More on Gary Friedman’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure in Politics

The Association for Conflict Resolution of Greater New York and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York recently hosted an interesting breakfast roundtable featuring Gary Friedman, discussing his unfortunate tenure as a local elected government official.  You may recall that this was the subject of a series of comments prompted by Art’s post about the Politico article describing Gary’s experience.

Most of the roundtable entailed Gary’s responses to questions by the very engaged audience.  His account illustrated challenges in applying dispute resolution ideas and techniques in political and governmental processes.

I asked him about the rules for the meetings he presided over.  The Politico article (and the book it’s based on) indicated that Gary had pretty much set the rules unilaterally.  I was puzzled because this seemed so at odds with his philosophy of negotiating with parties about the process of mediation.  He said that he actually had initiated several sessions to discuss how they would make decisions but that people didn’t want to discuss the process, feeling that it was a waste of time.  He also suggested debriefing the meeting process at the end of meetings, but people weren’t having any of that either.

This reminded me of some my early mediation experiences using Gary’s ideas.  In my divorce mediations, I would usually spend a half an hour at the first meeting eliciting detailed agreements about the process.  Some clients really appreciated the careful discussion of the process.  Others tolerated it pretty well, though they would have preferred to get right into the substantive issues they cared about.  One client complained about paying me to “sell” him the process.  Similar to Gary’s experiences, this illustrates that people vary about whether and how they want to discuss process issues.

Gary discussed another process challenge that differed from his mediation approach.  He described the open meeting law, which prevented board members from having private conversations.  He suggested that it might have been helpful if they could have had private conversations between board members in addition to the public proceedings.  This would be similar to caucusing mediation.  In mediation, he favors a no-caucus model, though obviously there are differences in decision-making by governmental bodies and by private parties in mediation.

My problems with the Politico article were about the way it was framed.  It was entitled, “‘I Got Obama’d’:  A California Conflict-Resolution Guru Entered Politics Thinking He Could Fix It.  Instead, It Brought a Punishing Counterattack.”  Among other problems, it fits into the familiar narrative of a flawed hero who struggles, fails, but ultimately is redeemed by creating a happy ending.

If this story was a law review article, it could be entitled, “Intense Political Polarization Can Overwhelm Politicians – Even Conflict Resolution Professionals:  A Case Study of Small Town Politics.”  Obviously, this framing and language doesn’t fit the conventions of magazines and books marketed to the general public, which favor stories of good guys and bad guys.  One could use the same facts to frame the story as a functioning community being disrupted by an unprepared expert but being restored to good community relations through the efforts of experienced officials — though presumably that also would be a distorted account.  Instead of fitting the story into a conventional narrative, it would have been nice if the article focused more on the conflict system and was more realistic and balanced.

Here’s a link to the video of the conversation with Gary (as well as videos of other recent conversations).  This was an insightful discussion within our dispute resolution community, which avoided problems of communicating with general audiences, and it covered a wide range of issues.  It’s almost two hours but worth the time.

Take a look.