Monday, March 26, 2007

What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? Thoughts on why we're not getting to yes

What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?Respected dispute resolution scholar and pioneer Carrie Menkel-Meadow recently posed an important question for our field in her essay "Why Hasn't the World Gotten to Yes? An Appreciation and Some Reflections" (downloadable in PDF).

In it Professor Menkel-Meadow pauses to consider the enduring legacy of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher and William Ury's influential work which laid out a common-sense approach for effective negotiation that stresses satisfaction of interests, mutual gains, joint problem-solving, and the use of objective criteria to create fair deals.

The full title of the book should be noted: "Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" (emphasis mine). In other words, this book does not stand for weak-willed capitulation. On the contrary. Principled negotiation is designed to prevent the exploitation of one side by the other. It encourages negotiators to keep their eyes wide open--to be trustworthy but not trusting--and prepares them to bargain from a position of strength.

Yet this model for negotiation remains widely misunderstood and even maligned, especially here in the U.S., where we are fond of asserting that "we don't negotiate with terrorists" and the word "collaboration" evokes not teamwork but the Vichy regime.

Consider for example what conservative commentator Michelle Malkin had to say a couple of years ago about peer mediation:
The left-wing Kumbaya crowd is quietly grooming a generation of pushovers in the public schools. At a time of war, when young Americans should be educated about this nation's resilience and steely resolve, educators are indoctrinating students with saccharine-sticky lessons on "non-violent conflict resolution" and "promoting constructive dialogues."
As irrational as these objections may sound to those of us who work in the dispute resolution field, we dismiss them at our peril. They are widely held.

To understand these objections more fully, listen to a story that aired this weekend on National Public Radio, "Peace Proposal Rattles Small Town". It describes the hell that broke loose when a women's club in a small Minnesota city persuaded the city council to pass a resolution endorsing a proposed congressional bill that would create a United States Department of Peace and promote the use of conflict resolution and negotiation. Public condemnation of the city council vote came swiftly, and, in the face of mounting opposition, the city council rescinded the resolution following a heated public hearing.

So why the objections? Quite a few viewed the bill (which many had apparently never bothered to read) as an attack on U.S. sovereignty, believing it would place the United States under the full control of the United Nations. Some condemned the Department of Peace as an instrument of communism. Others claimed that a Department of Peace would signal to our enemies that Americans are weaklings afraid to fight--"wusses" in the word of one citizen interviewed by the NPR reporter.

Peace, in other words, is for sissies.

That is the challenge that our profession faces. Until we can persuade the skeptics that principled negotiation and conflict resolution are smart, tough, strategic choices, we'll never get the world--or at least our neighbors right here at home--to yes.