Commentary: How mediation can teach us to bridge social divides

By Robert A. Baruch Bush
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Even after the election results were finalized and the new President inaugurated, one thing remains unresolved – the deep divide within the nation that the campaigns for the presidency confirmed.

It was not Biden v. Trump, or Democrat v. Republican; it was Socialist v. Fascist, Anarchist v. Racist, Stalin v. Hitler – and worse.

The names shouted by all sides both revealed and inflicted a deep social wound in our nation that will be hard to mend – when 80 million people stand on one side of the divide and 74 million on the other.

In the face of that divide, merely calling for “healing” and “unity” and “civility” will not bring us together. But practical steps can be taken, based upon the methods of a field called conflict resolution, which uses approaches that are proven to help bridge the divides at both the personal and group levels.

These methods include mediation and dialogue, which give support to the natural human process of social healing. [Cleven, Bush and Saul, Living with No: Political Polarization and Transformative Dialogue, 2018] Those who would “bring us together” can learn several important lessons from the ideas and practices of good mediators and facilitators.

First: Before trying to bring opposed factions together, it’s critical to give the sides time to themselves – time to speak and listen to themselves, to regain some clarity about what has happened in the conflict and where they stand. The biggest mistake some would-be “helpers” make is to force adversaries to face each other when they are still uncertain of their own ground. When shaky and frightened, no one can even think of listening to an opposing view.

Second: Different sides do need to meet and talk. But rather than requiring “civility” and tamping down anger and hurt, those who convene the talk should aim at supporting and not suppressing expression, of all kinds and on all sides. The parallel is allowing a wound to clean itself, even with some healthy bleeding, and not patching it over and trapping infection inside. Good mediators and facilitators know how to support this kind of healing “conflict talk.”

Third: With or without the help of others, conflict talk works to heal divides if it employs a few simple – if difficult – principles and practices. One is that listening is the beginning of speaking.

Each side has to listen – first of all to itself, to reflect on what it wants to say, formulate it clearly, and only then to speak. And then each side has to listen fully and openly to what is said – without immediately reacting and thinking about how to answer and make its own points.

And then the hardest part: Each side has to try to see and hear the “best” in what the other side says, rather than the worst. That is, to see how what is said is understandable, how it makes some human sense even if it is not how “we” see things. When this happens, conflict and difference takes a critical healing step – from demonizing one another, to humanizing each other.

If we follow these practices among ourselves as citizens, then even if we can’t “get to yes”, we can “live with no”. We can live with difference, diversity and even conflict, but with true civility within a healed and single body politic. In these polarized times, leaders and citizens who care about healing our democracy should enlist the help of those who know how to use these methods well.
Robert A. Baruch Bush is co-founder of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, and the Rains Distinguished Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, in New York. Thomas Wahlrab is former director of the Dayton Mediation Center, and former executive director of the Dayton Human Relations Council.


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