Suzanne Ghais

Program Manager at CDR Associates, Boulder, Colorado

Topics: mediation, framing, conflict stages

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Give me a brief overview of your work.

A: I am a program manager over at CDR Associates. We are all generalists to some degree in all of the work that CDR does. CDR does organizational conflict management and consensus building and training and, environmental and also international. However, more of the senior people do the international work. So most of my work is in the organizational and environmental area. Within that, we consider our core competence to be conflict resolution, but we do a lot of work that isn't necessarily around conflict facilitation, such as consensus building, public participation, and things like that.

Q: Within your work is there a moment that has inspired you that you can remember?

A: There are a lot of inspiring moments, and they often occur sometimes during projects. In some ways there have been many, but in some ways there's not just one that stands out in my head. A recent one is a mediation that I did between a federal agency and a state agency. In this case it was the state agency that was the regulator and the federal agency that was the regulated because it had to do with a military base that had environmental problems, so the state agency was the environmental regulator. They had just locked horns about the states authority to require certain things and they had communicated a lot by email and a lot by non-communicating. I went through the normal steps of a mediation, including trying to get to what was really important to them and putting that out there for both sides to see and to understand, so they could get away from fighting about who has what right, who has what authority, etcetera. And it just completely shifted. I'm not sure what was the moment when that shift occurred, but I think to a large extent it happened in my work before the meeting.

That's one of my principles, I try to make a lot of progress before the people actually meet in preparing them and letting them talk to me and vent and let them work through some of the emotional aspects. So that was one inspiring occasion, they came to a very good agreement.

Another example I did was a retreat with an organization who had about 30 people that worked there with strong sort of political ideals, sort of left of center, not radical left necessarily. They had strong ideals about working with each other as equals and respecting everybody. But the head of this firm and the other couple people at the top of the firm were incredibly accomplished professionals. The other younger staff members were sort of in awe of them and treated them with a lot of deference. And I think the people at the top didn't realize that they were treated with a lot of deference. I think they just thought, well if there are problems, why don't people just come talk to me. So there is this irony on one hand of the ideal of egalitarianism and on the other hand a reality of a really strong hierarchy and a strong, what anthropologist call, power distance, if I remember that term right, a lot of deference toward authority. And in a two-day retreat, we really worked through a lot of that. I don't know if I can pinpoint a single moment, but it was really inspirational to see how their relationships had turned around at the end of those two-days.

Now, there is a customer that I'm about to work with in a month and they want me to do another of their annual retreats and some of the problems are still there. So it's not as if you went from bad situation to completely resolved over night. I think there was a lot of improvement, but there's still more improvement to be done. So I don't think there are magic moments in our line of work.

Q: When you do these retreats, what do you do exactly?

A: Again, I do a lot before the retreat. I put a huge emphasis on preparation. I believe that you need to have an in-depth understanding of the people that you're working with and their situation. And then you can design a customized intervention. The example I just gave was not a retreat; it was a facilitation. I view the role of the facilitator as an architect of a custom process. If you were an architect designing a custom home, you would need to know that family. How many kids do they have? What relatives stay with them? Do they like to socialize and have friends over? Do they entertain? Do they cook a lot? Do they like to watch a lot of TV? What do they do? What do they like and what is the environment around them like? What are their neighbors like? Their neighborhood, is it trees or mountains or plains?

You'd have to understand the external environment as well as the internal dynamics and culture of that family. So, when I look at designing an intervention, by the way the terms facilitation and mediation are really very fungible in my view. When I design an intervention whether it's called facilitation, or mediation, or whatever else, I think the most important thing is to get a really in-depth understanding of the situation. More specifically, of the people involved and of the external environment that they're operating in, and then design accordingly.

I think I have a pretty wide range of tricks and tools and group activities and processes to work from. I put something together that I think will accomplish what they need to accomplish as well as what they've agreed to try to accomplish. I think that contracting a process is important. It's an interactive process, a kind of on-going negotiation of what it is that you're hoping for, what you can reasonably expect from this intervention, and what it is that I can deliver, and what I need from you in order to be able to deliver that. So that is a kind of ongoing component.

Q: Are you basically setting the expectations at that point?

A: Negotiating expectations actually.

Q What do you try to negotiate when you talk about expectations?

A: Everything from more concrete business stuff of budgets and fees, to what kind of access I'll need from people, to what are the outcomes that they can expect. Is this a retreat about improved relationships? Can they expect more open communication? Can they expect that the dispute will have gone away by the end of it? Will they expect a written agreement? Some of this is set up very formally. Some of it is set up informally with just a conversation. Some of it is set up soon after the first phone call, like I just had while you were waiting downstairs. That phone call is when I talk about some of my approaches and what my style is and I promise a budget within a few days. We like to get something in writing that says this is a go. But that's just the first step of contracting.

There will be an ongoing discussion about what we can, not lengthy necessarily, but touching base frequently about what needs need to be met. Part of it is the ground rules and setting the purpose of the meeting and all of that standard stuff that goes along with a facilitation. That's a part of contracting.

Q: There's a limited scope of things you can accomplish.

A: Yeah, you bet.

Q: So when you go in there and they say we want to fix this, to solve this conflict, what do you do, you're only going to be there a day, a week?

A: I mean there's one situation that I view as an important learning experience about contracting and setting expectations. I was working with a group, a professional service firm, very highly expert skilled professional firm, and very task oriented group in terms of their culture. They were not into touchy feely. Working on relationships was something that they kind of shied away from, but at the same time they had some real conflicts. This was framed as a facilitation effort. There were a number of problems that they wanted to solve, but there were also conflicts. We did spend a lot of time. This was a series of like half-day meetings that went on every couple weeks for several months, so this was a fairly in-depth intervention. So there was time to work on those relationships things.

So when I proposed a draft, what we call a macro-agenda, like this meeting will be devoted to this and this meeting will be devoted to that, there were a couple meetings that I set aside for what I call team building. And this is a word that allows people in very masculine or task oriented cultures to talk about relationships and healing relationships. When the small group that was kind of my process advisory group saw this, they said, "what's teambuilding? This is a problem we need to fix. Yeah, that's a meeting, here's another task we need to accomplish, we want to have a ten-year vision statement, that's a task, but what's teambuilding. You know, what is that?" And so I said, "Ok, fine, we can cut it." But at the same time I had sort of facilitated an early discussion about what they hoped to have resolved from this intervention and among those things was reduced conflict, better cohesion.

So it was my mistake because of my youth and ignorance. What I wish I had said is, "I can go either way on this. We can skip the team building parts and that's fine. We can just focus on these tasks, in which case your results will be a vision statement, a solution to this problem, a solution to that problem, or we can try to get to these goals that you've outlined for reducing conflict and improving cohesion. If that's the case, you need to give me the flexibility to devote time and a couple of meetings to that subject". I think we accomplished a lot of good stuff with that group, but I think that they were less than 100% satisfied with the outcome. I think if we had negotiated that in advance and gotten clear on what I needed from them in order to deliver what they were hoping to get from my services, than they would've been more satisfied one way or another.

Q: It sounds like if you were to do that again you would make the link between the team-building segment of the meeting schedule and the results that they were looking for more clear.

A: Exactly, and you can do some of that through the concrete problem solving. I think in my mind that's what I was hoping, that we would get at relationships through the back door of collective consensus problem solving. I think it went somewhat towards that, but not as far as it could had if we had been allowed to work on conflicts and relationships as an explicit topic.

Q: Are there other lessons that you've learned through things that you've done, from mistakes you've made?

A: There are so many, you know in 1999 and 2000, I was in such a steep learning curve. There were major lessons like weekly, in group conflict and group facilitation. Before that, I had done a lot of interpersonal mediation and two-party mediation, so my learning curve for that was years before. When I was in graduate school, at ICAR, there was a dominant metaphor that came from John Burton, who was worshiped at ICAR, it was conflict resolver as doctor almost. Doctor very much in the western paradigm of medicine, where you identify the cause of the disease and you address that cause and you sort of try to eliminate that cause. And if you eliminate the cause, you truly resolve the conflict, as opposed to merely managing it or merely settling it.

Q: You diagnose?

A: That's right, you diagnose and where does the term diagnosis come from? It comes from medicine, western medicine more specifically. You're sick with pneumonia or something and our task is to get in your system and kill it. And if we kill it, we eliminate your disease and you're healthy and well, and everything's fine. Well, I've actually got questions about the appropriateness of that paradigm of medicine, but that's another subject.

As far as a metaphor for conflict resolution, I don't think it's right on. I don't think there's a pathogen necessarily in conflict so clearly as there is at least in some forms of disease. And I do think that deep-rooted conflicts have to been seen as part of a relationship. Actually, Michelle LeBaron has some very nice writing about that concept in "Bridging Troubled Waters," which is one of her recent books. And so what are relationships? Relationships are connections that need to be tended, that need to be nurtured, and yeah, conflict, there can be causes of conflict, and I think it is important to look at the causes of conflict, the structural causes. What are the causes in terms of personality differences, or communication style differences, what are the value differences that create conflict, et cetera. There are lots of causes of conflict we could learn and what the opposing interests are. So yes, it's important to identify and to address those causes.

At the same time, you can't just say, "Bing! Let's change this structure that was causing these conflicts and then everything will be fine". No, conflicts are embedded in relationships and relationships need tending and nurturing. One classical example of this that we have experienced in this organization and many other organizations that I've worked with is that we have a professional staff in this organization whose orientation is primarily external, working with clients, going places. And then you have a support staff, whose orientation is internal and their customers are us. They have more internal orientation and there might be social class differences. There are structural elements. There is a hierarchy. We assign work to them; they don't assign work to us. There are probably certain personality types that go into certain roles and certain personality types and value sets that go into becoming a conflict resolution practitioner versus becoming administrative assistant, for example.

So you have all these sources of conflict so you have chronic problems including our failing to give them information when they need it, our failure to do our forms properly and do our details properly. Our failure to communicate to them early enough and in appropriate ways and so on and so forth. There's no real single thing you can do to turn that around. You can identify the cause, that's helpful. Maybe there are structures you can change. We tinkered with that over the years, you just sort of have to keep working at it; you have to keep tending to it. It's a relationship that is ongoing it needs ongoing tending.

So conflict resolution versus management, we manage it. And I challenge John Burton or anyone to come here and say, "Oh here is the cause you need to eliminate and therefore you will have resolution, rather than mere management." You know? And I believe, although I don't have practitioner experience in that the area of looking at international and ethnic conflict, you're going to find the same thing. In the Israeli and Palestinian conflict there are causes of conflict that can be addressed, that should be addressed, structural ones, political structures for sure. But then what you're going to essentially still have is relationships between two sets people and within those sets of people.

I mean the Israelis and Palestinians would like to build a wall and separate themselves from each other. I know that some Israelis were advocating that and Palestinians might be less enthusiastic because a lot of them would loose their jobs, but I'm sure both wish that the other would just go away, but it's not going to happen. They're going to be very approximate neighbors for a very indefinite amount of time to come. That's a relationship, whether they want it or not, whether good or bad, it's going to need on-going tending with respect to how to engage each other in a constructive way, how to deal with problems as they come up, because more problems are going to come up.

Even if you come up with a perfect peace treaty, that everybody signs and does press conferences and then celebrates and does photo ops, that's not going to change that there will be ongoing problems, ongoing conflicts, ongoing needs to continue to cultivate and to repair and cultivate and rework that relationship. And that's managing and I don't think there's a "bing" resolution. That's another lesson I think I've learned.

Q: So in this building, you talk a lot about relationships with each other and you're discussing and analyzing situations and tending relationships. When you go into that mass filling setting of some sort of corporate organizational problem, you already mentioned that you tailor the language a little bit.

A: A lot.

Q: How important is language in what you do for your requirements.

A: Very. A lot of facilitation and mediation is about language. Am I a facilitator; am I a mediator or just a meeting? Am I a consultant and what are we doing? Are we doing mediation, just a meeting, a facilitation, are we having a discussion or a retreat? All of that. I just look at the language that they use and I pick it up and I try to use it. It's kind of like learning a dialect.

Q: What about the word conflict? Do you use that term?

A: Only if the participants use it first. One reason that we are CDR and not the Center for Dispute Resolution anymore is because people say, "Oh! I don't want to hire a firm for dispute resolution." A lot of people don't want to admit that they have conflict. And there are also different understandings of the term. In the field of conflict resolution, we explain that term very broadly as meaning any situation of opposing goals, whether explicit or tacit. That's a very broad definition, much broader than the definition of everyday language. Or it may mean violent warfare or it may mean sort of open shouting and open arguing and battling verbally. So, I'm very sparing with how I use that word. But if the parties say, "Yeah, we have conflict", then yeah, I use it. But it doesn't matter what we call it you know what I mean. It's the situation, we just work with what we got.

Q: What do you find as the major obstacles in your work?

A: Again, lots of answers potentially. Obstacles to resolving difficult conflicts? Or obstacles to me being able to be effective?

Q: You don't have to come up with a whole gimmick. You can contextualize it if you want, in the retreat setting you're talking about, or the corporate setting or environmental, state and federal.

A: Well, let me just give you one example. The obstacle may have been me. It might have been my own shortcomings. This is a field where, I guess any profession is like that, but you're constantly learning. You never are done. You can always get better. I do think there are a lot of right ways to do things and then there are wrong ways to do things as well. So you're cultivating your own style, and different styles are fine, but you are also constantly making mistakes. I've seen even the most senior partners in the organization, who are pioneers in this field; I've seen them all screw up in one situation or another. You can't expect perfection, it's not a precise field, maybe no human service field is.

Here's one example where I thought I might've screwed up, and some of the obstacle was maybe me, and some of it was in the situation. I was mediating, they called it mediation, could've called it facilitation, really principally between one individual on one side and a department on the other side. The one individual was a woman who sort of served them in an internal organizational capacity and they were engineers who were more externally oriented. And this woman was in a soft-skills kind of role and she placed a strong value on work-place relationships. She also had complaints about being excluded and being not kept in the loop on various kinds of information. There were 3 men, a director and two managers below him. They were very much more fact oriented, task oriented, and relationships were definitely a secondary thing for them. The woman was the one who had much more invested in the whole process. The men were kind of going along with this because they wanted to be helpful. They were pretty happy with the status quo and they were like, "Well, she's unhappy and we don't really know why. But if we can help, we'll try, but we don't really think we've been doing anything wrong".

So I worked a lot with her. I worked with all of them on how to frame their concerns in a way that the other side would be able to hear, but I worked more with her to try to reframe how she framed her needs. She wanted connectedness and she wanted a recognition of their inter-dependence into phrasing that they could hear and understand, such as I want to be kept in the loop, I need info from you in order to do my job well, which was true and she wasn't getting some of that information. So anyway, we worked through a lot of this and a lot of it went really well. However, there was a moment where there was one of these, sometimes in a meeting you kind of cut through all the garbage and somebody comes out with a very emotional and a very heart-felt and genuine statement for what is really going on with them. I wish I could remember what it was exactly, but she came out with one of those kinds of statements. I was concerned with keeping this meeting that the guys, the engineers would still feel comfortable participating in.

So whereas if I were in a group where they were all a similar culture as her, I would have dwelled on that moment. I would have mined that moment for its further riches, I would have stayed there, I would have empathized, I would have maybe been silent and just let it hang in the air while maybe people contemplated what she said. And I didn't do that because I was concerned it had gotten maybe too heavy duty for the three engineers to deal with, to be comfortable with. So I quickly shifted away from it. And there was another woman who was sort of a Human Resources type person. She wasn't Human Resources actually, but she had an internal role where she helped out with these situations, kind of informally mediating and she was kind of pissed off. And before the break, she said, "You know I think we just let a moment go there that we really needed to go with for a minute".

So what was the obstacle there? I think part of the obstacle was when you have two different sides and groups involved with two such different communication styles and such different value systems, that you're trying to find a mode of communication that works for both of them and that is comfortable for both of them in which both sides can really express what's going on for them. But maybe the obstacle was my failure due to the maybe possibility that I was uncomfortable with that emotional moment? I've been comfortable with other emotional moments. So maybe that wasn't just my discomfort. Maybe it was my inability to find, at that moment, a way to bridge where she was coming from and where they were coming from, that would have allowed us to use that moment for the good. To create understandings instead of create more discomfort and distance.

Q: So the lesson learned there, if you were to do that again, was that you might dwell on it a little more, might let it sit in the air even though you had those two different cultures sitting at the table?

A: I guess I don't know what I would've done, because it was a hard one. I wish I could remember what it was exactly . There were some things she said that actually offended them that had to do with bringing up old incidences, five and six years old, that she was using as an illustration of why she was upset. And they were feeling like, "Holy smokes, this was five ago and we're just hearing about this now, how do we know what else you're harboring". I'm trying to remember if it was that, but I don't think so, I think it was something else. But I guess I wish I could've found a way to honor that moment in some way that worked for her that acknowledged and validated her. Then maybe just give it a minute and then maybe I could've reframed it so that the men could understand, I guess. There's not a clear lesson out of that one, so that's why I say, maybe the obstacle was me.

Q: Well, I think that's a great example. It's quite common for someone to bring up an example from a time to which everyone else thinks is completely irrelevant but for that person is very alive, and very present.

A: And again, if you look at deep-rooted broader social conflicts, I think you're going to find a lot of that, in fact I know you'll find a lot of that. When did this conflict start? Chris Mitchell at ICAR used to talk about that, you ask when the conflict started and you get very different answers from the different sides. Ask what is the history of what happened here and you get very different stories. Ask what were the key turning points or key traumas were along the way and you get very different answers.

But it is important to explore the past, I don't agree with some of the standard community mediation rhetoric that says, "future focus." I don't think you can do that. I think you have to explore the past, and often in some depth, not to get to an agreement about who did what to whom. Often you can't, but to understand that for each person and group involved, how the past affects their perceptions now, how it affects their ability to trust, how it affects their over-reactions perhaps, or their tendency to interpret a current event in a different way.

You can see this at all levels, I think you can see it in international conflicts, you can see it in marriages. A spouse had some difficult experience with that spouse. Maybe an ex-spouse or an ex-girlfriend, boyfriend in the past, then they'll be on hyper-alert for that thing being done to them again. They'll over-interpret "Oh! Don't you dare try to blame me again, I'm tired of being blamed on unfairly." " Well I wasn't blaming you, lay-off. Now I'm pissed off 'cause you..." You know what I'm saying, those cyclical things. You have to get into the past; you have to explore the past.

Q: Sounds like, if nothing else to understand where a party's reaction might be coming from, the context.

A: Exactly, and to understand their story, to understand their narrative. Understand what is the story from their point of view. Who are the good and evil characters? What was the climax? What was the d nouement of the story? You have to understand it. Now you have to structure that conversation, so that it doesn't become a very unconstructive debate about who did what to whom, and when, and I did not say that, and you did too say that.

Q: How do you keep it from going there?

A: You have to work in advance. You have to do work before the parties come together. Then you coach the parties on how to describe what they're talking about in a way that will get the other person in a frame of mind to listen and not to resist and be defensive. And it's hard and maybe I didn't fully succeed in the situation I just described.

Q: Generally do you have techniques that you find work better to get people to talk in ways that don't spark defensiveness?

A: Yeah, the ground rule that I like to use is "Describe Behavior and Don't Attribute Motives".

Q: In a sense you're saying don't make assumptions about people's motives.

A: That's right. But also, if I say to you, "You were trying to undercut me", you're going to get defensive rather than if you say "You then went to the boss and said x, y, z". That's more objectively verifiable. You still may remember different things, but if I say, "You came to my office that day and said you were doing x and you started taking on this project that I thought was mine". Okay, so then maybe you can see why I felt wronged by that. Whereas if I say, "You were trying to steal this project from me," then you're being attacked and you're not going to be in the mood to listen.

I think people get this, once I put it before them. I guess that's another thing. I used to feel like I sort of had to be a magician and lately I've come to see that it can help to explain what I'm doing, between that state and federal agency. At the beginning of it or maybe it was before-hand, I said rather than telling, you know, just the basic position and interest stuff, which I know they don't look fondly upon it at ICR, but it can be profoundly powerful, it can be. It's not the only thing that we need to have in our tool bag, but it is one very important thing. I said, you know I have found, or we as a field have found that if you simply state what outcome you want, you're going to end up locking horns.

Whereas if you describe what is the really underlying important thing to you, then we can usually find multiple ways of meeting that and some way that will work for both. So, it's sort of like 15-second training segments or sometimes an hour training. Sometimes it's worth it to spend an hour on training for say, a yearlong negotiation with multiple stakeholders. So trying to be more explicit about my methods, about what I'm doing and why I'm doing what I'm doing.

I think that helps people work with me a little bit better. And if professionals are working on me, I like to think about what they think too. I go to an osteopath sometimes and they kind of do their thing. I can either lie their silent or I can say, "hmm, what are you doing right now", and get a little explanation. It's interesting and it helps to give me clues about what I can do, so that I don't replicate the problems that I've had.

Q: There's tons of advice in what you've said. Let me frame this differently, what advice would you give to someone coming into this field?

A: As far as building their capabilities? Or as far as building their career, I mean like how to get into it?

Q: Speak a little to the first, and then to the second.

A: You've got to be open to just always learning, learning, learning. You've got to learn by doing, but you've also got to be careful not to throw yourself into a situation that is so above your head. If it is over your head, make sure you have support and that's hard to judge sometimes.

I found myself a couple of years ago in a situation that was way over my head and I was doing it solo. So take on challenges, but challenges that are not too far above you're head and if it is a little over your head, make sure you have support, whether that support is a mentor, someone you can talk to at every break or someone to co-facilitate or co-mediate with, that's the ideal. Or just people you can kind of debrief with or process through what happened. So, the learning is constant, you have to just throw yourself into it. I don't think you can be in this field if you don't really love it.

So I guess if you don't love this process of learning and of just dealing with people situations and the riskyness of intervening in someone else's life, don't do it. I love it; I cannot see ever getting tired of this. Every situation is different. Throw yourself into it an just realize there is going to be a very long learning curve. There will be times that you feel really discouraged. If any one is listening to this who knows who came up with that little model, it is brilliant, it is really true. It's sort of just trainer's folklore. It's oral tradition, I don't know where it came from but it's really, really true. So you've got to be able to push through those moments when you feel really low on yourself and you feel like a failure. You have to realize that that goes along with this work.

Q: What about career wise?

A: You've got to be in it for the long haul. There's not a clear-cut career path for this field like there is in an attorney's, for example. If you want to become an attorney, you know what you've got to do. You go to law school, you might clerk for a judge for a year, you work for a law firm for two years and then you're ready to go. Medicine, longer cycle, but same deal. There is a path and if there weren't, I don't think it would work in creating that demand.