Assisted Dialogue and Negotiation

Reconnaissance & Entrée


The primary goal of this stage is to build “the table” and get the process organized.

This stage tests the waters for a viable collaboration project and, if it appears viable, initiates critical start-up steps that lay the foundation for a potentially successful effort. The specific goals and outcomes are to:

  • Understand the timeliness of a possible collaborative effort and the readiness and willingness of different potential conveners, sponsors, and stakeholders to enter into a good-faith process.
  • Develop a working “hypothesis” about the substantive, procedural, and relational challenges that may lie ahead in a possible project.
  • Develop a preliminary and still-tentative “choreography” and process design for the project, to be ratified later by the stakeholders.

In some cases, this may involve a full-blown formal stakeholder assessment; in other cases, it may be far less formal. Some portion of this choice is driven by complexity: the more issues, stakeholders, and urgencies, the more appropriate a formal assessment and analysis. It may be fitting to ask a few influential people to serve as a provisional steering committee or to ask two people who are on different sides of an issue to act as interim “co-chairs” of an effort to get a dialogue underway.

Depending on the project, the specific outputs or deliverables of this stage may be any, some, or all of the following:

  • A formal concept paper
  • Formal or informal stakeholder interviews
  • An informal report back to actual or potential conveners and sponsors
  • Creation of a steering committee or co-chairs
  • A formal or informal report back to everyone interviewed
  • A preliminary design for a process if the project seems viable, along with potential goals and timelines
  • Formal letters that “kick-start” a process
  • A time and cost proposal

In situations where there is a high level of mistrust or rancorous relationships, it may be necessary to check in with people repeatedly, both to offer assurance that a good-faith effort at dialogue and negotiation is being made, and to create psychological momentum for the project.

Setting the stage involves positioning people to interact with each other in the most constructive ways possible.

  • Early reconnaissance.
    This involves discussions and interviews with possible sponsors, conveners, and stakeholders to see if initial reactions to a process are favorable. This work may also include discussions with outside influencers who could play an important role: legislators, regulators, executive officials, corporate and NGO leaders. This is usually done through a series of discrete phone calls and face-to-face meetings. In these discussions, the hope is to uncover and understand the challenges that may lie ahead and use the knowledge gleaned from these interviews to help design the flow and choreography of a given project. The process can be more idiosyncratic and random than linear.
  • Broader and deeper assessments.
    Discussions and interviews with a wider circle of possible stakeholders, including external people in government and in other organizations, help to test the efficacy of a potential project. In some instances this may involve putting together a very simple diagram of a possible process and bullet-form talking points (stamped “draft”), and asking people for their reactions. These discussions can take the form of more formal “assessment” interviews (face-to-face or by phone), or less formal ones (an additional round of phone calls). (See, for example, ESA Charts and Notes)
  • Preparation of an initial document.
    This could take the form of a proposal or, more likely, a written draft of a charter or “terms of reference” (TOR) document that preliminarily states what a process might focus on, who might be needed at the table, what next steps might lie ahead for a possible collaboration project, and what kind of a meeting schedule might be appropriate.
  • Consider whether to exclude or include certain stakeholders.
    Assuming there is a choice about which individuals to invite, to what degree should any avowed “absolutists” on either end of the continuum be included if they signal that the issues are non-negotiable? Think about the potential costs and risks of excluding them. Speak with the hard-liners and test to see if they are willing to participate in an explicit “give and take” process. If certain issues are non-negotiable, they may not get a seat at the table, but they may get invited to make presentations, to offer information and data, and to observe. The flip side of this challenge is to find people who hold and can convey similar views, but who actually want to engage in “give and take” discussions to forge solutions.
  • Consider whether to be more directive or more elicitive on content.
    A process-only focus may be appropriate if the level of emotional drama is extremely high. More often, people are looking for a content-robust process and want to be sure that whoever is sponsoring or managing the collaboration has good knowledge of the subject but will not make substantive judgments or slide into anyone’s pocket.
  • Sponsors, conveners, or funders are confused or unclear on the nature of a collaborative process.
    Sometimes a potential sponsor, convener, or requester senses that some sort of collaborative process is needed, but their descriptions and intents are vague. In effect, they aren’t sure what they want and may have outcomes in mind that are fuzzy. This usually involves several conversations and a discussion of possible deliverables.
  • Sponsor, conveners, or funders aren’t aligned.
    In some instances, several potential sponsors or conveners come together and indicate early interest in a collaborative process but aren’t aligned in their thinking. Some want a short process, others a long one. Some want certain stakeholders to be involved, others disagree. This requires multiple meetings/conversations to facilitate and negotiate a specific project plan.
  • Sponsor, convener, or requester doesn’t want to invest.
    Sometimes a sponsor, convener, or requester wants an elaborate and complex process but wants to do it quickly and “on the cheap.” Sponsors may want to get straight to the table and do not want to spend time and money on a preliminary assessment; they may also be hesitant to invest the human and intellectual resources that are needed for a robust process. If conveners or sponsors are completely willing to trade off quality for speed and cost, it’s better to decline them.
  • Sponsor, convener, or requester wants a particular outcome.
    Occasionally, a sponsor, convener, or requester wants a collaborative project but is wedded to a particular outcome. If expectations can’t be loosened and the latitude to include stakeholder expectations is not granted, it may be better to decline. In many cases, sponsors and conveners can be educated to create a more open-ended approach.
  • The timing for a process seems wrong.
    As a result of assessment interviews, the political timing may not seem right. Explain that future windows might emerge later and that the collaboration might be revisited at that time. Ultimately, it is the decision of the convener and stakeholders as to whether or not they want to move forward.
  • Major stakeholders won’t participate.
    The assessment interviews may reveal that some of the major potential players do not want to participate, or they may be willing to participate but are probably going to “game” the process, or have no resources to participate, or want to stretch the sponsor’s sense of deadline. It’s best to address each problem in individual meetings. In the end, and without embarrassing anyone, try to manage expectations and propose participation ground rules. The real question is whether others wish to continue.
  • The sponsor prefers not to have a written assessment report circulated.
    A sponsor, convener, or requester has agreed in principle to circulate a report on the assessment interviews but then asks that it not be shared. If the sponsor cannot be persuaded to let others read the findings, report this back to the stakeholders and try to give them a verbal summary.

This project shows how a project began, how the assessment took place, and how the choreography worked.

In the mid-1990s a developer sought permits to build a resort on the Kona coast near Anaehoomalu. A group calling itself “Public Access Shoreline Hawaii” (PASH) formed in opposition to the project and brought a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the project from going forward. PASH was made up of both environmental advocates and Native Hawaiians. The group argued that any development would need to honor the “traditional and customary gathering rights” of Native Hawaiians and would need to assure public access. In 1995, the case made its way to the State Supreme Court where the justices found in favor of PASH.

The Court’s decision created great joy among Native Hawaiians and great consternation in the business community. Developers took their case for greater legal clarity to the legislature. State senators and House legislators were wrestling with how to implement the court’s decision in ways that would balance the interests of Hawaiians with land owners and developers. The decision was made to defer the bills and create a resolution asking to set up a carefully organized and facilitated process between legislative sessions. The resolution that emerged (HRD 197) requested the Office of State Planning (OSP) to implement just such a process and report the results at the next session. The initial challenge was to conceptualize a general process and explore the willingness of leaders from different interest groups to sit together and work on the problem.

As a working hypothesis, the facilitation team envisioned a flexible, three-phased project arc that would have the group deliberate, take the discussions public, and then complete the deliberations informed by the public’s comments over the course of six to nine months. Preliminary discussions with thought leaders in both the Native Hawaiian and business communities helped to identify additional possible groups and individuals, create a proposed set of ground rules, and strongly confirm that such a process was needed and desired.

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

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