Mediation of identity conflicts
[Full Interview] [Topic Top]
talked yesterday about the theory we developed, based on talks with a lot of people, about what
we call intractable or resolution-resistant conflicts. We came to the conclusion that conflicts
were more resolution resistant if they involved very high stakes and distributional kinds of
questions. They were also more resistant if they involved fundamental moral differences, or
what we call domination conflicts, pecking order conflicts, or identity conflicts. All of these tend
to be involved in race issues. I threw this out at you yesterday, and you said that the factor we
hadn't been thinking about was the need for relationship. If there was a need for relationship
between people, then they would be willing to negotiate on those things. Are there other factors
we're not thinking about?
Another factor is the partyís or the individual's ability to look
beyond their current power position. If they can't perceive themselves in an honorable way,
beyond this entrenched position, then the issue's not negotiable. That's why I always ask, "What
is in your interest?" If I can't help them identify an interest that serves their needs beyond this
entrenched position, it won't work. I can explain to them, "You have the power to direct
authoritarian decision making on this plan, but what is it getting you? What might happen if
you're willing to move in a different direction? Is it worth that?" If they say it's not worth that,
then I'll tell these people what to do. If they don't do that, they're out of here, they're not going to
negotiate. Again, at that point, I'm not looking for them to understand the other party's interest.
I'm looking for something to catch their interest. So if they're so entrenched that they can't see
hope of personal interest served -- beyond this entrenched position -- they're not going to move
out of it. That's when I would say, "Call me."
You mean if they change their mind?
Yes. I think one of my propensities was to keep moving beyond
their real interest. They would have to be really overt to me and say, "Go away." As long as they
just danced around it and kept the door open, I just kept moving forward. Generally that worked
out, although sometimes they slammed the door. I think that's one of the skills of the mediator,
to understand whether or not it's mediatable. If you canít help that party see beyond the
entrenched position, then it's not going to be mediated. I use it in the 40 hour mediation class.
For example, one of the barriers may be authority. It's a big rock. Here's the mediator, they're
the fulcrum underneath this lever. As the mediator, I'm trying to get this party off of its
entrenched position in order to see the benefits of the mediation. If I can't come up with
something to put on the other side, then it won't level out and it's not going to work.
So the mediator is looking for a leverage point to move people out of their entrenched
position, to get them to consider a negotiation. In family situations, children are often the point.
Sometimes it's money. "How many resources are you going to use supporting that intrenched
position? Are you willing to consider another option?" So you've got to find that leverage point.
If you can't find it, and I don't say many things absolutely, but that's where you would have an
intractable conflict. If they had found that point already, they wouldn't be there. So, all your
incredible skills have to involve helping find that leverage point. It's either going to be a
common interest or a personal interest. A common interest gives you the possibility of a richer
mediation. A personal interest can at least get you to the table and create some sort of
contractual relationship to the conflict. If you can get them toward a common interest, that's
where the payoff is. That's when I try and transform those relationships by the process. But
sometimes the best you can do, because of personal interest, is to get to some contractual
relationship. It's better than nothing.
Abortion is another example I use. With the abortion issue, there is no common leverage
for either side to move off that intrenched position. You're wasting your time. The best you can
do is work with the majority of people who are in the middle and try to bring reason to the
extremes. That's what has happened in these big international affairs, like Kosovo. They don't
have a middle. In Ireland, there's become this middle group who says these intrenched positions
are killing us. That's where you need to start focusing your energy, is in that middle group, in
helping and nurturing and supporting. Then the light's on, and these two intrenched positions are
no longer acceptable and the community often has to move on beyond them. They'll still be
agitating back here, but the group as a whole has been able to create some life to move forward.
[Full Interview] [Topic Top]
I have a theoretical question for you. At the Conflict Consortium, we have been working on
a theory of intractable conflicts for a long time. We have said that intractable conflicts generally
cannot be mediated (almost by definition) and that identity conflicts, including racial conflicts,
are particularly likely to be intractable. So as I was listening to your discussion about the orange,
I began to wonder, how do you get people to reframe a conflict from being about race to being
about something else?
It's what I started talking about early on. You don't talk about race; instead, you ask, "What
are the hiring policies?" or, "What are the discipline issues?" You ask, "What does the
curriculum look like?" or, "Do you have access to the establishment, to the superintendent?"
Because even though the community sees the superintendent as being racist and as being the
reason why they can't get what they want, the real issues and I'm not going to say race hasn't
influenced what has happened there but the next level or the level at which this needs to be
resolved isn't race; it's policies and procedures, and access, and communities, and processes. It's
about interaction and communication, both of which were sorely lacking in this case. The race
factor just made it more difficult because both sides believed, "Those people are difficult to deal
with because of what they have been taught." Race was the orange, but it wasn't the issue.
The community could get a person of the same race in that position who didn't change the
policies, and that would be more frustrating, because now one can't even blame it on racism
anymore. But if they got somebody else who is white, but who changes the policy and is more
responsive to the community, that will decrease the perception of racism. And that will diminish
the taproot or fuse of inequality and disparity. So even though people see the issue as race, it
really isn't race at all.
Another example of that is the issue of sovereignty, though I haven't yet been able to get the
parties to understand this, and so I haven't been successful in reframing in this area. Sovereignty
is a big issue with Native Americans, particularly when it comes to law enforcement on
reservations. There is less and less willingness by tribal leadership to allow a non-tribal law
enforcement to have any kind of role on the reservation. This also applies in cases of hunting and
fishing rights disputes.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing some effective collaborative approaches to law
enforcement on and near reservations, and to hunting/fishing rights on and near reservations is
that both the American Indians and state officials approach it from a perspective of, "Who has the
sovereignty? Who has the jurisdiction?" What I try to get across is, "Okay, if you have the
jurisdiction, or if you have the sovereignty, what is it you want to do with it? What is it that you
want to accomplish?" If I could get them to talk about what effective law enforcement would
look like, regardless of who has the jurisdiction and the sovereignty, I really think they could
work that out. I totally believe that. But it is such a sensitive issue, it is very difficult to get
beyond that. The focus has been on the sovereignty, because it's a symbolic issue as well as a real
issue. Symbolic issues are very difficult to surmount.
There was one hunting/fishing case that I was called in to, where the state and the tribe had been
in negotiations but reached a deadlock. That's when someone called me. They said, "Well, so-
and-so says Silke Hansen claims she can do this. Let's call her."
"Oh gee, thanks a lot!" I keep telling people, "Why don't you call when you start these
negotiations, not when they fall apart?"
But I went up anyway, and they showed me what they had done, and I said, "I don't even want to
see that." I started putting stuff on the white board. "If you have regulations, what are your
objectives? What is it you are trying to accomplish?" And they were like this [she linked her
fingers together] they absolutely agreed. So once they agreed on that, it was just a matter of
determining what kind of policies each side needed to bring those objectives about. Both sides
gave a little, and at the end of a very long day, the people at the table reached an agreement.
That's the good news. The bad news is that when it went back to the tribe the tribe didn't buy it,
because they said it was encroaching too much on their sovereignty.
Another case in the same state ended the same way. It involved a similar kind of negotiation. The
parties reached an agreement at the end of the day, but in that case it was the state that blocked
the agreement. The negotiators went back to their superiors, who threw out the agreement, again
on issues of sovereignty. So there was no agreement.
But to me, it proves a point. You have to cut through and disregard the identity issues well, you
can't ignore these issues totally because they are there. But the mistake that we usually make in
most discussions is that we make racism or sovereignty the issue, and that is not the issue. The
issue is, "How can we get past that to provide effective law enforcement?" "How can we get past
that to provide good stewardship of our natural resources?" But the history of feeling attacked
and encroached-upon and the perception that "they are just trying to whittle away at what we
have, piece-by-piece," prevents people from focusing on the real issues. On the other hand, there
is the concern that the state "should not give those people special rights and recognition." These
feelings are so strong that it is very difficult to come from a different perspective. But I am
absolutely convinced if they could just throw out that "orange" and deal with the "flavoring" and
the "beverage," there would be much more common ground.
When you succeed in getting them to do that, what is the long-term result in terms of
identity and symbolic issues and race relations? If they can cut through those things to resolve
this incident, does it have a long-term effect on other incidents?
Well, I think it would if it worked at all, but as I said in the two examples that I gave you, it
didn't work. The people at the table were able to reframe the problem, but their superiors were
not willing to do that, and the agreements were thrown out for political reasons. It was seen as
giving too much or losing too much in terms of sovereignty and jurisdiction and control. So
neither agreement held up.
I do believe that had it held up, it could have provided a good model, a good precedent for how
we can get cooperative agreements on issues like this. In fact, there are other states where there is
less mistrust between state and tribe, and where in fact we do have better cooperative
relationships. If you could either just not mention "sovereignty" or acknowledge that each of
them has sovereignty, and that the two separate governments of two sovereign states are reaching
an agreement, I think it would be doable. But there is so much tension and mistrust in this
particular setting that it is difficult to make that happen.
What about other settings though? Such as, for instance, the principal who was accused of
being racist, where you were able to reframe it in terms of discipline policy and hiring and that
type of thing? Would that have affected the long-term relationship on race relations in the
It would, because the potential triggering incidents are less common, so the "bomb" is less
likely to go off. Now there is a precedent of communication. There is a mechanism and an
expectation that people will address and deal with problems before they get to the point of
explosion. So it is the redress side that's handled more effectively. Once there is a precedent for
communication, it makes a big difference.
Probably one of the most positive examples of that is the same tax day facilitation. There were
anywhere from 75 to 100 people in that room and at least as many when I went back for a second
meeting. But out of those meetings came a sort of "community board" which included Hispanic
and Anglo participants, including law enforcement people. They formed this board and I trained
them in three days I gave them three days of basic mediation training. I remember one of the
members of the group said, "Gee, you know, Silke, I think this is the first time somebody has
come and said, 'I'm from the Federal Government and I'm here to help you,' and then actually
done it." I thought that was a huge compliment at the time.
That board still exists today, and is still dealing with problems involving the police and
community relations. But they also began to look at other sources of tension within the
community. This community started out as very mistrustful. There were a lot of accusations
about how Hispanics were being treated by the law enforcement system. But now the leader of
that system is working with that Hispanic community to deal with education issues in the
community purely because people are talking to each other now. And they pay me to do that!
[Full Interview] [Topic Top]
There are a number of conflict theorists
who suggest that identity conflicts are a) the hardest to resolve, or b) cannot be mediated at all.
They say identity conflicts require a needs-based process, rather than interest-based negotiation
That's clearly accurate because they are difficult, un-mediateable, but you donít mediate the
conflict, you mediate the dispute or related problems. You mediate something thatís going on.
You donít mediate Christianity vs. Islamic Law for example, but the problem of how the
parties can live and work peacefully in the same environment. Youíre trying to change attitudes
along the way, but youíre dealing with behaviors over a specific issue.
So you mediate the specific issue, not the underlying identity.
You do what you can do, but be realistic. Youíre there because of a problem and
everybody has rights to things and people can accept that, and they understand that. You try to
show people what they have in common. Minimize the differences. Get them to hear things they
havenít heard before, and to understand where others are coming from. Hopefully, you get
some attitude adjustment along the way. Whether itís partial or total transformation or none at
all is another matter.
The line that got missed when we turned the tape over that I thought was important is that
you donít resolve the whole identity issue.
I really havenít thought that through fully. Iíve seen attitudinal changes in South Africa
where Iíve worked just as I have seen it in this country during school desegregation disputes.
Does that mean the identity crisis, or the identity problem, is gone? No, just some people have
changed, some views have broadened, there are some new understandings. Hopefully this
happens more and more as you go forward. If youíve seen children from different backgrounds
working together on committees in newly desegregated schools you see them in a setting opens
them up a bit.
It is also the question of the political possibilities. When it's politically feasible, itís
good to have these good interpersonal things happening. If you launch political barriers, it
becomes impossible to break away from the group with which youíre are identified. So whether
itís a political or racial, or whatever it is, youíre ok, but Iím still not going to say whites are
ok, or blacks are this or that, or in this community this can happen because I still have to
represent my organization.
[Full Interview] [Topic Top]
Oh, I remember another case with an impasse. Here the parties had reached agreement on all the
important stuff. We were working on finalizing the wording, and we got to the point of saying,
"Each community and each ethnic group has a right to be represented and have its culture
represented in the curriculum and other processes at the school." But that didn't work, because
everyone wanted to have his or her own culture mentioned, but no one could decide what each
group would be called. For illustration, let's say the conflict involved and Asian group. So do we
say, "All Asians?" "No, no, it can't be Asians, it has to be Vietnamese specifically." But someone
else said, "No, not Vietnamese, but Southeast Asian." And others just wanted "Asians." So just
the wording almost blew the entire mediation.
We finally got around that impasse with some wording that I came up with: "All children
whether they call themselves Vietnamese or Asian or Southeast Asian or whatever, have the right
to have their culture and history reflected." So that way, it wasn't the parties labeling the
children, it was the parties acknowledging that the children would label themselves in whatever
way they wanted to. We came to this idea at about 9:30 at night, and the attorneys were like,
"What is this?!" But the parties were absolutely adamant. They would not agree on anything else.
So it's amazing what can sometimes sort of throw that monkey-wrench in there.
That's a great story, and it seems to me that it illustrates one of the theoretical ideas we've
been advocating that identity conflicts tend to be intractable. Because what they were arguing
about, essentially, was identities....yet your wording found a way around that.
And, again, the reason that we found a way around it was by facing it, not by just working
around it. You don't minimize and you don't pretend that the identity issue doesn't exist, but you
try to figure out where the identity is important. I think that we got down to realizing that what
was important was that the children needed to not have their identity defined for them. And by
framing it in terms of the children calling themselves whatever they wanted to, we got away from
either party labeling them. So that identity issue was acknowledged. But it was acknowledged in
a way that neither party imposed their ideas of "identity" on the other, and that's where the
That was a very interesting case. When we started on that one, neither party had very high
expectations of reaching an agreement. So it was a very slow, gradual process, which we took
piece by piece. And I think they really surprised themselves when there was any point on which
they actually reached agreement. But any time they did, they thought, "Well if we can get this
piece, maybe we can get this next piece too," and by golly, they did. I'm not going to claim that
this is now a perfectly happy community where they all lived happily ever after, but the process
of going through that mediation was valuable for everyone, even though there was still some
mistrust between the parties afterwards. But in trying to implement the agreement, there was
some effort at a common approach, rather than a win-lose competition. And that was huge in that
situation. I think both parties would have liked to have been the winners, but it probably
wouldn't have gotten them very much.
Have you seen acknowledgment of a group's identity as important in other cases as well, or
the value of a group's identity?
Well, to some extent, the sovereignty issue that I was talking about before the reason that
sovereignty is so important is to maintain identity. I don't think there is any group in the country
today that is more concerned about having their entire identity stolen than American Indians.
They really feel that they are under siege in many cases. Obviously, I can't talk for everyone there
any more than I can speak for any other group. But I think there is a real sense of it being a
struggle to hold on to their identity, and that's why sovereignty becomes so important.
[Full Interview] [Topic Top]
I guess the final question that I
have is whether or not you think
CRS involvement might have undercut a minority group? Did CRS undercut the direction or the
position that a minority group might have had? Do you think it was helpful, in general?
Well, I know there is a debate about the role of mediation-- that it can be a process for
That's what I'm asking.
That's what you're asking. Well, I don't have a lot of second guesses about that myself.
Second-guesses that somehow, in the process, say the minority community was sold out. My
sense of this is that to reach a judgment on that you have to be familiar with what the options of
the situation were. Now maybe years later looking at it, in the moment, talking about people get
hurt, but later on you get questions about that. That can be a nature defense. To me in situations
at the time what options did the minority community have? I think the debate would be over
situations where there was a real imbalance of power. In those situation it's always a struggle
trying to balance. What can you do in a situation that given the circumstances and resources,
you have found the best possibility? In those early situations it was really disheartening. There
were some difficult times because people didn't want to change. Sometimes you didn't save the
world, but some change happened. I remember reading a book a few years ago where that was
talked about. I remember I just became incensed because I think it really did focus on the
mediation that had gone on where people had been sold out. You have to treasure this work by
the community you're working with. I think one of the measures of it is if the minority
community was not supportive of what you were doing, it might last momentarily but it would
collapse on it's own. There's nothing other than closed settlements in a lot of work CRS did, it
was really agreements which technically had no way of being enforced, so the illegitimate
solution would fall on its face.