Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University
Topics: framing, trust building, conflict assessment
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Incompatible Frames
- Framing Environmental Conflict
- Explanation of "Frames" and "Framing"
- Transformative Mediation
- Name-Calling in Conflict
- Zero-Sum Conflicts
- Errors in Framing Conflict
- The "Table" Stage of Conflict
- Building and Repairing Trust
- Trust and Shared Identity
- "Managing" Distrust
- Individuals and Intractable Conflict
- Trust and Distrust
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?
A: I have a background in social psychology. I was one of Deutch's students in the sixties in graduate school. It's a great time to be studying conflict resolution because there was conflict everywhere in the streets, and conflict in the research lab. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between the two, and then we tried to see the difference between the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. At the same time there were very theoretical approaches in trying to understand disputing. It opened up all kinds of exciting opportunities. I've taught in the business school ever since I left my graduate program. I've done a lot of work in negotiation and trust development/building, which is my current area of interest. I am an author of a couple of textbooks on negotiation, which are used in a lot of graduate programs to teach the process. More recently, I've also been working on some intractable environmental disputes. Several academics and I just did a case book/theory book on intractable environmental disputes. We looked primarily on how parties framed the disputes (key issues and key processes with regard to disputing and dispute resolution).
Q: What was the title of that?
A: It's called either Framing, or Managing Environmental Disputing. Actually Guy and Heidi had a couple of chapters in there as well.
Q: Are you writing a piece on the website?
A: We wrote two pieces on trust and distrust, which are in the website. I think some of the other people in our project wrote pieces on some of the framing work that we did. It was in the context of the environment but we tried to approach it more broadly. We looked primarily on the basic notion on how parties defined key aspects of a dispute. It had a great deal to do with whether there was further conversation that led to resolution or led to no resolution.
We felt that in many cases what we thought were environmental conflicts that were intractable were conflicts where the parties had framed the issues or their identity and characterization of the other parties' identity. Also the parties would think about what was appropriate as a conflict resolution process or framed issues of risk or framed issues of power in ways that were fundamentally incompatible. The notion was that if the parties framed them in ways that were incompatible that when they tried to talk to each other, they talked at each other. They talked in a way that never fully engaged each other It was a process that never led to productive resolution.
We developed a framework for studying that by analyzing transcripts, interviews, conversations, news media clips, public documents, and so forth to see if we could find what the different frames were that were operating and how those frames may or may not have produced disputes that were more intractable.
Q: Can you contextualize that for me in an environmental example?
A: In Ohio, a couple of graduate students and I, studied a task force that was set up by the EPA to try to rewrite water quality standards for ground water. This task force had probably twelve or thirteen representatives from the development community; these are people who do major construction kinds of things (power companies, road builders, big home owners or land developers). We also had twelve or thirteen representatives from the environmental community. These were people who represented conservation organizations, wildlife management organizations, etc. We also had representatives from the EPA at the table. It was clear that in the past three or four years, all of the cases that had gone to court had favored the environmental groups. So the environmental groups saw that the courts basically had backed a very high set of standards for water quality. It was crazy for them to negotiate away from what the courts had already done. The development community was very clear that they wanted to relax some of those standards. They used all kinds of economic and social arguments as to why the standards were too rigorous and mitigated economic development in a number of areas. The environmentalists argued that the current standards defined by the court were perfectly appropriate and there was no reason to back off from any of those. As a result, the environmental community argued that they had the upper hand and they were not about to move off of it. The regulatory community said that they wanted those things relaxed and to have more flexibility and freedom in what they do. In the most part, it is very much like a gain and a loss frame. The parties, in many ways, argued past each other. The whole year the community met together once a month to discuss the water quality standards. The same thing is true for how the dispute should be resolved. It was very clear since the environmentalists had the upper hand, they felt that any subsequent issue should go back to the court system. It was clear that the regulated community wanted to have more of a negotiated process mediated by the EPA, or something like that. We argue that those are frames. Those were experiences and perspective shaped by the interests of the parties which led them to the conversations that really didn't engage each other.
People looked at a lot of other disputes. People looked at the Quincy dispute. Guy and Heidi looked at the development on the Front Range here in Boulder, Colorado Springs and in Denver. People looked at the Edward Aquifer in Texas. This was a big underground water dispute between ranchers, conservationist, and homebuilders as to who has water rights and how to share these water resources.
Q: In that first example that you gave in Ohio, as a third party, do you advocate a situation like that for negotiations? Do you advocate for settlements outside of the court? What rule do you see a third party playing in a situation where you see the environment having the upper hand and the corperations are looking for a loosening of the regulations?
A: I am not sure that there is a perfect solution in all cases. It was very clear in this case that the third parties were at the table, but also facilitators that were hired were not tuned into what was really going on. The ear that they were listening to the conversation was not a ear that would have allowed them to approach the parties and try to get some conversations on a more productive or useful tact. Alternatively, to decide whether we were wasting everyone's time by having these meetings, if in fact, the real interests of the parties were to play the dispute out in court. In other words, the party that likes things the way they are is happy to talk but really takes no constructive action. The disadvantaged party hopes to take things to court and hopes to get something better than what they would be getting. Had the disputants approached the problem at that level they might have realistically confronted each other as to the productivity of what they were trying to do at the table and whether it was worth all the time and energy they were putting into it.
Q: If I were a third party facilitator in that situation and I came to you and said "Roy I'm stuck." What could I do?
A: One of the things that we could try to do is listen for the frames that are being actively used by the parties. Then we can begin to figure out how to reframe or change some of the language that is being used.
I don't think we are absolutely clear as to what all the different possibilities are with regard to how you do that kind of re-framing. That is sort of where the book stopped. We offered a variety of possibilities. Some of the sub-groups who worked together have been doing a follow-up project. They have basically been doing some writing and thinking about how you as a disputant re-frame what is going on. Or what can third parties do to help parties' re-frame or re-portray the conversation so that they may understand where each side is coming from. Then they can figure out how to switch that conversation to something that they both can engage in to really understand what is happening.
Q: Breakdown that word "frame" for me a little bit. When you say parties have frames that talk at each other rather than through each other, what does that mean?
A: A frame has a number of definitions. Basically, a frame is a perspective or can be a point of view or can be a way of defining what is relevant and what is not relevant about what is going on in a situation. Like the frame of that picture on the wall over there defines some white space and then a photograph of buffaloes. It also separates that picture from the wall around it. Cognitive frames, ways that we aggregate and process information, are certainly one definition of what a frame is. Another definition of a frame is its basis that frames are expressed through language. So the language we chose to use, or the language we chose to describe what is going on, helps to frame. Are you and I having a discussion, an argument, or a fight? Depending on which word that we chose to use, which engages all kinds of notions of what we are up to. If we define it as a fight, all of a sudden it sounds far more antagonistic and adversarial, than if we are having an animated discussion about something.
Once you define something, frames can be transformative. Once you change the definition of what it is we are doing, it begins to change the nature of the conversation as we have it. People have talked about mediation as being transformative. It may not solve the disagreement between the people, but it will fundamentally transform their relationship and their ability to problem-solve together in the future around this problem or similar problems. Those frames or those perspectives can therefore really be shifted over time.
Q: Talk to me a little more about the language point and if you can contextualize it in the Ohio example again. What are the kinds of language that led to certain frames? What may be the possible options for change?
A: Well, the environmentalists regularly referred to the people on the other side of the table, the development community, homebuilders, power companies, companies with big investments who were disturbing the earth and as a result changed the ground water conditions or control run-off, siltage, or a whole variety of things, constantly, to their face, called them "polluters." That is not a term of endearment. That is not a term that allows the polluters to see what they are doing in a positive light. They don't feel like people on the other side are treating them fairly or nicely. That particular case clearly made the relationship between them somewhat more adversarial.
Q: So a skeptic might come along and say, "Big deal. Call them polluters; everyone knows that's what they really think." So it really wouldn't make that much of a difference to call them something else. How does it affect the negotiations themselves?
A: Conflict between parties is largely a result of interactions around non-verbal exchanges of looks and glances. Verbal articulation of issues, problems, perceptions and actions are either perceived as moving us in the same direction or moving us in different directions. Language is used in ways to heighten the conflict level because of what we call ourselves, what we call the other party, what we believe are the only reasonable ways for resolving this problem between us. It's fundamentally clear that if we are committed to conflict resolution we have to be committed to understanding what kind of language people are using. If we believe that resolution is possible we may have to help them change that language.
I just came from a discussion that I left upstairs, in which we were talking about gaps in the field. One of the gaps was that people who believe in conflict resolution generally have liberal values. Basically they are committed to a principal that most conflicts are resolved. When you look at a number of other groups in our society that are more politically and religiously conservative, they don't share a commitment to conflict resolution. They often share a commitment to domination, to winning, to control.
Q: Ã?Â?in the name of justice?
A: In the name of their definition of what is right, what is fair or whatever. Whether we call it religious extremism, political extremism, or fundamentalism. Extremism is a word I am using from my value base to describe their value base. That is a framing issue. I have immediately chosen polarizing language to talk about that difference. Language is instrumental to all of this. If we are going to change what people do, we first have to figure out how to talk to each other in a way that we really do understand each other and believe that there is a real commitment to try and understand.
Q: That is an interesting conundrum there. This is a good segway into the next question. What challenges lie ahead in the field of conflict resolution?
A: We were just talking about that upstairs. I am going to turn to my notes. I think there are a lot. Let me just name a few. Putting the tools of conflict resolution into the hands of those who don't really understand what it is as a discipline and then making conflict resolution available to lots of people. This is already being done in some interesting ways. What they teach kids to do in schoolyard mediation is a great example.
Understanding that some disputes are in fact zero-sum and have to be treated as zero-sum. That is, there are some conflicts that are not resolved. There are some conflicts where there is no win-win. There are some conflicts where both parties are going to lose, and it is just a question of who is going to lose worse. We don't have very many models or concept bases about how to deal with that.
We are try to figure out whether we really can separate conflict resolution values from other political or sociopolitical values and to understand the other perspective better. There is simply not anywhere near enough dialogue with those groups that we pretend to not understand. We think that those other groups are all screwed up because they apparently don't believe in conflict resolution or injustice, as we would define it.
Bill Ury is doing this whole third side business, which explains how we look at a lot of alternative roles that various groups can play that are not formally defined as mediation or arbitration but are equally important in value.
We look a great deal at the engagement phases of disputes. So what happens at the table, or what happens in the fight, or what happens at the meeting, but we having not spent very much time at all at what happens before the parties engage or at the aftermath kinds of issues. These are time series ideas, evolution and change kinds of ideas.
That is just scratching the surface.
Q: Sure. Let's flip the coin then and take more of an appreciative inquiry approach and give me your view on what you think the field has accomplished? What things look different since the inception of the field?
A: I bring about thirty years of experience to the field. I am defining that from like 1970 to 2000. In that period of time we have learned a lot. The growth curve has been exponential: the major initiatives of the law profession to do ADR, the major initiatives in the research community understand certain kinds of disputing better, and major initiatives in professional third party development. What do we know? We know a great deal about how people behave in simple market transactions. Meaning, one on one encounters where it is basically a dispute over resources distribution. We know a lot about negotiation processes and working it out through negotiation, particularly on an inter-personal basis. We know a lot about the strategy and tactics of mediation and arbitration. We are learning a lot about the nature of how people define their identity and how their identity can get caught up in conflict related behaviors. There are loads of things we don't know. We know a great deal on the theory side, where there is really very little or quite primitive kinds of work.
Q: On that topic of theories, you mentioned the notion of frames and identifying frames and trying to transform people's frames to have a more productive discussion. What other pieces of theory are particularly useful for practitioners to have in mind?
A: Well, I have been doing a lot of work on trust building. I think we have what it takes to build trust.
Almost all of what the practitioners are called upon to do periodically is build trust or create trust among other parties. There is really very little explicit step-wise, kind of "here's how you do it." We just sort of say something like "build trust" and assume that everyone knows what that means. Admittedly, we are not going to get a formula for each and every situation. That's an area where we've got a lot of work to do. Repairing broken trust is much tougher to do than I think we give it credit for. Once violated what does it take to get parties back from the table? Does time heal all wounds? Can you fix that? How do you do that?
Q: What can you say about building trust and secondly building broken trust?
A: That is a couple of levels and again I don't have all my notes in front of me. A couple of things that we would point out would be that trust and distrust should be treated separately. I think there are things you can do to build trust, which is different from managing distrust or trying to keep distrust under control. Second thing I would say is that some of the most clear-cut actions about building trust are pretty straightforward. This is in terms of people being reliable, that is they will do what they say will do. They are acting predictably, keeping one's word, showing that you are competent and can do the job. Those are pretty straightforward in trying to bring parties back together in a more arms length contractual sense. That is what building trust takes. Rebuilding trust is an area that we are just working on now. We are looking at things like how important are apologies? How important is some kind of reparation in the communication? How much is it in what I say or how much is it in what I do that really reflects sincerity and instrumental? When violations are not very severe it is a lot easier than when the consequences have been severe. The severity of the offense has a dramatic and a quite misunderstood kind of impact. When the violation has been severe, it may not be repairable. The party may have decided that they may never be able to trust you again. Whatever breach has occurred has set up the idea that there is no way they will ever believe you again. Then you have to try and understand where the line is and how you define what the severity of the offense means. It has been tricky to do but a fun project to work on.
The last thing that I would say is that I think there is another kind of trust which is less rooted in transactions and much more rooted in the degree to which you and I see each other as sharing the same fate, the same identity, the same common goals, the same vision, the same purpose in life that our value systems are congruent. I just know right away that you and I are in alignment. It is not contractual or transactional. It is a real identification base of trust. We are trying to understand how that works.
Q: You just can't buy that can you?
A: You can't buy that but it is critical in the success of most very close relationship. People can do things by knowing each other so well that they can anticipate each other's actions in ways that are not rehearsed, but nevertheless almost seamless in their ability to work together and coordinate. The workplace is interested in that because it wants to know how to produce high performing teams. They want to learn how to produce groups of people who know how to make great decisions together. There are a lot of other environments that are interested in figuring out how that trust works and how to build community.
Q: I find the notion of managing distrust pretty provocative and almost refreshing in a sense because I think a lot of people would tell you it is almost impossible to build trust. For example, the cases you have been talking about where trust has been destroyed. How do you manage distrust?
A: You set up boundaries to monitor and manage possible future transdirections or future violations. You are vigilant. You set up rules and procedures. You follow processes. Look at our obsession with national and international security these days. What do we do? We put in checkpoints, we search people, we interrogate people, we ask people questions, we try to read their eye movements, and we do a variety of things to find out if they are an honorable person or a terrorist. None of that builds trust. All that does is try to manage and control for downside risk. The message that we are trying to get through is that if you assume that if you put in mechanisms that you create for us by managing distrust, you are crazy. We will never get the Iraqi people to trust us by a lot of control and by putting in mechanisms to try to minimize terrorism in their country. We are going to have to do a variety of very different kinds of things. You don't create trust in a work force by putting in time clocks or elaborate rules or mechanisms for what people have to do to take a day off from work, or leave work early or come into work late or finish their job. People are very good particularly in positions of power by figuring out how to monitor and control. One has to be very clear that what you are doing there has nothing to do with trust building. All it has to do is manage downside risk. Don't be naÃ?Â¯ve in assuming the fact that not only is it not going to build trust, but in many cases it may make people much more cautious about you and what your motives and intentions are.
Q: So it is a bit of a paradox because the way to manage distrust was to create more structure in the interaction process. However, the creation of that structure is not going to promote any trust, but that is the only way to manage distrust.
A: Right. You and I really love each other and we're going to get married, but before we do I'd like you to sign this 20-page prenuptial agreement. Just in case. How has that just transformed the nature of what the trust is all about?
Q: Don't you trust me?
A: Of course! But my lawyer said we should do this to protect my fortune. In the world I come from, the business community, we face the same problem. Companies want to work together and do business with each other all the time. Most managers would like to do business on a handshake. When you ask the corporate attorney what they should be doing they say that they need a legal, 75-page document that specifies how the companies will work together and what happens if one or both parties defect from that. That is not trust building. That is distrust binding. It is not the same thing. Not only is it not trust building, but in fact, it may damage what it takes to work together.
Q: Is the business world a unique environment because the norms in that community allow for that kind of prenuptial security and still allow trust after a working relationship develops? Is that okay to do that? To create safeguards against violations of trust because it is so routine. It's not that we don't trust you; it is just that this is the way we do every transaction.
A: It depends on the business and it depends on the culture, to the degree that the CEO is paying attention to corporate legal and what has to be in place. Legal and accounting are the two major control functions in organizations. I think they're more predisposed to know that at some point there has to be a legalistic framework, a rule of law, and a rule of due process. So if they get in trouble they can take it to the judge, but this bounds what my rights and obligations are and what your rights and obligations are. The business world has been pretty influenced from the legal world about what happens if you don't do that. People's fear or apprehension or a lack of security about how things are going to go just pushes them in that direction.
Q: I think I misunderstood the initial distinction between building trust and managing distrust. I understood you to say that you should make the distinction so you can choose the right approach.
A: Right. You may need to do both. I think in many complex relationships we implicitly do that. My wife is a wonderful person and we've been happily married for 30-some-odd years. There are lots of things I would completely trust her to do; but she cannot come in and clean up my study, as she is pre-disposed to do occasionally. She thinks it looks out of control. If she gets in there, she'll throw away half of what I really need and file the other half where I can't find it. Am I appropriately distrustful? Yes. Think of any complex relationship you are in with a good friend, with a brother or sister, or with a parent. There are things where you would absolutely trust them in doing and then there are things that you are cautious about them doing. A lot of what we think we know about people and conflict or people and relationships are derived because we simplify the hell out of the construct.
Then we study it in very isolated or simplistic context. This is particularly true of the psychologists of the world. I recognize that the anthropologists, the sociologists, and the political scientists of the world study complex behavior in context. Therefore, they see the richness of what is going on. My field tends to try to pull one or two variables out and look at just those and forget the rest. They try to ignore or write off the rest. In fact, people are very complex, particularly inside relationships. We know a lot about how people manage conflict in simple market transactions. We don't know very much at all about how people manage complex conflict in long standing relationships where they have to live together, work together, and deal with each other everyday. And how does all this really shapes and affects what they do when conflict comes along?
There are probably people who work together everyday or every week who have what we would call intractable disputes. I, for a long time, had intractable disputes with my father. He and I were politically completely different from each other. Every time we got together we would have huge fights over some political issue. That was intractable. Neither one of us were about to change. How do we along? Lots of times we chose not to talk about those things so it wouldn't divide us up. How we manage these issues in complex relationships is something we really don't know.
Q: I am going to ask you to contextualize again the idea of trust building versus managing distrust, either from an example that you've seen or witnessed. I want to know the difference between the two. So the difference between what building trust looks like and what managing distrust looks like. Then, maybe if you can, can you explain how you move from managing distrust to building trust?
A: I think building trust is about creating confident, positive expectations about the other's conduct. Therefore, the way we shape those expectations by the way we talk to each other, by being clear about our expectations for each other, by following through with each other, by doing what we say we will do, and by being honest and straightforward. These are all trust building kinds of action in a relationship. Managing distrust is trying to protect against the downside risk that the other, in fact, is out to do us in or out to take advantage of us or who's way of operating is so inconsistent with our own that if we allow them to take action for us we know we could live with the results or the consequences of what they did. Therefore, managing distrust is about creating boundaries. Managing distrust is about creating rules and frameworks for what is appropriate and inappropriate to do. It is about separating or segmenting our activities so I am in areas where I try to minimize how much you can affect me and what I do. We know a lot less about how we manage all the complex ways we manage distrust, although there is some good writing that is coming out now.
Q: Can you think of an example for illustrative purposes, like a story, where one process or another process was very clear?
A: I have a graduate student working for me who I gave a number of small projects to do, so I could find out what that person could do. It was very clear that, as I gave that person things to do, they did them quick, on-time, thoroughly, went beyond what I had asked them to do, they tried to anticipate my needs, and they brought it back quickly done. I was incredibly impressed. As a result, I gave this one individual a lot of responsibility on a next project that has to be done quickly, timely, and well; but I have full confidence that that individual will follow through. Those were trust building actions that occurred over a very short period of time. I can think of another student who I worked with who wants to work with me on some ideas but has not been reliable, comes in and shows a real interest and then disappears for a period of time and gets lost. Then I occasionally have to prompt and prod as to what is going on. I have to ask how they are coming along, where their work is, and what kind of progress they are making. They eventually come back and it doesn't look that there has been very much progress made. Now that individual is asking me to serve a major sort of advising role in their academic future and I am quite reluctant to do so. This is because everything that I have seen thus far says that individual is asking me for a much bigger time commitment relative to their graduate education and I haven't seen anything yet that is going to indicate to me that this is going to pay off. I have nothing to indicate to me that my time will be well invested relative to what I do.
Q: So the way you manage that distrust is by not committing?
A: In this case? Yes. I can think of other individuals in my work place who are not only unreliable or predictable but their motives are quite self-centered. So when they ask me for something to borrow something, to look at something, and to describe something, the first thing that goes through my head is how are they going to use this in a way to take advantage of my good nature or my time and energy? I feel that they want to do that to get a major advantage over me. This is expressed in terms making more money at it or they get more fame out of it, or they get more visibility. This is active distrust from my point of view. Now I am quite guarded, careful, and cautious about what I share, what I say, and how I say it because I know there is a probability that that relationship may get abused.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is coming into this field now?
A: I have no idea. I have not clue.
Q: What lessons have you learned over the years?
A: That no matter how much I learn there is always more to learn. There are always people with very, very different perspective in this field than my own. You are always learning new stuff about ways people think about things, what people think is really important, what they focus on, what they don't focus on that is really a reflection of who they are. That does not necessarily make it any more right or wrong. Everybody has to find their niche or everybody has to find what interests them, what turns them on. Most of us in this field are in some ways constantly re-inventing ourselves in terms in figuring out what we are good at and what piece of this we are not good at. You have to certainly know if you want to be a theoretician, an academic or do you want to be more of a practitioner. You absolutely can't do both well. You can try to dabble in both, but you can't do both well. Not only because it is so time consuming but because it just requires totally different skill sets in terms of what you do and what you're good and capable of. You learn about yourself as you learn about the field. Then you can figure out what you do well or what you like and what you don't do well or what you don't like is a hugely critical piece. Don't be pushed into some area of the field because it is hot or new or somebody else says you ought to do this. You really have to find your own drummer. Some people find it early, while other people have to search for a while before they find it.
Q: That is an interesting differentiation between the theoretician and the practitioner. I am getting my masters degree at George Mason and everyone says okay here's the way it works. You learn the theory, you go out and practice, then you come back and read about the theory and you practice again. It's more sort of a circular notion.
A: This is a fine model. But my guess is that ultimately it is like an unbalance flywheel. My guess is that ultimately you are better at some ends of that cycle then you are at others. Then you have to figure out which end of that cycle is more fun, more exciting, more interesting, less boring, generates more enthusiasm for you to get up and get out of bed in the morning. This is finding your rhythm. Don't expect that you can be good or capable or should have to be good and capable. I think one of the great hallmarks of the field is that the last five or ten years there has been much better dialogue between the practitioners and the academics. It has enriched both. But that doesn't mean that everyone has to be doing both. We can appreciate what each other does but not disparage or write it off because they are not like us.
Q: It seems almost insane to think that a theorist would ridicule what a practitioner does because it seems part of the same thing.
A: But they do. They don't pay attention to what we write. They don't follow the theory very well. They didn't read the book. Otherwise, if they did read the book they wouldn't screw up. They have no idea of what it mean being out in the middle of one of these things. They don't know what book they were supposed to have read or what pages they are supposed to be following at any given point. There is much better appreciation for that now than it had been. But there are also people who have been isolated on both sides of the spectrum. They don't pay enough attention to all of what is going on.