Conflict Resolution Program, University of Denver
Topics: interpersonal or small-scale communication, evaluation, conflict stages
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Personal Healing
- Same Level, Different Sides
- Change "Outside the Bubble"
- Formative Evaluation
- Theory of Change
- Conflict Phases
- Establishing Personal Relationships
A: Well, it's kind of a footnote, but it goes back to your question about what was inspiring.
I think when I first started doing this, some of the first workshops I did, you'd come out of it and have a real high because you'd seen such discoveries in your participants. Like I said, they'd come out of it and be holding themselves physically differently because of a sense of either some new hope that would come out of hearing something new or making relationships with people from their antagonists. That had given them a new view on things, and they take on life, almost, and that can be really exciting. Any time you work with these kinds of human relations and you see change that can be really inspiring.
But, I guess where I was heading is that over the course of years of doing this new, even though I recognize that each of those individual two or three day workshops can be really exciting, that it's kind of a temporary high and that it doesn't necessarily translate into any long lasting change. I mean these are like little drops in the bucket, that look bigger at the time, but when people go back to their communities and things settle down, they're maybe little drops in the bucket of change.
So, going back and saying is there any particular event that I remember being particularly inspiring. Some of the earlier workshops were really inspiring.
But after seeing the same dynamic and getting inspired and then seeing that it's a temporary high, it's like a chocolate high, it comes up and then it dissipates, and then you're back to where you were, hopefully with a little bit of change.
I found what actually ends up being inspiring is thinking over time about some of the different points when I've seen people in these kinds of processes and gaining new insights into the other.
Probably one of the most inspiring moments is when I see somebody who seems as a result of something in the process and some interaction with someone else on the other side, has healed a little bit. They seem to have become a more whole person. They have become a little bit less hobbled in their ability to go forth themselves and make change. So, some of the examples that come to my mind are typically where I realize a person telling kind of a personal story about how the conflict affected them personally which seems to have more impact on people on the other side than whatever kinds of facts and arguments and whatever, that they could raise.
I'm thinking about one that took place fairly recently in one of our
dialogues. In that conflict there are several different parties, in a sense, and we had people coming from different tribal communities that are all in conflict
This is an ongoing dialogue, so we'd had several meetings, each about a day in length. Over the course of these meetings people had been raising issues of the dominance of certain groups in the society or the illegitimacy of the way certain groups might govern or the various aspects of the politics that had entered into continuing the disputes, the really deeply embedded conflict between the communities. And I think one of the things that really brought people to an awareness of the impact of the conflict was a story that one of the gentlemen told that was there who had been from one of the minority ethnic groups. He had to operate in the dominant culture, in this sense it was one of a different ethnic group as well as a different language. Therefore he had not been able to use his language. If he had used his language it would have in a sense de-legitimized him in any kind of situation and felt that...
Q: Yeah, they have, but if you feel like you go over the line I can take it out, it's okay. These aren't going on as is, we're going to sort of chop them up into usable blocks.
A: He had to change his name because his name reflected his ethnicity and he couldn't operate, in a sense, with any respect without modifying that part of his identity. It's like he had to basically deny his language and his identity and his background in order to be taken seriously and operate in the dominant cultural view. By him telling that story, these other people sitting around the table, and it's not uncommon in peacebuilding to have people who are at relatively the same level of society across the different conflict groups be brought together. This is because even though they may be from different conflict groups, they may have something in common about their relative status or their professions or whatever it happens to be, that can now at some level serve as common ground.
So you know about John Paul's model, you can bring grassroots leaders together or you might bring mid-level influentials together or you might bring elites together, and there's something about having those kind of people from comparable status that when the people get together they listen with different ears. So you have people that are all professionals. Maybe they're all either academics or professionals, engineers, business people, that are at this meeting. And you have this person who is dressed like them, and in the American context that they're all operating in now is at the same status and level of respect.
And he's talking about this experience where he couldn't speak his language and use his name. They perk up and really listen to something like that because he seems so similar.It helps to really re-humanize the other because in so many of these conflicts you dehumanize the other and you don't see that that's what allows you to perpetuate the conflict. So anything you're doing that re-humanizes the other can be a little chink in the armor that let's you think, well, okay, he had this terrible experience because of the way our language laws are structured or because of the way we don't recognize other people's languages in our culture, and he's kind of like me in many ways.
I think it helps people have more empathy for the actual on-the-ground impacts of oppression or structural injustice. I think it's some of the stories that sometimes people tell that then humanize them and their group for the other. It makes the other side stop and pay attention because it's such a personal story and they see the issue maybe in a slightly different way. On the flip side, for the person on the other side listen respectfully to you while you're telling your story about this, it has never ever happened before. This may be a very emotional experience to tell the story and have the other side, as represented in these other people sitting across from you, actually hear you for the first time.
You mentioned that that experience is really powerful at the moment and then it gets diffused over time. What other obstacles to your work have you encountered over the years?
A: Obstacles other than diffusion?
Q: Yeah, I suppose you might call it the re-entry problem.
A: You know, I think this is like one of the Gordain??? knots for our field. We have these experiences where people get new insights into the other's thinking, maybe finally understand the perspective of the other and what's motivating them. Then maybe that will help you then to frame how you could approach this in a way that you could try to achieve what you want to achieve and also address their concerns. Then you make all these great connections and build networks. Why is it that then it doesn't seem to go very far? I think that there are impacts. I think that in fact we can document that there are impacts. We've seen how people after the fact have used those networks to check information, for example.
One story that I can mention from the Israeli-Palestinian workshops is that after we brought these Israeli and Palestinian women together in Cambridge, they went back home and while they were on the airplanes, 400 Hamas supporters were expelled from Israel into southern Lebanon. It was a big crisis and lots of misinformation was coming back and forth from both sides. We know that these women called each other up and said, "Is this really what's happening over there," and kind of fact checking and rumor checking to try to keep things from escalating. The networks that they establish actually can have those kinds of uses. I think that the networks also have uses in the sense that they build a network of people who have talked to each other. If you were an Israeli official that was working on some problem related to the peace process or even some problem like water service delivery or something. Having parties that have had opportunities to develop networks with people on the other side, you have the ability to say, "Well I know so and so over on the other side. I respect him or her as a person and I think you can get the straight story or I think you may be able to get them to help you figure out who to talk to that then can help you move whatever this issue is forward." You see that in any kind of setting, how networks can really help overcome things.
So in that sense, that doesn't get diffused.
As you know, the re-entry problem has to do with when parties gain new information and potentially have new changed attitudes as a result of interacting in a concentrated forum within a time period usually, as well as very intense discussions with somebody from the other side. Then when they go back and check, it is almost as though those changes happen in a bubble. It is a little bit of a bubble and it's created a different reality from the reality that's out in the world because this is a reality where Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other or whoever the parties happen to be. It is where they talk to each other and wrestle with tough issues together, but actually treat each other with respect in a way that people don't on the outside. I don't know if you want to say that the power is equalized, but all those things when you go back out of the room, that keep you from either talking to the other or being able to work with each other are not there in that bubble. That's a good thing from the perspective of generating new options and learning about the other, but when you take it back out of the room, out of the bubble, you do still have those new ideas and those new options and new insights into the other.
You also have these preexisting patterns in your community that you're taking back that are going to invalidate the validity of that information. So you're going to have to somehow fight against that, so that it doesn't prevent you from doing anything differently. People's behaviors get turned into policies or laws or whatever and it's hard to change those things. That's actually one of the things that we've tried to look at in our evaluation work concerning the impact of these workshops. It's pretty clear that people's attitudes get changed, but then the next question is, so what.
If people's attitudes get changed and then they can go out to their institution they work for or networks they're involved in, whether it's a religious network or a professional network or whatever, a they can then do something different as a result of the insights of that person or those individuals that were involved. Then the larger relationship between the parties changes at least at that local level. Then you can say well, then there's something changing that's outside of the bubble.
Q: Outside of the bubble of safety, or of?
A: Of the workshop itself.
What we're trying to do is develop ways to track those changes better because unfortunately when people look at the impact of this work they tend to look either at individual change, which we tend to find that yes that does happen, or they look at kind of subsequent systemic change where all these other complicated factors come into play. It is very unlikely you're going to see very much change at that level. So how do you see when an individual might take their new learning or new awareness of options or new insights into the other and do something slightly differently in the way they work?
Q: Have you found any particular evaluation technique more favorable to come up with that kind of result?
A: Well, that's what we're trying to develop. We're basically trying to develop a framework that alerts practitioners or whoever would be using the evaluation framework to be looking at that next level of tracking. Or maybe even building it into the workshops itself. It's not uncommon that what you track in an evaluation in any kind of social intervention ends up being what then people train for. Like in education if you start tracking people. You know these schools have these educational assessments now, and whatever is in the tests is now what people are training for so that it will show up in the test. And that sounds negative, but in actuality it may not be bad because if part of what you start to track in this work is not just changes in individual attitudes but changes in whether or not people then take new insights into their workplace or their institution or their networks and do something differently and have their institution or their network do something different vis-Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â -vis the other side. If you start to track that, then you can think about how people might recognize that it might be important to train that way or to do the workshop in such a way that you are not just having people's attitudes change.
Rather, you have them discover new insights about the other, but having them have thought through in the workshop how are they going to take that new insight out into the world and do something differently with it in their institution or their network. So you build it into the first step, into the intervention, how that next level of change might actually happen, and you get people to plan for it.
Q: It sounds like the evaluation in that case would lead the substance of the workshop, so that you would need to know what you're going to evaluate before you start planning for this. So then you can target that particular goal.
A: Right, and you know a thoughtful process does do that kind of thinking ahead of time, like setting goals ahead of time. I do think that often the processes that take place, at least in some of this work, the intractable work that focuses on improving interethnic relations will say that they want to change attitudes and probably some of them will say that they want to change behaviors and give people new experience in doing new ways of relating to the other. And some of them will talk about, maybe, having people think through ways that they might start to change structures, structural inequities and things like that. Not all do that, but if as the process is being set up you think through what it is you're trying to do, what is it you hope will come out of this, then yeah you may end up then structuring what you do differently. That's part of what we hope to do with having this framework developed. We hope to then have a tool, not only for post-hoc evaluation, but a tool for practitioners before they go in to think, well which of these am I going to use to evaluate this afterwards, which are going to be important to me, so which might I need to build in more consciously into the process from the front end. I think a lot of practitioners use... Well, I shouldn't say this.
Q: Say it. And the reason I ask you to say it is because the next question is going to be what advice would you give to practitioners doing this sort of work.
A: Okay, this might be better with this frame. Some practitioners use the same approach for each context that they bring it into, for each case that they are brought into or that they enter into and it ends up almost being like a cookie cutter approach. There's some value if you assume that whatever they're bringing are skills that everybody can use. So yes, they're going to take this cookbook and do this thing in this way here and are going to apply it in this other setting. These are all skills that everybody can use, so it's okay if they haven't thought through the goals any further than that. There are clearly thoughtful practitioners that go into any setting and try to assess what's really needed in that setting, and then design their interventions differently as a result. But even there
I think that practitioners don't often think enough about beyond just what kind of changes they want to see in the participants.
Rather they think about what are the subsequent ripples of change that we're working for that we might need to plant the seeds for in the training or the workshop. It's not enough then to just say we want to change attitudes or give some new skills. We have to consciously think about what the new attitudes or the new skills are going to translate into in terms of how those individuals will then change. Referring to at least some larger sector of their reality with the question being, how are they going to do that? So we really have to have some sort of vision of what that's going to look like, of a theory of change.
I guess you wanted to know my recommendation. Many people enter into these approaches and assume first of all that changing attitudes, changing beliefs is where they should focus. My advice would be to consider what is important to change beyond just attitudes, and how you might see how changes in attitudes and skills, which might then produce some sort of other local change in that participant's environment. Then you can somehow in your planning think through how you can facilitate that next level of change as well. It's being clearer and being thoughtful. If you go into an intervention and haven't thought through the larger theory of change and you expect individual level change to link up with local and system change then you're only going to get individual change. You're not going to get change at the next levels except by accident. An important thing for interveners to think through on the front end is actually structuring the intervention consciously so that attention is being given and time is being given to not only having experiences that change individuals' attitudes and give them new skills, but also allow them to think about how this will translate into the next level of change.
Q: I think it's a pretty complete understanding of having an idea before you start about what kind of change you want to effect, not only on at a personal level but how you can have a deeper effect. I'm glad you said that because
it's a shift in order from the sort of intuitive conception of how you would design something because you think evaluation comes last. Okay, how did we do, let's look back and see how we did. And you say wait a minute, evaluation in a sense comes first. Or at least knowing what you're going to evaluate should come right at the outset not at the end.
A: Right, and you know, maybe evaluation is a word that gets in people's way because people usually do think of it as being something at the end and something that's judgmental.
Q: And a surprise, what are they going to look at?
A: Whereas if you're doing the evaluation for yourself, to improve your practice, then you already know what you're going to evaluate yourself on. Or you may intuitively know and it's actually better to think about it explicitly, ahead of time. But there's also that kind of self-reflective dimension of it too.
I think there's also another dynamic that can be useful that can be set up if people as a field or as a group of practitioners say not only are we going to be evaluating ourselves on if we achieved this one level of change, but we're going to be trying to track and see if we see this second level. Then if you know, in a sense it starts to send a message to everyone that everyone is going to be looking at this too. You know what I'm saying. Again, people tend to work toward things that they know are going to be looked at. If it's going to be looked at then I'm going to do it. It's a funny dynamic.
Q: Yeah, well, in a sense it can be a focusing tool instead of a sort of punishing tool.
A: Right, that's a great way to frame it, as a focusing tool, because I think that that's really what the value of evaluation can be for the field. It can be seen as the ability to be explicit and articulate about what it is you're trying to do, and to focus you so that you're doing what you want to do. Not worrying about what you aren't intending to do or what you don't want to do. It definitely can be a way to focus your practice, focus your intervention, focus your thinking and what you're trying to achieve.
Are there practical lessons learned, either in the workshops or in the study of evaluations that you've done.
A: One lesson learned, and this is partly from our comparative evaluation work, is that not every process works in every setting and that different processes are good for different things. And also that one of the challenges that we have is to figure out a way, and I hope comparative evaluation will help to do this, of figuring out what types of interventions achieve what the best. So, for example, in another realm, I and a colleague of mine, ???, have done a comparative evaluation of conflict resolution processes in 10 different western water disputes.
One of the things that came out of that work was very clearly that certain processes, certain conflict resolution processes. And it's not that there's one best process, but different processes accomplish different things. Different processes actually set out to do different things, so it's not surprising that they accomplish different things. You'll have a process like mediation be very good for generating creative, efficient solutions, compared to say, the legal process because the legal process is not set up to generate creative, efficient solutions. So you get better results in the sense of the efficiency from mediation, but you might find that another process is better for parties feeling included. So we found regulatory negotiations, regulatory administrative rule-making process, is actually the better process for having all the parties feel like they had a voice and were included because they actually had explicit rules for making sure that everyone is included, much more so than most other processes. Whether it be mediation or the legal process or legislation or whatever.
We also found that on a different criterion, a different process might work better. And fairness, people felt that the legal process is probably one of the most fair because it is addressing rights and fairness. What you have is recognition for different dimensions of the problem. Different processes may be the best, so depending on what's the most important thing, you may go with a certain process or you may have processes working in compliment.
There have been people who've written on this in terms of the importance of having multiple processes or multiple approaches, whether it's John Paul Lederach's work on multiple levels operating at the same time, or Ron Fisher who has a contingency model. I think we actually looked at it briefly where at different stages different processes may be the most important to use. It allows you to kind of break away from this mentality that says, we have to approach this with only one tool.
I think that that's probably one of the next biggest challenges of the field is to figure out how to coordinate different approaches and maybe having them running simultaneously and also maybe having them sequenced to achieve what each can do best.
For example in a pre-negotiation phase, what you really need is a process that allows the parties to re-humanize each other and build trust, whereas in a negotiation phase, you need a process that allows parties to unpack interests and to generate new options for meeting those interests. The processes that you use at different phases may achieve different things, or maybe you need to have both of them going at the same time. I know about examples where the official negotiations were operating using more traditional negotiation procedures and maybe could have used some mediation in the more standard sense. But at the same time, as those official discussions are going forward it is really important to recognize that there are other issues that haven't yet been surfaced, where the parties are not even willing to talk to each other on those issues yet, and so you've got to be doing some other kind of relationship building, trust building around those issues before those issues are going to get to the table.
Q: Yeah, and even beyond that, are there different processes for relationship building depending on the circumstance there as well? In terms of tailoring processes for the situation, if there's a race relation problem versus some kind of a-symmetry problem?
A: If it's fairly clear that this setting needs some sort of relationship building, the question is which of the different methods of relationship building should be used here. Well that's a really interesting question. Alana Shapira??? did her dissertation on some of the different models that are used in race relations, so she looked at study circles and prejudice reduction and diversity training and some of these different models. I think part of what she was trying to unpack a bit was what each tries to do and when you might go with one or the other.
Again, how do you choose which model to use, which type of intervention to use? I think it depends on your goals. I think that some of those relationship building processes try to make each side aware of the injury of the other side in such a way that then they can, in a sense it's reducing ignorance about the other side's hurt and making sure that things that have been silenced aren't silenced anymore. They get voiced. Some would argue that that actually doesn't create relationships that well it just helps to clear the air, which may be necessary for a relationship to form, but it can be a little bit divisive too. Antagonistic, you know. Some of the other processes, maybe ones where there's a different kind of sharing that's happening and a kind of respect that's being modeled and either a joint examining of the issues. For instance, Study Circles says there's this issue or these issues and we're going to study them together and we're going to discuss our views and our reaction but in a respectful way.
The goal of that relationship building process is not to, at least initially, air people's experiences of injustice, but to have them almost have a constructive experience. An experience where they've been with the other or the others in a constructive way, that then they can build on. So, the different models for building relationships.