Relationship Management

Suzanne Ghais

Program Manager at CDR Associates, Boulder, Colorado

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: There was a dominant metaphor that came from John Burton, who was worshiped at ICAR, it was conflict resolver as doctor almost. Doctor very much in the western paradigm of medicine, where you identify the cause of the disease and you address that cause and you sort of try to eliminate that cause. And if you eliminate the cause, you truly resolve the conflict, as opposed to merely managing it or merely settling it.

Q: You diagnose?

A: That's right, you diagnose and where does the term diagnosis come from? It comes from medicine, western medicine more specifically. You're sick with pneumonia or something and our task is to get in your system and kill it. And if we kill it, we eliminate your disease and you're healthy and well, and everything's fine. Well, I've actually got questions about the appropriateness of that paradigm of medicine, but that's another subject.

As far as a metaphor for conflict resolution, I don't think it's right on. I don't think there's a pathogen necessarily in conflict so clearly as there is at least in some forms of disease. And I do think that deep-rooted conflicts have to been seen as part of a relationship. Actually, Michelle LeBaron has some very nice writing about that concept in "Bridging Troubled Waters," which is one of her recent books. And so what are relationships? Relationships are connections that need to be tended, that need to be nurtured, and yeah, conflict, there can be causes of conflict, and I think it is important to look at the causes of conflict, the structural causes. What are the causes in terms of personality differences, or communication style differences, what are the value differences that create conflict, et cetera. There are lots of causes of conflict we could learn and what the opposing interests are. So yes, it's important to identify and to address those causes.

At the same time, you can't just say, "Bing! Let's change this structure that was causing these conflicts and then everything will be fine". No, conflicts are embedded in relationships and relationships need tending and nurturing. One classical example of this that we have experienced in this organization and many other organizations that I've worked with is that we have a professional staff in this organization whose orientation is primarily external, working with clients, going places. And then you have a support staff, whose orientation is internal and their customers are us. They have more internal orientation and there might be social class differences. There are structural elements. There is a hierarchy. We assign work to them; they don't assign work to us. There are probably certain personality types that go into certain roles and certain personality types and value sets that go into becoming a conflict resolution practitioner versus becoming administrative assistant, for example.

So you have all these sources of conflict so you have chronic problems including our failing to give them information when they need it, our failure to do our forms properly and do our details properly. Our failure to communicate to them early enough and in appropriate ways and so on and so forth. There's no real single thing you can do to turn that around. You can identify the cause, that's helpful. Maybe there are structures you can change. We tinkered with that over the years, you just sort of have to keep working at it; you have to keep tending to it. It's a relationship that is ongoing it needs ongoing tending.

So conflict resolution versus management, we manage it. And I challenge John Burton or anyone to come here and say, "Oh here is the cause you need to eliminate and therefore you will have resolution, rather than mere management." You know? And I believe, although I don't have practitioner experience in that the area of looking at international and ethnic conflict, you're going to find the same thing. In the Israeli and Palestinian conflict there are causes of conflict that can be addressed, that should be addressed, structural ones, political structures for sure. But then what you're going to essentially still have is relationships between two sets people and within those sets of people.

I mean the Israelis and Palestinians would like to build a wall and separate themselves from each other. I know that some Israelis were advocating that and Palestinians might be less enthusiastic because a lot of them would lose their jobs, but I'm sure both wish that the other would just go away, but it's not going to happen. They're going to be neighbors, very approximate neighbors, for a very indefinite amount of time to come. That's a relationship, whether they want it or not, whether good or bad, it's going to need on-going tending with respect to how to engage each other in a constructive way, how to deal with problems as they come up, because more problems are going to come up.

Even if you come up with a perfect peace treaty, that everybody signs and does press conferences and then celebrates and does photo ops, that's not going to change that there will be ongoing problems, ongoing conflicts, ongoing needs to continue to cultivate and to repair and cultivate and rework that relationship. And that's managing and I don't think there's a "bing" resolution. That's another lesson I think I've learned.