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January 26, 2012

Our leaders must embrace conflict resolution

Skilled mediators intervene when two opposing parties cannot come to an agreement. The mediator's task is to bring certain skills to the table that employ conflict resolution, skills the two parties may not be as adept at using.

Probably the most important part in bringing two parties together is the degree of willingness each side has to take responsibility for the failure that brought the mediator along in the first place. Each side must be willing to accept fault. If this does not happen, it is almost impossible for the mediator to bring the parties together. Sharing blame is vital. Usually, each conflicting party creates circumstances that are so unacceptable to the other that resolution becomes impossible, trust is lost, and stalemate occurs.

Sounds like what goes on in the U.S. government.

Taking responsibility sounds easy, but is it very difficult because human beings seldom want to be seen as losing face. Our leaders do not want to be seen as having "lost.'' Thus, we see machinations occur wherein both parties to a conflict try to make a deal appear as if they have won the conflict. When I was a teacher, conflict resolution was probably the most difficult concept to teach, not just to children but even harder to teach to teenagers.

But what happens when one side in a conflict feels so threatened by the other that resolution is impossible? Sometimes one party believes its very existence is imperiled by the other side. When countries do this dance, a war of words begins. Sometimes the only thing preventing the use of force is that so many innocent people will die. Ultimately, however, this is what happens. This scenario has been playing out between Israel and its neighbors for decades, with no end in sight.

In the past decade, the U.S. Congress, Senate, and presidency have become polarized: Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa. It is staggering how often stalemate occurs in Washington. Naturally, unscrupulous politicians use that stalemate as a rallying cry for their own campaign, rather than offering ways to break the logjam. It is simply too convenient just to blame the other side without offering a broader view. It doesn't happen just in Washington. It happens in state governments and communities like Haverhill. It took years, for example, just to agree on parking solutions in this city.

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