This is a story about the way a photograph saved an international peace negotiation. You can use the same idea in your own difficult conversations.
In 1978, Egypt President Anwar Sadat, and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords, a treaty brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and for which Sadat and Begin later received the Nobel Peace Prize.
A teenager at the time, I still recall the powerful emotion I felt as I watched the signing on television. Many years later, by then doing my own work helping people navigate complex conflicts and negotiations, I read Carter’s Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (affiliate link) because I could still viscerally feel in my heart that moment in 1978.
I’ve never forgotten the following story from Carter’s memoir because it moved me to tears. And it taught me something powerful about the real art of helping people untangle conflict.
The negotiations at Camp David had broken down and it appeared Begin and Sadat would return home with no agreement. On Day 13, Carter relates,
Earlier, my secretary, Susan Clough, had brought me some photographs of Begin, Sadat, and me. They had already been signed by President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin had requested that I autograph them for his grandchildren. Knowing the trouble we were in with the Israelis, Susan suggested that she go and get the actual names of the grandchildren, so that I could personalize each picture. I did this, and walked over to Begin’s cabin with them. He was sitting on the front porch, very distraught and nervous because the talks had finally broken down at the last minute.
I handed him the photographs. He took them and thanked me. Then he happened to look down and saw that his granddaughter’s name was on the top one. He spoke it aloud, and then looked at each photograph individually, repeating the name of the grandchild I had written on it. His lips trembled, and tears welled up in his eyes. He told me a little about each child, and especially about the one who seemed to be his favorite. We were both emotional as we talked quietly for a few minutes about grandchildren and about war.
Both Begin’s and Sadat’s negotiating teams returned to the table.
Years later, it was the memory of Carter’s story that prompted me to place the photo of a sweet little girl in the middle of the table while mediating a difficult child guardianship matter.
It’s not about photos, of course. It’s about staring into the eyes of the future and reminding ourselves what really matters and what’s really on the table for resolution.