventional wisdom may well be that the daily laboring of the professional “neutral” mediator is, and should be kept, wholly separate and apart from any association, or perhaps taint, of politics. These criticisms are passionate, heartfelt and sufficiently recurrent to be worthy of discussion.
Some articles in particular have drawn the ire and comment, publicly or privately, of more than a few, most recently (all are at my Author Page): “Mediation and Negotiation Are Designated as Criminal Acts: Maybe it’s For the Better” (June, 2010), “Negotiators And Snipers: On Strategies For Managing Piracy On the High Seas—And Elsewhere” (May, 2009), “Obama The Negotiator: The Strategic Use of Anger” (March, 2009), “The Obama Presidency and the Future of the Conflict Management Business: The Mediative Leader and the Activist Mediator” (Nov., 2008), “People I Hate(d): Negotiation and Presidential Election” (Sept., 2008). Of course, “Mediator as Trickster and the Constructive Uses of Deception, (1995/1996, 2004)” “The Guerrilla Mediator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict” (1999), “Negotiation and Evil” (1998), have all inspired comment.
My practice and writing purpose has always been to realistically present negotiation and mediation practice as viable strategies for managing conflict in the real world as opposed to an ideologically or model bound formalized approach with prescriptive rules and dependent on the trust, reason, and cooperative intents of the people involved. Never in history has negotiation or mediation been so constrained.
I have drawn from history, philosophy, literature, art and theater, and more recently, neuroscience, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, to support the view that human negotiative rituals have been forever essential for the management of conflict and the survival of our species— and forever suspect. To pretend otherwise is at best naive and a worst disingenuous and inauthentic. People, not even business people or professionals, are not the pure, rational decision-makers we would like to believe, nor is their any refuge available in the claim of being “neutral,” “impartial,” or “objective.” For that reason, I am skeptical that a pristine and bright line can be drawn between politics and mediation practice, or that such a distinction is justified, or even desirable. Therefore, studying how political figures, and leaders approach managing conflicts and make decisions, is not only instructive, but potentially quite useful in appreciating negotiation strategies to deal with matters in any and every other particular context. The current political environment is enmired in gridlock as are many disputes not formally labeled political matters. Our politics only reflects the cultural divides and value differences throughout society and which crop up in disputes as far ranging as ‘dog-barking’ cases, divorce settlements, workplace, health care and business matters. Studying how political leaders negotiate—or don’t— offers many important object lessons in recognizing and managing personal biases, the predictably irrational aspects of decision making and the nature of impasse, among others. In fact, there may be no context better than politics to test our assumptions about how people make decisions and negotiation and mediation is effectively practiced.
As a first lesson, one might assume that for anyone engaged in politics, basic negotiation skills and strategies would be a necessary and essential tool of the trade. Many, however, seek election based on a promise never to negotiate and remain ideologically pure. They do, of course, ultimately negotiate if they are to get anything done and be re-elected, but it is ill advised to make mention of that fact. Some politicos have an intuitive knack of negotiation and others learn on the job by the seat of their pants. Not unlike most people, the fundamental human skill-set of negotiation is left to being a hit or miss proposition, there being little or no systematic teaching of negotiation. And, while those skills are in short supply, negotiation is typically the only pragmatic lubricant available to minimize the grinding and tension between competing ideologies and principles, the fulfillment of which are constantly constrained by limited resources and a multitude of often idiosyncratic personal agendas in a complex society. Just as few politicians easily admit to having compromised their position, mediators are likewise circumspect and hesitant to utter the word “compromise” as a descriptor of the deals they broker. While the pursuit of workable compromise is clearly what is being done by both and the term is innocent enough and etymologically proper, the art of negotiation requires the abject denial of any semblance of “giving-in,” or “selling-out.” The term compromise has pejorative connotation that must be avoided by both politicos and mediators.
There is a political backdrop to virtually every dispute or controversial issue. That the matter is framed in the capital “P” context of Democrat and Republican wrangling, or the lower case “p” arena of ongoing organizational, business, and personal rivalries, is of little consequence; it is merely more plainly labeled a political matter. Be it health care policy, the division of property and financial responsibility in divorce, or allocation of liability and compensation in a corporate or financial fraud case, there are prevailing politics. The big “P” political domain is not separate and apart from how business is conducted in our culture, it is a reflection of it. “Those politicians,” while perhaps a bit more melodramatic for the benefit of the camera, essentially act no differently than members of most groups, be it a non-profit, religious, business, or corporate organization, or even many families. Most people participate, by necessity, intentionally or unwittingly in various intrigues, the maintenance of closely guarded secrets, and varying manipulations seen as necessary to support the group.
Not surprisingly, the field of mediation, whether an organized “field” or not, (Peter Adler has suggested ‘not’ in “The End of Mediation,” Mediate.com, 2009), clearly has its’ own internal politics complete with strongly held views about the correct role of the mediator and the nature of mediation which have continued from the earliest days. Ironically, for a (non) profession that professes open discussion of issues, many controversies have been left simmering just under the surface and not allowed exposure to the polite company of conferences or publications. A common reason given has been the need to present and manage the image of the field as positive and professional. The standard that appears to be used is that of the traditional professions of law, medicine or counseling where the practitioner is to be neutral and objective. For some, the primacy of the mediators’ role as a neutral remains a given and a tenet of faith and if challenged, taken as sacrilege. Likewise, there is a strong insistence on the continued belief in rational decision making and the notion that people make decisions out of their calculated self interest.
It would appear those politicians in their political dealings, from whom it is so important for mediators to distance themselves, are just like us. We mediators appear to have every bit of the same penchant for politics, positional thinking and denial as they do the politicos, or for that matter, every other professional and people in general. It is part of our ‘predictably irrational’ human nature. Mediators acquire no waiver of exception from standard bias merely because they constantly profess their role to be professionally neutral, non-judgmental. Scratch most mediators and you will find an impassioned belief about their right and proper professional role and correct style of practice. For many, those who disagree with them are simply wrong, and worse, do injury to the professional image of the mediator. Not unusually, in keeping with “attribution errors” common in most human thinking, even the character of the skeptic is brought into question with assertions of a harmful “radical agenda.” This kind of “rational” thinking, of course, justifies denying the presentation of ‘out of the mainstream’ views in the polite company of institutional publications or professional conferences.
While common, this purportedly rational thinking that suggests mediation practice must be carefully coiffed and presented positively and uniformly if it is to be accepted, may very well be irrational and risks doing even greater damage. Not only is the conjured ‘groupthink’ stifling, it is unsustainable and ineffective. Just as politicians, mediators and negotiators must trade in the trust they can muster and draw directly from the people with whom they are working. When mediation works, it is not because people have relied on an abstract notion of a neutral third party, but because they sufficiently trusted the mediator would insure a process that is safe enough so that they would not be played for a fool if they negotiate.
In the end, there is little difference between politics and mediation, both rely on the selling of authenticity and trust for their election or selection. In both fields there are some who are little more than scam artists and others who seek to bring integrity and purpose to their work. The work of both, however, involves accepting and manipulating the many and varied forms of human irrationality that may be rumbling around in an issue or dispute at any given time. Logic and reason, while sometimes helpful, are seldom sufficient. If there is any difference between mediators and politicians, it is that the mediator has taken the time, energy and discipline to systematically study the negotiation process and human’s negotiation rituals, so as to be able to tweak them enough for a constructive and workable agreement to come about.
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