Sitting At the Table: In Durban, South Africa & Cuba

By Sharon Strand Ellison

This article is not based on partisan politics, but rather, on an analysis of how defensive maneuvers dictate political interactions. It addresses the issue of how ingrained attitudes that play out in politics block our capacity for finding solutions for the complex problems we face at a global level. Beyond that, in a world where reality changes constantly, where, within a century, we've gone from horses and buggies to putting people on the moon, these attitudes incapacitate us to the point that we cannot even envision the possibility of finding solutions to the problems that severely threaten our very existance. This article is about what we need to do to change that, starting with being willing to sit down at the table in new ways.

Durban, South Africa

In 2001, President Bush and the House of Representatives agreed Secretary of State Colin Powell should not attend the U.N. Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, because of Israel being singled out for criticism. According to Bush, “We have made it very clear … we will have no representative there so long as they pick on Israel.”

This was presented as an ethical stand. Rationale for the walk-out by the lower-level U.S. delegation that did attend was that the conference had been “hijacked by Arab nations” proposing “hateful language” toward Israel, dooming the conference.

Rather than an ethical stand, I think that withholding Powell’s participation in favor of a lower-level team, and the team’s eventual walkout, are each a defensive maneuver where one person or group can withdraw from an interaction while blaming the other for their absence — in this case the Arab countries.

Does such withdrawal even achieve the stated goal? Bush referred to Israel as being a “strong ally.” First, everything I know about being an ally means speaking up for a person or group in any ethical way I could. Not showing up when we think someone is going to be verbally assaulted is not my idea of an ethical way to help a “friend.” Leaving my friend to face the onslaught alone would be a betrayal.

In addition, it seems illogical to think Israel would be better helped by a less powerful U.S. delegation. Finally, by leaving, the U.S. created a greater chance that the declaration would pass with language that labels Zionism as inherently racist, singling out only one country for criticism. The final declaration requires consensus. If the U.S. had stayed, we could have set limits: “If any individual country is singled out in the document, we won’t sign it.”

If withdrawal takes support away from Israel instead of providing it, then the question becomes “What is the reason for such a persistent drive to withdraw?

Whenever we use defensive maneuvers, some form of self-protection, manipulation, and/or avoidance of accountability is usually taking place. Some suggest that Bush wanted to avoid discussion of apologies and reparations for U.S. slavery, as well as other issues for which the U.S. has come under international criticism.

In this type of defensive maneuver, blame is also part of the process. The U.S. approach consistently focused on blaming Arab countries for our intent to withdraw, even using inflammatory terrorist labels such as “hijacking” when Palestinians are also desperate for help. In addition to not being at the table to give support to help prevent Israel from being singled out as a racist country, I believe that blaming Arab countries fanned the flames, which if anything, could only further polarize Israel and Palestine.

Representatives came to this conference from countries all over the world — people who have courage, skill, and dedication to healing wounds that tear apart the fabric of our humanity. Beyond not being present for Israel, our leaders also turned their official backs on this international community, refusing to be in the dialogue, to stay at the table. Had we been willing to sit at the table in Durham — even if no resolution had come out of the conference — it could have been the beginning of an essential conversation about how racism is pandemic and affects every person on earth.


This issue of not sitting down at the table is more pervasive than one or two isolated incidents. During the 2008 presidental election, when then-candidate Barack Obama said he would be willing to sit down with the Cubans, Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) as well as Republicans criticized him. He was called "naive" and it was suggested that he would be manipulated by the Cubans if he was willing to talk with them before they made some concessions. While the circumstances in this case were very different from those of the U.N. Racism Conference in Durban, South Aftrica, the premise is dangerously, I believe, similar.

The suggestion in both cases is that sitting down and having a conversation with people or nations you are in conflict with is not a good idea. This idea that we will lose power by sitting at the table with people or even nations we are in conflict with is, I believe, deeply rooted in the war model for communication and is worse than ineffective at resolving conflict. Conversely, it exacerbates it.

Looking at the Cuban table, if Obama were to refuse to sit down before Cuba made concessions, the only result I see is that it would make Cuban leaders more defensive. Would the U.S. sit down at the table with someone who demanded that we make the first concessions before any conversation? I can't even fathom it.

Current research makes it clear that as soon as anyone gets defensive — mother, father, child, friend, political leader — the physiology of the body goes instantly into a "fight or flight" adrenilin rush and all capacity for complex problem-solving is lost. The only way that refusing to sit down at the table until someone else makes concessions could ever hope to work is if we are trying to scare them into doing what we want. Out bullly them.

The problem is that the "opponents" are more likely to dig in their heels and join the power struggle than to just say, "OK … I concede."

The underlying premise here is that if Obama, or any other leader, had been willing to sit down with the Cubans for a conversation, he or she would be showing weakness and would be fair game for being manipulated. I find this assumption to be false — and appalling.

Do we not trust that intelligent politicians can have a conversation with clarity and integrity without either bullying or being bullied?

I think this pervasive attitude demonstrates how far we have to go in the realm of understanding effective conflict resolution, person to person, much less nation to nation. Why are intelligent politicians, not to mention most of the rest of us, stuck in such attitudes? I think it is because we still base our understanding of conflict resolution on the rules of war. But it doesn't work to use the rules and the tools for one activity, combat, for a completely different activity, conversation. We would never use a bowling ball to play golf or basketball. Neither the rules nor the tools would work.

While it might seem impossible that humanity can evolve past the "need" for war, we won't ever have a chance if we don't learn more about the power of non-defensive conversation as a tool for resovling conflict. There are examples and models for powerful resolution between groups with apparently irresolvable conflict, but we won't utilize them and build on them until we recognize the need for communicating without defensiveness, until we understand the power that non-defensvie communciation can have. We now have the benefit of much more research that can guide us in making the kind of advances in communication that we have made in technology. Communication, I believe, is our greatest untapped "new frontier." And one that is essential to our survival.

I think a starting place is learning how to talk to each other in the midst of great conflict and pain without accelerating power struggle. Such dialogue is far, far from easy; it is a long, long-term process. My hope for us, as Americans, as human beings, is that we will call upon ourselves and our politicians to respond with a more evolved and mature leadership. Using a non-defensive approach, leaders can show up at the table, stay there, listen well, state their positions with clarity and eloquence, and examine their own, as well as others’, accountability. After that comes the ability to find solutions.

The Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication • Contact Us
Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2017 Sharon Strand Ellison

Back to Top

Quick Links:

Newsletter Sign-Up

Books, CD's & Downloads

Calendar of Events

Training Options

Stories, Tips & More

Hear CD Excerpts

Video - YouTube

Read Articles

Hear Interviews

Contact Sharon to Schedule An Event



How Do You Become My Enemy?

Power Struggle: The Invisible Addiction

I'm Sorry! The New Blame Game

Get Out of Jail Free

Power, Change & Practice

Balancing Patient Focused Care & Essential Nursing Tasks

Supervision Skills to Enhance Patient Focused Care

Eliminate Defensiveness, Discover Tools for Peace

Sitting At the Table: In Durban, South Africa & Cuba





Calendar Site Map Contact Us