Assisted Dialogue and Negotiation



The overarching goal of this stage is to bring people together and formally start the process.

This stage brings people together and formally inaugurates the process. Specific goals are to:

  • Create a “starting line” that launches the larger dialogue and negotiation process.
  • Formally cement the participation contract that people have informally agreed to in advance. Most often this is in the form of a charter or Terms of Reference (TOR) document, but it can also be a set of verbal agreements.
  • Begin the effort of creating mutual understandings about the definition of the problems and the specific issues to be taken up.

The larger purpose of this stage, and the next, is to seek understanding about the different meanings groups and individuals are holding in their minds about the conflict itself and about the prospects for cooperation. This is a time when people set the tone, establish their desired atmosphere, and telegraph signals to each other. The signals may say:

  • We are eager (or reluctant) to explore solutions.
  • We trust (or don’t trust) you.
  • Certain issues are important (or unimportant) to me.
  • We like (or don’t like) you.
  • This is a good (or bad) moment to enter discussions.
  • We really want to understand (or, conversely, we don’t care very much about) your positions.

These signals are good opportunities for clarification and early collective insight. People need to tell their stories, explain what has brought them to the moment, state their grievances, and describe their highest hopes and worst fears. There can be no bargaining before there is a fully established context and reasonable working relationships.

Done well, beginnings influence endings. They set aspirations and ground rules, frame substantive objectives, create relational expectations, shape procedure, and establish the tone and atmospherics of an expected process.

  • Welcome everyone. Get people introduced. This often includes a powerful cultural component.
  • Encourage everyone to talk story and offer background on how he or she (or his or her organization) is predisposed to arrive at the issues.
  • Confirm, change, or further inform the “hypotheses” formulated by the facilitator in Stage 1 about the substantive, procedural, and relational challenges that lie ahead as the dialogue and negotiation proceeds.
  • Confirm or re-set explicit agreements on the group’s composition, mission, structure, and protocols.
  • Begin substantive discussions. Undertake an initial pass at understanding the issues. Identify information or data that may be needed for future meetings.
  • In the face of skepticism, disbelief, or fatigue from previous efforts, it’s a challenge to infuse reasonable optimism that a process is worth time, energy, and attention.
    Instead of trying to talk people out of skepticism, disbelief, and fatigue, consider the Aikido approach, which is to hold onto and “lean” into their skepticism to put those feelings to work. Consider asking: “What specific milestones would give you more confidence that a set of meetings aren’t a waste of your time or, conversely, confirm your worst fears?” Or, “What would the first meetings need to accomplish to be worthy of your time?” Or, “What specific things would you like to say to the others or hear from them?” Or, “What would you like to know from others that you don’t know now?” Or, “What specific changes to the proposed charter would give you stronger confidence?”
  • Signals are often sent in the early convening that can influence the speeding up or slowing down of the anticipated process.
    Ask participants to imagine all the possible potholes and bumps they are likely to encounter on the journey and propose schedules that balance the need for speed with the things they also think need to be accomplished. In the end, the facilitator may want to say to participants, “Bear with me as things get organized.” If participants have reasonable confidence and trust in the manner in which the project is organized and is getting started, they will likely cooperate.
  • Some individuals believe they can accomplish more in the normal political and legal processes and are reluctant to participate.
    There are a number of possible ways to deal with this. First, are the other stakeholders prepared to go forward without them? Second, can the issues be narrowed and focused so that impending political and legal matters are more expeditiously streamlined? Third, might a joint fact-finding effort be a useful process to help narrow factual disagreements?
  • Some individuals insist that they have lawyers present. Others prefer not.
    Everyone may agree to have lawyers present. Conversely, agreements may state “no agreements will be entered into with lawyer consultation.” Agreements can also be crafted so that lawyers can participate in some sessions but not others.
  • Some individuals want to open the process to the press and outsiders, while others insist not.
    The usual practice is to encourage private discussions with no statements made to the press except those jointly agreed to through a designated spokesperson and supplemented by opportunities for the media to take photos and pose questions. Alternatively, there may be some sessions that are open to media, while others are not.

This project illustrates one of the ways a collaborative project can get started, as well as the challenges of bringing a group together to engage in early discussions. The excerpt is from “The Pig Wars Revisited.”

December, 1994. On a wet, cool night, 20 people are gathered around worn benches and rough plywood tables in the clubhouse of the Laupahoehoe and Hamakua Hawaiian Civic Club.

The group that has assembled is known as “The NAWG,” Natural Areas Working Group. It includes representatives from three Big Island hunting groups, two local community associations, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Audubon Society, the National Biological Survey, and the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife. The co-mediators are charged with structuring a process of communication and negotiation and increasing the odds that new solutions to some vexing old problems can be invented. The racial mix in the group seems also to demand a racial mix on the mediation team.

Some members of the working group representing more strident environmental interests advocate putting up as many stretches of pig-proof fences as possible, removing the pigs inside, and, over time, expanding the Natural Area Reserve (NAR) system so that more forest is protected. Others, notably the more outspoken hunting groups, take a polar-opposite approach. They argue that pig populations and hunting opportunities must be expanded, that some of the NARs should be turned into Game Management Areas, and that all existing fences in and around the NARs need to be torn down because they interfere with pig breeding and migration and are dangerous to hikers, hunters, and dogs.

Luckily, the NAWG is composed of people who hold very strong opinions but who also genuinely want to solve problems and — in the finest tradition of Hooponopono, the ancient Hawaiian ritual of resolving family and clan disputes — seek to “make things right.” There is the inevitable stereotyping, miscommunication, misinformation, and battles over process that attend any conflict. Most NAWG members, however, seem preliminarily interested in a search for understanding and agreement.

Related Examples

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