Michelle LeBaron

Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, and Director of UBC's Dispute Resolution Program

Topics: dialogue

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2004

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Q: Give me a brief overview of your work.

A: It seems to me that you want to know what I'm passionate about because I'm passionate about my work. What I'm passionate about in my work is the opportunity to invoke voice in the exploration of those things that divide us -- internally, inter-personally, inter-communally, internationally. I'm interested in all of the parts of ourselves that we can draw into that conversation, again with ourselves and with each other, that help us turn situations that look really hopeless into hopeful situations and turn places that look like corners that we can't get out of into some sort of opening.

Q: Two questions from that: What do you mean by "voice?" and what parts of us, what are the parts?

A: I think I'll start with the second question first because it's more specific if you don't mind. I'm very interested in our somatic selves, in our embodied selves, and how it is that our bodies are instruments for us in discerning conflicts and the way through conflicts or indeed in keeping us stuck, or rigid, armored. I'm interested in our intuition, our intuitive body. In the whole concept of mind, which after all connects us in ways we don't see but is much more expansive than our body. In emotions and emotional intelligence as ways of knowing. And in imagination and in imaginative ways of knowing. Also spiritual or noetic ways of knowing, to me all of those complement the cognitive and probably are more generative, if only because there are more of them than the cognitive, where we get so fixed on the words and the analysis and we get so stuck in our heads and really imprison ourselves there. So I think all of those ways of knowing, I think, are really important to explore.

Q: There are too many to explore right now, tell me a little more about the somatic things, the body, the physical.

A: So the physical, there are various dimensions as I was alluding to, Julian, and one is the fact that as embodied beings, we are actually living metaphors of our own lives, or our conflicts, of our joys, of our stuck places, of our open places and so body workers will tell you that if you've had a situation where you felt very threatened, whether physically or emotionally, you will build up a particular armor to protect yourself against that. It's a natural physical mechanism. Part of what I think we have to think about when we think about conflict is how we help people be aware of that armor, its useful effects, but also ways that we can work to remove our armor to be with each other in ways that are still safe and secure, but that are vulnerable and open and that reveal more of the humanity that's often screened out by the armor. So that's one dimension. Another dimension is that when I'm intervening, or training, or in some way trying to work, I use my body as an instrument, my body talks to me. If my body is very tight, it's a signal to me that something is probably tight in the group. If I can't breathe well, I start wondering whether voice is flowing freely in the group. My body is literally -- and not just my body, anybody's body -- are literally instruments that speak to us about group dynamics and intra-personal dynamics, in languages that are very, very clear and felt. If we cultivate that awareness, we can act from that place.

Q: I get the idea of one of those "Y" water sticks that shakes when there's water around.

A: Exactly, and the third dimension is how do we get into conflicts by certain actions and ways of being and habits of being. So our bodies can help us be aware of what our habits of being are, our habits of paying attention. For example, some people pay attention to danger and they can scan and pick up what's dangerous in a situation. I never pick up what's dangerous because that's not how I pay attention, I pay attention to connection. So if someone is distracted or not connecting with me, I can really feel that, where as there could be a bomb about to go off and I wouldn't notice because I'm focused on the connection. Again, my body is what helps me recognize my habits of attention. And finally, since we get into conflicts through acting with our bodies, I think we need to get out through acting with our bodies - that is, we shouldn't be meeting at tables and talking from our necks up, we should be doing body sculpting together, we should be hiking together, we should be doing things that enact a different form of relationship with each other. So lots within just that one piece.

Q: Yeah and there was eight others that you mentioned. We'll just do a filet mignon here. I know that there are going to be a thousand of these, but can you pick an inspiring moment in your work that you can share?

A: I can actually and it happened in this part of the country. I was fortunate some years ago to be asked to do an evaluation for the Kellogg Foundation of a dialogue that had taken place between pro-choice and pro-life activists on the subject of abortion. I was interested in these dialogic efforts, but not particularly confident about them because I couldn't really see a way to think of integrated solutions about abortion. To me it's a matter of conviction, it's a matter of identity, it's a matter of deep meanings, and I actually don't know if we should try to shift someone's identities and meanings and convictions, so I was curious about what that would be like. I was particularly curious when I was asked to go talk with a group of clergy on both sides of this issue who'd been in dialogue with each other over a long period of time, about 18 months, and they'd been doing it monthly. They had been doing it a some significant cost, because they were arousing suspicion from their own congregants about what it was that they had been doing and why they weren't putting more time in on various other priorities and indeed on the front line of advocacy either pro-life or pro-choice. So I thought it was very curious, so I went to them and one of the questions that I asked them was, "Why are you doing this? Why are you keeping at this with some cost to yourself and raising questions of trust with your own constituency? Why are you doing this?" There was a pause and one of the men, there were men and women, but one of the clergymen got tears in his eyes and said, "I do it because I see God in the eyes of the other." That always stuck with me because it said to me that his image of the other, his dance with the other, had changed. And that had become so compelling to him that it was worth the cost that it was costing him to continue to participate in that dialogue. Of course many interesting, practical things came out of those dialogues, which was also very useful for me to realize, but I think that moment of him describing the recognition of the sacredness of the other or the humanity of the other was very powerful.

Q: Wow, that's sort of a story of impact on the larger process. That's just the tip of the iceberg and your job was to evaluate the whole iceberg. That's exactly what I was looking for, the inspirational story. Can you talk a little about the iceberg? What did it take to get two people on opposite sides of the fence to see God in the eyes of the other?

A: I talked to then a doctoral student of mine who is now a Ph.D. working in the field ???. We talked to over a hundred people, and we asked them about the process.

Q: Sorry, how many people were in the dialogue?

A: Well, these dialogues took place in different cities across the US and Canada, so in any dialogue there might be anything from 12 to 24 to 30 people, typically around 18 people. One of the things we found is that not one person ever said they had changed their mind. They came in with the view that they left with, which was very comforting to me. I wouldn't want to hear that people were changing their mind from one side to the other of the issue. One of the other things that I thought was quite fascinating is that they really put a lot emphasis on storytelling, it's interesting in the view of the website in what we're talking about because they spent quite a lot of time having people talk about "Here's my story on how I came to this view." When people tell those stories they are very powerful, they arouse empathy, they create connections that weren't there because I've actually had the experience, which is quite a disturbing experience on one level, of hearing two people tell quite similar stories with two different conclusions, and that's lovely to actually hear that. The other thing they talked about was heroes and heroines. I saw that talking about who's your hero or your heroine is kind of a conduit into what you really care about, what you really value, and again sometimes they found that their heroes or their heroines were the same.

Q: So it sounds like it may have not been said so articulately as that one pastor said it, but, that the ultimate affect was not that I changed my views, but really that I did see the human in the other, the reason behind. So the larger question is the impact that it might have on the larger community would be what?

A: I saw that it had some very important practical impacts. For example, some of the pro-choice and pro-life activists got together and wrote a paper about, "What the are appropriate conducts outside of clinics?" One side doesn't think there should be clinics, but they put that question aside and said, "Given that there are clinics, what can the two of us agree on in terms of acceptable limits in terms of decreasing violence, making it so that clients of that clinic are not subject to some of the harassing things that they've been subject to before?" "Harassing" has a particular value judgment that I'm aware of, so the kinds of interference or the kinds of advocacy that they might have experienced before. So there is a very practical outcome. Some other activists wrote together about adoption and promoting options for adoption in their communities, addressing the feminization of child and female poverty. So they found lots of things they could do together and that's really interesting to me. No, they didn't figure out "How do we solve this issue about what should be the social policy about abortion?" They never did that. What they did is they reduced the charge around the conflict and they reduced the level of violence around the conflict and I think as more and more people got involved in these discourses, they made it so that those people on either side who were advocating violence or very, very extreme views became more marginalized. I think that's the hope as well.

Q: Is there some effort to institutionalize what they talked about in some sense? On one hand we're talking about personal change, around that circle, of course there is always that issue of scale-up or re-entry, you know the eighteen different angles to look at the problem.

A: This was a project of Search for Common Ground which was in the early-mid nineties. There were a couple of Common Ground conferences for people who had been involved with issues related to abortion and also ordination of homosexuals, where they'd use this kind of dialogic process and as you know, now there are many other vehicles for dialogue. That particular work around abortion stopped. Their principle always was, "We work when local communities ask us to come and work," and they started getting fewer requests and they started to get less funding. However, Laura Chasin, through Public Conversations Project, is still involved in some of that work and there are other groups still involved in some of that work. The way I see it is the work continues, and that particular group is not doing it, but there are other groups. I think that, I really do believe that it's having an impact in terms of changing the way that the discourse is unfolding and changing the way that the press depict the discourse. One of the things about the Common Ground conferences they had is that they included the press and they talked with them about the way those issues are covered, which is often part of the issue.

Q: I'm thinking about a metaphor that Bill Ury used yesterday, you might say that you're strengthening the pot in which that conflict is taking place and the boundaries inside the pot would be non-violent boundaries and the ones outside the pot would be the more violent ones. You know, you're strengthening the container in which you can fight, in a sense.

A: The container in which you can fight, and there was just one moment Julian, which was very, very powerful for me where a pro-choice advocate said to a pro-life advocate, "Let's agree to disagree, let's go over here and work on things we can agree on," and the pro-life advocate said, "No. That feels like defeat to me. I would never agree to disagree. I don't want to feel despair, I want to feel engaged." It changed some of the ways I think about conflict. I know we say, "Conflict is a positive opportunity for change," but I really saw how for them the conflict and engaging in the conflict was very, very important to their identities and to be congruent with what they valued.

Q: What sort of qualities do you think someone doing this work should have, given your opening statement of multiple ways of knowing?

A: Awareness, self-awareness I think would be right at the center, and I think that we should cultivate within ourselves artistry and awareness, so that we can be fluid and responsive and aware and do things that absolutely seem nonsensical but make sense in the moment. We should cultivate that sort of trickster archetype, that's playful and irreverent at appropriate times.

Q: You're irreverent at appropriate times?

A: Yeah, because I'm thinking that we also want to be respectful. I think if you wanted to be trained as an effective third party, I'm not sure if they should go to ICAR or some academic institution, I think maybe they should go and study myth-making. Maybe they should go and learn an expressive art, I think we need to think of ways of integrating that into all of our work.

Q: Maybe they should start teaching myth-making at ICAR.

A: Maybe they should.

Q: We're sort of getting into the idea of techniques. Lots of people don't like it when I use the work techniques in this field they say it's a lot more about creating compassion and things that aren't necessarily techniques, but I ask it anyway. What kinds of techniques do you think are useful in this work?

A: You're exactly right Julian, I don't like the word technique and I don't like the word skills either, I use the word capacities. I think we need to cultivate within ourselves capacities. And those capacities are capacities for imagination, intuition, for analysis yes, but not analysis in the center, actually relationship in the center.

Q: The center ofÃ?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?.

A: The center of our mental map, of what it is we think we do. All of us, any functional human being is good at making friends, so if we know how to make friends, we can use those same capacities to address and heal conflicts, and I think we need to bring those capacities. So then if we get to the question of, "Oh, all of that's lovely. So what do we teach people? What do we do in training?" I think what we do in training is help people loosen their creative genius and we help people imagine ways through. We ground in peoples' own experience of their successful ways of shifting stuck dynamics, ways that work for them.

Q: Okay, ways that work for you in context, illustrated in full color.

A: Full color, you are demanding.

Q: I am.

A: At least you know it. At least you're self-aware.

Q: I am self-aware and irreverent.

A: Thank heaven. Ways that work for me, silence, quite, being, being in nature.

Q: Silence in the middle of some sort of conversation?

A: Sometimes. Sometimes saying, "Let's just stop." Silence, also contemplative time, meditation, taking care of my inner life so I'm ready for what happens. I would say that over the past 20 years I have become less and less trusting of talk and less and less trusting of analysis because in conflicts that have occurred in my life, now I'm talking about inter-personal conflicts, I've seen that talk sometimes works and sometimes worsens things or makes things more rigid. Sometimes time helps, but that can also be denial. And sometimes -- and I'm thinking of two particular situations here between me and two other individuals who are not connected to each other but only to me -- saying, "Now we've tried to address this, we have an understanding of the terrain, and we're going to choose to simply leave it here." I think that the whole phrase conflict resolution is actually problematic, neither of these conflicts is resolved, I don't expect that it will ever be resolved, I wish it would. I would say that I've really tried and I think that one of those two people would also say that she's really tried. I think we really did give it a really good effort and we did the best we could, but sometimes things have happened that so affect trust or so rip the fabric of the relationship that you can come and you can make it so there is not a gaping hole, but it's not the same fabric. And I think that's okay, I think we come to a place of closure or a place of stillness with it. The other conflict which I also tried to resolve, but also didn't get to even that place and have had to say, "Well, I'll just leave it there." That's more unsettling for me because I'd like to think -- this conflict is with someone in my own field -- I'd like to think that we have these values about engagement and we'd try to do that. But I see that engagement is about agency and if both people don't choose to engage, then the journey becomes an interior one for me.

Q: What do you mean by agency?

A: You get to choose. And if she's chosen not to engage, then I have to make my choices accordingly. I can pursue her and did, but I can't pursue her endlessly or I'm putting my energy into something that's not alive.

Q: There's a saying in Spanish: [Spanish phrase], which means in the iron worker's house he has wooden knives.

A: Precisely, exactly. I think there is an 80-20 or a 90-10 rule in our field, in the conflict field, about 80 or 90 percent of us, depending where you are, are conflict averse. We're absolutely avoiders, we let things get so bad sometimes that they can't be fixed or they can't be fixed well. And the other 10 percent like generating conflict.

Q: Which one are you?

A: I think I vacillate, but I think I live more in the 80 rather than the 20.

Q: So we talk about transformation a lot and is there a moment of transformation for you that really brought you into your views of the work that you have now?

A: There are two moments. One's a very facile one and that is that I went to law school a thousand years ago and practiced law and worked as a general practitioner at a law firm. I really was quite unhappy with the entire enterprise, both with law school and the work, and went for therapy. I had one session and during that session I was able to imagine a life and what I saw was that I wanted to be part of bringing people together, not holding people apart, which was my image of the law. So that was one really important moment. The other one was about five years ago when I made the decision to leave the field. I had had enough. It wasn't alive for me. I was going through the motions, I was teaching, writing, I was doing various things, but it wasn't alive for me. I felt quite cynical about it.

Q: About conflict resolution?

A: About conflict resolution. I didn't feel hopeful about it. I had some ideas of careers I wanted to pursue that I thought were much more generative and alive, and they had to deal with teaching people to do creative writing, and being out in the wilderness leading team-building workshops with people in organizations, and things that just seemed to me to be much more interesting than the focus I had in conflict resolution. I actually decided I would leave the field and that felt great, it felt just wonderful. But I had this sense that before leaving the field I should write a book that would sort of give back some of the things that I had received. I feel very blessed at the opportunities that I've had to work in many different areas with many different just fabulously talented people. I went to my favorite spot in South Carolina and in two weeks I wrote this book, not all of it, it took a full year to really finish it. The bones were there then it had to have the flesh which took much longer. And as I wrote that book, which was, "Bridging Troubled Waters," I discovered a way to integrate everything I wanted to go toward with the field and it made me so excited. So in fact it was a transition for a whole other way of being with or looking at or working in the field. And I lost the desire to leave it then. So it was quite an interesting thing.

Q: So let's end with just a quick story.

A: You're going to tell me a story?

Q: Nope I want you to tell me a story. I'd like another story please of this sort of "other than oral" type of interventions that we are all sort of trained to do in this sort of rational Cartesian way, if you can come up with something. It doesn't necessarily have to be conflict resolution as such, but something to illustrate other than just talking about everything.

A: Absolutely, I have one. I teach in a lot of different programs and one of them is an LLM program in dispute resolution.


A: LLM is a masters in law, there are for people who already have JDs who then go on to do advanced studies in law. They are extremely cognitively oriented and they've been quite adversarial in their approach because they've already been schooled in their JDs to be adversarial. They then come back to do LLMs and some of them are very experienced, but many of them are not as experienced in drawing. What I have them do is to get into groups of about six people and draw, and I have them draw about different subjects, depending on what I'm talking about. In one particular case, I had them exploring the concept of power, which I think is a particularly difficult concept to talk about and our literature is not as robust as I would hope. I asked them, "Please draw some conflict you've experienced, but don't put it in words, make it in an image that had power dynamics and power imbalance.

Q: So a bunch of LLMs and they were drawingÃ?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?

A: They were drawing about power. And one person really said, "I cannot draw, I don't know how to draw. I wouldn't know what to draw even if I could draw," and she drew nothing. And the way that this exercise works is that there are however many people in the circle, five people, and after three minutes of drawing you pass your drawing to the next person and so on. For three minutes each person has each picture and their job is that when you get each person's picture, the job is to add to the picture, so the person next to her got a blank piece of paper and their job was to try to understand what she was expressing and add to the picture. And every other person in that circle wrote on that picture, drew on her picture, they drew things that they tried to intuit and two things happened. One, she got back a composite picture, even though she had sent nothing, that in some way spoke to the very same situation she had been thinking of. Surprise, which speaks to intuition and mind. And two, they had a very useful discussion about the power of not playing. She didn't play and then she said that she didn't play and that she felt in a very powerless position, but other members of the group felt that she was extremely powerful because her not playing also created a particular dynamic in the group and it was a much deeper, thicker conversation about power than if we had read something analytic about power, I think. So for me that's an example of how getting out of our heads and our intellectual frames and doing something which seems reallyÃ?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?you know you can't immediately see the point or how it is that it makes sense can actually be quite useful.

Q: And the point of all the drawings and passing it around was for people to get a sense ofÃ?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?

A: For people to get a sense of the nuances and dynamics of power that are depicted in their joint pictures, but also the process, because when I pass you my picture and you draw on it, there is an exchange of power and the very idea of you drawing on my picture and everyone else's is you stepping into a particular kind of power. And what I want people to do when they are thinking about intervening in conflict is to think about the power that they are taking to write on other peoples' pictures. So actually the metaphor is what I think is very interesting.