I was doing a live radio interview two Saturdays ago (Silver City Meetinghouse on WVBF AM1530 in southeastern Massachusetts; great hosts, fun show) when one of the co-hosts mentioned her work in labor-management relations. She consults with school districts using nontraditional methods of negotiation—specifically, methods that invite these traditional adversaries to work in tandem for a solution that benefits a whole, rather than against each other to get the most possible for their side.
As she described her work, I thought about the difficult position these negotiators must face. I suspect it’s a position many of us have faced, in other contexts.
When negotiators sit across from one another, at least two powerful forces conspire to draw them toward conflict and away from dialogue. First is the long history of adversarial relationship between the two sides: a great deal of hostility has flowed under the bridge over the decades, and mistrust has become instinct.
Even so, a negotiator deeply committed to dialogue might be able to overcome this personal animosity if not for the second force: she is beholden to someone else. Dialogue is not written into her job description; getting the very best agreement for her constituents is. If she dares to try understanding the other side, she risks facing hundreds of people who would accuse her of “selling out our interests.”
Could dialogue have any role in this? Is there any value in a negotiator’s stepping out into a virtual no man’s land to explore the issues together with the other side?
There may be, and it may have to do with what I see as a fundamental difference between negotiation and dialogue. Negotiation is all about compromise, giving up on certain points to get what you want. It is the natural choice for situations like labor-management relations, and of course it can be tremendously effective. The risk of negotiation, however, is that in the process of compromise the parties may never explore the deeper issues that underlie the points of disagreement. In the end, they may hammer out a mutually acceptable pact that addresses the details but none of the underlying issues. This is where dialogue—and its tendency toward exploration, toward mutual understanding—can have value.
And yes, there is no doubt that “rising above the fray” like this can bring a negotiator a lot of flak. It requires a great deal of internal fortitude (and/or external support) to face down the forces of conflict. Yet we desperately need people with that kind of fortitude—not only in the labor-management arena, but in the political sphere, interfaith dialogue, and many other places in the public square.
I think people of faith can play a significant role here, particularly those who have cultivated a deep connection with the Divine. These folks do not have to face the fray alone, because their hearts are full of the conviction that they are not alone. Their radical openness to God—an openness that, I have found, empowers them to let go of vested interests and “us vs. them” thinking—sets them free to initiate dialogue even in ultra-sensitive situations, heedless of the cost.
That’s the internal fortitude part of it. The external support is essential as well: finding allies who can nurture us even as we nurture them. It is much easier to let go of one’s position and deeply engage the other side when we know that people have our back. From a faith perspective, it is that same divine support expressed through the people around us.
So maybe dialogue does have a role to play in negotiating settlements. It certainly has a role to play when longtime adversaries meet to resolve issues in the public square. And the more our hearts and minds can be reoriented toward dialogue, the more readily we can enter the fray.