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The “find someone from the other party to sit with” invitations for President Obama’s State of the Union address drew media attention and a few takers. The fact that a Democrat sat between two Republicans, or vice versa, might not seem like a news event; still it was a significant gesture. While most would say that it was only a symbolic act, I believe it was a good beginning in creating space for a dialogue.
We need our leaders to engage in dialogue, the kind that brings the best thinking of the participants to a conversation with a center and no sides. The focus of that dialogue must be on some of the most intractable problems we face. For that dialogue to occur, our leaders must move beyond symbolism. It’s not enough to simply create the space for folks to meet. Obviously people in Congress can walk across the aisle and talk to each other any time they want. Its about creating the right kind of space — a space where there is an opportunity for engagement – a safe space.
The first steps in creating dialogue are an invitation, an acceptance and then creation of the space to meet. By space I mean both a physical location and a social context. It is a safe space for constructive engagement where you will not be penalized for showing up.
One of the things that we have learned from our work is that engagement must not only be at the level of the mind or just about issues. There must also be engagement at the level of the heart. A story comes to mind that illustrates the importance of personal engagement.
When I was visiting in 2000 with individuals involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, one of our hosts, Trevor Morrow, then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, recalled an incident that occurred in a meeting of leaders of the IRA and the Protestants. During a break in their formal meetings, the leaders of the two groups began talking and at some point pulled out their wallets and began showing each other photographs of their grandchildren.
At the moment they engaged each other at a more personal level they realized that maybe one thing they had in common was that both wanted a more peaceful future for their grandkids. They didn’t want them to grow up and be party to the same kind of violence that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades.
Trevor said that was the breakthrough in making real progress in their talks. Instead of seeing each other as enemies, they saw each other as grandfathers who wanted a better future for their grandchildren. When they were engaged with an open heart they were more able to open their minds to new possibilities.
Prof. Roger Fisher and his colleague at the Harvard Negotiation Project have written extensively on the necessity of improving working relationships among those negotiating, especially if they want to find optimal long-term solutions. Some may protest that this approach is too soft, too sentimental. There is nothing sentimental about accomplishing good work through better relationships.
A Beginning Gesture
It was great to see many of our Congressional Representatives and Senators sitting together. Let’s let them know that we want them to go beyond this symbolic beginning. Let’s encourage them to create opportunities for constructive engagement that can lead to real collaborative problem solving. The future of our grandchildren depends on it.
By Randall Butler | Posted in: | Permalink