The Truth is in the Struggle: Striking a Balance in Conflict Resolution Training by Zachary Metz
At the end of a weeklong intensive conflict resolution training last year, my co-trainers and I facilitated one final de briefing and evaluation session with the participants, focusing on what they would like to work on in future trainings. We were working with a group of political leaders from twelve of Burma's ethnic minority groups, a collection of communities and cultures brutalized over the past fifty years by the military junta in Burma. In their struggle to form a powerful and coherent voice for the needs of the ethnic minorities of Burma, they have partnered with the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, to work on leadership, vision, and conflict resolution skills.
After many words of praise and satisfaction, one of the participants added his comments: "What you have taught us has been very interesting and important. Next time I'd like to know the best way to resolve conflict."
Definitions of elicitive and prescriptive
In that simple, gentle sentence, my understanding of how we teach and train others about conflict and its resolution was shaken. This passionate and intelligent participant was articulating the tension between what John Paul Lederach and others have called the "elicitive" and the "prescriptive" approaches to teaching conflict resolution skills and approaches. Essentially, an elicitive approach draws out, highlights, and catalyzes existing or communally held knowledge related to resolving conflict between individuals, groups, and communities, while prescriptive approaches tend to offer pre-created models, often focused on negotiation and mediation as practiced in the US or Europe. Both approaches have significant benefits, for trainers as well as students, and both have costs.
This article is a first effort towards responding to that participant's challenge, and to examine the challenges and opportunities inherent in teaching people about conflict resolution. Primarily, I will explore the comments of training participants, as well as my own experiences as a trainer regarding what has worked well and not so well in a variety of learning environments. I intend for this to be the first in a series of articles aimed at articulating a pedagogy of conflict and conflict resolution, struggling with my own experiences and many of the essential approaches currently in use in the field. This is a preliminary exploration of these issues, based on two years of collaboration with roughly six co-designers and co-trainers, and roughly 100 participants in several different settings, from a wide variety communities throughout the world. All of the participants have come from communities torn by conflict, whether in Asia, the Middle East, Europe or the United States, and most of the trainings were delivered in English, with translation into the appropriate language.
My own initiation into the world of conflict resolution training was in the context of community mediation centers, focused on interpersonal and intergroup conflict in communities in the US. These training models generally speaking have been highly prescriptive, some would say formulaic, in laying out specific skills, approaches, and stages to be learned, practiced and repeated. Although these trainings are often very good, the level of flexibility is limited to individual mediator approaches within the context of a generalized model.
In our work with our international partners, we have used a strongly elicitive approach, framing our role in terms of facilitating the articulation, clarification and strengthening of existing indigenous knowledge regarding the resolution of conflict, rather than teaching pre-set models, developed elsewhere. We do include more didactic learning components in our training design, but the tension between how and when to use which mode of teaching is always present. In our early training efforts, we found that some of the most prescriptive teaching modules, in which we explicitly taught a skill or approach to conflict resolution, resonated with nearly all of the participants, while the purely elicitive exercises often were confusing, both for the trainers and the participants.
The tension between elicitive and prescriptive training also replicates a similar debate among conflict resolution (as well as human rights and development) practitioners and service providers: is it reasonable, useful or safe to import knowledge from one setting or culture to another, or should we rather find processes within communities and cultures that can provide new and different models for the resolution of conflict? In the field, practitioners (including mediators, negotiators, and other third-party interveners) have struggled with creating balanced approaches to intervention, along a continuum from directive, "settlement driven", or more facilitative, "transformative" paradigms. At the heart of this struggle is our understanding of the nature of conflict and learning, the replicability or uniqueness of approaches across cultures and societies, and the roles of teacher and student.
In Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse University Press, 1995), Lederach articulates many of the powerful lessons he has learned teaching and practicing conflict resolution in Latin America, Asia and Africa. He first suggests that conflict and resolution mechanisms are both social constructs, and work related to these socially constructed phenomenon must recognize this essential truth. Lederach explains that there are several divergent models for understanding the essence and meaning of human conflict. The social constructivist view posits as its "fundamental idea" that "&social conflict emerges and develops on the basis of the meaning and interpretation people attach to action and events&conflict is connected to meaning, meaning to knowledge, and knowledge is rooted in culture." He acknowledges the importance of other theoretical approaches to social conflict, both for students and practitioners. However, in defining training as "the packaging of social knowledge", he suggests that an understanding of conflict that roots the phenomenon in social construction is the most pertinent for educators and practitioners.
Lederach's work resonates with that of Paulo Friere, who described the power for freedom from oppression inherent in the educational experience. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere suggests that only through dialogue and learner-centered education, transformative change can be supported. These fundamental shifts happen within learner, teacher and community. Friere's work highlights the importance of elicitation, and shows the power imbalances and missed opportunities in didactic or directive educational models. Augusto Boal, creator of Theater of the Oppressed, also articulated the possibilities for learning and change that are engaged, when actors and audience work together to create new, radical theater. There is an explicit recognition of the interaction between culture, identity and the experiences of the learner in moving education from a paradigm of unilateral information dump to one of transformation, empowerment and lasting change.
Challenges to the approach
The participant mentioned at the beginning of this piece is not alone in his critique of a strictly elicitive approach to conflict resolution training. Lederach and others have refined their approaches, seeing the critical value of pedagogies that both direct and lead, as well as facilitate and follow. In focus groups conducted six months after one round of training for ethnic minorities from Burma, a participant, after numerous reassurances that we did in fact want critiques as well as positive feedback, suggested, with a broad smile, that "Next time you should answer our questions, because you come from America, from Columbia University."
In the training he had participated in, many of the participants had asked for the "answer" to resolving every level of conflict, from domestic disputes, to the fifty years of oppression of Burma's ethnic nationalities by the military junta. Our hesitancy to provide "answers" was evident, and we often tried to explain why we thought it would be problematic to provide solutions to conflicts that are not our own. We also emphasized that, by learning through dialogic modes, more profound and realistic conflict methodologies could be identified and strengthened.
As we struggled to find a balance between an elicitive and prescriptive modality, we found that some participants welcomed facilitated learning approaches, while others resisted. In some ways, this diversity of learners echoed what we know about learning styles: different people need different educational stimuli to learn through aural, kinesthetic, tactile, or visual paths, as well as in didactic and dialogic settings.
In addition to learning styles, many participants felt that they were being "cheated" or tricked when we, as representatives of a powerful American university, failed to "teach" in a way that seemed befitting our status. When one of the participants asked repeatedly what the best way to resolve conflict was, I had an image of a golden safe, locked away in our offices at Columbia, with a silk envelope containing, a formula for resolving conflict.
While a heavily directive teaching mode can come across as arrogant, ignorant of difference and local knowledge, and often ethnocentric, a purely elicitve approach can leave participants feeling deeply patronized. A Lebanese friend who is at the cutting edge of community-based conflict resolution in Lebanon described his frustration with purely elicitive approaches this way: "When you refuse to tell me how you would resolve a given conflict for fear that I will ape what you do and not think for myself, I am left wondering if you think I am too stupid to sort out what works for my context from what doesn't."
Providing Frameworks for Learning
I have come to recognize that approaches and exercises that seem to strike an effective balance are those that provide a framework for learning, a catalyst to describe what we believe as scholars and practitioners to be the backbones of conflict resolution processes, regardless of context: communication, relationships, trust, and skills. We are striving to create a variety of matrices related to these issues, and to offer some examples from a variety of settings, and to support participants in filling in the frames with their own experiences, skills and knowledge. We also work with participants to identify gaps or skill-sets that need more work.
Examples of these frameworks for learning that we have found useful with a variety of communities and groups, include Open Space Technology, a self-facilitated large group decision making model and Constructive Controversy, a dialogue model for addressing polarized issues within groups that share super ordinate goals. In addition, we have found that an exercise based on William Ury's Third Side model, in which he describes ten possible "roles" for people concerned with the prevention, resolution or containment of conflict provides a very useful framework for helping participants articulate their existing skill set, as well as gaps in the community. Similarly, an exercise based on the Thomas-Kilman conflict assesement instrument allows participants to locate themselves in relation to five general conflict styles or approaches. We have had significant success in working with participants to contrast and compare this model, which is widely used in traditional American negotiation and mediation courses, with their own myths, metaphors and parables (underscored by Lederach as being critical to understanding conflict in situ).
We have found that in working across cultures, there are some approaches that present significant challenges to participants, and trainers. These include skills-transfer activities, for example modeling and then having participants practice "active listening" and other communication skills. When used across cultures, this kind of pedagogy, used in nearly every conflict resolution training in the United States, can often result in a room full of participants who look like they are trying to speak in a language that is simply not their own.
Similarly, completely open-ended dialogue with little framework, can be challenging. We must have asked participants in a recent training in Thailand ten times for examples of recent conflicts they had seen, experienced or heard about, with no response (other than blank stares). As we moved through the Third Side exercise mentioned above, however, we found that every participant had a rich knowledge of conflict within the community, and could eloquently articulate their understanding and responses. The missing piece had been a series of discreet, ordered, yet flexible baskets in which they could lay their ideas. Without a framework, the training may have resembled their own experiences of conflict: unclear, chaotic, and perhaps even unsafe. So our trainings have increasingly focused on providing a series of related frameworks for learning, rather than the narrow focus of didactic, prescriptive teaching, or an overly broad, purely elicitive experience.
At one point last year, in what I thought was a flash of pure inspiration, I explained that I believe conflict is like love: something we have all experienced and yet something very difficult to describe without resort to pure poetry. Mothers and fathers aside, few would be so arrogant as to claim to be able to teach someone how to love, certainly not in a forty-hour training. We can certainly teach and learn about love, what supports healthy loving relationships, and our community's images and beliefs related to love. Similarly, conflict, another complex human experience, is deeply tied to history, basic needs, perceptions, personality, and environment. The simile may have been lost in translation, but it helps me to keep the image in mind, to keep things in perspective.
Zachary Metz is Director of Education and Training with the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.