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President Barack Obama's Effective Communication

by Alan Sharland
February 2009 Alan Sharland
Well, President Obama is now making his mark on the world by speaking on the various issues that he will have to deal with over the next 4 years of his presidency.

Already it is clear that he uses language that promotes effective communication and conflict resolution, and while I'm sure he is not an avid reader of this site and the Principles espoused on it, his means of communicating reflects many of the Principles that this site describes and the practice of mediation it draws its inspiration from.

Below are links to recent interviews given by President Obama and I have tried to highlight the ways in which his language differs from many of his predecessors and that of many other politicians operating in today's world.

Link: Time Magazine - Obama Mideast Watch: The al-Arabiya Interview:

All too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues -- and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen….

Comment: Obama's comment that the United States 'dictated' in the past is a clear recognition of how they 'volunteered' countries to follow their directives rather than allow them to speak for themselves, something achieved through the act of listening which he follows on to say, they will now start to do.....What we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs…

We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.

Comment: This could be seen by some as a criticism of his predecessors, that 'We sometimes make mistakes.' What it actually represents is an acknowledgement that we all do so rather than a denial that it has ever occurred. This reflects a more accepting approach, possibly even a no-blame approach. He is not justifying the acts of the past, he is acknowledging they could be different in the future and that something can be learned from them. Persistent refusal to acknowledge mistakes because they would be seen as 'failure' has been the cause of many mistakes being repeated in the past rather than learned from and changed.

We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table.

Comment: We don't volunteer others, and we speak only for ourselves - two Principles clearly being practiced by Obama here instead of a dictat of 'What the United States expects' that has so angered many others across the world in the past, leading to deep resentment of the perceived arrogance of the United States. This is not to say there has not been similar perceptions created by other nations such as the UK, but the status of the USA as the 'most powerful nation on earth' has meant its power has often not been felt to be wisely and sensitively wielded in the past.

My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.

Comment: A language of respect. Simply to acknowledge that the language used to describe members of the Muslim world and other cultures has not been respectful (and has, in fact, been dismissive, stereotyping, demonising and alienating) is a commitment to mindful communication, a consciousness of how we actually speak to and of each other.

To see the full interview from which the above transcripts are taken Click here.

In the interview,you will hear Obama often use the phrase 'Here's what I think', or 'I do think...'. Instead of statements of 'fact' or command, as many politicians tend to practice - 'The British People want....','Iran must stop.....' etc.

He speaks for himself, using effective 'I' statements, and expresses his opinions and that of his administration without dictating what 'must be'. A small difference it may seem, but one which means there is no provocation to retaliate against by those spoken about and dictated to. No need to prepare for 'war' against the oppressive imposition by the dominant power expressed through the ineffective communication used.

The No-blame approach in action...

Link: BBC News - Obama admits errors over cabinet

in this excerpt from an interview with him about the aborted appointment of Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer who were due to be the Health Secretary and overseer of budget reform respectively we see a further sign of the humility and integrity of the new President in his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes.

Many say that a 'no-blame' approach means not being accountable but here we see an example where both Obama and his colleagues are taking responsibility for what happened without adopting the blame approach of pointing the finger or 'covering up' because to acknowledge a mistake would be considered a sign of weakness or failure.

Both come out of the situation with dignity even if the situation itself is regrettable and Obama identifies that ... we're going to make sure we fix it so it doesn't happen again. No condemnation of individuals whereby the blame is pinned on them so that the President can be disassociated from them and the (ridiculous) image of infallibility is fiercely protected - but seen to be a sham. Challenging what happened rather than 'who did it' - a constructive approach to communication and conflict resolution, symbolic of honesty, humility and dignity.

Can we practice an approach to politics that has an awareness of how our communication can in itself escalate conflict or resolve it? Can we practice an approach to conflict where it is seen as an opportunity for learning, connection and insight rather than a competition or 'war' to be won? Well, from observing President Barack Obama, the answer to that seems to be ..........

Yes we can!

Biography


I came into mediation in 1994 from being a Mathematics teacher in a Secondary School in Camden, London. There was often violence in the area in which I taught and pupils that I taught were involved in violence, either as victims or perpetrators.

It led me to attend a course on conflict resolution in order to try to understand the reasons that conflicts are responded to in ways that can be so destructive.

To cut a long story short this led to me becoming a Mediator for Camden Mediation Service as a volunteer Community Mediator, dealing mainly with neighbour disputes. My teaching background helped me to move quite quickly into training of Mediators as well and by 1996 I was employed at Camden Mediation Service as a Case Worker.

In 2000 I set up and became Director of a community mediation service, Hillingdon Community Mediation where I worked for 11 years until its closure in March 2011, providing mediation in neighbour disputes in West London, training of mediators for our service and other organisations and developing a pilot project in Conflict Coaching.

In April 2011 I set up CAOS Conflict Management which provides mediation in a wide range of types of dispute, conflict coaching and conflict management training and consultancy, as well as training in mediation and conflict coaching skills.

I also have a website called Communication and Conflict which describes the thinking behind various aspects of mediation, conflict coaching and conflict management practise.



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Website: www.caos-conflict-management.co.uk

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