Decisions. Decisions.

I don’t like starting my days aggravated. I did so Tuesday. Twice. In quick succession. The first was at a misleading headline. The second at the story following it.

The headline read, “Mediator imposes rejected contract”. I’m a mediator, have been for over 20 years. Mediators don’t impose resolutions, arbitrators do. I was aggravated that a headline writer had made such an elemental error. As I read the article, that aggravation morphed into one more substantial. It turns out that the process employed by Muni had called for a neutral to first assist the parties in a negotiation and, failing success in reaching agreement, for that neutral to then impose a resolution, in a hybrid process called Med-Arb. In the case of the Muni labor contract, the management and labor representatives had succeeded in reaching an agreement. The union members then chose to reject that agreement, thus resulting in that neutral imposing upon the workers what they had refused to adopt themselves. And, aggravated, I ask myself, “Why?”

Why do so many of us so regularly decline the opportunity to make our own difficult decisions, rather choosing to allow some “other” to impose a decision upon us. Do we really so distrust our own ability, or is it more likely a continuing act of delusion, an insistence on an option that does not exist and cannot be brought into existence?

My job as a mediator daily allows me to observe the difficulty in making decisions in the midst of conflict; I do not suggest that it’s easy. And frankly, few of us are well suited or experienced to the task. But it is universally true that all parties to disputes have interests to be addressed and, if encouraged to examine and acknowledge the true universe of available options, and apply those interests to those options, most disputants are ultimately able to fashion better and more satisfying resolutions than those that might be imposed from without. It may take lots of patience and hand holding and reassurance and a myriad of other assistances, but the essential truth remains.

My aggravation is not specifically directed at either side to the Muni dispute. It is directed at our inabilities to either make difficult decisions about our deepest problems or to support our representatives in making them for us. And it’s everywhere. It’s in our condos and our neighborhoods, our clubs and our schools. It’s at City Hall and in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

And let’s not exempt ourselves individually from these observations. Who among us is ready to elect a truth teller, and to support him or her in making tough decisions on our behalf? We’d rather vote for people who promise us options that don’t exist, and then indignantly remove them from office for failing to do the impossible. Turns out, we don’t really want them to solve our problems; we just want someone to blame. And so, like delusionals everywhere for whom nothing is good enough, we get exactly that.

And we Americans are hardly alone in this. Witness the Greeks who, facing imminent economic ruin as a consequence of decades of refusal to take hard decisions, none the less would prefer to have hardships imposed than concessions adopted. And so I ask, Muni and Sacramento and all of us, if we are neither willing to make the difficult decisions ourselves, or to support those who would make them on our behalf, then what outcomes do we expect? With due apologies to the Grecians, it’s not all Greek to me.

This article appeared as a guest editorial in the June 6, 2011 San Francisco Chronicle.