A divorce mediators perspective on healing political polarization in the United States

For many of us in the United States, last November’s election was a stark reminder that we live in a deeply divided country. News and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become battlegrounds for competing values and ideologies, where friends and strangers alike stake out positions and trade insults. With each passing day, our ability to find common ground and engage in healthy, productive dialogue slips further out of reach. The image of a “United” States seems light years away from our present reality.

As a divorce mediator, I work in a similarly divisive, emotionally charged arena. Couples and families come to me with seemingly irreconcilable differences. The stakes are high: each party has its own interests to consider, and the safety and well-being of their children are on the line.

In many ways, the rifts in America today parallel the broken families I see in my mediation work. People on both the left and right feel anger and distrust toward the other side, and there are bitter disagreements about whose story is the right one. Though either side may achieve short-term victories, the gains are short-lived and do little to transform the underlying disconnection and tug-of-war culture that plagues the political sphere. The stakes are dizzying: generations to come will live with the consequences of our ability—or inability—to come together to build a peaceful, prosperous future.

If we want to fix the problems we face as a nation, we must learn better ways of working together. My experience as a divorce mediator has taught me that there are ways of relating that invite harmony and understanding; others are ineffective and widen the chasm.

A mediation-based approach to dialogue offers a new paradigm for communicating across differences—one that seeks to builds understanding and find solutions that work for everyone:

  • It allows all sides to be heard and to say their truth without judgment. Mediation provides a structure in which each person seeks to express their truth in a safe container without fear of judgment, blame, or retaliation. Too often when we engage in discussions, we aren’t really listening to the other side; we are judging and planning our rebuttal. Mediation offers what I like to call a “resolutionary” approach to conflict, in which there are certain ground rules, including honesty, respectful listening, and an agreement to seek solutions that satisfy the values of all parties.
  • It sees beyond entrenched positions to underlying values. In a conventional political debate, people present arguments and rebuttals for a static position; the person who presents the strongest arguments is the winner, and the other side is the loser. In contrast, a mediated dialogue shifts the goal from win-lose to win-win. It employs probing questions to chip beneath the surface of established positions and reveal the underlying values that motivate them. Parties engaged in mediated dialogue usually are able to find they have something in common, even if the only thing they seem to share is a desire to end the conflict.
  • It encourages out-of-the-box thinking to identify mutually agreeable solutions to problems. Once underlying values have been defined, there are often multiple pathways for satisfying them. For example, a conversation on gun rights might reveal a shared underlying value of community safety and then lead to the discovery that improving community safety can happen in many ways. Mediated dialogue seeks to expand the mutual understanding of involved parties and help them arrive at a new place together.

The Concordance Project was founded to bring a resolutionary approach to difficult political conversations with the goal of working together to solve America’s problems. Instead of getting mired in divisiveness and caricaturing the other side, using this approach can help us as Americans to find common ground and work more productively toward solutions. Together, we can tackle the problems before us and begin to heal as a nation.

Dennis A. Cohen is an attorney and mediator specializing in divorce and family law disputes. He is the founder of the Concordance Project.