Let’s set aside the contentious public issues we face for the moment, and discuss how we deal with these. This is an issue in itself in Maine today, as we retreat from historic traditions of sensible deliberation about tough problems with Yankee restraint and a measure of graciousness.

Since returning to New England two decades ago, I’ve spent hundreds of hours training state, local and private nonprofit agencies and individual citizens on better ways to deal with difficult public issues. This has been part of my role as a nonpartisan public servant and public issues mediator, as well as a former educator of future leaders at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

There is no excuse for intentional rancor and subtle psychological violence in addressing tough questions of public policy. Sometimes it may pay off for someone, in strong-arming a vote or instilling fear to act; but it is not a good way to solve complex questions where the interests to be served include all of us, and we are going to have to keep dealing with each other. To do so is to dehumanize some in favor of others.

Any mediator experienced in public issues will tell you that while conflict is often unavoidable and may be necessary, how the conflict is handled is what truly matters. Yet the matter of how to handle conflict is often dismissed, for many reasons, including fear of losing control (when it already has been lost) and failure to treat those other people civilly (as though that will do anything but harden conflict).

Some issues – identity, liberty, civil rights – require often-historic struggle in the courts as well as in Congress; this is why we have these institutions, especially the judiciary, to deal with fundamental rights.

But healthy adults recognize that most issues are matters of balancing interests, not rights. Rights must be honored, not distributed. Casting everything as a struggle over rights cannot be a steady, daily diet without lots of internal damage to community.

Some 15 years ago, I was part of an informal working group on this issue, one that included elected and appointed officials and practitioners of mediation.

With all the tension back then over rapid growth at the local level (growth that some hope may soon return), I proposed that we draft a compact about the need to use consensus-building approaches to knotty conflicts, and ask local and state leaders to pledge to try following it.

Such visible public commitments to collaborative behavior have been beneficial elsewhere. In Oregon, for example, the Oregon Solutions and Oregon Consensus programs based at the city’s respected metropolitan university have been backed by state and local leaders and helped support solving a wide variety of problems, such as fast-tracking onerous state bureaucracy to achieve economic development actions desired by all.

A more modest state-supported innovation has been to commission an independent state ombudsman. Also, a number of city governments around the country – such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Eagle County, Colorado – maintain consensus-building staff services for their issues. Locally, a recent workshop sponsored by the Portland Society for Architecture and Creative Portland showed the hunger for such approaches.

The idea for Maine went nowhere back in the day, however, as my colleagues didn’t believe a shared challenge to aspire to being better would be effective with Maine leaders. Nothing in the last 15 years suggests to me that it was a bad idea then and not worth trying even now.

Some useful things have happened over these years, however. One was that GrowSmart Maine organized a statewide conversation on the 2006 Brookings Institution report “Charting Maine’s Future” – the only such statewide, civil conversation about real substance, not accusations, in a generation.

Where is such conversation now? May we begin? And to support such a climate, may Maine’s Legislature and executive branch consider creating an ombudsman role to help?

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