Advocacy, Neutrality, and the Role of
ADR in “The Age of Trump”
What’s special about the Age of Trump is that our
political leaders (not just the President) no longer feel
an obligation to represent all the people in the district,
state or country that elected them. Now, they only
feel accountable to their “base.” This is a relatively new
occurrence (not just in the United States, but in other
democracies as well). It used to be that after politicians
were elected they felt some obligation to represent the
interests of all the people in their district, state or nation.
As a result, we now have districts or states (or countries!)
where 49.9% of the electorate has no representation. The
unrepresented people feel angry, anxious and defense.
So, right now, many ADR professionals are feeling a huge
strain. The neutrality that is central to our professional role
cuts against the anger, defensiveness and outrage (and the
desire to take sides and take action) that many of us feel in
our personal role as citizens who are not aligned with what
the formal leadership stands for. We need to remember,
though, that ADR professionals operate in ways and with
the intention of evening-out how political power is exercised and how our democracy operates, so that those who
are in various ways disadvantaged by the existing systems
of decision-making and governance, whether in the legislatures, the courts, in their communities, or in negotiating
with large corporations or other powerful interests, can
count on ADR professionals to help them feel treated in
ways that enhance the fairness, efficiency, stability and
wisdom of decisions that affect them.
Neutrality is central to the value we add as ADR professionals. Our neutrality allows us to earn the trust of
all sides in any dispute. It also means we can operate in
the interstices between the parties and, in so doing, carry
messages and provide cover for parties to come together
without appearing to be weak. My contention is that many
ADR professionals are so upset by what is happening in the
Age of Trump that they are ready to risk their neutrality.
While I understand their motives, I am convinced this would
be a disaster for the profession.
If we take our professional responsibilities seriously,
and maintain our neutrality, while everyone else is escalating efforts on their own behalf, and feeling entitled to
act in their lives as if the interests and needs of the “other
side” don’t matter, there ought to be increasing demand
for our services. We should be able to find more work and
help in important ways.
This responsibility, I believe, extends beyond the traditional
notion that we are impartial, or non-partisan, however one
chooses to frame our stance in conflict processes where
we have been hired. Each one of us has an opportunity to
take direct political action in our personal lives. Remember,
though, that the way we act in our personal lives may well
affect how we are perceived in our professional roles and,
thus, our ability to function effectively as professional neu-
trals. We need to think very carefully about how we present
ourselves in public – in an effort to pursue our personal
political goals. The wrong perceptions in the public eye can
vitiate our most valuable contribution as ADR professionals.
It may in fact be easier to facilitate useful and productive conflict in more contentious times. And, the Age of
Trump has certainly generated more contentious times.
We ought to be able to help reconcile conflicts or find
problem-solving strategies in ways that no one else can.
To succeed, though, we must:
• Remind potential clients that our goal is not to
stamp out conflict! Conflict is productive if it is
• Make sure that people understand our job is
not to get anyone to change their beliefs or
change their minds; and
• Create enough value through ingenious
trades that all sides are better off than they
would have been if they hadn’t come to the
I know this puts me at odds with some who see the
job of ADR professionals as primarily facilitating better dialogue or better communication – leading to better
understanding. But, in my mind, dialogue for its own sake
is not our primary concern. We need to focus on more
strategic goals – helping people in conflict find a way forward that better meets their interests than no agreement.
Whether they understand each other, or like each other
more as a result of the interactions we facilitate, is much
less important than the working agreements they reach.
Finally, I must reiterate that we need to be absolutely
diligent about maintaining our neutrality – no matter how
strongly we feel personally – if we want to make a case
for the value we add. I’m convinced that the way we act in
our personal lives may shape how we are perceived in our
professional roles. If you sign a petition, march peacefully,
write op-eds, or lobby for your point of view, there is no
way anyone who disagrees with the positions you have
taken will accept you as a dispute resolution professional
they can trust. I promise you that whatever actions we
take in our personal lives will be noted. Being perceived
as neutrals in the Age of Trump is, in my view, the key to
contributing in important ways to the resolution of conflict
in these contentious times.
About the Author
is Ford Professor
of Urban and
Planning at the
Technology, and the
Founder and Chief
of the Consensus
This article is
adapted from his
talk on “Consensus
Building in the Age
of Trump,” delivered
at the New England
September 9, 2017.
In what ways does the Age of Trump present special challenges for consensus builders
and other ADR professionals?