Jay Rothman: Systematic Collaborative Visioning for Conflict Resolution Action and Evaluation in the Post-Covid19 World

by Heidi Burgess

September, 2020

This is a report on a workshop held by Jay Rothman in May of 2020, at which he applied his action evaluation format to help participants grapple with the challenges that COVID-19 is presenting to our countries and to the conflict resolution field, in particular.  Jay is a long-time leader in the conflict resolution field, having developed the process of action evaluation, and applying it, not only to past events and interventions, but also as a means to help practitioners envision ways to move forward in challenging situations. (See also Jay's most recent book  Re-Envisioning Conflict Resolution: Vision, Action and Evaluation in Creative Conflict Engagement, and the ARIA group's resource page for more information.

We (Heidi and Guy Burgess) participated in that workshop and Jay is allowing us to report on it here, including using the final report that he shared with the group as the main part of the following text.



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog



On May 15, 2020 Jay Rothman held a workshop, hosted by the University of Denver's Conflict Resolution Institute (though it took place on Zoom, as everything has these days). In this workshop he helped the participants brainstorm the challenges posed by COVID-19 to our societies and, more specifically, to the field of conflict resolution.  He then facilitated a visioning exercise addressing how we, as a field, might respond. 

Since this workshop took place shortly before George Floyd was killed, the participants were not focused on racism as they might have been, had the workshop happened later.  Nevertheless, the conclusions developed by the group still seem very valid, and indeed, many would help our field (and our society) deal more effectively with systemic racism as well as COVID. (Coincidentally, one of the largest applications of the action evaluation process was used in Cincinnati, Ohio after their race riots.) 

Jay circulated a document reporting on the ideas developed at that workshop, and I thought it was worth sharing, as it shows both a fairly strong consensus about a few approaches that makes sense for our field, as well as a diversity of ideas about ways forward.

The workshop was structured around Jay's traditional format for action evaluation workshops.  These workshops try to make a conflict resolution program's "theory of action" explicit by asking three questions:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. Why are these goals important to you?
  3. How are these goals going to be achieved? [1]
How can the Conflict Resolution field respond to COVID?  We reflected on goals. values, and methods.

Specifically in this workshop, Jay asked the participants

1. What are your goals and objectives for the conflict resolution field in the era of COVID?

2. Why are these goals important to you now? and

3. What might the field more do to achieve those goals?

The answers are coalesced around three goals.

Goal 1:

We need to interfere with us vs. them, good/bad thinking, replacing it with an understanding of our interdependence.

We should use this moment of pandemic to interfere with the us v. them, good/bad, right/wrong framing to reframe in ways that convey interdependence (i.e. prevent virus spread by being careful and thinking of the health of others).

  • WHY?

    • For survival:

      • We will not survive the next pandemic if we don't.

      • The virus knows no borders, and it is essential to cooperate across all kinds of lines to promote public health

    • Ripeness--this is the time!

      • The gulf is widening and threatens to become a chasm - even to the point of a civil conflict and violence in the US in the coming months (and especially running up to Presidential elections). If this isn't a time for our field to step forward bravely, boldly and in a (uncharacteristically unified way) I don't know when is.

      • We are now at a "humpty-dumpty moment" in which all the king's horses and all the king's men will be unable to put the country (or the world) back together again. In other words, we are teetering on the brink of fracturing into so many pieces that our ability to anything but fight will be eliminated and we will, quite literally, die from our inabilities to cope with challenges.

    • Inequality: Most of the challenges we face in the 21st.Century come from social inequality.

    • Need to counteract escalatory news: In addition to fake news, there is also conflict escalation news. Everywhere. It must be counteracted with news of possibility and alternative voices/approaches.

  • HOW?

    • Political mobilization

    • Fact-based Inquiry: Collective use of intelligence and fact-based inquiry seems to be a path forward.

    • Consensus approaches: Providing insight and a choice about how your commitment creates the world we all live in.Everyone should help those around them, in their domain, to understand why "we are all in this together" and must work on consensus approaches, not competitive ones to succeed in meeting our many challenges.

    • Massively parallel peacebuilding: Envision "massively parallel peacebuilding" to indicate that everyone needs to play a role to together have a systemic impact on the adaptive complex system.

    • Make our expertise and availability known: Access top leaders and media people and let them know we as a field exist and are available in-gear (we need to organize) and provide leadership.

    • Social Media; A social media campaign, something like: "Covid-19: we need to work together not blame each other" but catchier

Goal 2:

We need to catalyze communication and dialogue across divides, so we can move forward together towards solutions.

We should catalyze communication and dialogue across divides, encouraging understanding of the validity and the “why” of conflicting positions, so as to move forward towards solutions


  • Acknowledgement/Empathy: Instead of debating and discussing facts and data, we should be acknowledging others' experiences and building empathy regardless if we agree with their facts and conclusions. This helps people look at things in a different perspective.

  • Dialogue

    • Bringing people together in space where they can both discuss their concerns and ideas for the future, but also make meaning of the past several months.

    • Dialogue is an important aspect to conflict resolution post COVID-19 because it helps us understand where people are coming from and what their experiences are. COVID-19 revealed a lot of values debates ("You should wear a mask to protect others!" "It's my right to have the freedom to choose to wear a mask or not!" etc.).

  • Cooperation: 
    • Epidemiologists may know what is medically needed, but it is only through voluntary social cooperation that the policies will be implemented. CR practitioners can be the bridge.
    • This is the most needed skill right now. It was needed before COVID-19 but unfortunately even a pandemic could not bring all people together.


  • Community-level workshops
    • Virtual workshops: Transitioning our experiences facilitating virtual workshops, trainings, and meetings, into effective practices for connecting communities and individuals through virtual dialogue.
    • Community dialogues can play a significant role.  Creating a space where people can voice their concerns, but also be challenged, may help to move participants from a place of anger to a place of responsible action towards meaningful change.

    • Work with policy makers and "influentials": Conflict resolution institutes and programs could design and offer dialogue, analysis and and problem solving interventions to concerned policy makers and influentials engaged in promoting or resisting changes toward sustainability.

    • Act NOW: Apply all of our best tools, skills and convening powers NOW.

    • Network: Create a network of mediators willing and able to skillfully offer free/subsidized online support soon.

Goal 3:

We should provide education and training in conflict resolution skills.

The conflict resolution field should provide tools for educating and working together across differences, especially ideological and economic, to learn about other peoples' views, so that we can assist citizens in creating and implementing policies that will enable us to collaborate in addressing immediate and continuing crises.


  • Stop inflaming hatreds: It is important to collaborate to combat the virus, not to let it further inflame hatreds
  • Counter Polarization: Because of political polarization, people are not even able to engage with each other to work together to solve things.

  • Combat discrimination and xenophobia: Because unfortunately the pandemic has increased expressions of discrimination and xenophobia, and has revealed many vulnerabilities that exist in the world. So in order to solve those problems we need skills.

  • To Encourage Listening:

    • Both sides are not listening to each other.

    • A lot of people are in survival mode right now. We have made serious adjustments, big and small, to our lives and slowly we will start to see those adjustments shifting. We will need people to listen as we sift through our experiences and choose what to leave behind and take with us.

    • Understanding and awareness disarms the seeds of conflict. Or at the very least can create room for something else to grow.

  • To achieve peace: We need to mediate to bring peace.

  • Provide new model: It is critical for people to see that they CAN "be nice" and that it does, indeed foster better relationships to change the world. We need a new model for interaction and this pandemic gives us a chance.

  • Promote Understanding: 

    • Counter blame: Historically tragic events have resulted in people wanting someone to blame. CR professionals are equipped to help people understand the root of their emotions as they relate to this situation, and see through propaganda and other attempts to shift attention from the entities within society that bare responsibility.

    • Encourage questioning: With COVID-19 has come lots of media coverage, and lots of different views on the pandemic and the precautions taken. Teaching people to ask questions that seek understanding, rather than debate might ease social tensions in a post- COVID-19 world.

    • Correct misunderstandings: Because so many conflicts arise from misunderstandings or from information that is not clear.


  • Education: 
    • Modeling: ​Provide containers or spaces for people to learn to take in new information by modeling active listening and constructive dialogue.
    • Respectful online forums that counter social media's tendency to create 'bubbles' and 'echo chambers', and where people actually can engage in a respectful way with those who come from different ideological leanings and different experiences.

    • Positive stories: Use, collect, somehow get, true examples of how this more positive social interaction occurred and reinforce it every chance we get in our work, reminding people where it came from in them and in others.

    • Start small and close: Starting small, we should each seek to listen to our families and friends and help them to make meaning of the past few months. It will be important that we begin within our circle and then start to move outwards.

    • Hold webinars: While people are still working from home, it would be easy enough to do a webinar or have videos on social media platforms that people could watch and learn more about how to ask questions for understanding.

    • Hold intercultural communication workshops:  because it would make this dialogue easier and produced more integrated societies while preserving diversity.

    • Say things only when necessary. Avoid excessive exposure of opinion leaders to the media, important messages become lost.

    • Map local CR practitioners and make that information available to emergency coordinators

    • Teach active listening in schools: It seems like we need active listening skills to begin in schools. We need some way of helping students reach into a tool kit for resolving conflict without resorting to physical aggression or values debates.

    • Teach dialogue in schools: Hosting dialogues and teaching some of the norms and values of dialogue would be another valuable tool for students to learn in school. Workshops? Conflict Resolution class?

    • Reaching out to officials: The relevant associations (ACR? NCDD? others?) could do some background work to find out where officials are and are not collaborating well (e.g., across municipalities, between different levels of gov't, etc.) and reach out to officials to suggest facilitators or mediators to assist with coordination meetings (via videoconference of course)

As I went through this list, I was struck by not only the diversity of ideas, but also the areas of consensus which seem to me to be:

1) the conflict resolution field does have an important role to play in helping our societies navigate the conflicts caused by COVID-19 (and the same can be said about racial injustice or political disagreements, it seems to me).

2) The time is ripe--we need to act now to have a significant impact.

3) A few of our tools are particularly useful for the current situation, those being dialogue facilitation, training (particularly in listening, reframing, dialogue, and collaboration).

These conclusions are very consistent with the ideas we have been promoting in our Constructive Conflict Initiative, so we wanted to share them to indicate that it is not just us who is thinking this way--others (hopefully many others!) are too.


[1] Victor J. Friedman and Jay Rothman. "Action Evaluation for Knowledge Creation in Social-Education Programs" http://www.ariagroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Action-Evaluation-for-Knowledge.pdf