Questions to Ask
As you're identifying issues at first, you also want to identify key players, and their roles. Going into any situation like that one, without having some idea of who the leadership is, is kinda putting your life at risk -- very much at risk, because you're walking around like a zombie or something, because you don't know who's who, and what's what. ... What's also key in a case like this, in a situation like this, is that you must not only identify administration leadership or white leadership, but you must also identify Indian leadership, and that's very hard. You go into the Indian community and you might hear a lot of talk that so-and-so is the leader or the boss. You hear all of this stuff, you write that name down, you call, you get him or her lined up, and then you learn that this person isn't the leader after all. In some communities, you won't know who the leader may be, especially in minority communities. It's a culture thing; you have to learn something about the culture. You don't barge in there, not having taken those things into consideration.
What kinds of questions do you ask?
Well, after I say, "I am from the Federal Government, and I am here to help you," which is actually funny, especially with larger meetings... I do that and I know people are going to laugh! But it also helps to ease tensions a little bit, and loosen people up. I can remember one meeting
that I went to where there was a lot of tension regarding law enforcement in a predominantly
Hispanic community. Once I got there, it was clear that at least some of the community wasn't
thrilled about having the Justice Department there either. It just so happened that this mass
community meeting was on April 15. So the introduction was something like, "Okay, so this is
your tax dollars at work: Silke Hansen is here from the Federal Government to help you!" I
intentionally used that line to say, "I know what you are thinking, so just let me see how I can be
helpful." I think the fact that I made fun of myself a little bit didn't come across as too
"officious," if you will, but rather acknowledged some of their misgivings and doubts helped
cut through at least some of the tension.
I was still challenged, of course it was not a piece of cake. But after the meeting, people said,
"Well, it's a good thing we've got a real facilitator for this meeting." I think being able to use
some humor and, I find, particularly self-deprecating humor helps. I don't like to imply that I
have all the answers. Sooner or later, they're going to realize that I don't have all the answers
anyway, so why pretend in the first place?
Now, with individuals or small groups, I start by asking them, "What's going on? What is
happening here?" Usually, even though I explain the role of CRS and the fact that we are
impartial third parties that we are there as mediators and that we work with both sides people
will try to "bring us over to their side." Maybe that's just human nature. They will come up with
proof and documentation and offer to get more documentation. So it always becomes a balancing
act. On one hand, I don't want to cut them off, and make it look like I don't care. So I accept that
behavior, because it might also provide useful background information.
On the other hand, though, I use it as an opportunity to remind them that I am not conducting an
investigation, and that even if they were to convince me that they are absolutely right, that
wouldn't resolve this particular conflict. I say something like: "Yes, I appreciate the information
that you are giving me, and it will be helpful to my understanding. Remember, though, my role is
to get you together with the other side and to see how we can resolve this. So thank you for the
information, and it will help me understand some of the dynamics, and maybe point me toward
other questions that I need to ask." Then I have to hope that they'll understand that I don't need
the documentation. If they ask if I want all their documents I usually say, "Yes, that's helpful, but
if you can't find it or can't prove it to me, I don't need the whole paper trail that you have.
Documentation is not going to change the dynamics of what I am trying to do here." Eventually I
think people catch onto that.
Were your initial talks with chancellor and president part of your
Right, to find out what had happened and how they saw the issues and problems. They
were asking for our help, but we didn't know the specifics at that time. In the back of my mind
all the time is to understand what are the issues and problems and determine whether we can get
people talking together.
inquiring. The first thing you do, you go to the
black mortician. They're independent of the system. The barber shop, the beauty parlors.
Then after talking to them, I tended to ask, "Who's the pastor in this town?" You know, the one
think that could give me an overview of really what's going on this town. Then I would go to
the schools. And I am going to say this with caution, and I hope you fully understand what I'm
going to say -- but in the nature of this work, I'd try to find a Jewish business person. Because
they have in some time suffered the effects of discrimination, the same as we have. And they
would be very honest in telling me who the people were that I needed to deal with. And another
thing that I would use, I always would ask the black people, "Who are the white people you
think I need to see?" They would tell me. Then I would ask the white people that I would meet
with, the white business leaders, and the elected officials, "Who are the blacks I need to talk
with?" And nine times out of ten, they are the ones you didn't talk with.
I wouldn't or they'd be the very last. They would not be at the top of my list, because they
are the so-called hand-picked blacks that the white community has always used. So I made it a
point for them not to be the first blacks that I would contact. Then I would go to the schools
because, at that time, most of the schools were predominantly black. I'd meet with the principal
and some of the teachers, and then try to find a teacher who's had the most difficulty, actually the
one that's very outspoken.
I try to bring little groups together and let them talk, and I listen. I mean
you don't just sit there, you gotta listen to what people are saying. Then sometimes it's
important to realize what's not being said. You just go on from that point.
I ask them several things from their point of view. What
do they think is going on? Also, these people will tell me a lot
of things about each other. Sometimes people have things they
don't want you to know. So we just ask a lot of questions. Who's
the leadership, who's the top educator, who's the top
businessman, who speaks out front, who's in the back? Who calls the shots? They tell
us. Then we make sure we talk to those five key individuals.
Then we can pretty much be effective. The whole point of
being effective is to create some kind of
change or to help them progress, to solve their own problems.
What you want to do is find out what happened and you start an assessment once you start asking
these questions. I mean, you're in the case from the first phone conversation. You might close it
in a minute, but right then you're in it, so you are doing all those things a
good mediator has to do. The listening, drawing out information, taking good notes. At the
outset you are more likely to be doing this on the phone. What is happening? Who is involved?
You want to know what happened - - the history of the conflict. What are the issues? How long
has it been going on? What has been done to date to resolve the problem? It's probably on any
academic's list, any conflict map. Those sorts of questions are used to assess the situation.
What kind of questions did you ask in these interviews?
I asked them where they believed that the institution was discriminating. What kinds of
things would be helpful?
What questions do you ask to get this going?
Just, "What's the conflict here?" Usually I am there because something has happened or somebody has issued a petition. So I just say, "Okay, so tell what this is about." One of the questions that I have learned is, "When did this happen?" I am thinking of a case of police use of force in Indian country. As I met with the minority community, I heard horror stories of the kinds of beatings that had taken place and abuse of citizens and so on. The first time, I was overwhelmed. They were all terrible. Then I found out that some of them had taken place 15 years ago. "It happened to my son who is now in college." That doesn't make it any less important. I am not minimizing the relevance of that, but I did learn to ask, "When did this happen?" instead of just assuming. My mindset at first was like, "Tell me what happened." I would hear the stories assuming that it had happened at least within the last year. But what I am hearing isn't just what happened in the last year, but the whole history of this. So when I asked, "When did it happen?" in that case, I tried to make sure that they didn't feel what happened twenty years ago wasn't important, but as we get closer to the actual joint meeting, it's important to know what the long term history is and what's happened more recently.