America's Need for State-of-the-Art Conflict Management Education

Americans fancy themselves as leaders in virtually every sector from science to farming to healthcare. We want – even expect - our movies, our smart phones, our automobiles, our medical innovations, our military – you name it – to be cutting-edge and ‘state of the art.’


And, in most sectors, even if Americans are not ‘leading’ the world, we at least can make a decent showing on the world scene as respectable.


With the government shutdown continuing, with little sign of progress, a President slamming his hand on the table in meetings with Congressional leadership, and with no new ideas from either side, I’ve been left scratching my head about a domain in which, it seems, the ‘technology’ that American leaders are using is more akin to that used in the era of Game of Thrones than  in the modern era.  That domain, of course, is negotiation and conflict management.


Negotiation and conflict management, like the fields of agriculture, transportation, medicine, and education, have evolved over the decades. There are hundreds of empirical studies that provide practical and scientifically-grounded advice about how to resolve conflict with creativity and efficiency while building better relationships.


But the way President Trump and Democratic leaders are currently acting, one would assume that they are not privy to the latest research or technology in this domain. Indeed, observing their tactics on the world stage, one would think there are no more effective or elegant ways of hammering out an agreement than digging in, threats, temper tantrums, and blaming the other side.


The technology of ‘negotiation’ hasn’t evolved as quickly as, perhaps, the technology of smart phones, but as someone who spends most of his time teaching and writing about negotiation and dispute resolution, I can assure you, what you are seeing in Washington right now is far from state-of-the-art.


In fact, it is shameful.




Because the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans have a lot more in common when it comes to securing the nation’s borders and creating a decent, fair-minded, and ordered immigration policy than it seems.


Most Americans, both Democrats and Republicans:


·      oppose open borders and see the need for securing our borders to the north and to the south;


·      believe ours is a nation of immigrants and want to develop a reasonable and fair-minded policy for promoting immigration to this country that is sustainable, that preserves the American Dream, and that protects those who may be suffering or under threat because of dire conditions in their own country;

·      want to find a way to integrate those undocumented persons who currently reside in the U.S. while honoring those who have come to the U.S. legally and are currently following the procedures available to them to become citizens under our current laws;


·      do not believe that the government should be shut down as the details around achieving these objectives are worked out.


I’m not naïve enough to think that the broad principles I’ve outlined above suddenly make the challenge of developing a wise national policy on immigration an easy task.  Of course, the devil is in the details: the how of all of this gets done.


But what I do know is that simply demanding that a particular initiative – like a wall, for example – be agreed to before continuing a negotiation is not state-of-the-art. Nor is responding with a giant, “no way” and blaming the other side for the shutdown. This is simply playing the other side’s game.


Nothing about this is ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘skillful’ or something of which to be proud.


Despite all of the innovation we have seen in so many sectors as a nation, how is it that we have reverted to this most puerile and base approach to resolving our differences?


I suppose I could write a book about this, but let me offer this: While we as a nation talk about the importance of math and science education or funding the arts or making sure our youth get proper exercise and top-notch athletic facilities, we have spent virtually no time or energy in education on conflict-handling skills. At best, some middle- and high-schools may offer an extra-curricular activity in mediation. And, for students who attend some graduate-degree programs, there may be an elective on negotiation or conflict resolution or mediation.


Otherwise, it is ‘learn-by-doing.’ I know I suffer from self-serving bias as a conflict resolution educator, but I find this reality stunning and unacceptable. Developing skills of managing conflict and interpersonal differences seems critical for all of us in whatever career we undertake. And there is, in fact, a large inter-disciplinary field of work that informs how human beings can manage conflict and differences more effectively. There are also professionals who teach these skills.  And what we know from research is that people who have training in negotiation and conflict-management actually do better in negotiation – both for themselves AND for the other.


We can and should demand more from our leaders than using a government shut down as a way to “win” a negotiation. Imposing such high costs on the American people is just wrong, and the opposite of leadership.


We should also demand more investment in education in our schools and communities for conflict resolution and negotiation. These skills are not “side thoughts” or “soft skills.” They are as critical as basic math, writing, and arithmetic.


Let’s make negotiation and conflict management education an expectation for all Americans and hopefully in a generation, we can boast that we lead the world as peacemakers, both within our own country and within the world community.