The following Q&A featuring Harvard Law School Professor Robert Mnookin ’68 was featured in the July 24, 2009, edition of the Boston Globe.
Cambridge is at the center of a national debate on racial conflict following the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a Cambridge police officer. But the city is also known as a hub for some of the world’s experts on conflict resolution. We asked one of them, professor Robert H. Mnookin, chairman of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, for his thoughts.
Q: In the interest of healing the city, what is the best course toward a resolution between Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James M. Crowley?
Mnookin: What I think would be interesting, and perhaps useful, is if they really sat down as two people, as two human beings. If they were both interested in exploring, what had happened, how did this happen, what impact did it have on each of them; that I think would be perhaps valuable. …What would be interesting on a human level to see is if they would each be willing to try to listen to each other and see the world from the other person’s perspective, without letting go of their own perspective.
Q: Pride seems like an insurmountable obstacle sometimes. On one hand, you have a black man who has withstood taunts from other blacks for working with The Man and achieving success in mainstream society. On the other hand, you’ve got an officer who is sworn to uphold civil society, dealing with, in his mind, someone who is being decidedly uncivil. How do you get both sides to admit they maybe went too far?
Mnookin: What I would ask each is if they would find it valuable to have an opportunity to really explain to the other person their perspective, to really make it clear what their perspective is, and as part of that, would they be willing to take in the perspective of the other.
Q: Do the issues of race or ethnicity complicate negotiations? How does it change things here?
Mnookin: Well, they always do. Everyone brings to any conflict their own background and perspective.
Q: Many people will offer to mediate. State Senator Anthony Gallucio has proposed a sit-down, and who knows, could Larry King or Desmond Tutu step into the mix? What kind of characteristics does a moderator need?
Mnookin: I think the main characteristic is that it would have to be someone that is acceptable to both. I would hope it would be someone who is sensitive and sophisticated, and is credible to both. … I think someone like Larry King would be absurd. This is something that should be best done privately, not publicly. You don’t want this to be a public circus and you don’t want anyone grandstanding.
Q: Deadlines. Do they work? Would this take repeated sessions, be drawn out over weeks, or could it be done over one weekend, one meeting?
Mnookin: If they wanted to have more than one session, that’d be fine, but I wouldn’t anticipate that.
Q: Is there hope for a clean resolution?
Mnookin: I certainly think there is hope that professor Gates and this officer could sit down together and have a constructive conversation where they each came to understand better the perspective of the other — and themselves.