As a teenage camp counselor at 4-H camp, I was once given a whole cabin full of troublemakers because someone figured I could live through it, or at least not kill anyone else. The truth was, my personal survival strategy included being liked, even by little kids. Modern psychology would call it an affliction – this need to smooth out the rough edges of human interaction – and would posit that it derived from early childhood. In the Darwinian world of capitalist business, hard edges and the ability to make the “tough decisions” are considered qualifications for success, and peacemakers are seen as weak.
At any rate, regardless of whether peacemaking is an asset, an affliction, a liability or a weird selfish strategy or all of the above, decades of business management, social advocacy work and formal training have honed my knowledge of what it takes to resolve conflicts. It doesn’t always succeed, of course, and at times, chairing CERES was quite like herding friendly cats. The formula for resolving differences through peaceful conflict resolution (that also builds a relationship) is actually pretty simple, and a lot cheaper than F-117s or M-1 Abrams tanks. The first step is finding a common goal, like staying alive. You work from there to find strategies or incentives that are acceptable to all stakeholders.
At this macho point in history it’s tough to be a peacemaker, because once more power mongers have taken over the world. The formula for resolving conflict through force is more facile than the peaceful option: first you scare or trick the opposition (and possibly your own reluctant armies). You then overwhelm or kill, give an ultimatum to survivors (sometimes disguised as a choice), then maintain power through force, trickery or subversion. The opposition will hate you after you win, and if they have a chance they will turn the tables on you.
Although most of my conflict resolution work has been with companies and their stakeholders, in referring to power mongers I am not talking about companies. People in the better companies know that conflicting goals are inevitable in human life, especially those elements of life that involve commerce and scarce resources. They also know that conflict is more inexpensively and enduringly resolved through peaceful negotiations.
The power mongers I refer to are the politicians currently in power in this country. We have always tried, at Trillium Asset Management, to minimize political affiliations. We believe that we are more effective focusing on issues since politicians of all stripes come and go and are unpredictable allies. However, we have deep process issues with this administration. The Iraq war is only one of the hundreds of incidences, huge and small, when power tactics have been used to impose an ideology on the rest of us. As a professional who represents multiple stakeholder interests, I object!
Having objected, it is incumbent on me to suggest a solution, which I believe to be regime change at home, since the administration is not interested in the patient process of negotiating divergent views. The trouble is, having decided on regime change, however, it’s devilishly hard to imagine the alternative; the long list of contenders for head guy (President) need a good dose of conflict resolution themselves if they’re to represent a coherent alternative.
As someone experienced in herding cats, I have a suggestion. We probably don’t have the time or resources to bring the candidates off their egos to a consensus about what the opposition to the power mongers should look like, so I think all the Democratic candidates should become the next cast for Survivor. The show would last three months, and the winner would emerge with all his campaign money intact and his former opponents as new friends and supporters. And millions of people would watch.
Meanwhile, at Trillium Asset Management we’ll go along doing what we always do; making agreements with companies, working in coalitions, fighting for transparency, and representing multiple stakeholders using peaceful conflict resolution.