Interview Director, Institute for Environmental Negotiation, University of Virginia
Topics: consensus building, empathic listening, role of the mediator, neutrality, conflict assessment
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Capacity Building
- Consensus Building
- Framing Environmental Issues
- Public Participation and Democracy
- Listening and Empathy
- Importance of Preparation
- Role of the Mediator
- Qualities a Mediator Should Have
- Neutrality in Environmental Negotiations
- Extremists, Spoilers, and Difficult Parties
- Lessons Learned
- Positive Outlook on People
Q: The first question I generally ask is for an overview of your work, but before we do that I'd like to ask you where we are now?
A: This is the Institute for Environmental Negotiation. We are at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. We've been here since about 1980 and I joined the institute in 1990.
Q: What does the institute do?
A: The institute was founded with a fairly narrow mission to mediate environmental disputes. The goal is to reduce all the transactional costs that people were putting into fighting over environmental issues, and seeing if they could find some ways to work out a solution so that they're putting their time and money resources into solutions.
It's broadened since then because there is not necessarily a significant demand for rather narrowly defined mediations. When we do mediation we also do what people might consider more consensus building where it is anticipated for there to be some difficulty or perhaps some conflict, but it's not arisen yet; or when working in terms of community involvement, assisting agencies, local bodies and community involvement. Also helping with the organizations in some sort of strategic planning, building capacity, so we have a couple of different types of training programs.
Then the research also helps. Building knowledge is really the way we would describe it. If you actually look at our website you will find that it includes research and writing. So it is fairly broad. Being at the University we have students that we work with and then we do teach classes in the Department Urban and Environmental Planning. This is all part of the School of Architecture at the University.
Q: Are you funded by the University?
A: We are funded entirely by the grants and contracts that we do. We don't get any financial support from the University, although we do get the space rent free and there are other resources that we get like computer support and other types of support, of which I don't totally know what that means yet. All the contracting is done and all the financial accounting is done through the University. There is no funding at all from the University or the state.
Q: So it's pretty much fee for service then?
A: A fee for services and grants. We do a fair amount of work; I don't know what proportion. It varies from year to year. Maybe a quarter to a third actually would come from grants we get to do projects that we are interested in. It is a promoting that would not be contractual. No one is actually willing to contract with us to do it. There is a need and we find ways of being able to do the work.
Q: Where do you get most of the work?
A: It varies from year to year. A substantial amount of work would come from localities that have issues, not necessarily the best funding part of the work. We get it from the primarily Virginia, though we have done a fair amount of work in other states, especially Maryland. We've gone around the country to work. We have also done work for federal agencies.
Right now we've been doing a fair amount of work for Super Fund Re-Use, which is funded by EPA and we do other EPA work. We've contracted with most federal agencies that have some sort of environmental component to it: the Department of Interior, Parks Service, and Forest Service. There is not a whole lot of federally funded work. We usually have one or two programs going at one time but not more than that. Then again private foundations turn out often to be the more interesting projects.
Q: Let's talk about your work. Can you give me a brief overview of your work?
A: I don't know if I can do it briefly. You mean the current work?
Q: Yes. Maybe give a brief historical overview and then talk about the present work.
A: Okay. It might be easier to do a snapshot of what I'm doing now and then just touch on a couple of other projects that are significant. One I mentioned is this work for communities that have a superfund sight, which are the most contaminated sights. EPA has a program that is trying to have these communities consider the eventual re-use of the land as opposed to just letting them sit with a fence around them. I've been working around stakeholder consensus building and community involvement on four of these sights around the country to greater or lesser extent. That is fairly recent, within the last year or so.
I am working as a mediator, facilitator, and someone who is helping communities think strategically in ways that build consensus about the re-use for that particular sight. I'm just starting a project where we are going to be training the planning staff. The department that is involved is the Baltimore Department of Planning. They are involved in mediation and consensus building so that they can have an in-house capacity to help the communities that they are working with address the disputes that they have more effectively. That is a program I am doing with a partner, Laura Backal, who is a planner. We just got the contract, and in it states how we are going to figure out how to do that.
There is a training component, there's mentoring components and some co-mediation that we aren't going to be involved in. That's a capacity building type of work.
Another capacity building type of work is something we call The Virginia Natural Resource's Leadership Institute, which we have as partners Mike Elebraw from Virginia Tech., and Mike Foreman from the Department of Forestry in Virginia, and that brings together up to thirty people for six three day sessions. We take them to different parts of the state so that they are learning about the issues that are being addressed in that state that involve some sort of environment, natural resource or planning issue.
We also have a substantial training component in conflict resolution, consensus building, community involvement, and then a leadership component. It's been very popular and has had a big impact where people were starting to see a lot of people around the state starting to convene, and meet in collaborative problem solving processes. This all happened in their own communities which is what we intended to have happen. We are starting our forth year of that program in September. We are also expanding that to run something called the Southeast Natural Resources Institute, which will be a shorter pilot effort to see if there is some value in doing this for the whole southeastern region of the United States.
We are working with the State Groundwater Protection Steering Committee. The institute has worked with them for quite a few years. We help this multi-agency committee meet regularly and discuss groundwater issues--right now we are preparing a report for the years activities. There is not a lot of conflict involved in that particular type of project.
Another capacity building project that we are on is working with nine Virginia community mediation centers who we are trying help to secure a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to expand their capacity beyond interpersonal mediation to be able to deal with community wide issues. We are doing nine of those two-day sessions around the state. We work with the centers in partnerships sometimes--we consult with them. We are available to assist them as they start doing this public sector type of work. Before this they've mostly done private sector type of work. We are then looking at how can we expand that to beyond Virginia to other states.
Another significant project is the community based collaborative research consortium that is funded by the Hewlett Foundation. That was founded to address a lot of the conflict that exists over the value of collaborative processes in natural resource issues. There are a lot of criticisms and concerns by agencies, environmental advocates, business participants and so forth, about the proliferation of collaborative groups that are trying to incorporate economic component, social justice component, and environmental component into work on the ground. We've gotten money to fund eight research groups that are on the ground right now, and we'll have a symposium in Utah in September that will bring together these researchers and others to share what we are learning about the processes of collaboration, about environmental outcomes. A spin off of that is actually going to be an effort to learn more about environmental outcomes, and how can we better understand the types of outcomes that are coming from these processes, in particular the ones that are on the ground that are very difficult to quantify.
Q: Is that last project about addressing the skeptics of collaborative processes for environmental conflicts?
A: Well, skeptics, but also we're bringing in people who are supporters, who want better information, better knowledge. How can we be more effective at what we are doing?
Q: Are there skeptics on all sides,
or is it more the environmentalists who are the skeptics?
A: The environmentalists have had a more substantial and more thoroughly articulated set of concerns at some of the highest levels, including a number of organizations that have policies that they will not participate in collaborative processes, and they really criticize people who do. Two years ago we developed a manual, a guide, on collaboration.
It's actually called, Collaboration: A Guide for Environmental Advocates. It was done with a lot of involvement of various environmental organizations, and in partnership with the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society. We also had the support of a number of people from that community of environmental advocates, a couple researchers, and a couple people from the conflict resolution field, who helped make sure that what we were doing was useful, relevant, principled, and was going to be effective. Environmental advocates could say, "This is a really good guide for us as we proceed with collaboration, or as we decide that we're not going to continue with collaboration." The people within the conflict resolution community would see it as legitimate also. The research consortium and the guide project were tied together and are closely related.
Q: So broadly speaking, what are the environmentalist concerns and how do you address them?
A: They are a pretty substantial set of concerns. You can divide them two ways. One is at more of a philosophical level, and at the abstract that environmentalist spends the majority of their time working in collaboration. They're not spending time on their more traditional activities of organizing advocacy, legislation, and sometimes litigation that they had found to be effective, so their voices may be diluted if they start working on collaborative processes.
Then there's also, at the practical level, what happens in collaborative processes; there's deep concern that the environmental voice gets muted, or overwhelmed, compromises are too easy to reach, people become co-opted, and simply there are a number of bad processes. So despite all of this, it might not be the right place and the right time, you may not have sufficient resources to get the information you need, there may not be a facilitator, you may have an agency that dominates inappropriately, and they don't have a proper representation; there is a whole host of issues around bad processes basically.
Q: How do you address those then?
A: Well, in the guide, we addressed it by hear what are the concerns in the environmental community, and convening a couple of rather large groups with day long meetings with leaders in the environment about what are some of their concerns, strengths, and problems. Then we began developing an outline out of what needs to be included in the guide out of that, and having an advisory group that had some very strong critics of collaborative processes, as well as supporters, working with us on this so that it had legitimacy. It's fair to say that both the critics and the supporters both felt like this is a very strong document, and are willing to stand behind it.
In terms of addressing their concerns, their concerns are valid. It's not our place to judge whether or not any one situation is appropriate or not appropriate for a particular organization. What we want them to be doing is making their decisions of collaboration on the basis of good knowledge, and asking the right questions, as opposed to hearsay, or coercion. We want people to feel that if they are participating, they are participating from a well-informed position, and it's well informed not only about whether we should participate, but how we should participate more effectively. The lessons are the same whether it's an environmental community, business community, or agencies. There are some different perspectives that they have obviously. But is this effort worth the while? Do we know how much time it's going to take? Do we have a clear purpose? Do we have the right people involved in the issue? Do we know that we can get the types of information and the knowledge that we are going to need to make effective decisions? Is there proper support? Is the agency, if there's an agency, committed to this process or is it going to be a waste of time if we do something and then nothing happens? The questions are addressed in the guide, and they were addressed in the process of putting together the guide.
Q: So there's a lot of preparation before we agree to a process in terms of investigating the services of the other side and how committed everyone is?
A: Generally yes, but not all issues are framed that way, framed in terms of environmental concerns, or where you would have environmental advocates substantially involved. In the superfund work, for instance, we're just finishing and are now distributing the final report for a superfund sight. There's a sight that has environmental problems, contamination from chemicals affecting the ground water, and yet people don't see it as primarily an environmental issue. They see it as a concern for my community, for my property values, for my health, and to a lesser extent, yes, there's going to be some impact on some of the resources, the creeks, where the ground water has actually discharged into, and runoff too, where the water has discharged into the creeks.
People aren't so concerned about that because they think that's being cleaned up, that it's being addressed. Things aren't necessarily framed as, "Here's an environmental issue, and we have an environmental perspective, we have a business perspective, and there's a public interest perspective," its often not framed that way.
Q: Can you talk a little about the connection between public conflict resolution processes and democracy?
A: Yeah. One way that might be a good way to start that is to talk about a specific project, because you initially asked me about that. One of my most significant projects involved working with bringing together the tobacco farm community and the public health community. It's significant because of the differences. That is, the tobacco farm community saw people advocating public health as trying to put them out of business; they called them "the antis". The public health community was really sympathetic to the farmers. They weren't trying to put the farmers out of business. The general attitude was if you're producing a product that's illegal, you really need to do something else. Its not the type of issue that our government, or processes of governance are set up to address. There simply was no forum for the two communities to come together. Whatever was going to come of bringing them together was going to have to be put into the public policy process.
Due to some foundation funding, we were able to work for seven years, some pretty substantial part of the work actually, bringing together people from the tobacco farming community with the public health community, so that organizations like the American Tobacco Society, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Hearth Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, local coalitions, state ones, Farm Bureau, Tobacco Coops, the state tobacco farm organization, advocacy organizations, and the Concerned Friends of Tobacco. After a period, really taking a fair amount of time,
they actually started to see that they actually had some common ground and that there were some things they were able to work on, and then feed that into the policy process.
For example when the time came, Virginia, like other states, received substantial funding from a settlement something like three hundred and sixty billion dollars or so coming in over 25 years from the state's attorney generals and the tobacco companies for the effects of tobacco. Virginia's share of that was supposed to be something like 4.2 billion dollars, and the farm community and the public health community met and said, "We understand each others needs, and we think that this money could easily end up be used for roads or some general purpose, so lets use it for tobacco purposes." They agreed to go together to sponsor legislation jointly that would support tobacco control initiatives, particularly preventing youth access to tobacco programs.
Over 420 million dollars over four years would be used as funding that would assist tobacco farmers as tobacco is becoming less used to compensate them for their lost income that they're getting from being able to produce less tobacco, and to secure other forms of economic development and that's to the tune of about 2.1 billion dollars over 25 years. This is an example of a process that you cannot find, there's no public body that could do this, but what is coming out of all feeds into the sort of public decision-making processes.
In that case it was in Virginia, and they are also working with Congress right now to make an alliance with the farmers and the health advocates, something called AHEAD. There's actually a meeting July 16 of this year, where they're working together in the US Congress to get appropriate FDA legislation over tobacco products, the type that the health advocates think is appropriate. It will not be the type that the tobacco industry is willing to live with, and to secure support for a new tobacco program that will insure the production of tobacco by tobacco farmers that will insure that they can get the value out of the quota that they currently have, and that they've invested money in so they can get some money out of that also.
How that fits in terms of democracy is that we need to find ways that our communities can come together, instead of being torn apart. Our traditional mechanisms of decision making aren't necessarily set up, sometimes they can be effective, but they can also tend to exacerbate problems, and tear people apart. If you look at democracy with a little "d" and you have a public hearing, a typical format for that would be having a governing body that's sitting higher than you, lets say that they have differing opinions, and one goes up to the microphone, with his back to the audience and opponents, and gets a limited amount of time to say what one needs to say.
By virtue of that limited time and appeal, they have to make their case as strongly as they can in that short period of time, and the other person that responds has to respond in the same way. That tends to exacerbate the differences that people have, and the differences are real; as opposed to finding forums where the people can be brought together and still articulate their differences. They can see if these are the differences that really are meaningful, or are these differences that can be brought together for this particular issue, and where they will feel like they have had a voice in decisions that are made; as opposed to getting up the microphone, you give your speech, and no one responds to you, and you wonder, was this all a charade, had they already made up their mind? There's no way of knowing.
A lot of us who are doing this work in the public sector see what we are doing as enhancing democracy, and that we're finding ways that we can create these spaces for democracy with a small 'd' and people can come together to talk more effectively in open processes, inclusive processes, not behind closed doors. We're creating a climate that says decisions need to be made, that we need to be open, that we need to be transparent, and that's also the kinds of training that we're doing with the Natural Resources Leadership Institute.
Q: So when these democratic processes, with a little 'd', take place, and in the best of cases, the decisions that they reach filter up into some sort of a legislative body, and then becomes Democracy with a large "D"?
A: Right. Sometimes it's the legislature that's saying, we're sponsoring these processes also, or it's a public agency that's sponsoring these processes. The tobacco work was really something that was sponsored on its own, it was clear it was outside of government, where its not always clear that its outside of government; they're simply another form of governance that people are using.
Q: In 50 years, if this is the way that decisions get made everywhere, the idea would be that more people are participating in making decisions, are more connected to their communities, and have a better sense of how to affect their own space, and their own surroundings?
A: Very good way of saying that. These processes are educating, like you said, so people are learning about ways that we can affect our communities. They are also providing a greater sense of ownership. If I'm brought into this process then I have a greater responsibility, and now I'm listening to someone else who has a different perspective. I can't just say, "You have to shut down your farm because what I want is more important than what you want." I have to say, "What I want is important, but I have to find ways to address what your important concerns are also." So, that was very well said.
Q: You said you've been doing that process for seven years. Is that the kind of time frames that we're looking at for this?
A: No, it's pretty rare to have that long a time frame for anything like that. Although I think that its fair to say that I think that few issues get completely resolved at any one time, but for the types of consensus building processes, or meditative processes, there is usually much longer time constraints; and that's a pretty unique situation.
Q: There is probably no such thing as an average for that kind of process, but generally what kind lessons have been used?
A: We may do work that may involve a day-long meeting of people that are brought together. An example of this is the recent superfund work that I just did. We started convening the group of people as advisors in November. They met eight times to develop recommendations for what sorts of use this site should have, and those were completed in June. So that would be a seven, eight month process. The whole process of getting that site into reuse might take another ten years. It's not so cut and dry, it really varies depending on the issue.
Q: You mentioned a few very interesting moments, is there a particular instance in your work that has touched or inspired you?
A: I think there are a lot of them. I'll tell you a couple very short anecdotes. One is when I have been asked to facilitate a meeting around a landfill that had substantial community opposition. The authority that was managing the land fill needed a plan for what they will be doing with those cells as they close them down: are they going to cover them up, or are they going to use them as soccer fields? What would be an appropriate use for this land? I contacted some of the people that were opponents to the landfill to say, "Here's what I've been asked to help with, and the reason they asked me was because of this conflict between the landfill and the neighbors." I say, "Does it make sense and is this going to be something that you're going to be interested in?"
I remember someone who called me back on a Friday night and I really didn't want to talk after a long week, and take time away from my family, but I also remember saying that if this is something that he really wants to do then I'll do it. I basically spent about an hour listening to what his concerns were, and what he thought was happening due to the leakage from the landfill coming into what he thought was his land, and killing his cattle and making them sick and so forth. After an hour, I said, "It must be really hard for you." That was extremely moving for this individual, and he said, "You're the first person who's ever listened to me." He'd been fighting the country, city and county for about two years. He'd been to many public hearings, he'd contacted many different people and I'm sure that people had listened to him, but not in the same way, not without judgment, not trying to understand. That was an example of the power of listening and understanding, and it was another example to me of why it's important for me to make time to do that, because I almost said, no, I can't talk to you now.
Another example might be looking at another one our rather longer processes that was a two year consensus building process involving a citizen advisory group that was set up because they were fighting the department of transportation, who apparently had plans to create an expansion to a highway that would take some portion of a park. There were three interstate highways that were coming together at this one point that was about a mile or so in area and quite congested, and a park that was right there. After 22 meetings, during the last meeting, there had been a person who hadn't been participating regularly, but was in the group that came and said he voted to block consensus. Everyone else had supported it. To see the strength and power of the process from the people who had been meeting all this time who were saying that we are going to meet consensus, we are going to satisfy this persons needs and we're going to address our needs. We aren't going to waste our time here. By virtue of the fact that they had worked together so well, and learned from each other, and cared for each other, these people were able to make that commitment, and instead of just attacking the individual, or the people who supported him. They said, "I'm going to join this person." They addressed his concerns, and asked, "What is it that you need?" What would be effective for you? It was very powerful, more than if we had done it as facilitators. They were able to address his concern and to reach full consensus of the group, which was a very powerful moment after 22 months of going to once a month meetings, and some public meetings added on to that too.
I've seen people who would not even literally get in the same room with each other and who were afraid of getting in the room with each other, becoming quite close friends. It's not at all the goal that people would be friends with each other, but that you can see that by virtue of these people being provided an opportunity to talk to each other about what was most valuable, because they were honest people because they were people who were worthy of respect. They gained a respect for each other and they're able to work together, despite the fact that they do have differences.
Q: What techniques have you found to be particularly useful in accomplishing the goals of your work?
A: It's almost a question I'm afraid to answer because it's not so much techniques as much as a whole program. The fact is that we have a program here that has institutional memory, so we've learned from what we've done, and that has some legitimacy by being associated with the University of Virginia, which for better or for worse, most people see universities as being good places. It brings us some level of legitimacy when we enter a project. By virtue of the training that I've had I have the ability to analyze that conflict is not bad, that conflict can reveal injustice, can force change, and then be able to secure other resources to address problems. If you look at technique as one very small aspect of on the ground type projects, or policy projects, the consensus building and mediation type of work involves a substantial amount of work ahead of time, and then the processes themselves almost, it's not an afterthought. The facilitation is important, but it's far less important than the type of preparation.
Thinking, and strategic thinking in particular, in working with the parties to help set up the process appropriately is very important. One of the former deans of the university said, "You have an ocean liner going across the ocean, what's the most important part of that?" Well, it's the designer; it's not the pilot. It's not the crew. If you have a bad design, the thing is going to sink, if you've got a good design, and a fairly well trained crew, they'll be able to take it forward. I think what is important is more of a commitment to people, and being clear with what that commitment is. Make it clear that we're here to work with you, we're here to help you make you choices, but we're not here to take your choices away from you. If your choice is to go off by yourself and not participate, we respect those choices. We can't make those choices for you.
If you choice is after six months that you can't agree with this, then we're not going to try to make you agree to this. We can help you make a better informed decision, and one that incorporates the needs of different people in ways that are more likely to be effective, fair, and legitimate.
How do we make sure that they are able to understand the truth and the meaning of what a particular issue has, or brings for somebody, or what somebody brings to a particular issue? What sort of learning can we create, what kind of new knowledge do we have to bring into that, and can we do so in ways that keep everything from falling apart, because a lot of times these are very precarious situations. I do like processes that have people listening to each other.
For instance, one thing that we've done quite effectively is using circles. We had the tobacco farmers sitting inside a circle surrounded by the health advocates, people from public agencies, researchers, and public officials. The farmers are talking amongst themselves, addressing what the impact is, what are they facing now, what are the challenges they are facing now, how does that make them feel, what are their biggest fears, what are their biggest concerns, and so on.
It's that chance to talk without interruptions to each other, and generally as facilitator I'm not even in the circle either, and so they're really starting to talk with each other. People inside the circle find it powerful because they are able to voice what is inside of them, without someone responding immediately, arguing immediately, questioning immediately, and then you give people on the outside the chance to ask questions. For people on the outside it's generally very powerful also. Lets bring in the health community now: why do you do the work that you do, what's powerful about it for you, what does that mean for you? My experience has been that most people want to do the right thing, and they want to get their needs met, but they want to be respectful of other people
Q: It sounds like a bit of a fish bowl experiment.
A: Some people call it fish bowl, its sort of a funny name for it. I would like to think of it in terms of circles, but you can call it "fish bowl" when it shifts. There are different ways of structuring it, you might have preset questions or you might not have so many preset questions. You might give people on the outside more of a chance to ask questions or you might not, it might just be a time for us to sit and listen depending on what the level of controversy is, which I find that helpful for.
Q: That's really interesting. Talk a little more about the preparation stage, for example in the super fund context how do you go about preparing people to participate? How do you prepare yourself?
A: Those are two good questions and my role has changed a little bit. With the Super Fund, all that work I am doing is with other people who are part of a consultant process, so that I am one of a larger team. The team includes people that are planners and designers also, so it is not quite the same as when I am the person who is serving as the convener and facilitator, who is really in charge of the whole process.
In the case where I am more in charge of the whole process I tend to have more direct contact with the parties, and I am more privy to private information. What I am finding with the more recent work is that, that is just not happening. What I am mostly doing is helping to think through what we will do to make it an effective process, and facilitating the process, but relying on other people who have more people allocated for contact in between meeting discussion. It is not entirely satisfactory, but in the case of the most recent one it went extremely well. I have to give up a little of my own sense of control.
A typical case would be contacting the parties individually and asking, "What are your needs and concerns? What sort of information do you need to participate effectively?" I would still do that if there is a high level of conflict. In terms of preparing myself, it helps to have been doing this for a while because there are fewer and fewer issues that are new to us.
One example of this was, we started a year ago and we finished last fall, around impact of new power plants and air quality. Even though we met with the governing agency ahead of time, we went to the web site, and read information we were not going to be able to catch up with people that knew the intimacies of the air regulations, which are very complex. We end up depending on the parties to provide the knowledge base and we are sort or the naive ear, asking naive questions, not always on purpose, but simply because we don't understand. I am not sure I answered that one satisfactorily to myself. I can never have enough information and often feel that I should have had more information to be able to be more effective at doing what I do.
So actual substantive information about whatever the topic is?
A: Yes, you know if it is an air quality regulation, or if it is a new EPA program, like emissions trading. I just want to have sufficient understanding of that to ask the right questions and base line of information. I am much more comfortable with that and I think I do a better job when I have that. I don't need to be an expert, you know being an expert can get in the way to some degree. People look at you as an expert, and you impose your own opinions. There is a new term that we came up with during the trainings, the "beginners mind", it is more of a Zen type of term. Even if you have experience with it try to approach it with a beginners mind, have a lot left to learn. Which is always the case in any situation that we get into. The preparation tends to be more substantive, let me catch up on the material.
For me, it is trying to develop a relationship with the people that I am participating with so that they know that I know what I am there for. We are not there to force any body into something. We are not there to have them make a certain set of decisions. We are not there to make them agree. We are there to help them approach a problem in a certain way that we think is working with them, and then defining what is fair, legitimate, and what is going to be effective too.
Q: What kind of qualities do you think people doing your kind of work need to have?
A: That is interesting. I wrote something several years ago with some colleagues about training and educating environmental mediators, and we have a whole list of qualities in there, and SPIDER came out with a list of qualifications too. I probably would have to look at those to refresh my memory on that. I think a commitment to working with people and supporting people is probably the most important one. I see people that are really good and they do have that. Some sort of sense of strategic thinking is important. Being able to think through what kind of outcomes you want and work your way backwards. Being able to work with a wide variety of people, because you see people from all sorts of perspectives, backgrounds, particularly our work, because we work with either very urban or very rural communities, and at the very grass roots neighborhood level up to federal agencies type of work.
Another important quality is the ability to work with very diverse groups of people. I am sure it has always been important, but increasingly cultural competency is significant, and not only the obvious categories of race and ethnicity, but I think class too. In Virginia, there are significant class differences that you need to be able to work in between. The other sort of competencies, or requirements for people are that you need to have the facilitation skills, and experience. I think also life experience, with life experience comes some of the knowledge, of course some people get life experience but they don't learn form it, but hopefully you are learning from that. Sorry to use this term, but I am a big believer in the power of humility. I have a lot of confidence that I can approach problems in ways that are going to be effective or give the best chance at being effective, but part of that is a sense of humility, that's because I know that I need to learn from the people that are there on the ground. It's not me coming in and saying, "here is how you are going to do this," but it's me coming in and asking the questions to get people to look at the things that they need to appropriately. I think that there does have to be some substantive knowledge, and substantive knowledge does not just mean technical expertise, but the institutional arena in which the problem is being addressed.
For example may be how decisions are made in the local government. Who are the advocates within this institutional arena? What sort of laws are there that effect this? What sort of regulations are there that effect that? That's a whole area of substantive knowledge that a lot of people do not think about. You really need to be an advocate for sustainability, working on environmental issues, and that is probably controversial if anyone was paying attention to it.
We don't think that we are neutral; we have an impact on everything that we do. We do think that it is important that we are independent, that we are not dependent on any particular party or set of interests, and that we are impartial or co-partial. That is that we are not seeking to advance a particular set of interests over any other set of interests. By being advocates for sustainability, we mean that we do believe that we need to be responsible in the work that we do, the public decisions that are made, and we need to find ways that insure social equity, economic gain, and ecological. It may not have to happen in the same balance for each project, but we need to find ways to enhance all of those, and we will tell people that. People do not often ask, we will tell people about that; that's what we look to do. We found the best way to do that is as working as a third party, as facilitators, and as mediators to bring people together for not for us to advocate for ourselves what we think people need.
What are the major obstacles?
A: Some of it is institutional, and I am sure other people would say the same thing. How do we operate within a university setting, make contracts, meet payroll, and so on. There is a great need but not necessarily a great demand. I have been here since 1990 and there is fairly continuous demand for the type of work we do, but I don't know if this is true around the rest of the country also and in other countries.
I know for some people, who are good people, are finding that they do not have enough work. I think sometimes explaining the value that we see to people who are really resistant to good process, and who simply think that if you have the right solution that you need to move forward with that and other people are just at fault for not accepting the right solution. That can be a challenge to work with people like that.
In one case in particular right now we were hired to do something, and basically we're not going to be able to do that. The group that contracted with us has not been able to convince one of the parties of the value what it is that they were intended to do, so we are going to back off. I think in this case that was very short sighted, and it is likely to lead to substantial problems down the road.
Talk a little more about the obstacle between the notion of having a solution and resistance to process, such as someone has an idea of how things will be resolved and there not willing to wait until everyone else agrees with them. How does that work?
A: Because they have the right idea in their view, it does not really matter that other people oppose it, but they think that it is the right thing to do. It can be very righteous but it can be very well intentioned but they simply do not have the experience, or do not have with in their worldview, the idea of that other people may not have the same perspective or share the same concerns, or may not be as far along as they are at any particular time.
Q: So what do you do about that? How do you address that?
A: Well I do not know that I am particularly good at that, or that we have had a whole lot of practice at that, because generally we are getting asked into a situation that people have already decided that it is time to bring in some outsiders and that it is time to get some additional help and develop some sort of process that is going to get us to where we need to be. We do run into that, we don't bulldoze over it, and we don't attack people.
It is pretty much the same with pretty much every other issue. What are your concerns? Why do you have these concerns? Can we address those concerns? Have you considered this, this, and this? Looking at what is it that you want to have? What is your final outcome that you want to have or outcomes that you want to have? Is what you are planning to do going to get you the buy in from these people? Is it going to get you the approval that you need for this? That is pretty much it.
Q: Lets see.
What advice would you give to someone who was getting into this field?
A: I would welcome them because it is a pretty neat work to be doing, and partly because there is some great people that do this type of work. It tends to attract people that are very giving, competent, very smart--that does sound self-serving--but that is probably why I like being in this field because I get to interact, rub-elbows with people that are doing things, make a change. One is take advantage of opportunities. I did a lot of work for free, to try to get experience on the ground.
Second would be to participate in the Professional Association, right now that is the association for conflict resolution, particularly the environment and public policy section. It is the best way to learn, meet colleagues, and to help develop the field, the profession. Another thing is that a lot of people that first started, there was no field, they just started doing this work. There are needs in your own community that can be met by bringing people together. That is pretty much it. Then if they can hook up with someone who is doing this type of work, one of the best ways of learning is kind of a mentoring and internship opportunity.
Q: This is sort of the inverse of that question. Lessons learned over the years that stick out in your mind.
A: The whole interview has been lessons. Life lessonsdon't assume I know. I assume just the opposite because I don't really understand until I have really had a chance to talk with people. The presenting problem and issues that people talk about are rarely the ones that are most significant. Two lessons I have learned are: what looks like one set of issues will almost always end up being another set of issues and learning over and over again the value of preparation.
Any time that I go into a session or meeting or project without having talked to people sufficiently I am surprised, and blind-sided by issues that come up. What are your goals and aspirations? Begin with your end in mind. Another one is that most people in most circumstances really do want to do the right thing; they really want to aspire higher. This book that I wrote with my colleagues, John Stevens and Marie Piscoli, Reaching for Higher Grounds, says if you set your goals high, -people like having a challenge like that- people want to achieve things that are good for the other people that are involved, they want to do things that are good for their community, and for their children.. We need to allow people to talk about that explicitly.
Q: Well thank you very much.
A: You're welcome.