Going to the ‘Uncomfortable Place’

By Laura Melton Tucker, May 19th, 2009

The principles of mediation are practiced daily all around us: in classrooms and boardrooms, in homes and on streets. People find themselves in conflict and rather than “turn tail and beat a hasty retreat” or, worse, “slug it out, mano-a-mano” they go to that uncomfortable place and speak the truth to one another. This thought was brought home to me last weekend as I found myself in the middle of a family drama/conflict, and also, as I listened to the words of Barack Obama in his address to Notre Dame’s graduating class of 2009. My own story first.

My beloved great aunt turned 90 this month, and to commemorate the event she self-published her memoir. This was no schlock thrown together manuscript. She labored for 3 years and wrote a powerful story beneath a beautiful, professionally designed cover. No controversy here. The problem arose when she approached my son and his fiancée, in my presence, and, by way of explaining her choice to inscribe the book to my son alone, said to his fiancée, “Darling, I didn’t put your name in the book because you’re not married yet, and you never know how these things will go.” If she’d stopped there it might have been okay. She continued to explain that she inscribed a book to another son AND his wife, because the wife had been in the family so long and they shared a history together. I was certain I saw a flicker of pain across my soon to be daughter-in law’s face, but she recovered quickly and said, “Of course, it’s fine that my name isn’t in the book.”

What to do. The conflict grew in my heart and mind until it had taken on a life of its own. I needed to say something. Three days later over our weekly lunch, I broached the subject. I practiced what I’d say ahead of time. I chose my words carefully so that they wouldn’t polarize. That moment as I started the process – the difficult talk – time seemed to slow down. The noise of the restaurant disappeared. We were in the zone…that place where real connection happens. My aunt was both surprised and appalled that her words had hurt. She teared up and explained her intentions and sought my advice about how to remedy the situation. I left that lunch grateful for our conversation and, surprisingly, for the conflict that had led me to it, for confronting the conflict had connected me to my aunt in a profound way. My reward for talking about something uncomfortable was that I experienced in a new way my aunt’s deep core of kindness. Only days before I had been furious with her!

This last weekend President Obama also demonstrated the power of going to that uncomfortable place to discuss hard things. Delivering the Notre Dame commencement address amidst controversy for his pro-choice stance on abortion, President Obama spoke to his critics in the audience. His words were conciliatory and visionary. He described a defining moment in his Illinois Senate campaign when a doctor wrote to him and said he couldn’t vote for a candidate who used inflammatory words in the abortion debate. On his campaign website Obama had pledged to “fight right wing idealogues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” Obama referenced this story to underscore his mistake in framing his position with polarizing words. The doctor had written: “I do not ask that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Obama changed the wording on his website and vowed to use fair-minded words from that day forward.

If you read President Obama’s speech in its entirety (the link is posted below) you will be struck by his willingness to go to that uncomfortable place to talk about difficult things, “without fudging.” His speech highlights the principles of mediation that common folk put into practice everyday – communicating in order to further understanding, listening in order to consider different viewpoints, finding points of agreement to seek common ground, all for the purpose of finding peaceful ways to settle conflict. Here’s the takeaway: It is not always possible to walk away from a conflict-based conversation feeling (as I did with my aunt) a deeper bond from working through our misunderstandings. But we can leave these conversations better able to understand one another, and when we’re lucky, grateful to have made a real connection, both palpable and profound.

For President Obama’s Notre Dame Commencement Address

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