By Robert C. Bordone and Alonzo Emery
We haven’t been able to shake the image: 20 year-old Michael Brandon Hill enters a packed elementary school in Decatur, Georgia armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. He seems determined to make the start of the school year a day of grief, tragedy and death. Amazingly, the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff intervenes by using listening and dialogue to negotiate the terms of peaceful resolution. The incident all captured during a taped 911 phone call.
When President Obama phoned Tuff to applaud her fortitude on that August day, Tuff alluded to the President’s example, saying to him, “I learned from the best.”
The President could actually learn a great deal from Tuff, especially as he decides how to respond to the Syrian crisis. Although the local community context Tuff found herself in and the geopolitical one faced by the President differ in important ways, essential lessons from Tuff’s harrowing experience can inform how we face this conflict and the inevitable conflicts we encounter in the future.
Build affiliation. At first glance, Hill and Tuff shared little in common. Barriers of race, gender, age, and life station divided them, not to mention the gulf separating a heavily armed man from a defenseless school employee. Still Tuff found a way to connect to Hill’s humanity. Instead of shutting Hill out by building a wall around herself, she did the opposite, saying, “Don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years. I am sitting with you and talking with you about it. I’ve got a son that’s multiple disabled.”
In the face of conflict – and especially in the face of a gunman poised to kill – we understandably forget the humanity of our counterpart and what we might share in common. At the height of her terror, Tuff built affiliation with her captor, “My mother was a Hill”, that opened Michael Hill to exploring solutions other than gunfire and mass murder. Although Hill was the proximate cause of the problem that day, Tuff engaged him as a joint problem solver.
Despite the deafening beat of war drums, President Obama might consider how best to listen carefully through the din and use what he learns to build the type of affiliation that can lead to a more peaceful solution. The President can look to ongoing talks with world leaders as opportunities to build affiliation with those who can use their leverage with the ruling Syrian regime. By avoiding ultimatums and fiery rhetoric, the President can learn from Antoinette Tuff by framing his engagement with other leaders as an invitation to bringing a shared problem to an acceptable end.
Build them a step, build them a golden bridge. There is a common saying in China: “For people to descend from the stage, you must provide a step.” The allusion is to the stage of conflict and the provision of an exit for its protagonists. Western experts in conflict resolution offer similar advice, using the evocative image of building a golden bridge for your negotiation counterpart to cross to the same side. Without providing the step, without the bridge, parties become entrenched and conflict escalates.
In Decatur, Antoinette Tuff told Hill with astonishing composure: “We are not going to hate you, baby…it is a good thing you are giving up.” Thus, Hill could step down from the heights of conflict and cross a bridge to something that seemed crucially different than failure.
The people of Syria do not enjoy the luxury of time. If there is to be an alternative to direct military conflict, the global community must act quickly to find a step from which Assad and his supporters can descend and a bridge toward something worth saying ‘yes’ to. As Tuff’s example suggests, this is not an exercise in weakness or a bridge to impunity; rather it is a strategic move to accomplish a limited but critical goal: the end of civilian casualties. In the end, both Hill and Assad must answer for their crimes.
As the U.S. weighs its options in Syria and continues to build strategy to persuade world leaders, President Obama can “learn from the best” in Antoinette Tuff by extracting two valuable lessons from her heroism: Create a sense of affiliation with those influencing the outcome. Build a golden bridge that allows the other to end conflict swiftly. Lessons learned from Tuff might fare as well in Damascus as they did in Decatur.
Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School. Alonzo Emery is a Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School.