When it comes to politics, is conflict resolution possible?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caitlin Plummer

The federal government has been partially shut down for 21 days. President Trump and Democrats don’t seem to be closer to an agreement over the budget and border wall.

In Los Angeles, the teachers union and LAUSD can’t agree on a new contract -- after nine months of negotiations. Teachers are expected to go on strike Monday.

What is everyone doing wrong? We decided to ask a professional mediator.

“People are focused on how they look and getting what’s important to them. They’re not paying enough attention to the other folks, and what they need to give them in order to get what they want,” explains Lee Jay Berman, president of the American Institute of Mediation. He has worked in conflict resolution for 25 years.

“The other thing is when these public conflicts happen, there's always a lot of external scrutiny. So people are worried about setting a precedent. They're worried about their own personal survival, and their constituency, and their base… The more eyeballs that are on the conflict, the harder it is to get to a resolution.”

The looming teachers strike

This week, Press Play talked about the potential teachers strike with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl.

Beutner said he wants to avoid a strike, but the consequences of one would be on UTLA. And Caputo-Pearl said Beutner has tried to narrow things to just salary, and teachers won’t be bought off.

Berman suggests the two men are focused on other people’s perspectives. “They're just saying their sound bites so that people will think that they are more right than the other side. A conflict like this can't be about who's right and who's wrong. It has to be about how we together are going to resolve it.”

Berman says that one way to try to bridge the divide would be to ask the men to switch positions. If Beutner were part of the teachers union, what would he want? If Caputo-Pearl were running LAUSD, what would he do?

They could also focus on the common ground: Beutner and Caputo-Pearl both told Press Play they wanted to get more resources to students and families. So that should be the focus, says Berman.

But what if there’s fundamental distrust of the other person?

Caputo-Pearl said he believes Beutner’s real motivation is to break up the district because he's in the pocket of charter school advocates. On the other side, there’s suspicion that Alex Caputo-Pearl never wanted Beutner to lead LAUSD in the first place, and is seeing this as an opportunity to force him out.

“[Beutner] said ‘we're up here [in Sacramento] trying to get money for the kids, and if the union was serious about this, they'd be right here alongside of us trying to get that.’ And I would look at Alex and the rest of the negotiating team from the union, and say well let's talk about that,” Berman says.

“I would look at Beutner, and say they're accusing you of wanting to break up the district. Help us understand. Give them a commitment. Show them something… that's going to demonstrate to them that that isn't your agenda.”

Gridlock in DC

When it comes to the stalemate in Washington DC, Berman says the problem is that  Republicans are focusing on one issue -- the border wall as make or break.

To resolve this impasse, Berman says he would talk one-on-one with the president to figure out the underlying issues of his attachment to the wall. “Is this about appearing strong? Is this about delivering on your promises?... I have a hard time believing that an actual steel wall is what this is over. I think it's over how he's perceived, how he delivers, how he performs.”

Then Berman would see if there’s a way to get Democrats to support the president, so he can demonstrate to Americans that he’s a strong leader -- and not make the wall a single pass-or-fail issue.

To Democrats, Berman would ask what is it about the wall that’s such a big deal?

“I know the biggest bargaining chip is what to do with the people who are here now…They do have common interests in protecting our budget, protecting our borders...The question really is how. They're focused on a singular resolution, and that's part of why they keep getting stuck,” he says.

It’s also a matter of respect in all these conflicts. Neither side feels like they're getting proper respect from other side.

“It’s true. And unfortunately it's mirrored all through our society… Everywhere we go, people aren’t feeling as respected as they feel like they should be… The leaders at the federal level and the school district level have to be modeling that… I think we've had a deteriorating respect at the national level with politics,” Berman says. “They have to find a way to step in front of the cameras and say we're trying the best we can, we're facing some difficulty here. But that doesn't get them media coverage. It doesn't ignite their base. It doesn't spur donors. And I think that they have an agenda that may not be the same as yours and mine.”



  • Lee Jay Berman - a commercial mediator and president of the American Institute of Mediation