Effective Dialogue in Conflict Resolution: Interest Identification by Jemimah Mangeni
Recently I was lucky to be invited to this program event involving the community and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) which was made possible by a grant from the George Soros Foundation. The grant was specifically given to the Los Angeles Women Police Officers and Associates (LAWPOA) an organization within the LAPD. Today, I have decided to share the experience I had walking away from the training. It is no secret that the relationship between police departments across America and the community has gotten worse over time due to questionable shooting of people of color that have become frequent occurrences. I thought I had an open mind regarding the training but the moment I arrived in the room I was confronted with my own bias which wouldn’t let me open myself to the room full of police officers. I was terrified! The fear was real, and the source of the fear while real, it was also misguided. However, before making that revelation, I had to go through a transformative process of dialoguing.
For those of us in the field of conflict resolution, we all do understand that the key to problem solving is interest identification. Interest identification is so important that without it, a mediator/negotiator/arbitrator will never arrive at the most coveted problem-solving stage. It is important to understand why the parties are in that position in the first place. Compromise is not the same as problem solving because the parties do not get what they wanted out of their dispute. If they could compromise, they would not need a mediator’s help. Parties usually come seeking help when they cannot to get what they want from the dispute, because they are not communicating their interests to each other effectively. The work of a mediator is to communicate these interests to them. So how do you do it?
During the training program, we were all assigned to one room and went through a serious quick getting-to-know-you conversations which mirrored speed-dating like experience. Every four minutes, a community member was matched with a different police officer and there were specific set of questions assigned that started each period. This exercise was specifically designed to make you comfortable to talk to a stranger but not long enough to be familiar. This was important because the exercise was not created to foster an environment to start friendships but was conceived to create an environment in which participants are able to comfortably articulate their interests to someone, they consider a foe or unfriendly.
The first step towards the most coveted win-win scenario is that the mediator must be able to effectively communicate the interest of the parties to each side. Therefore, a mediator must ask the right question. In mediation, we say the right question is framed as a WHAT and not a WHY question. A what question welcomes the party to state their interests and needs while a why question pushes them into a corner and forces them to defend or justify their position. That is not what you want to do if you intend to solve the problem. However, if your intentions are to obtain a compromise on that day, then you are welcome to use the why approach which will only place a band-aid on the issue and not actually resolve them. Fortunately for us, we are interested in achieving a win-win solution for both parties, so we will ask the what question. What is doe this mean to you? What about this is important to you?
The questions we were assigned to ask each other during those four minutes were mainly what questions. What about being a cop made you want to be one? What are you most proud about? What are your hopes and dreams? What is the most important thing about you that I wouldn’t know just by looking at you? These questions, simply allowed the other person to open up because you are not attacking any of their systems. All you are doing is posing an open question that opens the door to them revealing who they are to you without feeling like they have to defend or justify any part of it. You have to keep in mind we were in that room because one side accuses the other of killing them discriminately and the other feels like they are justified to take those actions because of the aggressive manner they are received.
Interest identification is a tool that a mediator uses to move the parties from their rigid position towards a settlement or resolution. Interests in conflict dialogue are positive one-word statements of needs and values, and are usually framed as respect, love, justice, accountability, etc. Interest words are always positive and are not negotiable. As a mediator, you have to inform the parties before you begin your process that they can negotiate how to get these interests, but they cannot negotiate what their interests are. They are what they are, and it is only when we try to negotiate them that we either fail to get a solution or we are forced to settle meaning the parties had to compromise. I have worked a lot of mediations in which my main goal was to obtain a settlement and I have walked out those sessions knowing very well that I did not resolve the issues that brought the parties to court but that I only managed to get them to compromise and go home.
Working through this training program allowed me to see that as a career mediator, I have to want more than just compromise and that getting the parties to resolve their accrual dispute is not as hard as I initially thought. It all depends on how I approach the dispute as presented to me. Asking the right questions the right way will get me to the problem -solving space and enable me to give both parties a win-win situation. This is possible!
At the end of the training session, the room felt more lighter, we were interacting with one another like there was nothing different about us. In one session, the officers were able to sit in on conversations being held by community members and not talk but just listen. In another session, each community member was paired with an officer and went through a simulation of real-life situations that officers deal with every day when they get a call to attend to an active shooter situation or a mentally ill individual. We all got to walk a mile in the other’s shoes and that stripped all us of the programing we initially had when we began the training. The community got to assure the officers that they were not the enemy and they wanted to work with them, and the officers listened. The community also got to hear from the officers the challenges they face every day leaving their families at home not knowing whether they would be coming back and also the fact there are administrative problems such as long working hours, lack of enough officers, and little pay that affect their actions. Lastly, the officers got to understand that just like they are from diverse backgrounds, the community was also not homologous, but in fact, consisted of different communities who should be treated as such and with respect. How did this happen?
Emotions. At the end of the day, human emotion, is a key element in determining the success in every process. How people feel at the end of a process will inform you whether that process works or not. In this case, interest identification enabled all of us to work with our emotions in a way that we allowed each other to experience the other persons intentions without being aggressive of closed off. We all walked away as winner, having learned a lot about the other and having let go some of the resentment we held. One thing I learned in my first mediation class was that as a mediator you always have to walk along that path of being a therapist but also not being one. Human emotions are what drive conflicts. You take away the emotions and there are no contentions. Therefore, as a mediator, you have to be aware that at the end of the day your success is largely dependent on how everyone involved feels about your process.
When you allow the parties to state their interest framed as one-word positive statement, what you get at the end is statements such as, “I felt heard”, “I felt validated/acknowledged,” and so on. These words only come if they were allowed to state their interests. At the end of the day, what I learned is how we approach conflict as the people entrusted to facilitate the dialogue will determine whether that conflict will persist or not. Even the most complicated conflicts do have an origin and it is only by asking what about that issue is important that you will get to hear the interests underlying the conflict. Ultimately, I walked away from this wonderful training with an important lesson as a mediator; let the parties label their dispute, let them label their interests and let them label their emotions.