Mediating Shutdown 2013: President Obama's role as victim or bully

In Shutdown 2013 is the President the victim, or the bully?  Bullies don’t negotiate and show little interest in other perspectives. Photo: Associated Press images

WASHINGTON, October 4, 2013 – Some argue that President Obama is right holding to his position not to negotiate with Congress. The President is simply upholding the law in implementing the Affordable Care Act, they say. Might makes right and he is right to take on a position of strength. The role of the “I won’t negotiate” bully.

Others argue that he should not negotiate with Congress because his opposition has not treated him fairly in the past; Obama is the victim. 

Focusing on being right is a common position disputants often take in conflict situations, as perceptions of injustice, righteousness indignation and/or past hurts influences their decision-making in addressing the conflict.

Mediators often ask parties in mediation, ‘What if you are absolutely right?’ 

Most are stunned by the question, because they have spent so much time and energy constructing their argument in support of their position that little attention was paid to envisioning what might happen when they win or the power shifts toward their direction. Will you do unto your opponents what [you perceive] they have done unto you? 

More importantly, if you are absolutely right, what would you like to see happen?


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Unfortunately, being right does not always make for a right outcome or a fair outcome, which generally among cooperative groups means a just outcome. 

Now that President Obama seems to have the upper hand, he seems determined to move forward with the implementation of Obamacare, while ignoring legitimate arguments of those who oppose it and its flaws. What will happen when groups of the population are forced to pay higher premiums for their health care or are unable to continue to see their current doctors because their doctors are not participants in the exchanges?

Few would argue against making quality health care accessible without regard to ability to pay, but why must American citizens suffer financial hardships or risk losing their current access to quality health care for the “common good?” Is there a greater good in Obamacare that transcends the legitimate arguments that opponents raised? 

Bullies don’t negotiate and show little interest in other perspectives.


SEE RELATED: Shutdown 2013: Gifts from the government


What can we learn from this latest teaching moment, the current conflict between the White House and Congress?  

We should not be surprised when high-level officials operate like spoiled children. Negative emotional contagions that are present in conflict situations cloud critical thinking and decision-making. Pick up any newspaper or listen to the news, one can hear countless stories of people behaving badly because they feel disrespected. 

Mediators strive to keep parties talking while managing negative emotions, particularly shame, so they are able to listen to each other and discern the perceptions and concerns of the other party, even when what is being said is difficult to hear.

For President Obama to dig his heels in and refuse to negotiate with Congress sets a poor example for the country. He is also ignoring the concerns of a large segment of the population. He is ignoring, or bullying, those people. 

Research shows that many bullies have personal histories where they themselves have been ignored and have been shamed or bullied. School-aged bullies are counseled and coached to demonstrate empathy for others and to play fairy. Most schools have a zero tolerance culture for bullying.

Perhaps it’s time for each of us to become mediators. If you were asked to take on the role of mediator how would you lead the conversation between the President and John Boehner? How would you examine this dispute?

Before we can assume the role of armchair mediators, we must first put aside our political affiliations as well as our position on Obamacare to be objective in the matter. We need to honestly ask each of the parties “What if you are absolutely right, where do we go from here?”

The President and Congress can model collaborative behavior, which includes listening and negotiation. 

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Millicent Carvalho-Grevious

Dr. Millicent Carvalho-Grevious, is the founder and principal of Pennsylvania Conflict Resolution and Mediation Services, Inc. She has mediated conflicts for over 30 years, providing services in a variety of venues for private and public entities, including the United States Postal Service, the Office of Dispute Resolution of the Department of Education, and the office of Employer Support for the National Guard and Reserve. She was one of 14 conflict resolution experts from 11 nations invited to Chongqing, China in 2009 to participate in a forum titled, “Responding to the Challenges of Financial Crisis and Building Social Harmony.” Previously, she served as Director/Program Chair of Urban Studies and Community at LaSalle University, Associate Professor and Chair of Department of Social Work at Virginia Union University and Associate Professor and Social Work Department Chair at Delaware State University. She earned a Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Social Work and Master of Law and Social Policy degrees at Bryn Mawr College and Master of Education (Counselor Education) at Boston University and Bachelor of Arts at LaSalle University.

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