Summary of "The Tree Model: Psychopolitical Dialogues and the Promotion of Coexistence"

Summary of

The Tree Model: Psychopolitical Dialogues and the Promotion of Coexistence

By Vamik D. Volkan, M.D.

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Vamik D. Volkan, M.D., "The Tree Model: Psychopolitical Dialogues and the Promotion of Coexistence," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 343-359.

Volkan's Tree Model describes how the improved interethnic relations achieved in facilitated dialog may be maintained and applied to real world projects. The "roots" of the tree consists of a diagnosis phase, the "trunk" is a process of facilitated psychopolitical dialog, and the "branches" are the independent organizations and institutions that develop out of the dialog phase. Funding, of course, is the "water" that allows the tree to grow. Volkan notes that "the uniqueness of the Tree Model is its utilization of a interdisciplinary facilitating tea that includes psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, (former) diplomats, historians, and other social and behavioral scientists."(p. 343)

The Roots: Diagnosis

In this beginning phase the facilitating team collects background information on the conflict situation, and make a tentative diagnosis of the problems and issues involved. Facilitators interview a broad variety of people, examining "common themes, both overt and covert, to recognize anxiety provoking issues as well as common fantasies and expectations from one's own group and from the enemy group."(p. 344) Interviewing people at symbolically significant locations, such as monuments or cemeteries, can be particularly revealing.

Facilitators work to identify the groups "chosen traumas" and "chosen glories." These are past events that the respective groups have mythologized. Chosen traumas are loses that were not effectively mourned at the time, but were instead handed down to the next generations. "Such handing down succeeds in perpetuating feelings of victimization, entitlement, and the desire for revenge rather than accomplishing acceptance of the change in the group's history."(p. 345)

Based on their interviews and background research the facilitators compose a list of the real world issues at stake. Volkan notes however that "beneath the surface of such pragmatic or logistical problems there are often hidden resistances that prevent parties from reaching agreement, even if practical obstacles can be overcome."(p. 351) The facilitators must also develop a list of these "hidden transcripts."

The Trunk: Psychopolitical Dialog

The process proceeds to the psychopolitical dialog stage. The dialogs will involve influential persons chosen from among those interviewed in the diagnosis phase. These people will meet in small groups with a facilitator, and work to identify and deal with any unconscious resistances to coexistence. Volkan describes a number of dynamics which tend to arise within such dialogs.

Psychopolitical dialogs often erupt into crises over essentially trivial matters. These "mini-conflicts" serve to make the larger, more abstract conflict concrete for the participants. Mini-conflicts also provide an opportunity for leaders to emerge in the groups, as participants step forward to resolve these crises and move the dialog along.

Participants often begin dialog by focusing narrowly on current events, and "echoing" current, specific grievances. In these situations the facilitators must encourage the participants to move past these immediate issues in order to address more basic issues. Participants may also engage in competitive recounting of their chosen traumas or glories. In such cases the facilitator must model empathic listening for the participants. Ultimately opposing sides must come to really hear each other.

Dialog participants may also experience what Volkan calls the Accordion Effect. As the dialog progresses the participants cycle between closeness and withdrawal. "When a conflict is 'hot,' each group's identity depends on their belief that they are 'good and their enemy is 'bad,' but when these crucial distinctions blur, each group attempts to preserve its own identity and retreats from closeness." (p. 348) Generally this cycle will stabilize in time.

In a related phenomenon, participants may project their own unwanted characteristics onto the opposing side, claiming for example that the opponent is really the aggressor. Participants may sometimes project attitudes that they desire onto another group. Such projection can foster identification with the other group, but it also creates an illusory relationship where the first party (sometimes incorrectly) speaks for the other party. Facilitators must encourage the parties to speak for themselves, expressing their own concerns.

Dialog often starts with participants sharing their personal stories. These may start out as us/them stories, and proceed to more ambiguous stories. Personal stories help reveal the experiences which led the participants to form their views and positions. Such stories can also reveal common experiences and provide a basis for empathy between the parties.

Dialog may also reveal the participants "hidden transcripts." Volkan draws an example from psychopolitical dialog between Russians and Estonians over Estonian citizenship for Russians. The participants were in conflict over creating a standardized Estonian language exam for citizenship. The practical problems were resolvable, yet the sides could not reach an agreement. Dialog facilitators identified the hidden transcripts which were blocking agreement. Fundamentally, the Estonian participants did not want Russians in Estonia at all. The Russian on the other hand did not want to learn to speak Estonian, and were reluctant to acknowledge their new minority status in a country they had recently dominated.

Increasing empathy and agreement between the participants often sparks defensive emphasis on trivial differences between the groups, as a way to maintain their distinctive group identities. Facilitators must recognize this dynamic, and reassure the participants that agreement and empathy will not undermine their distinct identities.

Describing the conflict in metaphorical terms can make it less immediately threatening. Use of metaphors can also crate opportunities for the participants to "play" with different ways of understanding their situation.

Volkan notes that groups, like individuals, need to mourn their losses in order to adapt and move on. "Chosen traumas" have not been effectively mourned, but have been clung to, producing lasting feelings of victimization and entitlement. These traumas and their after effects "must be brought to the surface in order to initiate the mourning of past losses, thereby allowing acceptance of present reality and the taming of shared fantasy."(p. 353) Feeling for past chosen traumas tend to be experienced as if the trauma had happened recently, and tend to be projected into the future. Volkan calls this phenomena "time collapse." Participants must be helped to expand their views. They must create distance from past events, and from the attitudes of previous generations.

Volkan concludes that "through the above process of the dialog series, rigid and often hostile positions can be loosened, allowing the mode of discourse to shift from accusations and recriminations to explanations of each side's position, and then to a genuine negotiation." (p. 354)

The Branches: Institutions

Having opened up a more productive discourse, facilitators now ask the parties to identify real problems in their relationship, to explore the dynamics of those problems, and to consider ways to improve the situation. Dialog may be thought of as a five-stage process. First comes the decision to open a dialog. Next the parties map their relationship. They then explore their relationship dynamics and develop the will to change their relationship. They go on to explore ways to change and to make plans for change. Finally they act to implement those plans.

As the participants in dialog reach the planning and implementation stages, they will need to assemble local contact groups. Local contact groups help to make informed, concrete plans. Volkan says, "the ultimate aim is for the local contact group to evolve into an NGO committed to a process of intergroup understanding and reducing and preventing ethnic tension by building community support."(p. 355) These local contact groups and NGOs "branch" from the "trunk" of psychopolitical dialog.

The timing of this institution building stage is crucial. The groups must have enough time to assimilate new ideas and understandings before trying to implement them.

The next step is for these branch institutions in turn to identify new opportunities for further branching. They must identify further problematic situations and projects which would promote coexistence.

Volkan observes that evaluating the effectiveness of such conflict resolution activities can be difficult. Project based on the tree Model can take years to develop fully. Dialog seeks to change the parties' attitudes, and measuring attitude changes is inherently difficult. However, the author is currently involved in developing a psychometric test, adopted from psychiatry, to measure such attitudinal changes. Volkan notes that pilot studies of the test have been promising.