Also see: Conflict Resolution | "No formula" | "Community Building" | Recommendations
MY HISTORY IN ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit. — Sir Peter Ustinov
As you read, remember that I am but one person, and the way I facilitate
for a group the resolution of a destructive environmental dispute, the framing
of a vision statement, sustainable community development, or the entire process
(from resolution of a conflict through sustainable community
development) is only one way. This does not make it the right way or even
the best way. Nevertheless, while it has worked well over the years, I did
not start out to become a facilitator.
In the beginning, I merely noticed that many of the destructive environmental
conflicts grew out of the incompatibility of human material desires with
the sustainable health and productive capacity of the environment. This situation was compounded as society's questions of value with respect to environmental issues were increasingly subjected to objective scientific study, to derive objective scientific data, to provide objective scientific answers. Yet despite millions of dollars and thousands of person hours devoted to such study, intrinsic cultural values and objective scientific
data remain miles apart because no human can be objective.
With this in mind, I began conducting workshops in the mid 1970s, while employed
by the Bureau of Land Management. The purpose of these workshops (the vast majority
of which took place in smokey rooms on ranger districts of the U.S. Forest Service)
was to help bridge the chasm between human material desires and the sustainable
health and productive capacity of the environment. To accomplish this, I
presented participants, primarily personnel of the U.S. Forest Service,
with the ecological concepts (based on the best available data) and the social
concepts (based on their expressed cultural values) within the context of
systems thinking. Word of my workshops spread over time, which resulted in the Bureau of
Land Management and conservation groups asking me to conduct conflict-resolution workshops for them.
My sole intent was to help them understand the environmental issue from a
interdependent ecological-social systems point of view, encompassing the
past, present, and future. In this way, they could expand their common frame
of reference in preparation for someone else to facilitate the resolution
of the dispute.
It was always emphasized that the data presented were the most up to date
that I knew of, but that neither I nor anyone else knew what was right
or had the answer. Over time, and much to my surprise, participants began
asking me to stay with them and guide the entire conflict-resolution process. I had
no idea conscious idea of what I was doing, however, because I had no training in either a conflict-resolution technique or a conflict-management style. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agreed, but limited myself to dealing with conflicts stemming from environmental issues.
All I had in my favor was an undying belief: (1) in the inherent goodness
of people; (2) that their blindness—their lack of conscious awareness of cause and effect—is
born of ignorance, not malice; (3) that each person does the level best they know how to do at all times; (4) that given a place in which to feel safe, an empathetic ear with which to be heard, and the empowerment with which to overcome fear, people can and will change for the better; (5) that there is no turning back once a person starts down the path of personal growth, with its increasing sense of freedom through self-control and self-direction; and (6) that society as a whole is lifted up each time an individual grows and matures emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Rainbow of hope.
My approach to conflict resolution was intuitively transformative because it seems
much more important to cure the cause and eliminate the symptom than to merely
alleviate the symptom without touching its cause (the problem-solving approach).
The transformative approach inherently: (1) assumes that human relationships
take precedence over procedural outcomes; (2) opens people to a greater
compassion for one another; (3) allows people to argue for and protect one
another's dignity; (4) is a meticulous practice of the best principles democracy
has to offer; (5) balances intellect with intuition; (6) improves society
by allowing people to grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually;
(7) focuses on the cause of a conflict; (8) helps participants understand
the consequences of their choices within the context of Nature's impartial
law of cause and effect; (9) allows the outcome of a conflict to be decided
solely by the participants, despite the fact that resolution may not take
place until some months after facilitation is completed; and (10) inspires
the possibility of sustainable community development.
I intentionally go into each conflict with very little specific knowledge
of the conflict itself or the participants. Although someone obviously contacts
me about facilitating the resolution of a destructive environmental conflict,
our conversation regarding the details is kept to a minimum. Beyond that,
I deal with as few participants as possible prior to the facilitation process.
If interaction is necessary, I avoid discussing the conflict in any detail. In this way,
I am, as much as possible, unbiased not only going into but also during the
process, which helps me remain detached from the outcome.
Further, I agree, with a few exceptions, to facilitate an environmental conflict
only when the disputants have exhausted every other avenue of settlement
because only then are they really ready to listen to one another and thus actually open
to change. At that point I can help them; until then, I cannot.
There are three basic parts to my conflict-resolution technique: (1) introduction, (2) body, and (3) conclusion.
The introduction serves several purposes, which collectively sets the stage
for the facilitation process. The first is to establish common ground among
the participants and between the participants and me. I usually use cards
with the participants' names on them to arrange seating, so that participants
sit next to someone not of their choosing and begin to mix. Next, we take
some time to introduce ourselves and share a little about our respective
backgrounds, often including interests and hobbies.
At other times, the participants may form into pairs with their neighbors,
take a few moments to learn about each other, and then take turns introducing
each other. In this way, preliminary communication is initiated, which
simultaneously starts to bring each person out of their protective shell
through mutual participation that captures and holds their attention and
has within it the seeds of trust.
The introduction serves to clarify why the participants are taking part in
the conflict-resolution activity and what each hopes to gain from it. At this time,
we discuss whether all necessary parties are in attendance; if not, why not;
and what can be done to rectify the situation. Here my task is to help the
participants develop an inclusive attitude by helping them understand why
all parties are necessary to the process and its outcome.
Next, I help the participants develop a receptive attitude toward the
conflict-resolution process itself. This is done by helping them understand what
it may hold that is beneficial to them personally, such as learning how to
use democracy as a tool of self-government as well as community
The introduction also allows the participants to learn what they can expect
from me, what I expect from them, and what they can expect from one another.
This is done in part by how I present myself as a person and in part by
establishing the rules of conduct, such as waiting your turn to speak, being
kind and polite at all times, and accepting one another's ideas without judgment.
Finally, the participants must understand they will get as much or as
little out of the conflict-resolution process as they are committed to putting into
it. After all, it is their process and their results; I am only there as a midwife
to their process.
The body is the main part of the conflict-resolution process. When possible, I use
a three-day process. The first day is spent discussing what an ecosystem
is, how it functions, the reciprocal nature of how and why we treat a system
as we do and how and why it responds as it does. This is done by using slide
presentations. It is easier for the participants to begin shifting their
thinking prior to their explaining to me what the dispute is about, because
they know that under this circumstance I am as unbiased as possible.
Explaining how we view environmental issues and why we often misunderstand them.
The second day, with as much of a systems view as possible, we put the
current conflict into a social-environmental context in the field, preferably
in the area of contention. Going into the field is critical because it helps
to make the abstract concepts of the first day into concrete experiences
of immediate relevance to the environmental issue at stake. Here the discussion
begins by focusing on the teaching/learning of the first day, namely on what an
ecosystem is, how it functions, the reciprocal nature of how and why we treat a
system as we do, and how and why it responds as it does.
During this time each person in turn expresses their perception of the
dispute from their understanding of how the ecosystem in question functions.
The purpose is for each person to educate me about the dispute from their
understanding of the whole and their perceived relation to the whole.
As each explanation unfolds, the person recounting it clarifies their
own understanding of their perceptions and the other parties hear for
the first time the whole of someone else's story from that person's point
of view. During this story-telling, I learn what the dispute is about because
I hear it from various sides and am thus able to find common ground, differences,
negotiable areas, quagmires, and hidden potentials for resolution.
Because the environmental issue at the center of the conflict has a historical
perspective, it is necessary to help participants examine this perspective. From
our examination of the concrete historical and current perspective, we progress
to a more abstract, futuristic perspective. This perspective allows scrutiny of possible outcomes resulting from various kinds of decisions as each might affect the health and productive capacity of the environment, present and future. It is vital that participants be
able to move from the concrete to the abstract, based on their concept of
current knowledge, if they are to craft a shared vision of the future as
a resolution of their immediate conflict.
Toward this end, it is imperative to accept people where they are in terms
of their understanding, which normally means using simple examples of how
two or three components of a system might function together and then gradually
expanding the examples to show how a more complex system might function as
a whole. This includes helping participants to understand such concepts as
change in terms of a continual, creative process; self-reinforcing feedback
loops; isolated pieces versus interdependent functions; the dynamic equilibrium of an ever-changing system; and so on.
By accepting people where they are in their understanding, it is possible
to help them move from a known point of departure, with respect to their
perceived knowledge, toward new ideas and concepts, while retaining their
dignity intact. This process is greatly enhanced if I can lead people from
more widely accepted ideas to those less widely held.
When I feel that I have an adequate understanding of the environmental issue(s) and the
participants seem ready (usually by the third day), we discuss the concept
of a vision, goals, and objectives. Once the participants have an understanding
of these concepts, they begin to work out their vision and goals (it is not
yet time for objectives), crafting them carefully on flip charts. Doing it
this way, the vision and goals can usually be drafted and agreed to on the
Occasionally, however, this does not work. If the participants just do not
agree, they are sent off by themselves (sometimes for a day or a couple of
weeks) with the instruction that each party in the dispute, which usually
consists of a number of individuals, is to craft its own vision and goals.
When they have completed the assignment, we reconvene, at which time each
party shares its vision and goals with the other(s).
The purpose of one party presenting its vision and goals to the other(s)
is simply for the other people to help make sure—without judgment—that
the stated vision and goals fit the agreed upon criteria. If they do not,
the wording is corrected so that the criteria are in fact satisfied. Each
party in turn presents its material, and each party in turn helps the others
assure that the criteria are met.
Once this process has been completed, all parties look for areas of overlap.
I may help them out with questions, a powerful tool when used wisely, because
questions open the door of possibility. For example, it was not possible
to go to the moon until someone asked the question: "Is it possible to go
to the moon?" At that moment, going to the moon became possible. To be effective,
however, each question must: (1) have a specific purpose, (2) contain a single
idea, (3) be clear in meaning, (4) stimulate thought, (5) require a definite
answer to bring closure to the human relationship induced by the question,
and (6) relate to previous information.
For example, in a discussion about going to the moon, one might ask: "Do
you know what the moon is?" The specific purpose is to find out if one knows
what the moon is. Knowledge of the moon is the single idea contained in the
question. The meaning of the question is clear: do you or do you not know
what the moon is? The question stimulates thought about what the moon is
and may spark an idea of how one relates to it; if not, that can be addressed
in a second question. The question as asked requires a definite answer, and
the question relates to previous information.
Once the areas of agreement and/or a willingness to compromise are found,
they may constitute up to eighty percent or more of a common ground, and
there may be little dispute left to negotiate. Once this point has been reached,
the parties are ready to conclude this phase of the conflict-resolution process.
In winding down this phase of the conflict-resolution process, the important elements
of the dispute and its resolution are retraced, so the parties, having been
consumed in the process, can now stand back and see in perspective how it
works, which may give them a better understanding of the whole. This review
both reinforces what they have learned and improves their retention of it
for later reference. New ideas are not included at this time because they
are likely to confuse the participants.
Finally, I must help them to determine what their next step is, usually another
meeting to refine their initial draft of the vision and goals. They must
decide how they want to do this and when. It is imperative, however, that
they have their next meeting date set and committed to prior to adjourning.
Transformative conflict resolution helps the parties create a shared vision and
goals for a sustainable future in which they can all somehow benefit and
in which they want to share. Only now do I consider the dispute largely,
but not completely, resolved. Full resolution of an environmental conflict
requires putting the shared vision into action through sustainable community
Resolving a destructive environmental conflict depends first on understanding
the cause or causes of the conflict. Such understanding must uncover the
chain of events set in motion by the participants' decisions, which in turn
triggered cause-and-effect relationships within a range of alternative decisions
and outcomes. My perception of a conflict must be as objective as possible
and not based on judgment as dictated by my standard of right or wrong.
Beyond this, you must understand that: (1) each conflict is a personal choice
of behavior based on a fear of loss, (2) the process to resolve the conflict
is the root of the resulting decision, (3) conflict is a classroom in which
each participant is in a learning partnership with every other participant,
and (4) the outcome must be a transformation in personal behavior to a higher level of consciousness and thus greater compassion.
IF YOU THINK I CAN HELP YOUR GROUP, AGENCY, OR COMMUNITY, PLEASE CONTACT ME
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