President Obama Offers The Takeaway

By Laura Melton Tucker, July 30th, 2009

Arguments are settled everyday, in formal and informal settings, under official and unofficial circumstances. Teachers break up student fights, neighbors step in to solve neighborhood disputes, parents sit their kids down to work out grievances while therapists counsel unhappy couples. Which of these disputes are refereed and which are mediated, and what’s the difference? Perhaps it helps to look at the role of the person in the middle.

A referee is someone to whom a problem is referred, hence the name. He or she has the task of rendering a settlement or a decision. Essentially, a referee is a judge…someone to whom both parties give the final say. The referee is impartial, otherwise the contest is a farce. The problem, of course, is that every referee shows up to the task with a bias – a blind spot, a dulled sense, a prior belief, an expectation, a thought that makes him or her less than neutral. This is human nature.

A transformative mediator, by contrast, has a lighter burden than the referee. He or she may sit in the middle, but the outcome is in the hands of the disputing parties. Transformative mediators have the luxury of claiming multi-partiality, as long as we empower both sides equally to settle their dispute in whatever way they see fit. We can want both sides to do well and to feel satisfied with the outcome. We pay attention to the process that allows the parties to work through their dispute, without having to weigh the merits of the arguments that make up the content of the dispute.

This attention to a mediator or referee’s role is germane tonight as Barack Obama hosts Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley at the White House. Is President Obama a referee or mediator? Cynics might say neither; he’s just doing damage control to deflate the hype over Gatesgate with a “Beer Summit.” Yet the moniker “The Mediator President” was attached to Obama well before this incident. His people skills, verbal and listening skills, ability to think outside of the box, to process complex lines of reasoning on the spot, and to remain calm under pressure, all make him an excellent mediator. Tonight sitting at the table with his friend and the policeman, he is more mediator than referee.

Let Obama’s generous offer to sit in the middle of this conflict be an example to the rest of us to seize opportunities to mediate conflict. Whenever we can encourage friends or colleagues to sit and talk, we create opportunities for better understanding. We don’t have to be judge or referee. Often guiding the process is all the parties involved need to begin the work to understand one another better. Though Obama wouldn’t comment on the confidential conversation that took place between Crowley and Gates tonight at the White House, he offered a takeaway that speaks to why mediation is such a powerful tool in resolving conflict: “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart.”

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