David Fairman is a Senior Mediator at the Consensus Building Institute and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He’s also a Lexington resident and a panelist in our upcoming Community Conversation, “Why can’t we talk to each other? A conversation on civil discourse, extremism, polarization, bias and our town,” co-hosted with Lyceum Advocates and the Lexington Human Rights Committee on October 24 at the Lexington Community Center.

We spoke to Fairman about his work on negotiation and consensus building, ways to think about crucial current issues like climate mitigation and the devastating crisis between Israelis and Palestinians, and how we might apply some of his mediation strategies in our own lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Tell us a little about your work. What are some of the most divisive – or just most interesting – issues you’ve tackled? 

A: Our work involves helping stakeholders on public issues work together to address the differences and conflicts in their interests — and sometimes also their values and worldviews — often with a public agency at the center that has a mandate to make a decision, whether it’s where to set up a wind turbine, how to develop affordable housing, or how to provide economic assistance in a country. 

We’ve worked on some very interesting and very challenging problems, and we’ve seen that it is possible for people to come together across very substantial differences — and deep ones — when there is a willingness to explore the possibility of doing better through collaboration than through fighting or unilateral action. We don’t always succeed, but we often achieve incremental gains: better understanding of the issues and the options — and also, very significantly, helping people recognize that even though they disagree strongly on the particular issues, they are also human beings. When we find out we’re both football fans or we both love Italian food, those humanizing moments of relationship building are very, very powerful for people. You don’t easily forget the conversation where you just discovered something that gave you a completely different perspective on that person across the table who you had previously just labeled based on their ideology or their organization. 

We’ve worked on some pretty contentious stuff — locally, disputes over wind turbine siting on the Cape and in the Gulf of Maine, where we’re working with lobster fisherman who are extremely concerned about the impacts on their livelihoods, as well as state and federal regulators and private development interests. 

Internationally, I want to acknowledge the sad events, the terrible events, of the last week. We have worked in the Middle East, particularly with Israelis and Palestinians, a long time ago, just before the second intifada, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We were working with Israeli and Palestinian teachers, on a curriculum for understanding and dealing with intergroup conflict. The work was very successful until the intifada made it unsafe for a number of the teachers to continue that work and for their schools to be seen as endorsing peaceful coexistence.

More recently, we worked on the issue of US relations with the global Muslim community. That was a high-level panel project that we convened that included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Dennis Ross, who had been our leading envoy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; leaders in the Muslim American community; the Southern Baptists, who have a strong Christian affinity to the region. It was a very diverse group ideologically and in life experience. We were able to produce a 100-page consensus report which was very influential with the Obama administration in its first couple of years, before things got really, really difficult again in the region.

Q: I hear in what you are saying that some of the best work happens in moments of relative calm. What can you do in moments of escalation, like we’re seeing today between Israel and Gaza? 

A: One thing to just acknowledge is the level of challenge that comes in the context of violent conflict, where groups of people have killed each other and the representatives around the table may themselves have experienced personal trauma — and even if they haven’t, they are embedded in their people’s trauma. In those contexts, the impulse to demonize is very understandable, and in some sense people aren’t wrong to fear the worst about their opponents. 

The process that you need to use in a situation like that is one that, first, allows people to reflect on what they actually believe about their own group and the other group, and do that internally, within their own group, to have some dialog about their fears and their hopes, and then to figure out whether there could be some party on the other side with whom you could have a dialog, someone whose good faith you could trust enough to sit at the table in an exploratory mode. You almost always have to have a third party to facilitate communication back and forth in situations like this. 

As for the current situation in Israel and Gaza, my hopes are not high. It’s not obvious in this situation who could mediate, and it is not obvious that there are incentives on either side for anything other than escalation. Whether there is some way to limit that escalation in order to create the conditions for some dialog about de-escalation before hundreds or thousands more people are killed is an interesting and important question, and I’m sure that there are a number of a number of international parties engaging with the Israeli leadership right now about that. But I am sorry to say I think we’re going to see it get worse before it gets better.

Q: It’s hard to switch gears from that conversation. But I want to ask — what are some of the tools you use on a regular basis, for circumstances that are slightly less intractable? Perhaps you could walk us through an example. 

A: Recently we’ve been working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on creating a better system to support people who are reentering that community, coming back from prison and jail. There are about 20 different service agencies, governmental and nonprofit, that try to help in different ways — with housing, substance abuse treatment, job training, referrals for physical health and provision of social services, etc. The challenge has been that they are competing for a very limited pool of funds in a really resource-constrained and difficult environment with one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, a pretty high recidivism rate, and infighting about resources and roles for many years. 

So, in a situation like that, what we try to do is first interview the parties separately — what we call a stakeholder assessment — to understand how they view the situation that they’re in, the history behind it, and what their aspirations are for doing things better.

What we’re trying to see is whether there’s a common goal that is attractive enough to the parties that they would say, “Yes, I’m willing to try sitting around the table again.” We use the results of that assessment to give the parties back a report, sometimes in writing, sometimes face to face, saying what we heard from them, and then offering our ideas about a set of shared goals and a process that could help them move forward.

So in this case, could we have a system in which there’s a neutral party that’s an honest broker for referring people who are coming back from prison and jail to the different agencies so that they’re not fighting over who gets the referral? And could we have a system backing that in which the agencies involved are all sharing information to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks? You put something like that out as a “what-if” and then talk about the steps that they could take together. In this case, they actually did reach agreement on a pilot of a referral navigator role. 

Q: How can people who are reading this apply some of these strategies in their own lives, whether in work conflicts, or community organizing, or even dinner table conversations? 

A: With humility and as a parent, I have never had more challenging negotiations than with my children and with my lovely wife who says, when I try to be constructive with her in disagreement, “Don’t mediate me.” And when I’m the one that’s being argumentative, she says, “So, obviously you can’t practice what you preach.”

So I want to be humble in suggesting anything for others. But I would just say maybe two or three things that I think are true. One is that there is no greater skill in dealing with difference and disagreement than listening, really listening, without having your internal monologue just coming up with arguments to rebut, without hearing. You can always hear your mental motor going, when you’re in a disagreement with someone, and the challenge — the art — is to put it aside and to listen for understanding, so that you can actually say that to the person, “Let me see if I got this right. You think x because y, and it’s important to you because z. Did I hear that right? And please, please help me if I didn’t.” So, giving that person the opportunity both to recognize, “Oh, that person across the table is actually listening and trying to understand.” And then also to invite the other person to try to do the same, to really listen to you. That’s number one, and it unlocks many other things. 

The second really important thing is to be able to exercise what Dan Goleman calls emotional intelligence — to know what you’re feeling, and to be able to manage what you’re feeling, and then to be able to know what they are feeling or at least intuit it, and be able to respond to that as well. Emotional drivers often overwhelm our thoughtfulness and leave us in a situation where we just said something we wish we hadn’t because the emotions were so strong. 

The last thing I would say is that, more broadly and in a civic sense, and in our polity right now, we need those listening and emotional intelligence skills for public issues. We need to be able to listen to each other respectfully in public settings. I do not believe that civility is the only answer, I think it’s necessary but not sufficient. We have to be able to be able to sit in a room with people whose values we absolutely don’t share and work through what we can do together to deal with the issues at hand, whether it is the school curriculum, the question of affordable housing — you name it, all of the issues that divide our communities. If we can do that, we come out much stronger as communities and as democracy. 

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  1. Please share more details, such as the timing and registration, for the upcoming Community Conversations program on October 24 at the Lexington Community Center.

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