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The Trouble with Bubbles

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

This month I’m delighted to feature a guest article from my longtime colleague, Carolyn Parr. Carolyn has graciously agreed to let us post her newsletter article here. To learn more about Carolyn, click here.

These days we hear a lot about people living in ‘bubbles.’ In mediation I often encounter parties whose positions are encased in a bubble, reinforced by an interior monologue that strengthens their conviction that they are right and the opposing party is wrong. In time it’s possible to pierce these bubbles and engage in conversations about mutual concerns and interests they share with the other party.

In politics, bubbles have taken a more sinister significance. Living just 12 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I’m sure many think I not only live in a bubble, but in ‘The Swamp’ as well.

If I live in a bubble, don’t an unemployed factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio, or a rancher in Oklahoma live in bubbles as well? One could argue we all live in bubbles.

Bubbles can be perilous places. While they may provide a protective ‘skin’ to keep out opposing, even ‘dangerous’ ideas, and exposure to the ‘other,’ they also prevent us from enlarging our understanding of the world beyond us.

‘Bubble-living’ not only seals us off from ‘the other;’ it has a more pernicious effect. It has given many of us license to say anything about those who don’t fit into our bubble. Think about it: How often do we read or hear arguments that not only support or oppose our positions but also rail against ‘the opposition’ and its leaders?

Our national dialogue over health care, security, taxes, gun control, among others, has descended from alienation to polarization with cheerleaders on both sides egging us on to new depths of indignity. Late night TV shows vie with each other to see who is more outrageous. Cable news programs wittingly or unwittingly cheerlead their partisan viewers to harden their positions against political adversaries. Bloggers and social media have launched our country not into a death spiral, but a deaf spiral.

It gets worse: We’re seeing that personal attacks on political leaders appear to solidify his or her base even more than condemnation of the policies they advocate, thus, further polarizing our fragmented polity.

How will it stop?

In mediation we look for commonalities and focus on solutions. We know that if one party ‘gets personal,’ the process weakens and emotions rise. So, we may re-frame a statement, reflect on what’s been said, or take a break.

Why can’t we apply a similar approach with our fellow citizens?

Tell media leaders to stop personalizing their attacks. (Yes, it’s good for ratings and audience retention.) Tell them to try focusing on finding common ground solutions. For example, we may disagree on health care funding, but agree on not being penalized for previous conditions.

Watch ‘opposition’ cable news programs; read materials from the ‘other side;’ or travel to other parts of the country and learn what goes on their bubbles.

Finally, let’s take a break from personal denigration.

These solutions may sound naïve, but where else can we turn to save our fragile political world? It starts with us.


Judge Carolyn Miller Parr founded Beyond Dispute Associates in 2002, when she retired from the United States Tax Court after 16 years of service. She has been settling cases and resolving conflicts since 1977 as a Judge, litigator, and Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General (Tax) at the Department of Justice. She is a popular speaker before bar associations and other groups.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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