Eastern Mennonite University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: My interests have always been in the kind of conflicts where you get people to the table and you start negotiating and you realize they may not even live on the same planet because they have such different senses of reality. The first place that I began looking at were environmental conflicts. These types of conflicts were where it seemed that a lot of people couldn't get to the table. Or when they got to the table they couldn't say what they wanted to say within the guidelines of an interest based negotiation and a lot of important issues were being pushed aside. Later, I had an opportunity to think about that problem while analyzing the transcripts from the FBI branch Davidian negotiations in Waco in 1993.
I start with the assumption that the parties must negotiate reality as well as negotiate their problem and in some cases that work is already very well done. They actually share enough of a sense of reality or at least a coordinated sense of reality that that's not a big issue for them. So they are able to just focus on an interest based negotiation. But in many cases, particularly complex cases, you find some problems that have a shared sense of reality and some problems come up that you realize they don't have a shared sense of what's going on and how the world is organized.
Q: So how do you go about identifying a conflict in which processes like these are necessary or how do you know when it is a conflict when people have different worldviews?
A: I think the important lesson that I've learned, is that worldview conflicts are not a separate category of conflict. Every conflict has a worldview dimension. And there may be some conflicts where it's not as relevant to the parties and you don't have to deal with it directly but that doesn't mean that dimension of their interaction isn't there. If something breaks down in the negotiation process we have to ask ourselves if we just hit a worldview block of some kind. As opposed to an integrity block, where parties are not operating with integrity or they are mis-communicating or something. You better go back to see if there's some sort of underlying reality problem. So that would be one key lesson that I've learned.
There are a number of indicators, if you're in the middle of a negotiation, that you have a world-views problem. One is that the parties cannot feed back to one another the other parties perspective to their satisfaction. Then there's probably something deeper going on. The other indicator is when one party references some part of reality and the other party never acknowledges that, so, let me think of an example. If in an environmental negotiation, one party is referencing western culture, I've done some recent work on rangeland management issues in the far west. If one party is talking about the need to sustain western culture and rural communities in the west and another party is treating that whole issue as a non issue because western culture is sort of not a reality for them, they may say it very directly or they may not. They may just never acknowledge the need to look at the issues for those communities and focus only on the environmental issues and never on the interface between rural communities and the environment. This is when you have a world-view problem. You've got one party who does not recognize human communities as being in the environment and part of the environment. You have also got another party that recognizes itself or considers itself to be apart of the eco-system. So when people can't hear parts of the other person's story or they keep pushing elements of reality off the table then you have a world-view problem.
Q: So how is intervening in a conflict of world-views different from other conflicts?
A: I think it's different in that you have to realize that you have a dual process going on at the same time. It's not a step 1, step 2, a-ok, we're going to negotiate a reality and next week when we have a shared reality then we will do problem solving. It's actually a process that goes back and forth because as you're facing a particular problem; you frame it. Framing has a lot to do with this. As you frame the negotiation problem, then you are negotiating reality because you are pushing some things off as irrelevant to this process. So you have to spend a lot of the time thinking about the agenda and the framing of the problem that you are addressing. You may get part way down the road and discover that you and the parties framing it to begin with was not adequate. You then have to circle back to the reframing and you have to help the parties understand why you want to do that. The language that you do that in is more narrative and symbolic language rather than more problem solving, rational, analytical, 0:06:41.0 language. So you have to get people actively involved in the process, you can't just say, what are your underlying interests?
Q: So framing and reframing are things that happen in any negotiation. The difference between reframing in a regular negotiation and a negotiation with differing world-views is the language or the type of language that you use?
A: Well, first of all, I don't think there's any negotiation that doesn't have differing world-views. Let's be really clear about that. Every negotiation process includes a negotiated reality, the only time the whole negotiated reality disappears is when you're working in a context where the parties have either worked together enough or they share enough of a sense of reality that that remains unspoken. So part of the problem with all negotiation research, in my opinion, or most negotiation research is that it's been done in a context where people actually already had a shared sense of reality. Most of the research is done in the business community or in the diplomatic world, which has it's own culture and it's own sense of shared reality. In a laboratory setting using undergraduates, whom also have a sense of what they're doing and why they're doing it. Very little research on negotiation has been done in the cases where people's sense of reality is not very shared. So we haven't paid enough attention of what's going on all the time, simultaneously back and forth between negotiating reality and negotiating the problem.
It's not a question of what's different. It's a question of foreground and background. In cases where the parties haven't managed their world-view differences and similarities, it's a complex package, where they haven't managed those differences and similarities adequately to hold an issue based negotiation process, then you have to flip back into the the reality framing issues and then back to the problem at hand.
Q: Well, let's contextualize it a little bit, if you could give an example.
A: Let's talk about the Waco negotiation as one that had some successes. The point in there I think illustrates that it isn't a question of sharing world-views but simply of managing complex similarities and differences. Everyone says, well of course the FBI and the Branch Davidians had different world-views. However they also had similar world-view elements. It was the combination of similarities and differences that actually fueled that conflict. The similarities include, a good evil narrative, you know, a good dichotomous world-view but split between good and evil. And understanding that guns are OK, and it's ok to use them. A sense of rightness and the other person's wrongness and those similarities in world-view, combined with their differences, with the law enforcement community and this apocalyptic sect, fueled the escalation. So how did they get children out? They got something like 20 children out through negotiation. They did it by the FBI coming in and assuming that David Koresh and the community would want fame and acknowledgement and publicity. So they made an offer saying that they would play a tape of a sermon by David Koresh for every 2 children that you send out and they would play that tape on the radio.
The FBI's sense of reality was that David Koresh was in charge of this and that it was a cult. They believed that he was the mind control guy and if they gave him this, and since he's got a huge ego and if they gave him his fame, he'll send kids out. Now, under that whole bargaining, that whole narrative is a story that says David Koresh owns and controls all these people and is willing to treat these children as commodities for his own benefit. When you look at the transcripts and you read into the rest of the material, it becomes extremely clear that David Koresh was not in control of these children and was not making these decisions. It's actually articulated very clearly in the transcripts that the kids' parents were making these decisions to send them out, you know, send them to Grandma, send them to Uncle so and so and they will be safe. The whole bargaining thing, for trading it for the radio was sort of like well, if that's how the FBI needs to think about it to get this done, then we can cooperate with that. So there was this whole exchange that went on, that looks like a strict bargaining but they were playing 2 different narratives the whole time. Then when they got to David Koresh's own children, the bargaining broke down.
The FBI said, "See! David Koresh is untrustworthy. He doesn't keep his word. He's now telling us he won't send us these children." Koresh kept getting on the phone and saying, "You don't understand, these are my children, these are special children." And the FBI would say, "Yes, we understand that you're very concerned about your children," and he's going, "No! You don't understand. These are my children, these are special children." And then there were all kinds of biblical explanations for why they were special. It wasn't just David who said it, it was all the adults in the community and they all would keep repeating the story. And that has to do with their belief system. These were the children of the New Light Doctrine and they were in this narrative that was playing out in this community, the Branch Davidians, that were supposed to play a special role during the End Time, during the Apocalypse and so what they were saying wasn't just, these are David's children, these are special children with a special destiny. We cannot cooperate with you treating them as commodities, you know, we can't even play along with that script that we were playing along with before. And it's all really clear in the transcripts. You know, they're not as clear as I am in saying and I'm sorry we can't play with your script anymore, but it's all there.
And you hit this impasse and the instinct on the part of the negotiators was to blame the Branch Davidians and say they're not bargaining in good faith, they're not participating in the process as we designed it as it has been going on. But in fact they were, but to bargain, you have to treat something as a commodity. The underlying reality behind a bargaining process is that something is a commodity and you can trade it. And if something is not a commodity, it is sacred to you, you can't bargain. I think that happens in a lot of negotiations, where bargaining breaks down and people then point the finger at the party who won't bargain and say they're not behaving properly because they're not negotiating right. When in fact at least one question you should ask is "Why can't those things, or that thing, or that be treated as a commodity because under that is some sense of reality that you've hit up against?"
Q: So, you ask the question, you try to get a sense of that person's sense of reality?
A: Right, and if I had been there during the FBI's thing, I would have said, "Whoa, apparently these children can't play along with this bargaining script, so these children need something else. Back off on the bargaining and stop getting on the phone and doing the kinds of things they did right up to the end; we'll send you 6 gallons of milk if you send us 4 women and 2 children or 2 women and 4 children." The women were all saying, "Nobody can trade us away. We have to make a moral and spiritual decision about where we're going to stay. This is the end time," and they were still being treated as these victims.
That was another world view gap, you know, who could be traded around like victims and as soon as the FBI put them in the category as victim then they didn't treat them as full human beings and as moral agents. Even though they talked with them on the phone they still treated them in the bargaining or negotiation process as commodities. This was even though the women themselves weren't treating themselves that way and Koresh wasn't actually treating them that way in this negotiation, regardless of what had happened before sexually or any other way. So what do you have to do?
You have to recognize, I think that in the Waco case for example when you're dealing with a group, a sect or a community that has a very different understanding of reality that you can't convince them, you can't speak their language well enough. I don't mean Spanish or French; I mean their reality. You can't speak their reality enough to persuade them to do anything. The only thing you can do is create the space and the environment in which they can persuade themselves to do something that will save their lives, to get them out of the situation, or you, that's one option. And the other option is that you need to find third parties that are sort of relevant, world-view audiences, people who don't necessarily fully share their language or their sense of reality but they have enough of it that they can do some reality testing or they can feed in some new ideas that might get processed a little differently and then that community can make a different decision. But that takes a lot of patience.
Q: Yes, both of those things sound pretty hard
A: They are, but the FBI did it later, with the Freemen, several years later, in 1996 I think. They didn't cross the boundary of the sacred space for the Freemen; they allowed people to go in. In Waco, the FBI had refused to let a couple of scholars who had done a different interpretation of the Book of Revelation in. The Branch Davidians asked for those two scholars, it was Phil Arnold and Jim Tabor. They had asked those two men to mediate and the FBI said no. Mediate isn't the right word, it wouldn't have been a mediation, but they could've been used as a good set of third parties, intermediary, or world-view translator. I think world-view translator is actually a 3rd role we need to think about in situations that you have a significant world-view problem, you really need those worldview translators. But in Montana, they allowed people who were sympathetic to the Freeman but they did not allow members to spend time or to actually go in and talk with the Freemen.
You know we don't have transcripts, but we haven't had any cooperation or luck doing it. I think that those people played what I call a relevant audience and were able to listen and ask critical enough questions that it put new energy and new meaning into making processes play inside the community that they could then persuade themselves that they could come out within their own reality, without sacrificing their own identity or their reality. Because in Waco, essentially what the FBI was asking the Branch Davidians to do was to stop being Branch Davidians, long enough to end the standoff. Give up your entire sense of reality, their entire sense of identity, come out and then you can go back to being Branch Davidians. It's a very sense of how important this sense of identity was for them.
Q: It sounds like that approach is doomed from the outset?
A: Quite doomed.