A Letter to Jim
Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution
George Mason University
On September 11, 2001, a series of creative plans came into effect to wreak terrible destruction. While we usually associate creativity with what is beautiful and original, its broader meaning is to make something new with what already exists. In responding, we are challenged to tap our human creative capacities in all their depth, range and scope. Creativity calls us to do the opposite of what comes most naturally. When threatened, we tend to close down, cower back, respond in kind, defend. From a defensive, resistant or aggressive posture, we are not able to see the full range of choices, nor our possibilities for choosing. Our creativity is limited by fear, anxiety and despair.
To step out of these sparse and inhospitable places, and step as well outside a purely theoretical or abstract mode which would surely be inadequate to address the questions that flow from 9/11, a different medium is needed. This medium must be one that evokes our whole selves – visionary and shadow – in the service of unfolding a creative future. As I walked alone one afternoon, it came to me that a letter is the medium best suited to the job.
A letter to someone loved is a shoes-off conversation, an invitation to dialogue. Within it, we feel free to share many facets of ourselves: feelings, thoughts, theories, fantasies about the future, intuitions, and the things that hold meaning for us even as everything changes. Writing a letter is a creative act, it is to hold an open hand to the reader, to listen in between the lines for the inspiration of their imagined response. In a letter, there is affirmation of relationship. Some letters pose the opportunity to risk, stretch, and dream; many letters uncover things for the writer that were muted or hidden before the focus of imagined dialogue coaxed them into the light.
Because of the way a letter invites relationship into the center of itself, creating and changing relationships as it is written and received, it is my chosen medium here. I write a letter to Jim Laue – mentor, friend, inspiration to me – hoping that his spirit will enliven the dialogue that flows from its publication. I write, hoping that the creative spirit of letter-writing will reveal more questions and answers than a linear track. I write, trusting that the words will catch the light of the man to whom it is addressed, even in small measure. For his wisdom and creativity are needed now.
Jim Laue was a man who knew both shadow and light, and urgently worked all his life to magnify the latter. He was a man who placed relationship squarely at the center of his life, receiving friends, students, colleagues and adversaries alike with respect, curiosity and reverence. He asked great questions. He listened deeply, with heart and mind. He brought creative spark to stuck places; he cared.
A Negotiator’s Nightmare
A hostage negotiator’s nightmare, according to FBI agent Richard de Filippo (2002), occurs when a hostage taker won’t talk and refuses to make demands, for it is when a hostage taker talks that you begin to learn things. He’s angry, frustrated, tired. Maybe you can get him to accept something – a cigarette, coffee – and then he might feel some small sense of obligation that allows you to get a foot in the door
Hostage negotiators choose their words with precision. What they mean might be: You have a choice. You can come out and go to jail for the rest of your life, or you can get killed right now. What they say is: I am here for you. We’re in this together. Let’s figure out what to do. Would you like me to lie to you? No? Then, I’m going to be straight with you, and you might not like some of the things I am going to say.
A good hostage negotiator is a talker, patient, nimble, always pondering, What is it going to take to get this guy out?
Post September 11, we feel like hostages. Gone is our sense of safety and confidence that though bad things could happen, it wasn’t going to be like this: random, apocalyptic threats from many directions, from remote countries we hadn’t thought much about to the warring titans in the Middle East.
Helpless and confused, we ask: Why do they hate us? Why didn’t we know how much they hate us? What would it take for them to not hate us so much? How would they have to change? How would we?
If what we are hated for is in fact what we are, do we change what we are? Can we reframe what we are? Are we intractable?
We begin to fathom the problem: the people who hate us are far away, are seemingly spellbound by the oratory of those who fan the flames of hatred; they can’t hear us, and if they could, would they listen? And what would we say? And if we can’t talk, and they won’t listen, can we at least send signals?
What would our message be? Would we appeal to a common humanity? Say that, like them, we love our children, value our spirituality, and are not the sum of our possessions? Would we offer them a different future? Would we promise to change, to meet them partway?
Instead of claiming to be invariably right, can we accept that we did some wrong? Can we apologize and not be weak? Is changing an admission of failure? Or is it an acknowledgment of grievances that are hard to dispute: the United States does consume much of the world’s resources. Our culture has encroached on other cultures. We do sell arms to many countries. We have used weapons of mass destruction. We enforce some UN resolutions and not others.
Next to the terrorists are members of their communities. Not every German was a member of the Nazi Party. Can we talk to those who are not terrorists but who live in their midst? If we can’t have empathy for terrorists, can we have empathy for their neighbors? In what ways have terrorists been terrorized? Would a better understanding of their situation help us find common ground?
How can dispute resolution theory and experience provide help? Can we participate in articulating the national interest? Who are our agents? Whom do we let speak for us? President Bush? CNN? Editorial writers?
Morton Deutsch (2002) remarked that, “Violence is the expression of impotence grown unbearable.” Can we make that impotence less unbearable? If what they sought to take from us was some of our potency, can we nevertheless allow them to have potency?
One way to resolve conflict is through war. Another way is through talk, promises, listening, reflecting back, conspiring, apologies and commitments – all the messy, complicated, and essential work of negotiation.
Can our soldiers learn to be peacekeepers? Can neutrals be advocates? Can advocates be fair?
Catastrophe upon catastrophe – that prospect looms. We remaining are the unkilled. Here, in Europe, in Asia. Anyone anywhere can blow up anything
We can’t control what they do. We can control what we do. Surely we can change. How should we change?
Prof. Lise Hunter
New York City Technical College
The purpose of this essay is to make observations and suggest a paradigm for resolution of domestic and international disputes. In an effort to open the dialogue of what might work, it is necessary for conflict resolution professionals to examine the significance of personal relationships. My thesis is that relationship building is the gravamen of successful conflict resolution. I further submit that trust and power are the key components of relationships. We must create a paradigm which will identify trust engendering activities and re-structure the balance of power between the disputants.
It is becoming more apparent that disputants tend to view conflict through myopic lenses. That is, the situation is evaluated from a self-centered perspective. I argue that commonality of interest and background filters the myopia. Therefore, in the conflict resolution vernacular, disputants are more apt to negotiate when they are familiar with what the opponent is seeking and why. This familiarity typically occurs in community-based disputes. However, the most recent conflict in the Middle East demonstrates that commonality of ideology is not dispositive to conflict resolution. For example, despite the shared ideological vision between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, their distinct political agendas impede the negotiations. In this instance, national interest may inhibit the peacekeeping dialogue. Therefore, theorists and practitioners should identify factors which will correct the myopia when there is no common understanding in disputes.
A second factor crucial to relationship building is the element of personal trust. We know, in response to the query about what we know, that spiritual leaders are among the most respected members of the community principally because they are trusted. However, the trust may be endemic to the position. One challenge for conflict resolution professionals is to identify the characteristics of trust which may be imbued to individuals without regard to position. Personal trust, or lack thereof, is central to the parties’ willingness to negotiate. The triad in the current Middle eastern conflict is illustrative. I make the following assumptions about trust in these relationships: 1. there is no trust between Israel and Palestine 2. there is a tenuous, at best, trust between the United States and Palestine and 3. there is a rapidly deteriorating trust between the United States and Israel. According to my thesis, the various levels of trust are based upon the strength of the personal relationships between the disputants.
Balance of Power
It is beyond cavil, that in conflict there can be no dialogue if there is a perceived imbalance of power. I argue that power shifts depending upon how one views the conflict. For example, if a conflict is viewed in light of the righteousness of position, one party may be perceived as being on top. However, if the same conflict is viewed in terms of military superiority, a different party may be perceived as the more powerful. This, of course, is the problem with pyramidical power. Each leg of the pyramid has independent strengths and weaknesses. The new conflict resolution paradigm should create a non-hierarchical structure in which power is diffused and distributed evenly between the disputants.
These are but a few suggested examples of how we can frame new directions as we move from theory to practice.
A Small Boat, Heavily Loaded
The prayer in the Children’s Defense Fund’s logo has come to mind repeatedly since we met: “Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small….” and the seas have become so rough even in previously safe harbors…and the waves are too high to see where we are going or what we might do to influence our collective fate.
Our conference organizers arranged for us to take an excursion through costly conflicts at every level of human systems: from the delicate dyadic dynamics of hostage taker and lead negotiator, to community conflicts in greater New York City, to intractable ethnic conflicts involving nations and regions.
And yet I returned home not overwhelmed or despairing, but resolved, resolved, resolved. That is because I experienced the community assembled as a “boat” and my inclusion and participation in it as a source of hope, direction, and courage. Perspective-stretching learnings and a host of take-home questions have energized and enriched my thinking and planning since then
Urgency. Urgency. Urgency. Our boat is very small. Yet its cargo contains resources that are badly needed in this world. How can we help
What do people “in the trenches” need from people in “the field” of conflict resolution? How can we help?
Which of our current resources and activities are most valuable to them? How we make those more accessible? How can we help?
What do they need that we don’t yet have but might be able to develop and deliver if we put our minds to it? How can we help?
Such are the mood and mindset from which flow the collage of musings and questions that follow.
I begin with some reflections on our meeting and a dream about what might happen next. Then I note two batches of questions that I regard as central to the quest for optimally useful engagement with our turbulent world. Some of these questions ask us to reflect on our current practices and what we think our organization or department is trying to do. All, I believe, have the potential to move the field closer to the trenches where I believe we have an obligation to go.
In my view, one of the leaks in the status quo that has become too costly to tolerate any longer is the waste and inefficiency of meetings in most fields. Show up-Listen-Network-Go Home is all that seems to be expected and too often is the experience of participants at too many conferences and meetings.
When I reflect on the financial, organizational and personal costs involved in bringing a group of people together, I am astounded—that in even in an era obsessed with ‘the bottom line” —so few resources usually are invested in making expensive face-to-face meeting time bear generative and enduring fruit.
With this decade-old chip on my shoulder, I greatly appreciated the thoughtful and satisfying plan for our time at John Jay College. Specific features that struck me as worth repeating are include the following:
The conference title included challenging questions: “What don’t we know? What do we need to know? And-how can we find out? These questions alerted us that we were going to be asked to come as learners rather than experts. The program announcement also included an opening question which gave us time to reflect on what existing knowledge we most wanted to learn more about.
We were asked to respond in writing to this opening question. Data was gathered that can be put to good use.
An effective premium was placed on capturing written highlights from the table conversations and minimizing time for oral reports.
We were given a balanced diet prepared by experienced chefs. Ingestion and digestion time were well proportioned. We were offered a range of nutritious, well served new information and were given time to begin digesting it in stimulating company.
A series of experiments with the ubiquitous panel format were undertaken. As the designer and facilitator of the last one, I learned from my experience of those that came before me. I attach a proposal that reflects my sense of a design that might work even better another time.
Effective plans were made for follow-up. We were alerted in advance of the need to invest time on return to write up some reflections about our shared experience. Plans were laid in advance to assure that the products of our efforts will be put to use.
It would have been ideal if we could have learned how other people answered the excellent opening question (“what existing knowledge would you personally like to hear more about?”) while we were still together. Access to an electronic meeting technology could have allowed us to develop an instant map of answers, to group and prioritize topic areas, form subgroups around questions of high relevance—in short, to design the substance of the event on the spot and fine tune the content in the light of the patterns that emerged. I think that including extra funds to try out one of the electronic technologies that enhance the participation and productivity of meetings could be a high leverage experiment for Hewlett and the field to undertake.
In my dream, annual conferences are the nodal points in continuing year-long conversations that engage interested and relevant people in addressing important issues and questions. The fruits of these conversations, in turn, provide focus and grist for the next conference.
Let’s say, for example, a menu of 12-50 questions emerges from a conference like ours, of significant interest to those attending. By “significant”, I mean important enough for:
a critical mass of attendees to declare they will participate regularly in an email conversation focused on this question and commit to read and reflect on an email once a week/month and to contribute to the conversation at least as frequently;
(Note: a question cluster could agree to invite people from other disciplines, professions and consumer groups to participate in the conversation.)
a conference participant to agree to take on the role of question host and moderator. This role entails getting the participants to agree on some ground-rules and logistical arrangements (including what will happen to the ideas that are generated in the conversation), compiling material sent from the participants and distributing it by email at agreed on intervals, or taking responsibility for implementing some other arrangement. The moderator also sends (edited?) summaries/reports to whatever organization is overseeing the whole enterprise. Question hosts are compensated for their time in a manner yet to be determined;
a Hewlett-funded organization to develop a proposal as to how they would: a) oversee these conversations to make sure they are happening as agreed; b) summarize, circulate their headlines and/or post the whole exchange on a closed forum on their website; c) work with the planners of the next conference to integrate their electronic fruits into plans for the face-to-face time;
the Hewlett Foundation to decide to underwrite these conversations, perhaps by offering stipends to those who participate in them and/or giving a financial award of some kind to question groups whose interactions meet certain standards, and/or by including sufficient financial incentives in the grant made to the overseeing organization to increase the odds that participation remains a priority for participants in the face of competing demands on their time.
1) How do Hal Saunders’ “conceptual lenses that bring the world into focus and give the world meaning” to me and my colleagues need to change before our contributions to our unraveling world will be as relevant and effective as possible?
Are any of our intellectual or linguistic habits limiting my/our ability to be of greatest service to our vulnerable and volatile world?
One answer to this question may be the conceptual frame and linguistic habit that kept popping up in our conversations—the theory/practice dichotomy.
I would like to be part of a conversation that begins with each participant telling a story that responds to the following questions:
Can you think of a time when you turned to what you think of as “theory” and it helped your practice”? If you can think of one, what was the “theory”, how, where and when did it influence or become part of your conduct? What difference do you think your integration of theory and practice made to how this situation unfolded??
Is there a cost to framing and peppering our conversations with these two abstract nouns? How would a conversation go if we agreed not to speak of either “theory” or “practice” for its duration? Would we have nothing to say? Would unspoken nuances, fresh distinctions, promising new questions emerge in their place? I think this would be an experiment worth making.
How does our attachment to these two abstract nouns constrain the field’s ability to develop the resources that will be most helpful to professional third parties, leaders who find themselves playing third party roles, those who are involved in conflicts as participants rather than mediators?
3) What is the difference between a “theory” and “a rule of thumb” or a “lens”? Could we be more useful to those who need our help if we were to use such metaphors (or the terms people like our panel participants actually use!) rather than talk about “theories”?
What, for example, are “the basics” Richard de Filippo from the FBI referred to that you get in trouble if you stray too far from? In what language are they stated? What makes them basic? Where did they come from?
Or, what led Hugh McGown and his colleagues in the NYPD to shift from the first “3Cs”(???) to the second “3Cs”(context, conversation, containment)? What was the source of the Cs and what led to their shift? (I suspect their answers would teach us a great deal of what we need to know about how to be more useful to people “in the trenches.”)
4) Where do “empathy”, “heart”, “spirit”, “trust”, “humanity” fit in a theory/practice dichotomy? What can “theories” contribute to actors (like many of our guests) who think of what they are trying to do and what they need help with in these terms?
If “trust” is the key is something to be “earned” rather than learned, what do we have to offer those who seek to build solid bridges across divisive differences?
5) Our guests spoke of needing referrals to resources, validation, partners, encouragement and skills rather than theories or better ways of thinking. What do their needs imply for our priorities?
For example, should some of us be seeking funds for an Outreach/Marketing/Public Research Coordinator who will find out what the unmet needs are in high leverage networks and report back? (or Is somebody already doing this?)
6) Are the answers to the questions that matter—answers that could make a difference—to the world going to be found in the midst of this field or in the networks with which we are already familiar? With what other disciplines, communities of practice or consumer groups do we need to be talking?
A case in point: The reason I was at John Jay College is that Steve Toben came to the first workshop the Public Conversations Project gave in 1995 and subsequently suggested we meet with him. This was at NCPCR where we—a group of seasoned family therapists— were drawn by the “peace building” in the title. “Conflict resolution” was not on our map as a field that might find our activities of interest. I wasn’t sure what it was. In other words, we would not have known to knock on your doors. Yet having been invited in, we were found to bring additive and appreciated resources.
Who are the people who are doing good, relevant work in 2002 whom we should be inviting to talk with us?
Or—perhaps we all need to be talking more with the people “in the trenches” rather than the people in “the field” of conflict resolution—or potentially relevant fields. (Am I, are we, being like the person who searched for his key where the light was rather than were he had lost it. It is relatively easy—and very enriching and enjoyable—to find and talk to one another. How can we encourage one another to venture into the “dark”—into unfamiliar territory— where the keys to maximally useful research, theorizing and practice may be more likely to be found?)
Two issues my colleagues and I are eager to learn more about are raised by the following questions:
What can bring different groups together early enough for sufficient trust to be built so that their alliance can be a resource in time of crisis? (If I were writing a PhD thesis today, I would want to collect and distill lessons from the stories of people who were moved to come together in relatively peaceful times and then served as a community resource when the going got rough.) Or more generally, what do we already know about what makes tan “ounce of prevention” sufficiently compelling for people to be do be moved to act on it rather than for the crisis to happen and then be “cured”?
What do we already know about what Fatima Shama called effective “inreach”? What contribution have we made, or could we make to understanding and influencing conflicts or disconnections within the “sides” of a chronic conflict? What do we need to learn to be able to better help moderate groups restrain their extreme wings from engaging in escalatory acts?
What do we see as our mission? What are the distinctive contributions we have to make to a world in crisis? What do we need to do differently to make these contributions? How do we need to think and write differently?
If we are to rise to our current situation and if we consider it our responsibility to: 1) diffuse what we already know in a more useful form to more of those who can benefit from it; 2) link this field with other relevant fields of scholarship and practice; 3) generate new knowledge of a kind that is known to be needed by those laboring in “the trenches”, what do we need to do differently?
For example, do some of us need to form regional interdisciplinary, multi-practice based hubs, convening cross-fertilizing conferences and sponsoring electronic conversations around topics that matter? Do we need to start or expand our public education functions? Do we need to collaborate with some of the people who spoke to us or their colleagues in developing resources that can make a difference?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. They are still hatching and need company. However, they frame the conversations I think we most need to have as a field.
I adopted Moche’s prayer last October and have continued to ask for the strength and wisdom to ask the One— and one another— the right questions. “How can we help?” is the question that has become true North on my compass as we seek to steer our organization through the waves.
“How can we help?” has led the Public Conversation Project to move in some unfamiliar directions—to knock on new—less professional and academic—doors to learn if some of our existing resources are perceived as useful and, if not, to learn how they need to be adapted or developed to become so. We have set up our new family and community dialogue guides to make it easy for users to adapt them to their circumstances and to be in conversation with us about what they learned and how the guides could be improved.
I hope that we will take our own questions seriously. I urge us to take the questions we generated at the conference and make them the focus of continuing conversations in which we explore what the advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits likely to arise from adopting each question as a focus for sustained activity.
In this time of continuing peril, I hope we will find a way to participate in conversations that address the question “what are the right questions for our field in these harrowing times? What are the most constructive and catalytic questions we can ask?
I loved the conference in part because it asked questions likely to move us in directions of increased service in serious times. I would like to continue some of the conversations that began there as soon as possible.