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Common Ground

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       The other week, my blog discussed the Thomas-Kilmann MODE Instrument that is used to assess how individuals confront and handle conflict. One of the behavior patterns discussed is the avoider who will  sidestep the issue and simply not deal with it, whatsoever.

       Well. . . our President is definitely not an avoider. At the commencement speech he delivered at Notre Dame University on Saturday, May 16, 2009, he confronted the issue of abortion rights (freedom of choice v. pro-life) head on. As you recall, many protested his presence at Notre Dame because President Obama believes in a women’s right to have an abortion, while Notre Dame, a Catholic university, adheres to the Catholic tradition of pro-life.

       But what struck me is that in confronting this issue, President Obama used his mediation skills. He focused on the larger picture, looking for the common ground, looking for ways to “resolve” the consequences of what he acknowledged to be an irreconcilable conflict. And like any good mediator, he used a story to get his point across:

      “As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.

      What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Fair-minded words.

      After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that — when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

      That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.

      So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do
      Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

      Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. . . .”

Transcript, Obama’s Notre Dame Speech,,0,2951798.story

         President Obama made his point poignantly: we have an irreconcilable conflict that we will never resolve. Conflict will always exist on this issue. But we can look for “common ground”. . . with “open hearts”, “open minds” and using “fair-minded words.” We can look for “solutions” to the problem giving rise to this heated issue: unwanted or unplanned pregnancies.

       With his words, and like a true and excellent mediator, President Obama went “below the line,” looking at the true  underlying needs and interests of those involved in this irreconcilable conflict. Rather than trying to resolve the “abortion” debate, which he courageously and realistically acknowledges can never be accomplished, the President looked “below the line” to the causes of this hot-button issue (i.e. unintended pregnancies) and focused on how to resolve this issue: create better health care and abortion policies that will resolve a woman’s dilemma of an unintended pregnancy.

       What skill, what masterful reframing of the issue, away from the mantras and slogans that can never be resolved and toward the true underlying issues that can be resolved. We can all learn a lesson from President Obama’s effective use of mediation skills. Not only did he actively listen but, he emphasized, reframed the issue and focused the parties on what matters: solving the issues that are solvable.

       What a roadmap for a  mediation. . . . Try it next time. I certainly will!    

       . . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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