An interpretive summary of Kenneth Cloke’s keynote presentation at the Rocky Mountain Regional Ombuds Day Event 

We are in a time of polarizing political crisis and power struggle. Today’s political conflicts seem to be hostile win/lose situations filled with prejudice and personal attacks. Power is used to dominate others. Conflicts reside inside of us (internal in nature), between us (relational in nature) and systemically (chronic in nature). The conflicts being faced today are complex, multifaceted and multi-leveled.

Politics have not always been viewed in such a negative light. Ken Cloke cites Aristotle’s summarized philosophy that one of the classical purposes of politics should be a “search for the highest common good”. 

So if the purpose of politics is for the highest common good, why do today’s politics seem so far apart from this classical purpose of politics? How have politics become so estranged from its original aims and so adversarial in nature? While the inclusion and exclusion of certain groups of people will predictively create chronic conflicts, Cloke surmises, this is not the only factor. It may be that we are also at a point in time where people may not have the skills (communication skills to dialog, emotional intelligence and other higher-order soft skills) to know how to handle contradictory desires. People do not take the time to understand that sometimes solutions have a duality where both people’s vantage points can be considered right under different circumstances for different people for different reasons.

In chapter one of his book, Politics, Dialogue and the Evolution of Democracy: How to Discuss Race, Abortion, Immigration, Gun Control, Climate Change, Same Sex Marriage And Other Hot Topics, Cloke shares that “Successful political decision-making requires not silence or pointless rage, but dialogue; not apathy or aggression, but collaborative negotiation; not passivity or accommodation, but courageous, constructive, creative contention.  Silence in the face of critical issues signifies not merely the absence of speech, but the loss of learning and integrity, and therefore of self, of values, of citizenship, of democracy, of community, of humanity.” 

What is the intersection between conflict resolution work and politics?

“What we do as mediators, ombuds people and conflict resolvers is very different. We have a position that is without power” (to make decisions), Cloke states, “But of course, it is precisely our powerlessness that gives us power.” To be able to view the wholeness of a political issue and to use the tools of conflict resolution to create dialog which will overcome polarization, are the powers that mediators, ombuds people and conflict resolvers have. This lack of power to make decisions, Cloke describes, as an “omnipartial gift”; to be on everyone’s side at the same time.

Cloke feels that conflict resolvers and mediators are in the unique position to “invite the human being, who is behind the conflict, to come forward; not the adversarial mask that they’ve put on in order to gain something.” This allows adversaries to drop their adversarial behavior and find a connection with others through the conflict resolution process beneath the level of power that they may usually operate from. Mediators, in interest-based mediation strive to seek a point where interests can be voiced, heard and considered in a respectful, caring manner. “Caring about one another also means creating conversations, sets of relationships and systems that do not require someone to suppress who they are and what they want in order to have their problems solved,” explains Cloke. Caring means to see someone as they actually are. Recognizing that diversity is actually a gift. 

So many times people think that finding the middle ground within conflict just means compromise. Cloke challenges participants and mediators alike to look for the “higher middle”. This means, to be vulnerable enough to open up conversations with outcomes we cannot predict. It means to invite people to be present in conversation as themselves. It means giving up the project of domination. It means working “diligently to shift people’s attitudes toward one another by introducing themselves to who that person actually is” by paying attention to the whole human being and not just certain characteristics of that person.

Our profession allows people to deeply talk about what they value. We get to ask people what issues mean to them. The answers we receive in response, Cloke notes, are as “complex as the human being in front of you.” 

What would happen if we were to seek the “higher middle” of conflict resolution with regard to deeper more fundamental political problems?

Cloke hypothesizes that in seeking the “higher middle” of conflict resolution, participants might find that there is more than one single correct solution or answer to each political problem. We might have more complex, nuanced and collaborative negotiations. Some might even go as far as to say that in seeking the “higher middle”, we might return to the original and positive purpose of politics in seeking the highest common good. 

In order to have these negotiations, however, people would need to have communication skills and emotional intelligence enough to engage in dialog. In the process of having all interests brought to the negotiation table, Cloke shares, “you’re going to be confronting conflict not just on a psychological dimension and a relational dimension, you’ll (also) be confronting systems.”

Cloke proposes that those in power should design preventative systems. These systems might look like  designed conversations that would be helpful in turning people toward collaborative problem solving. One benefit of designing such systems, Cloke suggests, is that we would no longer be in the polarizing position of figuring out whose ideas get implemented and whose do not.

Cloke believes that conversations like these would bring people together. They would be preferred mechanisms for resolution because diverse peoples and diverse thoughts would be included. After all, Cloke explains, “That’s how democracy works.”

To read more about the preventative system design Cloke proposes, please read Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Solutions for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts or The Dance of Opposites: Explorations in Mediation, Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Systems.

By Kerry Tay McLean, Ombuds Program Administrator
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office