hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 26, 2012

Our leaders must embrace conflict resolution

Michael Veves

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.

We expect that our leaders are a cut above the rest of us. We expect them to be deliberate, contemplative, intellectual, respectful, compassionate and understanding. These qualities are not easy to come by, though we all agree on them and most of us like to think we hold these qualities. All we have to do is look around in our neighborhoods or take a look across the street to realize that we don't hold these qualities. It is, for example, not unusual for neighbors to be disrespectful, anti-intellectual, impulsive, unfriendly and selfish. Can we now understand why our elected leaders are the same way? Just take a look at how awful the Republican candidates are to each other and watch how ugly the presidential campaign will be.

Our collective hope, usually, is that cooler heads prevail to resolve conflict. Again, this will not happen when one side feels so threatened that "winning'' their way is the only solution. This misses a very important concept: The "either/or'' scenario is wrong. There are usually multiple ways to solve a problem without one side believing the other must have their way.

What our government has done too often is delay a decision because extremes found on the edge of political parties pull their leaders in a certain direction. Washington delays solving debt problems because partisans want it all. Votes are put off. This also happened with the payroll tax cut. In fact, most leaders will tell you nothing will be resolved till election time. My goodness! That's nearly a year away! Like waiting for money willed to be released from probate, we must sit on our hands while problems fester that we need to pay for.

It is only the very noblest of leaders who stand up to the extremes in their own political parties and know when to say "yes'' and "no'' regardless of how many votes it will cost.

If conflict is going to be resolved, both parties must understand they will not get their way totally. This has happened clearly in the case of abortion, for example. The extreme Christian right embedded in the Republican Party wants a constitutional amendment banning abortion, making it a criminal act, stripping doctors of medical licenses, putting them in jail. In the very extreme right, it has been suggested doctors receive capital punishment.

On the Democratic fringe are those who do not believe in parental notification under any circumstances. We need a parent's permission to pull a tooth. Are we not going to inform a parent that their 14-year-old daughter is pregnant and wants an abortion? Late-term abortions, a particularly big issue, took center stage when Democratic leaders balked.

Eventually, level headed leaders reached compromise. Democrats want abortion to remain safe, legal, and accessible. Republican leaders wanted certain abortions stopped, as well as parental notification to be required. Each side gave something up. Each side got something it wanted. An eye was kept on what the public wanted.

If leaders could agree on something as touchy as abortion, surely they can come to terms with deficit reduction, wasteful military expenditure, or privatizing Social Security.

However, many are doubtful any sort of consensus can be reached anymore since the partisan bickering has gone on too long. Partisans say nasty things. Partisans are unwilling to apologize. Stalemate, thus, continues.

Solutions? There are some. Current leaders need to do all they can to influence the best and brightest among us to take positions of leadership. These are the people who should be offered leadership positions. John Huntsman is a perfect example of the best and brightest. There are many senators and representatives who are of the same character.

Countless journalists and community activists also fit this mold.

People who want positions of leadership must not spend the greater part of their time with ad hominem attacks. Can you imagine that evangelical Christians and Christian fundamentalists are uncomfortable with Mitt Romney for one reason: His religion. The very last thing leaders should be attacking is the other's religion. As Joe Friday would say in the old "Dragnet'' TV series, "Just the facts, ma'am."

I am not optimistic. I see some of the worst minds vying for positions of leadership nationwide, not simply for president. In fact, today "hayseediana'' is almost a virtue — let's see how stupid we can act and talk in order not to appear too smart. How well I remember looking at local leaflets with those looking for leadership positions using qualifications like "Married with 4 children,'' "Little League Board of Directors,'' "PTA Volunteer'' or "Soccer Mom.''

Here's what we should be looking for in our leaders: People with managerial experience, people with graduate degrees in related fields, people who are well traveled with a wide perspective, people who have served in international volunteer programs. Our Congress has increasingly been gaining members without any background in these areas. In fact, we are dumbing down our Congress and then ask why these people appear so inept.

What happens to our country is not because of some anthropomorphic cosmic godlike force. What happens to our country is because of us.

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Michael Veves lives in Haverhill and contributes a regular column to the Gazette. Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to hgazette.com.