What Could Congress Learn From Mediation?

by Carolyn George

One of the few things nearly all Americans agree on these days is that Congress is dysfunctional—so bitterly polarized and incapable of constructive debate that the government we rely upon to issue our Social Security checks and subsidize many vital state and local services has gone to the brink of shutting down more than once this year. Given that Congress is comprised of people we elected, what can we tell them about how we would like them to participate more effectively in addressing the profoundly challenging issues that affect us as citizens of this nation?

Asking for a different quality of decision-making process is different than calling or emailing a Congressman to sway his vote on a particular matter. Given Congress’s track record, obviously we can’t look to our elected representatives to set the example for a better decision-making process, but in a democracy, isn’t the example rightly set by the citizens themselves—by us—and passed up the ladder to the individuals we have chosen to represent our broader civic interests?

I was happy on a recent visit to the Adams County Public Library in Gettysburg to discover a 2007 book co-written by an avowed Conservative and an avowed Liberal, Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel, respectively. Perhaps you will recognize their names from their jointly-written column in USA Today. Their book is entitled, “Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America.” Just the fact that two thinkers of such clearly different philosophical persuasions could collaborate on writing a column and a book says more than any of the details I might give in a book report! How do they manage to conduct such positive dialogue, given their openly acknowledged political differences?

Among the “Common Ground Governing Principles” identified by Thomas and Beckel are that the parties to a dispute must agree that a problem exists. They must also agree on the goal that needs to be reached to alleviate the problem. The means of achieving the goal must include elements vital to both parties. Fresh ideas dramatically increase the chances for consensus.

In mediation, the parties to a dispute come to the table because they have already agreed that a problem exists, even if they initially define the problem differently. Their willingness to engage in dialogue presupposes that they value maintaining or restoring a positive relationship with each other and perhaps also with the larger community. Thus, their goal is, in general, to resolve their differences in a way that preserves a positive quality of relationship with each other, as well as with others in their. peer group. The success of mediation often involves creative problem-solving: generating new ideas that neither party may have thought of before engaging in the process. The give-and-take of ideas doesn’t merely change the proportions of the pie to be divvied up; it may also turn leftover pie dough into cinnamon rolls that make the whole better than the sum of its parts!

If you believe we’re all in this together, rather than everybody being on their own, please encourage your Congressional representatives to seek common ground in ways that we would be proud to emulate.

Carolyn George is the Intake Coordinator and Vice President of Mediation Services of Adams County.