They say that if we see a pothole on the road in front of us and we focus on it, we will inadvertently steer right toward it. To avoid the pothole, the trick is to broaden our view and focus on where we actually want to go. This kind of deliberate focusing of our attention on the kind of future we want is essential in conflict resolution too, as this negotiation story from U.S. President Jimmy Carter reminds us.
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.
Their path to agreement had many potholes and after 13 days at Camp David, negotiations had completely broken down. It appeared that Begin and Sadat would return home with no treaty.
But then something happened that prompted Begin to return to the negotiating table. President Carter later related the pivotal moment in his memoir:
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.– jimmy carter, Keeping Faith: memoirs of a president
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.
Years later, while mediating a difficult child guardianship matter for the court, it was the memory of Carter’s story that prompted me to ask if anyone had a photo of the little girl. The grandmother fetched one from her wallet and handed it to me. Staring up at me was an angelic child with blond curls and a white lace dress with yellow bow, her chin resting on her hands, and a sweet smile on the most beautiful little face. It was the kind of photo that would melt anyone’s heart.
I set the photo in the middle of the table. “Tell me about her,” I said. Their loving responses to my request, which I wrote about in detail in The Conflict Pivot, completely changed the tenor of the mediation and were the turning point in their path not just to legal agreement, but to family reconciliation.
It’s not about photos, of course. It’s about looking into the eyes of the future. It’s about getting clear about — and keeping our attention on — what really matters and what’s really at stake.