As both an elected official and a conflict resolution specialist, many of the events of 2020 have deeply saddened me. It seems as if there is greater polarization in our country on the eve of our national election. On the neighborhood level, however, I would argue not a lot has changed. It is one of the reasons why it is an absolute privilege to serve the citizens of my community. No matter the political affiliation of the person next door, the people I see every day in my city still take care of one another. How we feel about politics does not stop us from coming together as neighbors. I try to keep these interactions in mind as I look at the national political landscape.
Regardless of the outcome of the November 3rd election, there will be a sizable portion of our country that will be unhappy with the results. Those feelings are to be expected. How our fellow Americans channel those feelings is of consequence to us all – but of particular significance to those of us who have specialized training in resolving disputes. We need to use our skills as peacemakers and keep both our eyes and ears open. I am hopeful the United States will be able to show the world what a peaceful democracy looks like and we will avoid violence in our communities. As mediators, we can have a hand in making that happen. Many of the skills we may use to bring closure to parties in litigation translate well to help our neighbors in these uncertain times.
- Never stop talking. Every mediator has been in the situation where, after hours of negotiation, an impasse arises. It seems like there is no way around it and the case will not reach the point of resolution. I actually think this is where parties end up reaping the greatest reward – by pushing through those points of discomfort. Most of the time if you are persistent, keeping the conversation going will benefit everyone. It is the same in our communities. As the mayor of my city, I have a duty to keep communicating with everyone. Elected officials should absolutely make sure they are doubling down on those efforts in these times. But even if you do not hold office, writing off your neighbor because they have a particular political sign in their yard is a bad idea. Contrary to popular belief, it does not tell you everything you need to know about a person. In running for office myself, I found that even people who were perceived to be far apart on the political spectrum still shared views with each other far more than they disagreed. Keeping the lines of communication open with the people in your neighborhood, no matter what initial impressions may or may not tell you, can help calm potential unrest.
- Listen to what people are actually saying. As a mediator, I often urge people to place themselves in the shoes of another party. It is hard work and people typically underestimate what it will take to get there. I must do it as well. Most of the time, I have not experienced the totality of what litigants have faced. What I can understand, however, are the emotions behind those situations. I understand what it is like to grieve. I know the sensations fear brings. I can connect with people in those ways, even if I did not face their particular situation. It is much the same when conversing with members of our community. There is so much uncertainty surrounding this year. In the midst of a global pandemic, economic woes, difficult conversations surrounding social justice and a major election, it’s no wonder people feel like the earth is moving under their feet. This year has been hard enough for those of us with steady jobs and good health to feel stable. For those who are facing housing insecurity, illness, or a layoff in their family, it has been difficult in 2020 to even process it all. The levels of frustration and anxiety people are feeling are understandable. The problem arises when people keep these feelings bottled up. Mediators are trained to hear what people are saying – and not saying – through not only words, but body language and other cues. In 1966, while advocating for nonviolent protests amid great social unrest in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Being on the front lines in our communities to let people know they are being heard is a powerful position in this day and time. Mediators, armed with our skills, training and experience, should step up to the plate to embrace this responsibility.
- Gather allies. An overwhelming majority of Americans share the desire to have a safe, peaceful election. But most people may not necessarily know where to start to achieve this goal and might feel powerless to affect change on a larger scale. There is power in numbers. Mediators should use their skills to organize like-minded partners within their communities in civic and religious organizations to promote the community’s larger vision of a democratic process moving forward without violence. Social media is also an effective tool to encourage these goals. Engaging affinity groups online could be yet another way to bring people together.
- If you see something, say something. Studies examining social unrest around the world reflect there is often little time between a precipitating event and violence. It may be as long as several days, or as short as a few hours. In your community, you may be in the position of a trusted advisor and find yourself privy to information about impending conflict. Getting that information to the right people is paramount. In mediations, we have a duty to break confidentiality where there are threats of imminent violence or the mediator believes that the safety of any party or third person is in danger. The same should be in true in our roles in our respective communities.
Mediators have the potential to be instrumental in preventing and interrupting violence in our society this election season. Trained mediators should use their abilities to engage parties who are experiencing stress in these times and allow them to be heard, acknowledged and channel their energy into peaceful action. Finding community partners to help in these efforts is key. While none of us can save the world on our own, we all have talents that can serve to improve outcomes for others. Mediators are especially equipped to thrive in this moment and should rise to the challenge.