Post Script: Obama's Garden Beer Party Produces Promise for Further Dialogue (Web)

By producing promises to continue talking, yesterday's White House Rose Garden picnic table conversation satisfied basic standards for a successful negotiation.

Last night, President Barack Obama, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. Joseph Crowley, and late invitee Vice President Joseph Biden sat down for a beer to discuss the events of July 16, when Crowley, investigating a break-in, clashed with the professor at Gates’s home—a confrontation that had Gates led out of his house in handcuffs, and the nation arguing over stereotypes, prejudice and racial profiling.

The post-meeting official statement and news reports reflect some of the conflict resolution principles and techniques discussed here yesterday, including 

  • Listening.  President Obama emphasized the need for Gates and Crowley to listen to each other:  “Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them.”
  • Empathy.  The president’s official statement pointed out that the meeting focuses on the parties' commonalities.  "I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart," the president stated. "I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode."
  • Respect. Sgt. Crowley told reporters he and Gates shared a "cordial and productive discussion." Moreover, an official White House photograph documents that the men were conciliatory even before they sat down, with Crowley assisting Gates down the Rose Garden steps. These images demonstrate the attitude change exhibited by both men.
  • Atmosphere.  A private, comfortable and quiet table, away from the media microphones, facilitated a major shift in the tone and trajectory of the discussion of the incident.  
  • Finding common goals, moving forward together.  From each of the two men’s post-sitdown comments and statements, there appears to have been a shift in objective.  Gates and Crowley voiced shared hopes in moving past the incident, continuing the discussion in other forums, and reframing it as a learning opportunity.  Gates explained that, "[a]t this point, I am hopeful that we can all move on, and that this experience will prove an occasion for education, not recrimination. I know that Sgt. Crowley shares this goal.”   The coverage noted that the two men plan to meet again, and would speak, perhaps as soon as this weekend, to map out further discussion. 

As noted yesterday, there are obvious differences between this event and commercial ADR proceedings.  But the underlying principles resonate for conflict resolution practitioners from community centers to boardrooms. Last night’s White House meeting directly paralleled the points outlined above, including some fundamentals that are routinely overlooked: listening skills, empathy, and respect. 

P.S. The president stuck with his plan to drink Bud Light.  But according to press reports, Gates moved from his initial choice of a Red Stripe import and instead had a Sam Adams Light. Crowley chose a Blue Moon Brewery beer.   The vice president had a nonalcoholic Buckler Beer.

--By Lucy McKinstry, CPR Intern