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Obama: Reflections Of A Hard Core Negotiator

On Thursday evening, January 3rd, 2008, I watched Barack Obama appear to channel Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy as he gave his ‘audacity of hope’ speech to his supporters after winning the Iowa Caucus. Even someone as constitutionally pessimistic as I am was moved; I wanted to take a chance and believe in the future of this country—again. Although I’ve never gotten that far, being sufficiently traumatized by the ending of my first marriage, I suspect it must be something like how you feel when you decide to get married for the third or fourth time—–‘I’ve got to believe it’ll work with this person this time.”

His rhythmic words emerged with a measured cadence that was mesmerizing. “Hope is not blind optimism.” Pause. “Hope is not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight.” Pause. “Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is something greater inside of us.” Towards the end, he blasts me out of my chair with, “And then we will change the world.”

His chant is not so foreign. The core of the sentiment is essentially the same kind of optimism a good conflict mediator brings into the room to settle the most difficult disputes. Like Obama, they believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, as improbable as it may seem, people can work together and defeat the sense of hopeless, inevitable conflict.

There is good reason to believe that were Obama elected President of the United States, his message of optimism might trickle down and seep into our cultural ethos and that, quite possibly, there might be “morning in America” for the conflict management profession. It would become ‘chic’ to have mediated one’s divorce or workplace dispute instead of litigating. In the world, senseless saber rattling, let alone offensive military adventures, would be shelved in favor of more thoughtful negotiated approaches.

I am especially pleased that Obama appeals to younger people and proves they can be stirred and moved to action. As Gail Collins ironically observed in the New York Times, even the young political activist of yesteryear, Hillary Rodham (Clinton), at age 21, would have been for Obama. (Op-ed, January 5, 2008).

For me personally, as a professional negotiator, Barack Obama cannot help but be an alluring figure. He is the incarnation, by his birth, personality and style of the seldom seen Protean leader. He appears to be able to shape shift; at one moment he is a mesmerizing shaman, then a smart technical wonk, next an apt organizer and manager, and finally, as required, a warrior of the old time Chicago school of Saul Alinsky-Mayor Washington. Being Protean is what the best negotiators do.

The problem is that the same religious zeal that gives the Obama campaign heart, harbors a disturbing seed that gives me pause—especially as a seasoned negotiator. With allusions to ‘new beginnings’ and offer of ecstatic experiences, my reflexive pragmatism makes me cringes at that idealism. Maybe it’s my age. When you’re young, if you have no passion, you have no heart; when you’re older, if all you have is passion, you have no brain. If I were to get married again, the first question I would ask myself is, “what would it be like to divorce this person?” Not entirely because I am cynical, but because I would want the marriage to work and that might help me think about how the rhetorical “she” deals with hard stuff.

I come from the “guerrilla” style of negotiation practice. Not unprincipled, but more realistic about how people deal with conflict and make decisions—-not nearly as rational as we would like to think. They are entitled to be approached as they are and not forced to fit into some idealized notion of how we would like for them to be. I am an aficionado of the old fashioned cutting of a “grubby deal” that will work—-the adequate and good—-as opposed to the perfect and ‘elegant solution.”

So, as alluring as Obama is, I’m troubled that what might result is a return to the pursuit of visionary schemes make working together seem too simple and sometimes believe that ‘come let us reason together’ with save the day. There is a risk of a blowback effect against the viability of negotiation, especially if the popular idea of negotiation as being reasonable and collaborative problem solving, collides with the necessary ‘rough and tumble’ of hard negotiation required to deal with tough issues and bad feelings. The best negotiators know the physical and emotional stamina, determination and discipline required to bring about a settlement in real world conflicts.

I’m less concerned with Obama himself than I am with those who might imbue him with being a later day Jesus. His personal background as a committed community organizer on the streets of Chicago suggests he is not the sort to be unrealistic. But then, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a new religion; his followers decided what he meant and did that for him—-much of which he would have likely disavowed. This world doesn’t need more religions.

There is no way of knowing how it will turn out. Is Obama encouraging the coming about of a better way of managing conflict, or setting up unrealistic expectations that can only be dashed —again? For me, at my advanced age, it will require yet another leap of faith. As one young person remarked, “He makes me feel like it’s one of those moments in American History where I need to take a chance.” (NYT, 1.5.08). So, should I get married again?

January 5, 2008


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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