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The Peacemakers

Expert mediators explain how to end stalemates and resolve conflicts

Oct. 23, 2013
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Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske
Members of Congress partially shut down the federal government for 16 days, wasted an estimated $24 billion and pushed the United States economy to the brink of collapse.

Although the immediate crisis has been solved, the weeks of stalemate have done little to solve the problems that created it, from the outsize power held by tea party House Republicans to the fundamental disagreements Republicans and Democrats have over the size and responsibilities of the federal government. Members of Congress may have called a truce, but they certainly haven’t negotiated a lasting peace.

Wisconsin, of course, is no stranger to this kind of brinkmanship and polarization. Tempers aren’t as heated as they were when Gov. Scott Walker “dropped the bomb” with his collective bargaining rights-gutting bill in January 2011, but it’s still fairly difficult to have a conversation with someone who holds opposing views and not start an argument.

Although the Washington and Madison dramas were political, like every conflict they are personal, too. Local experts in conflict resolution found some useful lessons in recent political dramas—and explained how these problems can be avoided in the future, not only in the political sphere, but in one’s own life, too.


Identify Interests

Former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske heads Marquette University’s Restorative Justice Initiative, which utilizes a collaborative approach to repairing harm done to others, and just helped to negotiate a long-term agreement between Milwaukee County, the War Memorial and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Geske said the government shutdown mess could have been resolved more readily if those involved had held private conversations when they’re not posturing so that they could get at the root of their interests, whether it’s reining in the tea party or getting re-elected in a very conservative district.

“In Washington, for example, it seems that people believe they were elected not to negotiate and to stay true to certain positions,” Geske said. “We talk about that in negotiation, the difference in positions and interests. So you’re trying to find out what it is they’re trying to protect.”


Set Aside Your Emotions

Brookfield-based business consultant and mediator R.J. Weiss said it’s important to understand the psychological and physiological processes that are in play during any stressful conversation. Chief among them is the increase in blood flow to the primitive part of the brain. That makes the fight-or-flight instinct kick in and puts us in a defensive, right-or-wrong, my-way-or-the-highway mindset.

“It’s the law of the jungle, that might makes right,” Weiss said.

This physiological process heightens our emotions, Weiss said, and leads us to ascribe negative motives to the other person—and more than half the time our attributions are incorrect.

Weiss said that the best way to get out of this primitive state is to realize what’s going on internally and to try to soothe yourself with deep, calming breaths to counteract the shallow breathing that’s depriving your brain of oxygen. Once you’re calmer, you can think more clearly. And if you are constantly enraged, it’s time to call in a neutral, third-party facilitator.


Stop the Name Calling

Geske said productive discussions shut down immediately once a label is affixed to an opponent.

“You hear it carried out in people having political discussions thinking that the other side is evil,” Geske said. “One of the things we do in restorative justice, if we have the opportunity, is have people tell personal stories about why they’ve come to that philosophical view. People can understand that then. But to simply say, ‘I’m right and you’re evil’—you don’t have any negotiations when you’ve done that. We see that in the media. It’s that labeling that happens as opposed to analysis. Or that everybody is stupid on that side, or everybody is a moocher or a taker. All of these are different characterizations of people rather than philosophical differences on the role of government.”



Listening may be the most difficult part of the process, but to Harry Webne-Behrman, it’s the most essential ingredient in any negotiation.

“They need to make a commitment that they really are prepared to understand one another’s perspectives,” said Webne-Behrman, a training officer and consultant with the office of human resource development at UW-Madison and a principal in the consulting firm Collaborative Initiative. “That takes some time and it takes some openness that the political process often undermines and, in fact, devalues. We get much more reinforcement for speaking over one another.”

For example, Webne-Behrman said President Obama got unnecessary flak for suggesting that he and the leaders of Iran should begin a dialogue for the first time in decades. That kind of willingness to talk to one’s so-called enemy is an absolutely necessary first step toward peacemaking, he said.

“If you sit down and you know your enemy, you are much less likely to demonize that person or that nation and you can start to understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree with them,” Webne-Behrman said. “And for a lot of people, they want to feel that the other person understands where they are coming from.”


Ask Questions

Cheryl Gemignani, an attorney who specializes in collaborative divorce, said it’s essential to ask questions and gather as much information as possible so that you can understand your own motivations and come up with the best solution.

“Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for,” Gemignani said. “You might want it and you might think you want it but by the time I’m finished asking you all of these hard questions I really need you to think about whether or not this is indeed what you want. In the event it isn’t, I can say, ‘Are you satisfied that maybe this isn’t the best thing for you?’”


Play It Forward

Geske said thinking through all of the consequences of one’s position is a vital part of the negotiating process. For example, in the face of much solid evidence to the contrary, some members of Congress and pundits claimed that a default wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the economy. Geske suggested that these folks should work through the effects of a default on all of the people it would impact.

“It’s not just not paying the bills,” Geske said. “What’s the impact on the people that you represent? You go beyond the positional statements of people and you get to their interests and you try to work it through.”


‘Compromise’ Isn’t a Bad Word

Attorney Gemignani said many people don’t want to compromise because they believe that they will have to give something up. But an appropriate solution—or compromise—doesn’t always involve leaving the table empty-handed.

“A good deal is if both parties feel like they had the information they needed and thus the knowledge to make a decision,” Gemignani said. “That they got heard. That they could vent. And that they reached a solution of their own accord that nobody imposed on them.”

Webne-Behrman said most people eventually realize that negotiation is the best way to bring about a solution.

“People’s willingness to negotiate is going to come when they perceive that either that they share a common goal, which is a nice thing, or at least as often, when the alternatives stink,” he said. “One reason why people will sit down and negotiate is that they realize that continuing on this course, this path, is going to be really damaging.”


Brinksmanship Doesn’t Work

And what about those who categorically refuse to negotiate? Weiss said it’s helpful to consider the cost of digging in one’s heels and never finding a resolution.

“Many times people only look at what they’re giving up and not what they’re getting,” Weiss said. “So, what is the cost of agreement versus the cost of disagreement? Is it better to get nothing?”

Weiss said brinksmanship is a terrible strategy when you have an ongoing relationship with somebody of if you represent a constituency where your objective is to represent their best interests.

“Because if you get nothing, that is not in their best interests,” Weiss said. “You incur a greater cost than if you got some benefits.”

That said, Geske acknowledged that, at times, there are some people who simply refuse to negotiate and are rewarded for it.

“A lot of people in conflict will say it’s a matter of principle,” Geske said. “Negotiators hate to hear that. For some people it is a matter of principle and no matter what they’ll go down with the ship and that’s what’s most important to them. There may be politicians like that right now who have that as their number one priority.”


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