Obama: Reflections Of A Hard Core Negotiator


by Robert Benjamin

January 2008

Robert Benjamin On Thursday evening, January 3rd, 2008, I watched Barack Obama appear to channel Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy as he gave his ‘audacity of hope’ speech to his supporters after winning the Iowa Caucus. Even someone as constitutionally pessimistic as I am was moved; I wanted to take a chance and believe in the future of this country---again. Although I’ve never gotten that far, being sufficiently traumatized by the ending of my first marriage, I suspect it must be something like how you feel when you decide to get married for the third or fourth time-----‘I’ve got to believe it’ll work with this person this time.”

His rhythmic words emerged with a measured cadence that was mesmerizing. “Hope is not blind optimism.” Pause. “Hope is not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight.” Pause. “Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is something greater inside of us.” Towards the end, he blasts me out of my chair with, “And then we will change the world.”

His chant is not so foreign. The core of the sentiment is essentially the same kind of optimism a good conflict mediator brings into the room to settle the most difficult disputes. Like Obama, they believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, as improbable as it may seem, people can work together and defeat the sense of hopeless, inevitable conflict.

There is good reason to believe that were Obama elected President of the United States, his message of optimism might trickle down and seep into our cultural ethos and that, quite possibly, there might be “morning in America” for the conflict management profession. It would become ‘chic’ to have mediated one’s divorce or workplace dispute instead of litigating. In the world, senseless saber rattling, let alone offensive military adventures, would be shelved in favor of more thoughtful negotiated approaches.

I am especially pleased that Obama appeals to younger people and proves they can be stirred and moved to action. As Gail Collins ironically observed in the New York Times, even the young political activist of yesteryear, Hillary Rodham (Clinton), at age 21, would have been for Obama. (Op-ed, January 5, 2008).

For me personally, as a professional negotiator, Barack Obama cannot help but be an alluring figure. He is the incarnation, by his birth, personality and style of the seldom seen Protean leader. He appears to be able to shape shift; at one moment he is a mesmerizing shaman, then a smart technical wonk, next an apt organizer and manager, and finally, as required, a warrior of the old time Chicago school of Saul Alinsky-Mayor Washington. Being Protean is what the best negotiators do.

The problem is that the same religious zeal that gives the Obama campaign heart, harbors a disturbing seed that gives me pause---especially as a seasoned negotiator. With allusions to ‘new beginnings’ and offer of ecstatic experiences, my reflexive pragmatism makes me cringes at that idealism. Maybe it’s my age. When you’re young, if you have no passion, you have no heart; when you’re older, if all you have is passion, you have no brain. If I were to get married again, the first question I would ask myself is, “what would it be like to divorce this person?” Not entirely because I am cynical, but because I would want the marriage to work and that might help me think about how the rhetorical “she” deals with hard stuff.

I come from the “guerrilla” style of negotiation practice. Not unprincipled, but more realistic about how people deal with conflict and make decisions----not nearly as rational as we would like to think. They are entitled to be approached as they are and not forced to fit into some idealized notion of how we would like for them to be. I am an aficionado of the old fashioned cutting of a “grubby deal” that will work----the adequate and good----as opposed to the perfect and ‘elegant solution.”

So, as alluring as Obama is, I’m troubled that what might result is a return to the pursuit of visionary schemes make working together seem too simple and sometimes believe that ‘come let us reason together’ with save the day. There is a risk of a blowback effect against the viability of negotiation, especially if the popular idea of negotiation as being reasonable and collaborative problem solving, collides with the necessary ‘rough and tumble’ of hard negotiation required to deal with tough issues and bad feelings. The best negotiators know the physical and emotional stamina, determination and discipline required to bring about a settlement in real world conflicts.

I’m less concerned with Obama himself than I am with those who might imbue him with being a later day Jesus. His personal background as a committed community organizer on the streets of Chicago suggests he is not the sort to be unrealistic. But then, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a new religion; his followers decided what he meant and did that for him----much of which he would have likely disavowed. This world doesn’t need more religions.

There is no way of knowing how it will turn out. Is Obama encouraging the coming about of a better way of managing conflict, or setting up unrealistic expectations that can only be dashed ---again? For me, at my advanced age, it will require yet another leap of faith. As one young person remarked, “He makes me feel like it’s one of those moments in American History where I need to take a chance.” (NYT, 1.5.08). So, should I get married again?

January 5, 2008



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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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 John A.  Fiske,   weston MA    01/27/08 
 Hope 
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Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune--without the words, And never stops at all.... Emily Dickinson, worth remembering this season.
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 Cookie ,   Chesterton IN    01/20/08 
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I have been thinking about your article for some time now and my current conclusion is "Dream on." Mrs. Clinton has won twice now by narrow margins and things are just starting to heat up. My concern is that while he was a community organizer, and now has some political credentials behind him, Mr. Obama has no significant failures. He lost one state political campaign. Unlike the others who have had failures in their political and personal lives, he presents this picture perfect fellow who seems kind and affable. Recently I heard him say (paraphrased), "When I am president I know I will make the absolutely right decision in difficult times." That kind of sounded like something out of a John Wayne movie. Kind of made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The democratic candidates have agreed to play nice while campaigning for the time being and this is American politics. Nice won't last forever. The gloves will get peeled off soon and then the test of grit will emerge. It is a telling story that the majority of members of the Black Caucus have not committed to him. There is also Richie Daly who is saying zero on the subject. I find that curious. At any rate, thanks for another great article. I can't help but add a comment on the getting married thing. At 60 I have learned to add an unspoken question that is harsh and true. When I go out on a "date" the question lurking in the back of my mind is "Would I be willing to diaper this guy?" Perhaps this is not so different from electing a President who has had no significant failures. Will we be willing to accept him with open arms if he doesn't make the "right decision?"
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 Larry ,   Lodi CA    01/15/08 
 I agree with Ron Kelly 
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I agree with Ron Kelly, and just returned from 3 days of door-to-door campaigning for Obama in Reno, Nevada.
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 Jennifer Kresge,   St. Helena CA    01/12/08 
 Politics 
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Obama's optimism and community endeavors are certainly encouraging. His profound sense of commitment to the consideration of all, definitely inspiring of hope. However, when listening closely to the words he offers as his wisdom, he struggles with the ability to form the words, "yes" or "no" in response to direct questions. The question then remains, can you be a true leader if your goal of collaboration does not give you the ability to answer simple questions with a direct opinion and thus allow others to truly know your direction?
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 Ron Kelly,   Berkley CA    01/11/08 
 Obama - A Mediator's Candidate? 
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I remember early on in the campaign, before I had formed a preference, I heard an experienced Washington reporter discussing the candidates. He found Obama puzzling. He claimed that if you were in a disagreement with Obama, he would summarize your arguments even better than you could yourself. This got my attention.

Then, in an early debate, Obama was asked if he would negotiate directly with the leaders of countries with whom we have strong differences. He said yes. He was attacked by many who said this just proved how naive he was. He didn't back down. He pointed out that we negotiated with Stalin and we negotiated with Mao. He asserted that you do not need to give away anything to enter negotiations with people with whom you strongly disagree.

In speeches, he consistently advocated sitting down to negotiate with, and respectfully listening to, the heads of oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, and health care companies. He was roundly attacked as "wanting to bring Kumbaya to a knife fight". He responded that he could afford to listen respectfully to the other side, especially if he was able to reach across the aisle to enlist even a few opposition Senators to his efforts.

I was skeptical. I read one of his books, "The Audacity of Hope". I went back to read an article he wrote twenty years ago on why he was a community organizer. (www.edwoj.com/Alinsky/AlinskyObamaChapter1990.htm) I concluded he had been consistent his entire adult life about reaching out to those with whom you disagree to build effective working coalitions.

I listened to his January 3 Iowa speech(www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqoFwZUp5vc). He said he understood 9/11 not as a way to scare up votes, but as "a challenge to unite America and the world against our common threats of terrorism and nuclear weapons, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease."

I have not heard any other politician on the current national stage asserting these core beliefs as consistently and effectively as Barack Obama. I have great respect for both Clinton and Edwards. I will work for either of them happily in the fall, if either gets the Democratic nomination. But as a mediator, I have felt inspired and uplifted since deciding last weekend that I would put in some work for Obama every day until my state's primary. If you would like to help him, I invite you to go promptly to www.barackobama.com and begin now.

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