The one in which Katie goes ga-ga over President Obama (again)

If you haven’t read the full text of the speech President Obama gave at Notre Dame this past weekend, do yourself a favor and go check it out.  It is not only a beautiful speech, thoughtful, compassionate, humble and humorous, it underscores for me, yet again, what an accomplished negotiator we have hanging out in the White House these days.

Negotiation is problem solving.  It doesn’t matter what widget you’re arguing over, the basic skills you need and the tools you use to resolve the problem are pretty much the same.  The things I appreciate so much about how President Obama approaches problems is that he uses clear language, pretty consistently separates the people who oppose him from the problem being addressed and he builds relationships.

For instance, through out the speech he references the class valedictorian:

(When interrupted by protesters)  We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennan’s adage that we don’t do things easily. We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.

(When calling on the class to tackle our nation’s problems thoughtfully.) So many of you at Notre Dame — by the last count, upwards of 80 percent — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. Brennan is just one example of what your class has accomplished. That’s incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.

Those references might seem silly or inconsequential, but they’re  not.   They do a very important, subtle thing.  They communicate: You are important; I am paying attention to you.

And did you notice that he didn’t attack when the protesters interrupted?  Instead, he told the audience, protesters and others alike, that everyone was on the same team (“we’re fine,” “we’re following,” and “we’re not going to shy away”).  And when you’re solving problems everyone is on the same team.  Because if they’re not, your problem isn’t going to be solved.

Good negotiators do these things naturally.  The rest of us have to practice and practice and practice and practice.  And practice.  And in the time between practicing, it’s important that we find good role models and pay attention to what they do and how they do it.  President Obama is one of mine.  He shared the story of one of Notre Dame’s at the end of his speech:

After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin _ where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.

And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

I like this story for a couple of reasons.  The audience, and Christians listening to or reading the speech, got a gem with the fisherman reference.  (“I will make you fishers of men.”)  That little gem said to all of them, without putting folks who aren’t Christians off, “I’m like you; we share something.  I believe something you believe.”  People like to work with people that are like them.

The other reason I like it, and the primary reason I like it, is that it is a fantastic example of how to break through an impasse.  We have a lot more in common than we don’t.  It can be hard to remember that when involved in a contentious conversation or negotiation.  But when we remember that the folks sitting across from us are people, we tend to find a lot more options for solving problems.

Categories: Negotiation Strategy


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2 responses to “The one in which Katie goes ga-ga over President Obama (again)”

  1. Brendan says:

    This is a fantastic entry.

  2. Bernadette says:

    Most definitely, Katie–thank you for the inspiration.

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