Larry Susskind in the Negotiation Journal: Initiating Collaboration in the Midst of a Standoff


Heidi Burgess for Larry Susskind

July 1, 2022

In addition to directing us to his blog and to his journal article on complexity science and negotiation, Larry Susskind also suggested we tell readers of our discussion about his 2020 Negotiation Journal article entitled "Initiating Collaboration in the Midst of a Standoff."  This article describes a strategy that the Consensus Building Institute (of which Larry is a founder and now "Chief Knowledge Officer," ) refers to as "breakthrough collaboration." This approach is also described in a CBI article which is freely available online.

In the Negotiation Journal abstract, Larry explains:

Even when “warring parties” know that eventually they will have to talk to one another so that there can be peace, it is extremely difficult to get them to “fast-forward” to that moment. The reasons for this vary. Sometimes the parties think that “time is on their side”—that continuing the battle will benefit them. Other times, leaders worry how they will appear in the eyes of their own followers if they seem to have lost heart or are ready to give in. A third reason that parties may not initiate talks is their concern that a willingness to do so may lead the other side to assume that they are ready to give up.

Breakthrough collaboration, Larry, explains,  is a tool that helps parties move forward in such situations.

Breakthrough collaboration allows parties to take advantage of a critical moment to initiate preliminary trust-building activities, share information and send messages through a neutral party, and engage in internal efforts that can make it easier to move toward joint problem-solving. Such efforts can be triggered by a convener (who is not a party) and assisted by a mediator (who may not meet with the parties simultaneously). The goal is to do more than merely encourage dialogue. The hope is that an extended sequence of facilitated activities or events can lead to a shift in thinking on all sides. The key is to know when a critical moment creates an opportunity for breakthrough collaboration.

These critical moments, Susskind explains, occur when "hurting stalemates" (a standoff that is very damaging to both sides) are no longer bearable, or when there is a pause in the conflict that creates the possibility of neutral intervention.  (William Zartman long-ago wrote about such situations as "ripe moments." and has an article in BI on how such ripeness can be created that is a useful read in combination with Susskind's article.

In the Negotiation Journal, Susskind writes that:

My CBI colleagues say that in times of high polarization, dealing with the challenges facing the sides or parties requires long-term cooperation. This is hard to sustain if trust is very low, there is no shared vision regarding a solution or a process for inventing one; and there is no safe space in which to begin a direct conversation. So, the question is, what shifts in momentum or other turning points in a conflict can suddenly create opportunities for breakthrough collaboration that were not previously possible? Or, how can preliminary moves, especially by self-starting mediators, actually create a critical moment or a turning point in which some form of breakthrough collaboration is possible?

Breakthrough collaboration, according to CBI, is an initiative that allows conflicting parties to (1) begin building trust in each other and in the prospect of making progress; (2) use creative strategies to imagine and explore new possibilities regarding future relationships; (3) negotiate effectively to meet core interests on all sides and manage power imbalances; (4) take joint action to test the viability of working together; and (5) integrate learning from an initial collaboration of some kind into a longer term effort. (Fairman and Smith 2019a) Breakthrough collaboration can begin with very small steps involving just one of the key parties. It can evolve slowly. It can also take the form of a more momentous event involving all the parties.

Susskind goes on to explore the obstacles to breakthrough collaboration and offers five, linked, ideas for overcoming those obstacles. Three obstacles, he says, are common:

  1. one or more parties maybe benefit from the status quo, even if most parties are "hurting,"
  2. legal, political, economic, or organizational forces may prevent a change in behavior, and
  3. given the past history, people may not be able to imagine any collaborative kind of interaction with "the other."

The key to starting breakthrough collaboration is to provide a mechanism to overcome these obstacles. This is done, he suggests, by finding a convenor, who is not a party, but is someone or some organization that would benefit if peace were achieved, who starts to work with one or more parties to explore peacebuilding options.  It often helps for such convenors to work with a mediator or a mediation team which can help initiate trust building and relationship building activities on one side, or on multiple sides.  Often this is not done simultaneously or by bringing the parties together, but sequentially and working with one party at a time, eventually bringing the parties together if and when relationships have been made strong enough so that this is helpful, not harmful.  The last step in Breakthrough collaboration is to address at least one cause of the conflict, so that the parties can see the merit of working together.  This, then, will smooth the way toward more traditional consensus building or negotiation. 

Though I referenced Bill Zartman's notion of "ripeness," above, interestingly, Susskind observes:

Traditionally, mediators are called in when disputes have “ripened.” By that time, presumably, the parties and the issues are clear. Breakthrough collaboration doesn’t need to wait. The relationships among the parties need not have ripened, but rather some shift in the larger situation must have altered their sense of the gains and losses associated with the status quo. Also, breakthrough collaboration doesn’t require the views of all the parties to change at the time of the collaboration. So, dispute resolution involves working with all the parties simultaneously, while breakthrough collaboration does not. This may feel inappropriate to some mediators who have been trained not to give “advice to one side,” but in a pre-mediation context, breakthrough collaboration is an acceptable form of neutral intervention.

This kind if intervention is not only different from traditional "dispute resolution," but it is also different from "dialogue."

Dialogue aims at increasing understanding through face-to-face interaction. Breakthrough collaboration need not bring the parties together, at least not for a while. One or both sides can work separately with a mediator to identify activities they might be willing to try. I think this is a better way to take advantage of a critical moment in a long-standing conflict. The work can begin before the parties agree to engage in face-to-face dialogue. The product of a breakthrough collaboration can well be a significant turning point or critical moment in the larger conflict.

This is clearly an interesting idea which, I (Heidi) want to explore more. Can such breakthrough collaboration really break through the level of distrust, polarization, even hate, that we are seeing in the red-blue divide? Are there examples of its use in such contexts? I hope to learn more!