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NO FORMULA, BUT DISPUTES RESOLVED IN THREE DAYS OR LESS

by

Katherine Knight

The Journal "Consensus", M.I.T., April 1999


Chris Maser is an Oregon-based facilitator, scientist and author who has helped successfully resolve more than 50 environmental conflicts, most of them involving public agencies. In each case, the participants have reached consensus or at least drafted a shared vision statement.

Other facilitators and mediators can make similar claims. But Maser attributes his success in part to what he sees as unique attitudes and techniques he uses during the facilitation process, some of which may strike other practitioners as unusual.

For example, unlike practitioners who feel the need for expertise in the given topic, Maser claims to enter every conflict with little or no knowledge of the specific issue or the participants.

"No person, including myself, is or can be objective," he said. "We humans are subjective creatures who cannot hold a neutral thought in our minds for 30 seconds. This being the case, one can only become biased by learning about a conflict prior to entering it. Therefore, in fairness to the combatants and to safeguard against my own human weaknesses and frailties, I go armed only with my ignorance into each and every fray.

I thus leave behind the unavoidable preconceived notions of what the answers should be based on acquired knowledge, and with a beginner's mind can see what the answer might be based on the innocence of ignorance."

Maser said his cases have never taken more than three days to resolve, though his definition of resolve may not match that of other mediators.

"I'll only work with groups that are ready to change, and I don't believe in taking more of people's time than necessary, which keeps costs down," Maser said. He said his work does not follow any specific formula, however. "I have no idea from one moment to the next what will happen," he said.

Maser aims for what he sees as a higher result, not just particular settlements. Through facilitation, his goal is for people to allay their fears and mistrust and shed their rancor. If opposing sides could learn to listen to each other and to respect the diversity of human viewpoint, they could transform themselves from combatants to practitioners of dialectic, seekers of truth, he believes.

Maser has seen these transformations unfold during his environmental conflict resolutions.

"An environmental conflict must be brought to its natural conclusion, a shared vision of a sustainable future toward which to build," he said. "Such a vision is the necessary culmination of every facilitation process dealing with resolving destructive environmental conflict if society, as we know it, is to survive the 21st century."

Maser is the author of Resolving Environmental Conflict: Toward Sustainable Community Development Conflict Resolution. He spent over 25 years as a research scientist in natural history and ecology in forest, shrub steppe, sub-arctic, desert, and coastal settings. In addition to his work as a facilitator in resolving environmental conflicts, Maser is an international consultant on forest ecology and sustainable forestry and said he has authored more than 260 publications.

Environmental conflicts, Maser said, are among the most passionately debated and potentially destructive conflicts. Sentiments run deep, and neighbor is often pitted against neighbor.

The conflict over the disposition of the Waterman Gap forest in the mountain community of Boulder Creek, California is a prime example. The local water board had originally purchased the 3,000-acre Waterman Gap redwood forest as a potential dam site, but the dam was never needed, so the cost of holding the property and paying property taxes became an issue.

Some maintained that the forest should be sold or the trees on it should be cut to recoup expenses and pay for needed equipment for the existing water system. Others argued that because the forest sits at the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River watershed, the water board should keep the property and protect it from development or other exploitation.

The controversy grew and raged for years, polarizing the tiny town. "It made headlines in local papers. There were heated arguments in restaurants and bars," said Water District Advisory Board member Larry Prather. Friendships were even destroyed.

After more than five years of impasse, the water district staff called in Maser to help resolve the conflict.

Within three days, the Water District Advisory Board had reached a level of consensus and drafted a shared vision statement for the property.

Maser's approach includes devoting the first day of the conflict resolution to science. In the case of Waterman Gap, that meant six hours of lecture and slide presentation on forest ecology.

"This gives the participants an equal base of knowledge upon which to base their decisions."

Maser said he seeks to appeal to the highest ethics. "In contrast to the problem-solving approach, the transformation approach emphasizes the capacity of facilitation for personal growth, which is embodied in the ability to accept risk. It is imperative that people become aware of the long-term effects of their decisions. We love our children, and we must realize that our decisions become their circumstances."

Because he sees himself as a champion of the viewpoints of future generations, Maser departs from the accepted model of the mediator as a completely neutral guide.

"If the outcome of our decisions is a deficit in terms of either the children's future options or the ecosystem's productive capacity (which are actually one and the same), it is analogous to 'taxation without representation'--i.e., taxation without permission, and that goes against everything our democracy stands for," he said.

"Chris kept using the example of a ship at sea," recalled Advisory Board member Lisa Rudnick. "He told us, 'You have to decide where you want to go before you ever have a choice of how to get there.'"

The second day of conflict resolution is typically spent at the site of the conflict --in this case, the Waterman Gap forest. "I get the participants physically out of the comfortable conference room and into the field, where we can wander through the area of the conflict and discuss it," Maser said. "I can thus transform the abstractions of the conference room into concrete examples of the field which one can see, touch, smell, hear, and, if necessary, taste."



"I must become dispensable."

Advisory board member Jim Rapoza said Maser's lecture "gave us a common ground. And the day in the forest provided a very valuable, common experience."

"The discussions were intense," said Linda Yule, another advisory board member. "Chris's nonjudgmental, objective attitude helped individuals clarify and express their opinions and concerns to the group. His example of fairness helped members listen to opposing views."

What perhaps opens the participants to change is the way Maser treats them. "I have learned that people do not care how much I know--until they first know how much I care about them," he said.

"Chris was genuinely interested in the truth," said Rudnick. "There are so many agendas out there. It was refreshing having someone who was interested in listening to both sides instead of promoting just one agenda."

"(Maser) never preached to us," Prather said. "Rather, he talked to us and shared with us like a friend. He showed us, by listening to each of us, that everyone's viewpoint deserves respect, and we began to listen also."

And gradually, as the participants toured the forest and talked in small groups, Maser became less and less a part of the conversation. He deferred questions to local biologists and other experts in the group, and ultimately walked away during a discussion, leaving the participants on their own.

"As a transformational facilitator, I concentrate on helping parties empower themselves to define the issues and decide the settlement in their own terms and in their own time through a better understanding of one another's perspectives," he said. "Therefore, I must become dispensable."

This establishes the format for the final session. "We thought Maser was going to guide us to make a decision," recalled Prather. "Instead, after he helped us identify and break down the decision we had to make, he left us completely on our own." But the model of mutual respect and listening that Maser had woven during their two days with him guided the group to consensus and shared vision.



"Transformation as blueprint"

Although Maser divorced himself from the group before the end of the three days, several of the Waterman Gap participants have stayed in contact and have apprised him of their ongoing progress. "People are always free to call me if they have a seemingly insurmountable problem, which has happened a time or two, but I have never had to go back because they could not resolve an issue."

Now, 18 months later, the Waterman Gap Advisory Board's framed vision statement with goals and objectives hangs on the water district office wall. There are still decisions to be made; the participants still hold strong, diverse opinions. But once-hostile combatants have now become a working group.

"The resolution of the Waterman Gap controversy was a major achievement," said Al Haynes, staff to the board "The conflict had existed so long that resolving it was a milestone here in Boulder Creek."

Maser sees this transformation as a blueprint for the sustainable communities of our future.

"I enter each conflict with hope for the future, because choice equals hope, and choice and hope equal dignity," Maser said. "Recognizing that we are where we are by the collective of our individual choices is to recognize that we can change by choice."

Katherine Knight was a freelance writer.
She lived in Santa Cruz, Calif.,
but returned to Central America,
to work with rainforest groups,
where she died of cancer.

Double rainbow

Katherine's enthusiasm for life, love of people, and hope for the future of
Planet Earth made her a "double rainbow" to those who knew her.

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Chris Maser
www.chrismaser.com
Corvallis, OR 97330

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