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Beer Summits And Presidential Mediations

by Colin Rule
August 2009

From Colin Rule's blog.

Colin Rule

I've wanted to post something on Obama's Beer Summit for some time, but I thought it best to let the dust settle before weighing in. The racial hot buttons made it harder to focus on the conflict management approach behind the engagement. I think now the time has come to process what happened.

As I've written before, I think that Obama's baseline personality predisposes him to conciliation. Momentary passions or demonstrations of calculated distress (such as the "stupidly" comment) can pull him away from that orientation in a particular window, but over time Obama resets back to the role of conflict manager. Hence this situation ending with the television video of the three men sitting at the table with beers having a civil conversation. This case became a media phenomenon because of the intersection of class, celebrity, and connections to the White House -- there are far worse examples of police over-reaction that have generated much less media attention.

It was definitely satisfying to see "mediation" all over the media for 48 hours. It's clear this has benefited awareness across the US. Though it's definitely an unresolved question as to whether this will result in any uptick in case filings at mediation centers.

Net-net, this underscores why I find it so satisfying to have Obama in the White House. Turbulent times often call for peacemaking personalities (I think the converse is also true, however.) Drawing the likely larger outcome out of this event is a challenge, but John Sturrock did a good job on mediate.com: "From a relatively minor incident in Massachusetts to a history-making speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama's language is straight from the texts on principled negotiation: let's find our real interests, explore the concerns that others have, seek to understand where they are coming from, be robust on what we believe in, but always be respectful of those with different views.

And let's see if we can develop some objectively supportable options for moving forward. Mr. Obama is a natural mediator. His instincts in the Massachusetts matter are to bring people together, in the knowledge that a face-to-face meeting, with a credible third party present, is likely to pay dividends and nip this in the bud.

As he said: "My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in a way that it should have been resolved."

That is not unusual. Whether the conflict is about an untidy arrest, or a dispute between workmates, or a tram construction project that isn't working as it should, or changes in terms and conditions leading to strike action and rubbish on the streets, bringing people together with the help of skilled third parties can often lead to a solution where a logjam existed."

I think this is not the last example we'll see of Obama playing mediator. I'm sure it happens in less obvious ways every day, but more behind the scenes. Hopefully he'll refine his approach over the course of his presidency, so that the narrative of the "presidential mediation" can be firmly implanted in the public consciousness.

Biography


Colin Rule has worked at the intersection of technology and conflict resolution for the last two decades. He is CEO of Modria.com, an online dispute resolution service provider in Silicon Valley, and a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. From 2003 to 2011, he served as eBay and PayPal's first director of Online Dispute Resolution, designing and implementing systems that now resolve more than 60 million disputes each year. Mr. Rule is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002. He has presented and trained around the world for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, UNCITRAL, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution, as well as teaching at UMass-Amherst, Stanford, Southern Methodist University, and Hastings College of the Law. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1999, with columns and articles appearing in ACResolution, Consensus, Dispute Resolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He holds a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a B.A. in peace studies from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.



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Website: www.modria.com

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