Congressional Civility Retreats

Mark Gerzon

Private facilitator, Mediator, Trainer, Author and key organizer of the Congressional Civility Retreats

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: How did you structure the process of the retreat?

A: The first thing I did, unlike the other people they interviewed to do this, was I went and listened to them. I said "Why do you need somebody?". Everybody else came in and made their pitch and I didn't. I came in and said, "You have a very talented staff, a very talented group of people, why do you need to hire anybody from the outside?"

Q: Even though you had an opinion

A: I had my opinion but I said, "Could each of you", there were about eight Congress people sitting at the table, "Take thirty seconds and just say why you're looking for somebody from the outside?" They each spoke for thirty seconds. Then I made my whole pitch based on what they just said. They said it far more eloquently than I. Like one of them, an old Democrat from Texas said, " Well, hell, we're in this fix because we don't know how to fix it, if there were somebody here who knew how to fix it, we wouldn't in the fix for the first place, so we need to go outside otherwise we're just going to repeat what we've just done". He said it with just a really kind of country drawl, just said it.

and then it was very easy for me to say, "Well my approach would be not to build it around an outside facilitation team, but to train a group of you to do the retreat, to work together, to run the retreat yourself. So that when we're all done, you will have been trained and you won't be going back and saying "Well, the facilitators were great or facilitators were lousy", because you will have been the facilitators and you will develop a capacity in the House that will stay in the house floor, there even when we leave."

I was very conscious that I was being hired on the outside for a period of time and my job ended. But their jobs continued, their staff's jobs continued. And they liked that approach.

They also liked the approach that was going to focus on their relationships, not more policy. A lot of people came in with more of a policy seminar. They had had policy seminars until they were absolutely blue in the face. What they needed was some basic experience about how to talk about the things that upset them and made them angry, just like a marriage or a family needs that, the House needed that.

Q: These are people who are used to conflict, they're yelling at each other all day but they're also collaborating. They have these closed-door meetings and they talk. It's a little strange to think that they didn't know anything about relationships, when their whole careers are based on relationships.

A: Well, they know a lot about relationships, but the system they were apart of had undermined relationships to the point that they didn't know how to repair them. So I shouldn't say that they didn't know anything about relationships. I mean, you can't get elected to the house, if you don't know something about relationships. But you got to remember, for their whole life, their whole career, was spent in either a Democrat or a Republican tract, and the whole relationship was about us, building relationships among us or against them. And you spend your whole life that way and your whole campaign that way, and suddenly you're in a place where you say, ok we're all going to work together here in the house.

They even got to the point in America where opposing Congress people would actually come to your district and campaign against you. So, if you got elected, you might actually be working side by side with a man or woman who had come to your district, telling lies about you and trying to get you to lose. And now, one day after you're elected, you're supposed to work like buddies or not buddies, but colleagues. Like, my colleague from New Hampshire and my distinguished colleague from Missouri. And you know what happened was people say today is that the campaign ethos used to stop at the door of the house. Now it's just a continuous campaign, so the campaign ethics pervaded the house floor, and they never got to the point to where they were colleagues. They were just current enemies and former enemies. And so that has a corrosive effect on relationships.

Q: So what happened in the retreat?

A: We designed a process. I had a facilitation team of ten people from the field, for both retreats. There were different teams, but it was me and ten other people. And the ten people were there support what we called the co-leaders, which were the Democratic and Republican co-leaders. So in each room, there was a Democratic and Republican co-leader and then a facilitator helping them in any way they needed to be. To use Bill Ury's terms, almost like a third side for the Democrats and the Republicans. There's a facilitator to be the third side in case the two of them, you know, went crazy. I'd say the most exciting part of it was the small group process.

That's where they actually sat in circles and would answer questions

like, "How does the quality of discourse of the House floor affect you personally?" Sitting in a circle with Democrats and Republicans and their spouses, talking about how it affects you. So you're sitting in a circle and the woman next to you is the wife of a member of the other party says "I couldn't stand watching my kids watch TV and hearing lies about their daddy" You're sitting there, and you realize, yeah, that happens to your people too. And so they discovered their shared pain about the process. They witnessed each other's pain and they developed through that experience the desire to do something about what wasn't working.

And I remember one moment, when one person said, at the end of the session, and I forgot who it was, a Democrat or a Republican, and that's the first time that's ever happened. So they really became human beings and that's exactly the process that happens in other settings. Whether it's Israeli and Palestinian, or black and white, or pro-life and pro-choice, that after a while, the clich‚, the powerful clich‚ disappears and you see the person behind the stereotype. And so that's a general answer to what happens, specifically in terms of output, they develop concrete proposals that they promise to work on after the retreat.

And this gets to the disappointing part, which is that the Monday after the retreat, my job stopped. All the other jobs of any other person related to the retreats stopped and they, members of Congress went back to Capitol Hill and they were back to being Democrats and Republicans. So there was no infrastructure to continue the process.

That was the big weakness of the design, and they repeated that twice. Even though the second time I said "You've got to build it in, you've got to build it into your on-going work." But there was no funding for it, no staff for it, so what happened is that the impact, the powerful impact of the retreat itself, after a period of months was less. There was no way of, despite some attempts to create like a bi-partisan room, there was no money for it, no power for it.


Anyway, talk a little bit more about how you design a infrastructure for the re-entry problem. How do you move from individual transformation to either institutional transformation in the case of the house or social transformation as in the case of race relation dialogues or deeply divided society dialogues? You said you came back a second time and said, "let's design something", talk to me about it.


A: Well, in my work, I often witness individual transformation of people's consciousness. But they're apart of an institution that hasn't transformed, so then there is tension between the institution and the individual about what's going to happen. There is the question of whether the individual is going to transform the institution they're apart of or is the institution going to basically eliminate the transformed individual? So there's tension, but a creative tension.

So to me the challenge, if you work from the point of view of individual transformation, is to get enough individuals who are transformed enough that they can have leverage on the institution. In the House, I think the forces that are there that keep the House operating the same way, the partisan forces, were much stronger than the individual transformation. So a number of people have had a powerful individual experience left, and a number of others found ways in their committees to implement it in a small way. Others found ways to implement it in friendships with members of the other party and that had a much more subtle effect.

So I would say the big challenge, is if you don't have the power, than you can't come and change the institution through power. When you do change it, it's through the changing of individual leaders, which had been my approach. That's the big question, how do you get that individual change to lock into the institution in a way that then changes the institution. I think Congress is an example of how that didn't happen, and that's not to say that many Congress people can't tell you wonderfully powerful stories about how it affected this committee or that legislation. Or how something would've been much worse if it hadn't been for this event.

I don't want to say that there were no positive effects. There were a lot of positive effects, but they were informal positive effects

, not institutional effects. I don't see any major institutional changes in the House of Representatives because of those retreats. I think that's a realistic assessment and a natural one because there was never a strategy for institutional change, it was always about improving relationships between the members and that has to be done on an on-going basis. You can't work at the relationships in 97 and then in 99 and expect them to affect 2001 or 2003. It's got to be on-going work, as in a marriage or any other relationship.

Q: Were there any surprises during that process for you?

A: A lot of surprises, that's why I'm pausing, really one continuous surprise after another. I guessone of the things I would say that I was impressed with was the fear of emotion.I was impressed by and I was surprised by the of emotional unintelligence. I'd read about emotional intelligence, I was aware of the concept, but I had no idea of how powerful it would be. How people who were so brilliant in terms of their minds and their political strategies could be, yet so emotionally unaware, that was one surprise.

The other surprise was that

I had never personally witnessed the way in which a system, which is malfunctioning, can work into your behavior and that really fine people could behave in ways that were toxic. That was a very important experience for me because it helped me understand how very decent people could be part of a Nazi 3rd Reich, or how very decent people could be apart of a program against the Jews or how very decent people could witness the annihilation of the American Indians or very decent people could be apart of the lynching of blacks. If not actual instigators of it, they could certainly be witnesses to it and party to it and tolerate it and accept it and that they were not evil people. They were apart of systems that were evil. That was a very important learning experience for me.

Q: Wow, so you really saw behavior dictated by the system in which they operated in?

A: If every person who's born, was labeled A or B and the As could put the Bs out of work and the As could distort and malign the Bs and the Bs could lie about them publicly on television. Basically, to overstate it, if the As could destroy the Bs or the Bs could destroy the As, that's a system, that's going to powerfully affect the way that As and Bs think, the way they populate and raise their children, go to school, go to church, synagogue. That's going to affect everything in their lives because an "us and them" has been created that is going to change forever how we see the whole. It is going to change how they see the world, for better or for worse.

You go into the House, there's a Democratic cloakroom and a Republican cloakroom. There's a Democratic side and a Republican side and a Democratic funding structure and a Republican funding structure. I actually had images of the segregation of the south, where it said "White Entrance" and "Black Entrance" except here it was a Democratic entrance and Republican entrance. You start your political life, and what are you, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Basically, you've got to label yourself. You've got to stick with a Democrat or a Republican on the floor. So we're having this interview on the table about the Iraq war, and Democratic and Republican didn't matter so much because Democrat and Republican was trumped by another "us and them", by another A and B, it was trumped by American and Iraqi. And so, suddenly, all these differences, and there were all these guys walking in lockstep.


A: I was startled by the fact that this quality of relationship was at the heart of one of the most powerful institutions of the most powerful country in the world. It shocked me that when the stakes were so high, that the quality of the relationship could be so low.

I had this notion that when the stakes got high, the relationships got better because the stakes were so high, but I found out that wasn't true. Major, major, multi-billion dollar things and major issues were often shaped by personal animosities and failure to communicate and hostility and revenge from what people had done previous times. An enormous amount of what I witnessed there was about revenge about what they had done the previous time. So you would ask Republicans why they would trash the majority, they would say, "Well when they were in the majority, they did that to us and now we're going to do that to them. Of course, they want to change it now, they want to be civil now, they're in the minority". But it was revenge, "Well, when they ran the House system, they would shortchange us with seats so.."

Q: Hold up nominations in committee?

A: Yeah, so now we're going to do the same thing, it's our turn. And sure, nobody's getting physically hurt, physically annihilate or any of that, but it's the same basic emotional structure that happens in the Holocaust and the genocides. It's now the Tutus chance to get the Hutus, it's the Serbs' chance to get the Bosnians. And then if the tide shifts, its now our turn to get them and the whole system is structured that way. I noticed that everybody's either majority or minority, they don't know how to have partnerships, that's one of the major things I built into the retreat. So that a room was being managed by a Democrat and a Republican working as a pair and the success of the room depended upon the success of the partnership. It's a very different model from, "I'm the majority and you're the minority. I'm the majority chair of this committee and you're the minority". That's a top-down hierarchial relationship, there's no such thing as a relationship as equals there.

Q: If I came to you and I said, "Mark, I'm going to do another retreat for folks up on the Hill, what advice would you give me?

A: Don't take the job, unless the retreat is seen as an ongoing process. If the retreat is seen as a one time magic tonic, don't take it, because we've tried that already and the next step is to make it apart of an ongoing process.

Q: Anything else?

A: Well, you could say if I took the job, what advice would you give me?

Q: Yeah, let's go there

A: Well,

learn about the symbols and structures that give things power in Capitol Hill and make sure the retreat process, this third side process, this conflict resolution process, has those symbols and those structures and those resources. If you don't have the symbols and the structures and the resources, you'll be overpowered by the people who do. So if they have staff and committee and they have money, and rooms, but you don't have staff or committee or money or rooms you can have an idea about who's time has come, but you're idea has no place to hang its hat, so make sure you have the tangible resources you need.