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We Stumble…But Love Never Fails

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…Love suffers long and is kind…love quietly covers all things…love never fails.”

At the age of 28, I began volunteering as a shop steward with the Office and Professional Workers Union (AFL-CIO).  Countless hours were spent listening to the concerns of aggravated employees and their equally frustrated supervisors.  The common thread running through our discussions involved disciplinary action initiated by the employer.  The other recurring issue was unfavorable employee performance evaluations.  It was my job to navigate between both sides in hopes of negotiating a settlement before things escalated to the point that a worker elected to file a grievance or charge.  

In those days I had not yet received any formal legal or mediation training.  The truth is that I had been educated from childhood by the words of my grandfather and my uncle, both of whom shared many lessons with me on the true meanings of justice, human dignity, and fundamental fairness.  The rule of law was not a concept that resonated with me but the Golden Rule had been firmly planted in my heart long ago.

Fast-forward a number of years.  I was asked to serve as mediator in a case that stemmed from allegations of workplace harassment and religious discrimination.  At the center of the debate was a male, middle-aged computer programmer who worked for a California software manufacturer.  During his opening statement the worker explained that it was common for his colleagues to use vulgar language at weekly staff meetings.  He was offended by the fact that nearly every other remark was peppered with the “F” word.  As a person of Faith he also found it especially troubling to work in an office setting where the name of God was routinely uttered in vain by his direct supervisor and staff members alike.  From his perspective it was indeed a very hostile work environment.

Later I met in a private caucus with the employer’s director of human resources.  He admitted that members of his staff were very rude and obnoxious toward co-workers.  In his own defense, he theorized that individuals who used profanity in the workplace usually did not intend to cause harm to anyone.  Offensive language was just an unavoidable part of contemporary office culture; it was sort of an occupational hazard.   From his perspective the employee’s grievances raised a number of valid concerns about workplace etiquette but, on balance, the complaints did not constitute actionable violations of law.      

It was now time for me to begin reflecting upon both sides of the dispute.  Obtaining factual content from the disputants, without appreciating the context, is inadequate if a mediator sincerely wants to understand the full measure of a particular conflict.  No controversy arises in a complete vacuum.  Human conflict is always shaped to a greater or lesser extent by the social, psychological, and existential phenomena that converge to create the framework out of which a dispute emerges. 

Consider the circumstances surrounding this claim and its relationship to the current state of the American economy.  Since December 2007, the United States has been plagued by an unprecedented recession.  Experts argue that the downward spiral ended at some point during 2009.   Nevertheless, it seems clear that the recession (or depression) is currently far from over.  America is presently experiencing the worst job losses since World War II.    The nationwide jobless rate has been teetering at around 9%.    For some Latino and African-American males the documented rate of unemployment has reached 14 and 18.6% respectively.   Scores of unemployed men and women have given up hope that they will ever find full-time work.   

Some observers might question the wisdom of filing a civil rights claim at a time such as this.  It could be argued that initiating a case of this nature might place an otherwise secure job in jeopardy.  It is no secret that some employers who are confronted by similar claims find it more expedient to terminate the employment of the messenger rather than wrestle with the substance of the message.  Bear in mind that, in this instance, the computer programmer had been employed for about eight years with an unblemished work record.  There are times in life, however, when an individual finds his or her back against the wall and conventional wisdom must yield to extraordinary measures.  It is during those defining moments when we are often driven by a universal force residing within each of us which longs to be liberated from forces of oppression.   It is in this context that the parties met at the mediation table.      

After nearly seven hours of intense discussions the conflicted parties reached a tentative settlement.   The employer agreed to transfer the programmer to a different department under new supervision and to establish a written policy prohibiting the use of profane language.  Mandatory anti-discrimination training would be initiated for all staff.  Finally, the company agreed to reimburse the worker for three months of lost salary stemming from time away from work due to emotional distress.  In exchange for these efforts the worker agreed to abandon his legal claims. 

I invited both sides to re-convene for another joint session in order to memorialize the terms of their agreement.  While discussing some closing matters the worker suddenly became incensed.  He felt that the sum of money he was being offered to settle the case was grossly inadequate.  This was a bad deal–“Just forget it,” he muttered.  With an emphatic sigh of disgust he pushed his chair away from the conference table and slumped back into his seat.       

It is amazing how dramatically circumstances can change in a few seconds.  There is something terribly unsettling about finding out that an issue that you believed had been resolved is suddenly unresolved.  It brings to mind a situation that might arise after taking a grueling written examination.  You finish the test and feel a well-deserved sense of relief.  You envision yourself walking away from the test site confidently.  Your imagination transports you to the bright sunshine outdoors or the chance to enjoy a good movie that you had been longing to see.  Life is good once again.  Much to your dismay, though, you are abruptly shaken from your daydream when the test examiner enters the room and announces that there are two additional pages of the test that you must complete.  Your spirit sinks as you scramble to regroup and refocus on the new task at hand.  That is how I felt at this moment during mediation.

Minutes earlier I was praising the parties for their successful efforts to resolve the case.  Moments later I found myself back-peddling awkwardly in the face of this unanticipated roadblock.  I tried to diffuse the situation by validating the worker’s apparent feelings of frustration.  I empathized with his sense of anxiety but nothing that I did seemed to diminish his resentment for the employer. 

A looming silence fell over the room which lasted for what seemed like an eternity although it was probably only about 40 seconds.  Mediators often become uncomfortable when there are long periods of quiet.   We feel as though we are supposed to know what to say at every turn when in fact we simply do not.  Life’s circumstances cannot be scripted and neither can mediation. 

My first inclination was to separate the parties and talk with each of them in private rooms.  I hoped that doing so would give me an opportunity to explore their motivations while at the same time afford them the chance to save face.  But then “…a still, small voice” cautioned me to resist the temptation to intervene.  Something told me to remain quiet and let the situation unfold.  

The employer rep calmly placed his ink pen next to the note pad.  The silence was broken when he offered the following words:   

“I am really sorry that we offended you with this offer.   You may not believe
it, but we truly care about you…we really do!  That’s why we have been here
all day engaged in this [mediation] process—trying to work out a way to reach
a settlement that we can all live with.  We are trying to do our best to do what
we can.  We value your work.  You are a big part of what makes this the great
company that it is!   We don’t want to lose you.”

It felt as though a life-sustaining burst of fresh air suddenly entered the room.  The worker sat expressionless but I detected the glimmer of a teardrop on the surface of his left eyelid.  The look of desperation seemed to lift gradually.  I sensed that his heart was yielding to the impact of those simple yet poignant words from the company executive.    

A couple of incidental concessions were proposed which the director promptly agreed to.  Both men smiled timidly, resumed drafting the agreement, and then signed it.  Shortly thereafter I walked into the hallway and observed the two individuals standing at the elevator door expressing their mutual resolve to improve the work environment at the company.

What Kind of Love

In the New Testament of the Bible there is a very moving exposition on the meaning of Love.  The message is found in the apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Grecian community of Christians situated in Corinth.  During the 1st century C.E. (A.D.) ancient Corinth was a city of great economic prosperity.  The dominant culture was also marked by pride and selfishness.  Paul feared that his cohorts might at some point renounce their Christian faith and lapse into a state of idolatry.  Undeterred by these events, Paul offers words of encouragement to his struggling congregation.  In his dual role as spiritual leader and mediator he challenges the community of faith to reflect upon the transcendent power of Love.

The ancient Greeks formulated three different words which reflected three distinct meanings of the English word “love.”  The type of love that Paul spoke of in his letter to the church was not eros.   Theologian Karl Barth described eros as a kind of love in which an individual focuses upon his or her own self-assertion, self-satisfaction, and self-fulfillment in one’s relation to something or someone else.     Neither was Paul speaking of another love known as filial.  This is a type of love found within close friendships like that experienced between a best friend or trusted neighbor.       

The love that Paul espoused was love in a very different sense; it was agape.   Agape is a type of love that is freely given just for the sake of love itself.   In contrast with romantic love, agape is love with no strings attached.   Unlike friendship, it is a love that gives everything but which seeks nothing in return from the one loved.   Barth emphasized that the one who gives agape (the “lover”) has no desire to possess the other individual in order to satisfy some innate need.  Similarly, the one who gives agape does not feel the urge to trespass upon the freedom of the other individual.  With agape the one who gives love desires “…to be permitted to love [another individual] simply in the way that this ability has been granted to himself.”    There is power in agape.

I have seen many instances where an adversary offers hollow, insincere words of kindness in hopes of gaining a tactical advantage during the negotiation/mediation process.  There is something within most of us, perhaps intuition, a sixth sense or Spirit, that can alert us to the real possibility that expressions of kindness may not in fact be genuine.  Agape, in contrast, is always heart-felt and authenticMartin Luther King, Jr. once said that agape involves “…an understanding, creative, and redemptive goodwill for everyone.”   Agape endures and ultimately never fails because it is transparently cloaked in the Eternal.    It is this love that Paul urged the Corinthians to embrace in their relations with one another.  It is the same love that I believe I witnessed in the defining words uttered by the company executive at mediation.  

Love Never Fails

Those of us engaged in the helping professions will sometimes, despite our best intentions, stumble and lose our balance.  Every mediator will at one time or another struggle to communicate to conflicted individuals with just the right words that will be received with the proper dosage of cultural sensitivity, political correctness, and clarity.  We grope for just the right phrase that will capture the essence of the moment.  We probe our minds frantically looking for a compelling anecdote or a word of insight that will positively alter the dynamic of the discussion.  And yet, sometimes our words fall flat.  More often than we care to admit there are occasions when despite our preparation life will present us with circumstances where we simply will not know what to say.  But there is always good news!       

At the height of the impasse our worker asked for additional money to settle the case but he received something far greater than what he was bargaining for.  I cannot say definitively what motivated the employer representative to break the impasse with words of compassion.  And yet, based upon private discussions with the worker I believe that what he really needed to hear—and which he in fact heard– was that the employer genuinely cared about him as an individual.  Those words had redemptive and transformative power.  The worker needed to know that his service to the company mattered.  Strike that—perhaps what the worker actually heard from his employer was an expression of affirmation that he interpreted as agape.

Some mediation practitioners might ask whether Love is relevant to any discussion about conflict resolution.  Should cases be resolved based upon the analysis of sober legal and economic determinants or should human factors such as love, kindness, and so forth, receive any consideration?   Is agape too elusive, too transient, too unreliable or too unpredictable?     

Consider the sentiments expressed by international music icon Tina Turner who styled this lament:

“What’s love got to do, got to do with it
What’s love but a second hand emotion
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken.” (see reference below)

Tina Turner was most likely singing about eros but the question remains pertinent.  What does Love have to do with settling lawsuits or resolving interpersonal conflict?   Will kindness settle every lawsuit?  No, of course it will not.  Will expressions of compassion always result in reconciling differences between feuding parties?  Certainly not.  But that is not the point here.  When Love is present something beneficial ultimately results.  You may not see it today or comprehend it tomorrow but it will occur.  Authentic Love is a force that never falls short.  Yes, we will stumble at times but Love never fails.  In the case of the computer programmer I was fortunate to witness that blessing for myself.


Holy Bible. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8).  Excerpts taken from the Kings James Version and New King James Version.

Sylvia A. Allegretto and Laurel Lucia, Policy Brief: Unemployment Benefits Critical to Jobless Workers and Economic Recovery in California (UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education/Center on Wage and Employment-April 2011) []

Allegretto and Lucia, id.

As of August 19, 2011, the overall rate of unemployment in Californian was 12%.

Sylvia Allegretto, Ary Amerikaner, and Steven Pitts, Data Brief: Black Unemployment and Unemployment in May 2011 (UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education-June 3, 2011) [ blackworkers/monthly/bwreport_2011-06-03_34.pdf]

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction  (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963)  197.

Barth, id. at page 201.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, on November 17, 1957.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research  & Education  Institute, Stanford University) /encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/

Barth, id.

Song entitled “What’s Love Got to Do With It.,” written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle. Recorded by Tina Turner.


William Scott Harralson, J.D.

William Scott Harralson is a trained mediator whose emphasis is discrimination and harassment, employment, and personal injury cases. His area of special interest is  ethical issues affecting clergy and religious congregations. He has mediated disputes for a number of public and private agencies including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and California… MORE >

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