Nature of Intractability

Maria Volpe

Professor of Dispute Resolution, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Interviewed by

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: The parties' insensitivities that become part of their mental tapes towards each other. So they've done something to each other, and they keep rehearsing it and rehearsing it. And you know what, its just really hard to see any goodness, for lack of better word, because they're rehearsing the insensitivities of a letter that may have been written in 1984, and here it is in 2003. They've rehearsed it, and all these other situations have happened after however many years. It's really hard to see any goodness in the other side.


Q: How do you deal with it?

A: I don't always have the magic formula. Depending on the situation, sometimes using third sides, someone who they trust, who can talk to them about toning down. Other times its just pure luck. I've had people who say, after all these years of holding on to this, I just can't give it the energy that I've been giving it all these years, I'm in a different place. Some of this may have started in an academic community, where individuals were untenured and some of the insensitivities were surrounding one's methodology, one's theoretical work, publications, and things were said. You hold on to them, but hey, now you're a full professor and you don't have to hold on to that any more, and you just want to have a peaceful existence. But they want now to get to the other side. I've had people say, well, what do they want, or why now. I have to say, they are just in a differently place. And they reply back, well, how do I know they're in a different place, they said all this stuff through the years, how can I trust them, what do they really want? That's where you go back and forth with them and say, "Well, from what I'm hearing, they don't really want to have anything, they just want to be able to say good morning to you and feel comfortable."

It sometimes takes months to bring individuals together because they don't know about being in the same room as someone that they haven't been able to communicate with for fifteen years, or whatever it is. It's really hard. Once I can remember is that I want you to stand at the door while I go in there to talk to the other side. I stood at the door. Both thanked me for the wonderful job. I hadn't done anything; I was just standing at the door. But I had bridged the conversation enough between them, going back and forth, finding out what they both wanted, what they were going to say, on and on. I was the messenger. And eventually they're ready to come together, but they don't want you to do anything, but they need someone there just in case something happens.

Q: Right, which is a great argument for the power of the third side, just being that convener and observing the process, we don't want you to get involved but we want you to be there.

A: I literally stood at the door, and they did a great job. They had rehearsed some of what we call I-messages, but there are more none defensive responses to what is said. And it worked out well. I've helped some of them rehearse how they would open up after so long, what the first thing that they would say to each other after not talking to each other for so many years. Some of that's just pure luck. It could be where they are in their personal lives, that this doesn't seem that important anymore. It may have nothing to do with whatever I'm doing, but getting them to get over the mental tapes can be really really challenging. They called me, they sent me a memo that was offensive, they did whatever... that's really hard. And then what happens is people go to their allies and say, yeah right, you shouldn't meet with so and so. Why are you giving in to that, after what they did to you? Very few of us are really good allies.