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A 'Teachable Moment': Business ADR Lessons from the Obama/Gates/Crowley Sitdown (Web)

It’s an outrage.  Or it’s an understandable mistake.  Or, as President Obama has called it, the professor v. the sergeant is a “teachable moment.”

As the parties prepare to meet later today, what is there to learn for conflict resolution, business or otherwise, from the July 16 incident where Harvard Prof.Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his Cambridge, Mass., home, and the ensuing media crossfire?

While the main point grabbing attention is the issue of race in America, and racial profiling, the encounter between Prof. Gates and Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. Joseph Crowley highlights  several important features common to all disputes. 

These underlying elements are valuable lessons for conflict resolution that can be gleaned from the coverage of the incident.  

Despite the contextual differences, a careful examination of the incident and the media reaction  points to several behavioral lessons that business executives can translate into their practice of commercial ADR.

Not everyone wants reconciliation—one prominent New York Times columnist wants dispute resolution through a Gates court filing.  See "Should Henry Louis Gates Sip or Sue?" here.

But other coverage has been more hopeful about the mediation prospects.

At the very least, the parties will talk over beer at the White House tonight, with the president.  Although President Obama’s involvement increased the controversy and hype surrounding this dispute, the prestige and neutrality he brings to the table will likely help diffuse the prickly situation. 

Regardless of how this ordeal concludes, the tactics employed by the men thus far and the racial issues revealed by the story both provide important lessons for ADR providers and consumers everywhere.

  1. Beware of stereotypes.  Do not pre-judge your opponent.  A knee-jerk reaction based on a first impression can be terribly misleading.  Although the full details are still being contested, it is safe to say at this point that both men jumped to conclusions and pre-judged the other in a way that negatively affected the exchange.  Personal stereotyping occurs in corporate disputes—without the level of fanfare seen here.  It is easy to see how parties may fall into the trap of demonizing an opponent based on assumptions about class, race, gender, or even industry.  For example, workers in a trade dispute may be tempted demonize their employer, or an environmental lobbyist might rely on a negative stereotype in criticizing oil or energy companies.  Although this tactic likely occurs much less in a by-the-numbers corporate setting as opposed to a heated interpersonal interaction, it nevertheless happens.  Premature character judgment occasionally even prevents parties from coming to the mediation table.  
  2. Listen! Exhibit patience and courtesy, and use problem-solving skills.  As Mother always said, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  Had either Gates or Crowley approached the situation differently, it likely would have averted escalation to Gates’ arrest.  Instead, each man appears to have taken a hard-and-fast position, with unfortunate results.  Ego and misconceptions can unnecessarily fuel a dispute.  Actually listening to your opponent can lead to unforeseen benefits.  See "Getting to yes: What would it take for Gates, Crowley to shake hands," Boston Globe, here. 
  3. Get the facts straight.  Much of the hubbub surrounding this incident is the result of partial or inaccurate information.  We will likely never know every fact surrounding the incident, but what were likely overreactions by both Gates and Crowley demonstrate that fidelity to the facts can prevent escalation.  Similarly, the subsequent circus of media speculation to cast blame on one side or the other solidified the importance of this lesson.  See, e.g., Judith Warner, "A Lot Said, and Unsaid, About Race," New York Times, here.
  4. Watch your tongue.  Law enforcement is similar to ADR in that personal interaction is a large part of the job.  In his blog article on the incident, criminologist Christopher Cooper points out that police officers regularly rely on conflict resolution techniques.  “By example,” he noted, “simply refraining from the use of word ‘You’ would often avoid an argument and or the need to arrest anyone—since, human beings, when in crisis, may assume the word to be accusatory.”
  5. Treat all parties involved equally and with respect.  This incident provides an opportunity to consider the element of race in business disputes and ADR.  In what many have termed a "post-racial era," it is easy to forget that real personal differences always exist.  Whether it is race, gender, class, or other elements of identity, many people you will work with may not be exactly like you.  They will perceive exchanges, written and verbal, differently—sometimes radically differently.   Be respectful and mindful of these differences.  Managing your behavior in this manner will go far to prevent exacerbating your business dispute.  
  6. Employ empathy. The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial on the Gates arrest pointed out that “[i]n the heat of the moment, when people don't know anything about each other, it's easy to make assumptions based on personal or cultural experience.   . . .  What seems obvious (one hopes this is more than mere assumption), is that both men felt they deserved to be treated with respect and neither believed he got it.”  This is an important lesson, applicable to all aspect of business and society.
  7. Beer is very important.  In fact, the discussion—or fuss—over what the president, the professor, and the sergeant will be drinking tonight at the White House picnic table represents a crucial piece of business negotiations, mediation, and conflict resolution:  the importance of the setting and the circumstances.  President Obama’s invitation is premised not only on engaging the parties, but on changing the entire atmosphere of the dialogue.  His intervention, the table top he chose, and the beer are all part of the equation in this dispute—and are replicated, with variations, any time adverse parties seek understanding.  Pay attention to these details to help the process move on.  Even a business’s conference room need not be another generic setting for a rehashing of allegations, old factual disputes, and gripes.  

Perhaps the media coverage of this incident was overblown.  Undoubtedly, the debate has been fueled by unresolved racial tensions.  Nevertheless, the high-profile dispute between the Cambridge police sergeant and Harvard professor provides a few nuggets of wisdom on interpersonal relations, setting and context that the dispute resolution field—business and otherwise—should absorb.

More related readings linked below.

--By Lucy McKinstry, CPR Intern

For further reading:

Brown, Robert J. “Picnic Table Summit: Obama, Gates, Crowley To Meet at White House,. Washington Post (July 29, 2009)(Available here).

Cooper, Christopher C. “Gates & Crowly, Patrol Officer’s Tool Box: Mandatory Conflict Resolution Skills for Police Officers.” Blog (July 2009)(Available here).

“Gates vs. Crowley.” Christian Science Monitor (July 23, 2009)(Available here).

“In Gatesgate, Might Mediation be the Answer?” WSJ Law Blog (July 24, 2009)(Available here).

“Varied Opinions on Gates Controversy Light Up the Web.” New York Times (July 24, 2009)(Available here).  

 “Getting to yes: What would it take for Gates, Crowley to shake hands.” Boston Globe (July 24, 2009)(Available here).

“Report: Sgt. Crowley Considering Defamation Lawsuit in Gates Controversy.” Jonathan Turley Blog (July 24, 2009)(Available here).  

Warner, Judith. “A lot Said, and Unsaid, About Race.” New York Times (July 26, 2009)(Available here).