Assisted Dialogue and Negotiation

Dialogue & Information Exchange


Through discussion and deliberation, group members create a pertinent information base and sharpen their collective clarity on the problem to be solved.

The main goal of this stage is to lay down multiple foundational pieces in the service of future solution finding. Protocols are in place and the mission, goals, and objectives are acceptable to all (with the understanding that they may need to be revisited or changed along the way).

The three main tasks of this stage are to:

  • Identify issues. Have every stakeholder understand every other stakeholder’s aspirations, ideas, and underlying interests. This interpersonal foundation helps to create trust and confidence.
  • Identify options. Arrive at the fullest and crispest possible clarity on the issues and have those issues well framed and well stated.
  • Build an information base. Create a strong base of pertinent data and information on the table by populating buckets with facts from the PESTLE (political, economic, social, technical, legal, and environmental) arenas.

The added benefit of building an information base with the group is to create a mutual learning curve and avert the impulse by some participants to seek premature negotiations.

This stage seeks to carefully and deliberately build interpersonal and substantive understandings and enough trust and momentum to attack the problems that have brought people together.

  • Some people want to go straight to solutions; other people are not ready.
    The challenge is to create and manage at a pace that is satisfying to both those who might be impatient with a lot of discussion and, conversely, those who need to go through careful foundation building. The details of this are always negotiable in the moment and as they arise, provided the group has agreed in its charter or TOR how the schedule will proceed.
  • One party comes to the meetings and prematurely lays down a position statement or set of demands.
    The challenge in this situation is preventing premature negotiating, i.e., offers and demands before some semblance of closure has been reached in the Forum Phase. When one party, usually someone very accustomed to more “positional” negotiation, lays down demands, the facilitator’s work is to de-position that individual. One option is to directly ask him/her to postpone. Or, if it is already out on the table, ask the group to defer discussion on this until later, when everyone is ready to bring their own demands and offers.
  • Some members of a group have little patience for complex deliberations and a hard-wired intolerance for “messiness.”
    Collaborative processes that bring together representation from the public, private, and civic sectors are messy. So are attempts at untangling them. Part of the goal, then, is to help groups grapple with the substantive, procedural, and relational messiness and go through their own “uncluttering.” The facilitator will try to build in antidotes (preventions) to the messiness and safeguards (interventions) during the process when the messiness is getting acute.
  • Some members of the group think and operate inductively, from ground-level details up to a usable generalization. For others it is deductive, or “top-down;” they must begin with a theory, a principle, or a proposition.
    People come to the table with different learning styles. It isn’t an “either-or” choice. Both styles need to be accommodated to maintain the procedural side of the triangle of satisfactions.
  • Sometimes, scientists find local knowledge and local experts suspect, and visa versa. Occasionally, this results in escalated conflict and groups become vulnerable to an “expert war.”
    There are many ways to constructively engage this issue: technical work groups, well moderated expert panels, and mediated discussions on methods, data, and modes of analysis.
  • (See “Managing Scientific and Technical Information in Environmental Cases” and “Building Trust: Twenty Things You Can Do To Help Environmental Stakeholder Groups Talk More Effectively About Science, Culture, Professional Knowledge, and Community Wisdom.”)

  • Some stakeholders are reluctant to put detailed information on the table for fear it will come back to haunt them in a later legal or political forum.
    This challenging situation often happens when litigation is pending and discussions are more in the nature of settlement talks. Rule 408 of the Federal Rules of Evidence offers some guidance and protection.
  • Some stakeholders want to focus on quantitative and numerical analysis. Others prefer “talk story” and use a discursive and informal style.
    This problem is common and is similar to managing inductive and deductive learning styles. To be viewed as credible, the process must be choreographed to accommodate both and not allow one style to be privileged over the other.
  • Some stakeholders are focused on cultural issues only. Others are focused on legal and economic matters.
    Both perspectives are critical. Consider beginning with presentations and discussions on the culture issues, with assurances that the group will also be taking up the legal issues in short order. The PESTLE buckets may prove handy in framing questions and seeking compelling information.
  • Discussions on important civic and public interest matters in stakeholder groups can be defeated for the wrong reasons.
    Some groups have difficulty getting organized. A few get hijacked by people who want to see decisions perpetually delayed for their own political purposes. Many discussions yield no shared and acceptable process for dialogue; this can happen because of a premature push for decisions and a voting of “us” versus “them.” In some cases, communication breakdowns trigger escalating spirals of suspicion. In the most extreme situations, people of integrity and goodwill actively seek to defeat each other.
  • At the start of this stage and at the start of all those that follow, spend a few minutes doing a thorough recap of what has brought the group to this particular moment. When “chanting the genealogy” of the group, the facilitator recaps the mission and objectives, the procedural agreements that are in place, and previous discussions of the substantive matters at hand. This helps everyone remember what they are doing and why they are doing it and it also brings any new people, (observers or new participants), up to speed.
  • Out of the insights, explanations, and stories of group members, try to evolve a set of questions that are mutual to everyone. For example: “How can we protect the fish species in this bay and use the bay to help revitalize the local economy?” This involves taking “either/or” questions and converting them to “and/both” questions.
  • In complex discussions that are science, culture, law, or technology intensive, urge groups to spend considerable time wrestling with factual issues and creating a solid collective foundation of agreed-upon information that will inform decisions later on. Facts are instrumental to face-saving and a graceful way to help people change their minds.

Stage 3 is rich with activities aimed at setting the scene for Stage 4. Some of these activities include:


Stories are the portal into ideas; ideas that are not grounded in stories are often abstract. Stories are “frames.” Facts that don’t fit frames tend not to be accepted as facts. Encourage first-person narratives by asking: “Tell us about a typical situation in which the issues we are taking up came into play?” Or, “Tell us how this issue affects you personally?” Or, “Give us some insight into why this problem is important to you and your organization?”

Field Trips

One of the more powerful, visceral, illuminating and sometimes unifying strategies is a well-organized field trip. It’s useful to get everyone out of enclosed meeting rooms, away from PowerPoint presentations and flip charts, and out to the actual sites that are at the center of discussions. Field trips by themselves are useful, but the real value emerges when the trips are carefully debriefed and followed by focused questions on what was observed, how the observations were interpreted, and what those mean for the issues under discussion.

Friendly Questions

Assuming a working trust exists or has been established, encourage people to ask “friendly” questions of each other so they can gain a richer understanding of each others’ views. Questions are asked not to embarrass or debate, but to elucidate and inform.

Detoxification of Communication

It is always preferable that people talk with each other directly. When people are having a particularly hard time expressing their thoughts or hearing and understanding each other, the facilitator may serve as translator and bridge, managing and filtering interpersonal exchanges. When the problem is extreme, ask people to reverse roles and explain another person’s views until it meets the other person’s full satisfaction. This can be tedious, but it works.


In some groups, it may be useful to ask people to create an historic timeline that identifies key players, actions, events or epochs that have led to the present moment.

Shared Assumptions

Most groups are asked to brainstorm a list of possible shared assumptions. With the PESTLE framework, participants can be asked to generate, category by category, the political, economic, social, technical, legal, and environmental assumptions they are making about the next five to ten years. Group members are directed to use their analytic brains and state what they “think” will hold true rather than what they “hope” will. Once these lists are generated, the group participates in eliminating those assumptions that are not shared so that they end up with a list that is indeed shared. These shared views of the future often become serious drivers to option development and option selection.

Issue Arraying

In many instances, “fishbone” exercises to help identify and then cluster issues, causes, and effects. “Cause and Effect Diagrams,” as they are sometimes known, are a way of exploring the contributing causes or reasons for a particular problem or issue. The diagram can also be used in reverse fashion to identify what contributes to a desired impact. The effect may be either problematic or desirable; when something desirable has happened it is useful to find out what caused it so it can be replicated.

Socratic Discussions

On occasion it is appropriate to organize “Socratic Dialogues” (some times called “Fred Friendly” meetings) in which people are given a hypothetical that mirrors the problem at hand; they are assigned roles (the mayor, an NGO, a corporation, etc.) and then gently interrogated about how they would react to a shifting set of facts or to new wrinkles and “wildcards” that are introduced.


In some groups, stakeholders are asked to create very specific photographic “tapestries” of a five- or ten-year future. They are asked to be specific in their descriptions and engage in a discussion that mines these photos for themes, strategies, and future activities. This quite easily turns into a plan.

Fact Building/Fact Finding

In all projects, the intention is to build a strong and mutual foundation of facts. For purposes of negotiation, assume that nothing is a “fact” until members agree it is a fact. Prior to that, it is an “opinion.” Where there may be factual divides, it is useful to bring relevant PESTLE information to the table, in any one of a number of forms: expert presentations by stakeholders, outside experts on a panel, joint interpretation of specific studies, or various forms of discussions between lawyers, scientists, and culture experts. (Note that not every data “bucket” is relevant to every project.) This will lead groups to important discussions about what questions they want to answer and then, to what information will help inform the question.

Issue Confirmation

It is important to have an explicit list of agreed-upon issues enumerated and on the table. This may be an elaboration of what is already in the charter or TOR.

Option Development

By the end of this phase, it is often natural to have an initial set of options charted out. This can be a discrete exercise or group discussion, or a “starter” list generated by the facilitator or members of the team. The trick is to manage group conversations in ways that avoid “group think,” trivializing the discussion, “satisficing” (jumping on the first good alternative), or avoiding tough choices. This list of alternatives will get revisited, refined, and analyzed in the next stages.

Straw Polling

This straw polling tool gives a group a regular way of probing its own levels of consensus or “dissensus.” The poll is based on the following:

  • 1 = Love it
  • 2 = Like it
  • 3 = Like it, but have some reservations
  • 4 = Don’t like it, have reservations, but won’t stand in the way of it going forward
  • 5 = Strenuous objections and cannot support it

Using a straw polling scale like this allows for a finer gauging of agreement and also leads to further discussion by asking what 3, 4 or 5 improvements participants would make in the idea to raise their votes by one or more points.

This excerpt is from “The Ok Tedi Negotiations: Rebalancing a Chronic Sustainability Dilemma,” a mine contamination and compensation case involving 60,000 indigenous people. The project illustrates the challenge of creating and sustaining a strong foundation of productive dialogue for the final negotiations. It also illustrates the value of going slowly at the start so that a project doesn’t get bogged down at the back end.

The 50 members of the working group met six times in 14 months. Hundreds of regional and village meetings were held before or after each of the working group meetings. The design of the meetings and the choreography of the negotiations were intentionally aimed at creating as much trust building, information exchange, fact finding, deliberation, and interest-based bargaining as possible

At the start of the working group process, the remaining value of funds available from the original trusts (from 2007 to expected mine closure in mid-2013) was roughly K78.8 million. (Note a PNG Kina = U.S. .30). At the second working group meeting, OTML offered K118.2 million as a guaranteed floor plus more if copper and gold sales proved better than 2.5% of cash flow. At the third working group meeting, community delegates put forward an un-quantified interest-based proposal for new health, education, and job training services, new infrastructure, and unspecified new amounts of cash. At the fourth meeting, OTML, in combination with PNGSDP and national government’s Minister of Mining, came forward with a combined proposal of K820.9 million. After further discussions between meetings and at the fifth working group, the parties agreed to a package valued at K1.100 billion (subject to ratification at the regional and village levels).

The negotiations sought to confront many important cross-currents and tensions. While all of the delegates collectively sought to “expand the pie” in their negotiations with OTML shareholders, the community delegates also had the task of “dividing the pie” between the nine river regions. Land owner and land user interests were at odds, as were the interests of those who had or had not supported earlier lawsuits. Many of the mechanical and administrative questions of how new financial arrangements would work were also in question as the process unfolded.

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

Please enable JavaScript for full site functionality. Click here to learn how.