Philip Stewart helped broker peace between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and recently visited Israel on a peace-keeping mission.
So surely the man can bring harmony between, say, embattled Democrats and Republicans after a messy presidential battle?
“We have done work across what I call red-blue conversations,” Stewart said, speaking by phone from his home in Falmouth, Maine. “We’ve even done work where there have been civil wars going on with deeply rooted ethnic hatred.”
His use of “we” referred in part to the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue he helped found in 2003 in Washington, D.C. It helps businesses, communities and even entire governments learn how to find common ground with alienated groups.
Stewart will bring decades of his training as a professional mediator and arbitrator to Columbus Sunday for a free workshop, “Reconciling Relationships: Partnerships, Families, Neighborhoods, Communities and Beyond” at First Presbyterian Church. Inferfaith Forum of Columbus has organized the gathering, though the focus stretches beyond spiritual matters.
In fact, Stewart would like to see the audience full of parents, bosses, employees, differing ethnic groups, you name it.
He suggests first and foremost that those struggling with another person go to that person and say, “I’d really like to know more about who you are. And what are your experiences that make who you are so important?”
In essence, Stewart said people must first be willing to listen to the heart of another, whether it’s a frustrating spouse or a confusing teen.
“Change happens when people are willing to try something new,” he said.
He’s seen that firsthand ever since the Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering Foundation invited Stewart in 1972 to be a part of U.S.-Soviet talks. Stewart was an Ohio State University political science professor with an emphasis in Soviet politics. He lived in the Soviet Union from 1962-63.
“My reaction was, ‘These are not the horrible people we have stereotyped them as,’” Stewart said. “So there’s got to be a way here to find common ground.”
Entities such as the Indianapolis-based Lilly Foundation supported efforts to build bonds with the Soviets. During that time, he forged friendships with people such as the man who later headed the KGB, the Russian intelligence agency.
“It takes time,” he said. “And it takes motivation.”
He also said it takes vulnerability about emotional scars and more.
“The most powerful agent of change in reconciliation always revolves around people’s personal stories of struggle,” Stewart said.
Often, those stories can break the ice — and the chill that has frosted icy relations, he said.
The Rev. Wendy Manley, a retired pastor serving in a reserve role at Columbus’ St. Paul Episcopal Church, said she knows that people can change strained relations with others — with help from experts such as Stewart.
“All I can is say very honestly is that I did (change),” Manley said. “If you can learn to practice really good listening skills while keeping your mouth shut, I believe we all can change.”
She said she regularly attends workshops on polishing dialogue and building relationships, “but he (Stewart) seems to be at a whole different level than what I’m used to.”
Columbus’ Merry Carmichael, Stewart’s sister, said she can see people using the afternoon’s wisdom with their families.
“This could even be a way people could better learn to talk with their teenager,” Carmichael said.
Stewart himself has used his diplomacy with his own 15-year-old daughter.
“He certainly has put those skills to use (at home),” Carmichael said.
Sharon Karr, one of the leaders of the local interfaith group, said she would like to see Stewart’s session be a catalyst to build long-term relationships among different houses of worship.
“And even our different generations here aren’t always even on the same page,” Karr said. “I think he can help give us the tools to transcend our invisible barriers.”