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Reflections on Parkland, from a Broward County Parent / Conflict Resolution Practitioner

by Larry Schooler
February 2018 Larry Schooler

Reflections on Parkland

Any parent would feel shaken by a shooting at a school anywhere in the world. But when it happens less than 30 miles from where you live, and your own child attends a school in the same district, it felt different to me. 

It reminded me of both what I have, and have not, done to keep my own children safe, to talk to them about the issues around violence, guns, mental health, and the like. It also reminded me of what I could do to help.

I am a conflict resolution professional, but it does not take an expert to see we have conflict around gun ownership and usage that needs resolving. If you are looking for policy proposals on gun control, look elsewhere. But if you want to be part of the resolution to these conflicts, consider this: compromise may be less important than consensus.

What's the difference? Think of the contexts in which we use the word "compromise." "The mission was compromised and had to be abandoned." "Her immune system was compromised making her more susceptible to infection." Usage in these cases connotes weakness, defeat, vulnerability. In the context of resolving a conflict, some scholars argue compromise generally involves loss--the surrender of something important to one party in service of an agreement.

Would a passionate advocate for gun rights or gun control want to give in on any of their core values in the spirit of any agreement? Would a leader of the National Rifle Association or Everytown for Gun Safety want to "lose" on any aspect of their principles in pursuit of a deal? No one wants the perfect to be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes in public policymaking, but no one wants to feel as if he or she has to lose in order to get a win, either--or, as one dictionary puts it, engage in "the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable."

But consensus differs in key ways. It connects to the perhaps overused but highly significant concept of a "win-win" outcome. It holds out hope that with enough understanding of each other's goals and viewpoints, an agreement can emerge that everyone can actively support. Debate does not yield consensus; dialogue and discussion do. We seem incredibly eager to debate--in government, online, and beyond--and far less eager, or even able, to discuss.

Imagine if you found someone whom you knew had a very different perspective on guns than you do. Maybe you've never owned or even fired a gun, and a good friend is a hunter. Maybe you've defended yourself or someone else using a gun, and a good friend or relative thinks you are endangering yourself or others by having one. Sit down with that person, as soon as possible.

Start by listening to understand, not to respond. Start by asking what makes the issue of guns important to the other person--why does it matter, what personal connections might there be. Start by considering what you can learn from the other person's perspective that you did not know or had not fully considered before--why guns do more than just hurt, why gun ownership inspires fear rather than safety.

From that place of curiosity and interest, list the core values you each hold, without judgment; do it individually and then share. Maybe you both care about safety for all, the right to self-defense, the need for gun owners to receive training or licensure. Even if the lists of values stay separate, the act of acknowledging the importance of each other's values matters. If you find common ground at this stage, so much the better; momentum emerges.

Now that you've set the table, you can begin adding the food for thought--ideas to carry out the values. When you go to a dinner party, you are unlikely to reject a dish as it comes out; so, too, should all ideas be welcomed, at this stage. So, if your counterpart says no one should own a gun before the age of 25, keep your concerns about that suggestion to yourself, for now.

When the food comes out--and, chances are, you and your counterpart will have prepared a feast of ideas, given the chance to do so without fear of immediate judgment--you evaluate those ideas based on what matters to each of you individually and both of you collectively. If you have agreed that safety for all matters, does the suggestion to restrict gun ownership based on age achieve that? If you have agreed that a person reserves the right to self-defense, does that suggestion help? Even at this stage, when you are determining what you can and cannot support, you search for what you can support, actively, in consensus, rather than what you must "give up" in compromise. If you feel determined to "defeat" a proposal, be prepared to offer an alternative. If age-based restrictions on gun ownership don't work, what restrictions would? If the presence of an armed guard in a school doesn't make sense to you, what protections would?

It would be easy to dismiss this process as far-fetched, unrealistic, for the moment when pigs fly. Frankly, it is hard to know whether we are capable of this kind of civil discourse--we rarely, if ever, have undertaken it, though participants from both sides of the abortion debate have tried, with some success. I can only state, with some empirical evidence, that our previous tactics have not worked. No matter how tragic or unthinkable prior incidents have been, efforts to defeat the other side have produced few results.

Dare we, as a nation, risk failure in order to achieve lasting success? Our past victories have seldom come out without that risk, and we undoubtedly risk greater bloodshed and broken hearts through a repetition of our past failures.


Larry Schooler established the first public engagement and dispute resolution division for the City of Austin, Texas; he now works as a mediator, facilitator, and public engagement consultant for outside clients through Public Participation Partners and as a senior fellow for the National Civic League and the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. He teaches public policy dispute resolution at Northwestern University and has taught in the dispute resolution program at Southern Methodist University. He has served as president for the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2-USA) and on the leadership council of the Association for Conflict Resolution Environment and Public Policy Section. His work has been featured by several groups, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the International City Managers Association, the National League of Cities, and the National Conference on State Legislatures. Larry also serves as local board chair for Generation Citizen in Central Texas. Larry has also mediated disputes between military personnel and civilian employers for the U.S. Department of Defense and hosted interfaith dialogue for Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). 

Larry holds a master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution and is pursuing a doctorate in the same field, along with a bachelor's degree in history. He is the author of a manual entitled "The 'Public' in Public Policy: Keys to a Successful Community Meeting" and a forthcoming book on the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. In his former career, Larry was an award-winning reporter and anchor for NPR stations and a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and Voice of America.

Larry is married with two young children. In his nonexistent spare time, he plays the piano and trains for marathons.

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