PROBLEM SOLVING WORKSHOPS
by Joseph de Rivera
Principled negotiation is a practical, rational approach that assumes that the parties to a conflict are open to negotiating differences. If one party becomes angry they may simply be given a chance to blow off some steam. However, some conflicts involve past wounds and a lack of trust that is so deep that the parties that need to negotiate cannot reveal underlying needs or care about meeting the interests of others. In order to deal with the pain, shame, and hatred of past injuries, and to enable the trust necessary for principled negotiation to occur, negotiators have developed what have become known as “problem-solving” workshops in which people may share underlying pains, fears, and needs. These workshops are held in neutral settings and are facilitated by a neutral third party. The facilitator does not attempt to offer suggestions. Rather, he or she models the role of respectfully listening and accepting the initial hostility expressed by both parties.
What appears to happen in these conditions is an involved emotional transformation. The hostility is too deep to simply be blown off, and without the accepting presence of the facilitator, the hostility of one party would be responded to with the hostile defensiveness of the other, resulting in an unproductive cycle of rage. However, when the facilitator is able to accept one party’s hostility, it is possible for that party to begin to express the pain that underlies their hostility. These expressions of grief do not provoke a defensive hostility. Rather, they evoke the sympathy of the other party, so that compassion rather than rage can be expressed. The people involved are then in a position to begin to care about the needs of the other so that trust can be developed, underlying needs can be expressed, and rational problem solving can occur.
Workshops can be carefully structured in ways that lead both parties to share their underlying needs and it is possible to have participants represent wider groups that are in contention. Since political leaders are usually hindered by the demands of their position and constituency, peacemakers often attempt to work with opinion leaders and those who may come into political power in the future. Such workshops have proved quite effective in getting participants to understand and empathize with opposing views. After a workshop, participants appear able to use principled negotiation to craft solutions that will meet the interests of both parties.
There are two limitations for the large scale use of such workshops. The first, involves the fact that participants are confronted with the problem of explaining their idea and new tolerance to compatriots who have not participated in a workshop. Their consideration of the feelings and interests of the other party is apt to appear to appear either foolhardy or traitorous to people who have not had the opportunity of sharing pain with the enemy. It may be possible to use video tape recordings of workshops and distribute these for discussion, or to conduct multiple workshops for local leaders so that attitudes could be changed throughout a population. The second is posed by the fact that there are often some extremists who are unwilling to consider the interests of the other side and it is as yet unclear if it may be possible to use problem solving workshops to deal with the conflict between moderates and extremists, within each of the opposing sides to a conflict. [These workshops have been described by Rogers and Ryback (1984) and by Kellman (1996) who has worked extensively with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.]