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Negotiating With Wild Things – A Tribute to Maurice Sendak

And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

The defining personality trait of conflict mediators is their perennial optimism.  In some 100 plus interviews with notable practitioners, conducted a few years ago for the Views From the Eye of the Storm video series, to a person, each practitioner confidently believed he or she could settle the most protracted and difficult conflicts if given the opportunity. (, 2009; and R.D. Benjamin, The Character Traits of Working Dogs and Conflict Mediators,” 2006)   I continue to find their insistent positive outlook, along with an abiding tenacity and faith in reason, admirable and compelling.  However, while that thinking frame serves them well, it is not without reservation.  Such optimism and self-confidence often borders on being delusional.  It is akin to Walter Issacs’ description of how Steve Jobs created his own reality in the making of Apple, Inc. (Issacs, Walter, Steve Jobs, 2011).  In lesser ways, many of us practice this form of delusion,   “being too stupid to know you can fail,” at one time or another, sometimes supporting success that defies rational explanation. The power of positive thinking, as irrational as it may be, has a certain rationality to it that can be quite potent.

Optimism, however, does not come naturally to everyone. I am a pessimist — or realist, as I prefer to think of myself — by nature.  What my positive thinking colleagues appear to take for granted is a challenge for me.  This is especially so because I clearly recognize that a successful negotiation or mediation process requires a positive environment for parties to obtain the confidence necessary to believe their differences can be managed.  To be successful, I have had to learn the stagecraft necessary to create the right atmosphere so that everyone involved in the dispute, myself included, can suspend disbelief that an agreement can be obtained. 

And my first step as a mediator is often to project the authenticity required to gain parties’ trust.  Sometimes, this feels like playing baseball without one arm — I can do it, very much want to do it, but have to learn my own way to do it.  In fact, I am only envious of “two armed” mediators up to a point.   My view of a natural mediator is less about a positive outlook, or for that matter, even compassion or patience, than it is about being naturally confused, voyeuristic and endlessly fascinated with how people construct their realities. (Benjamin, R.D., “The Natural Mediator,” (1998)).

For us realists, there is a decided lack of role models.  Especially in an American ‘techno-rational’ culture that prides itself on being of a positivistic, progressive, and of a “can-do” spirit, pessimists tend to stay in the shadows.  One notable exception has been Maurice Sendak, a self proclaimed curmudgeon and, more importantly, the prolific author and artist of many books and other creative endeavors. His recent death caused me to re-read, yet again, his early award winning book, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), enjoyed by countless children — and their parents, if they are wise enoughIt had been a while since I had taken it off the shelf, but this read, intended to be just a personal tribute, ended up giving me a fresh insight to both my professional work and my nature. Some still consider it a dark book, especially for children.  I find it familiar and reassuring.

Sendak’s choice to write books for children, as an admitted pessimist, at first glance, seems incongruous in a culture that goes to great lengths to maintain the innocence of childhood.  In children’s literature, there has been a concerted effort to make it pleasant. The cruelty and violence of the original Grimm Brothers’ stories have long since been sanitized, sometimes beyond recognition.  Sendak has always been out of sync.  At the same time, he had little alternative.  Being an optimist or pessimist is less a conscious choice than an inherited genetic trait or cultural meme. A positive or negative world view is a product of our messy human brains, and helps to fashion the shorthand rules of thumb we use to decide who and what we like or trust, and who we don’t.  It contributes to peoples’ “predictable irrationality” which systematically affects the interpretation and coloration we give to people’s actions and surrounding events.  Each has benefits and risks: from optimism people gain determination and resolve, and, from pessimism, the forewarning to prepare for every eventuality.  Conversely, the risk of being overly optimistic can be a self-deceiving naïveté, and for those of us who are overly pessimistic, an immobilizing defeatism.

The thirteen sentences that comprise Where the Wild Things Are offer a constructively realistic and useful reference for my conflict mediation work.  What Sendak lacks in optimism he makes up for in authenticity.  He tells stories that ring true, even if they are not entirely pleasant.  He creates a stage for people to play out their necessary tantrums, which in turn, allows them to realize how they can settle their differences, within themselves and with others.

For some, conflict management work is about the need to make the world more peaceful.  Others want to protect people from injustice and make situations fairer.  For me, the draw of mediation practice is about wanting to make sense out of confusion, first my own, and then others’.  Both Sendak and I grew up in trouble.  His parents were Polish Jewish immigrants and he grew up during World War II in a family mangled by the Holocaust.  He was “often depressed and living in a kind of abandoned dumps.” He, as I, spent a lifetime learning to deal with the fearsome characters of his imagination, drawing energy from those internal negotiations in order to effectively bargain and deal in the outside world. (Lurie, Alison, Something Wonderful Out of Almost Nothing,” New York Review of Books, July, 2012, with reference to the book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, 1993). 

My troubles growing up were, by comparison, far less than his, but everyone is discontent in their own way.  I have used mediation practice in the same way Sendak used his art.  Being well-versed in conflict, I have learned to draw energy from my internal negotiations.  My focus has shifted from being the “criminal” troublemaker to becoming a security consultant for those in trouble. I get my best clues for how to manage peoples’ fears and confusion from my own. I use it to gain a sense of what someone might most realistically need to hear to move forward and manage their conflict.   Sometimes reason and logic are helpful, but the best clues are more likely to be embedded in the emotional story, even if the dispute is about business or money.  

In Where the Wild Things Are, for example, the desire for revenge is clear and commonly present in most disputes and must be played out in some fashion, against the “wild things” that threaten and torment.  Revenge can’t be easily reasoned away, it must be acknowledged and engaged directly.  Sendak’s creativity — and genius — is due to accepting and incorporating his own and other peoples’ disruptive impulses into is work and making it a part of real life, not rejecting or suppressing them. He was not a patient or comforting man, nor does he try to be neutral and pleasant for the sake of the children, or for that matter anyone else, as he made clear in a now classic interview with Stephen Colbert on the television comedy news show, The Colbert Report, just a few months before he died.  There was no hint he was acting as he impatiently reinforced his purpose as a writer to meet his young readers on their own terms, and therein lies his authenticity., Jan 24-25, 2012)

Refreshingly, he felt little need to apologize or justify himself.  His characters are headstrong, bossy, and sometimes obnoxious brats, and his pictures, as often as not, unsettling.  Sendak was not gratuitously provocative, but he was insistent that children be shown the world as it is, not as a Walt Disney fantasy.  He remarked how he was aggravated when his early hero, the original Walt Disney Mickey Mouse character, with teeth and a “little bit danger,” was made over into a toothless, neutered nice guy. His art revealed the world he knew was all around him, the world that too many others seemed determined to deny or hide. Sometimes such denial and self-deception is necessary, but sometimes it makes matters worse.  The key is in knowing when.

Sendak, not unlike many experienced conflict mediators, knew it was sometimes necessary to break the rules. His stories were viewed as especially seditious and threatening in an overly rationalist society that insists on children being protected from unpleasantness.  As adults, we pretend to offer a supportive and pleasant world that massages their self-esteem.  In return, we expect children to pretend to be the innocents we need to believe they are, and become aggravated when they act otherwise. More than a few times, his books were censored by parents or others who deemed them too frightening or disturbing.  True to form, not unlike his characters, when challenged, he would simply tell them to “… go to hell … go home, or wet your pants.  Do whatever you like.” (Alison Flood, The Guardian, October, 2009)   Sometimes you can’t compromise.

Where The Wild Things Are is about Max’s dispute with his mother, a not uncommon and prototypical conflict with authority. Out of his mischief, real or perceived, came a consequence, followed by a tantrum, then a necessary measure of reflection.  In Sendak’s telling, uncharacteristic of many children’s books, there is no moral of what a good child should do. Instead, the emphasis is on how such matters unfold, how they feel, and how they might be resolved.  Psychologists have studied his stories to learn the patterns of childish rage.  I wonder sometimes if the experts realize the tantrum patterns in disputes are the same for adults and crop up with regularity.  True to form, just as in real life conflict management, Sendak ends Where The Wild Things Are, not with a perfect solution or magical transformation of the conflict, but with a plain, almost anti-climatic workable solution.  The book ends just in time to take the boat home while dinner is still hot.

If Where The Wild Things Are, suggests any magic in dealing with conflict, it is the centuries old crazy wisdom practiced by folkloric trickster figures, that is so simple it is commonly overlooked by the experts.  Engage the conflict directly; don’t try to suppress, contain, or calmly reason it into submission. Sendak’s young Max “ . . . tamed them (the wild things) with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once … and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all … and made him king of all wild things.” This is a tactic familiar to many experienced mediators.  By engaging, and joining with “wild things,” be they friends or adversaries, in appreciating them to be at once the same villainous and decent creature you are, demonstrates an authenticity that buys the credibility to establish the measure of trust necessary to move forward.

In his later years, Sendak acquired the vaulted status as an avowed curmudgeon of the first order.  He resisted any presumption of greater wisdom, other than to just do your best to figure out what is real and deal with it the best you can.  I’m reasonably sure that any efforts to elevate him to a status beyond that would be met with a mumbled expletive meant to suggest, “if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” As I become older and take a more backward view of my work, I could do no better than to follow his lead.  I am therefore, now continuing my pursuit of my “Black Belt” in curmudgeonry with renewed optimism and purpose.

Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.”


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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