Leo Smyth (2003)

Professor of Management, National University of Ireland

Topics: framing, trust, conflict assessment

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: So in terms of a brief overview of your work?

A: It seems to me one of the ways that you can understand conflict management is that on one end of a continuum there are people who are concerned with the personal psychological change, bringing about change in the ways that people, perceive, understand, etc. the conflict that they're in.

At the other end of that continuum, there are people who are very concerned about what you might call the objective, interest concessions that may be made, the power of the participants, etc. You can see there are extremes on both ends of these continuum, but to me the real interesting part is: where are the cross-over points where conflict management takes place? The cross-over points are at what stage we get the subjective needs, understandings, beliefs, perceptions and all that stuff meeting with the evidence, the reality, the "objective," the interests; these are the kind of hard things that must be wrestled with. In trying to figure out where are those cross-over points, I'm interested in an idea I came across in a book by Donal Seanan??? and Martin Rine called "Frame Reflections." Their understanding of a frame is that we all have deeply underlying sets of beliefs, perceptions, appreciations, largely unconscious, largely tacit and it's from those that we figure out what counts as a fact what is a relevant fact.

People in disputes have very different ideas because their frames drive what counts as relevant. Somehow or another it seems to me that in conflict management we must get beyond the impasse. That's why I'm interested in saying well, let's start with the idea of frames. Well, the difficulty of frames is obviously because it's sort of a post-modern thing, and the danger with any of these sort of post-modern things is you wind up in kind of a marsh where one idea is as good as another and it doesn't matter. Having acknowledged that danger, we have to figure out, "How do we sort of come aware that we're all at this?"

Gareth Morgan who is a writer in the organization literature has a lovely sound byte that I keep quoting that I don't know if it was originally to him. He says, "A way of seeing is a way of not seeing." He refers to it in what he calls "in-ledges of organization." If you see an organization as a machine then you're very concerned with things like chain of command, who fits in where, how different positions are connected, what they need to know, and the underlying assumption is that if each person is doing their job right, then the whole thing will work. It's like if each part of the motor does it's job, then the whole motor works right. That's one image that if you look at organizations in that way, then that is what you'll find.

If however, you choose to view organizations as a sort of an information processing brain then you discover that from that metaphor you wonder what is the brain? The brain is actually a huge surplus capacity, huge redundancies built in. Then you start saying, "Well, there's not so much that there's specific jobs, or specific tasks, it's more that everybody has access to huge amounts of information and that information gets put together and recombined in various creative ways. So that if you start with that image of an organization, of course you wind up with very different understandings and a very different diagnosis, and a very different prescription.

Now, same sort of thing, if you either as a 3rd party or as a conflict participant, go into looking at any conflict situation in a frame of economic determinism, terrorism, structural violence, poor communications, power politics, or any of these kind of things, then you will get considerable insight. We tend to forget that it's only partial. It's like the classic story of the 3 blind men feeling the elephant, you know, each one has a different perception. It may be even worse then that. If that was all it was, we might be able to stick together all these partial perceptions and come up with some kind of concept of the whole.

If you think of it in terms of the "physicists struggles," you know with whether elementary particles or a wave or a particle and the shattering realization is that if you look for a particle, you'll find a particle, if you look for a wave, you'll find a wave. Then that's really rather mind-blowing for how we understand what is conflict. It seems to me that if we then go in and saying, "Well, I know what's going on here, it's structural violence." Then we'll find structural violence, and we'll therefore find how to diagnose that and therefore we'll find how to fix it. If you go in saying this has to do with the fact that these people are not communicating and can not communicate and you'd probably find that and similarly you would diagnose it and analyze it and prescribe for it in those kind of ways.

Q: Their basic human needs aren't being met just like I thought, and then, here's the prescription.

A: Yes, I think this is true. I think that the basic human needs thing is lurking behind all of these frames somewhere. The frames are never value-free, there's always some kind of thing lurking behind them; which probably is in the domain of basic human needs. That's one of the reasons why we're so reluctant to look at these. We have very elaborate defenses, both as individuals and as organizations, to avoid looking at our most fundamental assumptions. It's uncomfortable, it's painful and immediately we get defensive messages saying, that it would threaten one of those basic human needs that this thing is designed to look out for.

Q: So contextualize this for me. In a conflict, in terms of getting people to recognize that there are their facts and then there are other facts. Secondly, as a practitioner, you're going to find what you look for, based on what you're saying, so where does that leave you?

A: Well, in any given conflict, you're probably arriving with stuff that emerges from deeply rooted frames. Frames tend to give rise to models, working models, heuristics, and so on and so forth. You might go in with some kind of conception of a just war. Or maybe some conception of legitimate self-defense or some heuristic like, you know the old Latin tag, Cides patchum parabellum, if you really desire peace, you must prepare for war. This underlies an awful lot of thinking, it is sometimes not explicit, and sometimes it is made quite explicit.

If you want peace, what you've got to do is have very considerable defensive armaments or deterrence arguments. Those kinds of things are lurking there, and are maybe even something that looks a bit more innocuous. I remember the first time I came to the USA, it was to New Hampshire, and in New Hampshire, all the car license plates, at least at that stage, had "live free or die." I used to wonder, we're going to have a hard time teaching these people about getting away from win-lose, and either-or conceptions of conflict, from the time they had been living with their "live free or die" mentality. I think where it's leaving us is with a need to really learn our way out of conflict, a willingness to go in and really look at these basic frames and these basic assumptions that both we ourselves make as 3rd parties.

One of the things Susan was saying was to know yourself. Where am I coming from? After you examine the answers to those questions then you can go into the discomfort and dissonance of that.

Then you should work with other people to help overcome the defenses and that are there; to help them look at where they're coming from. It seems only in that way we can get to that crossover point that I talked about earlier. It's only when we kind of clear this stuff out of the road that we can then get looking at things like evidence.

What are facts? I would subscribe there are no value-free facts actually so let's at least make our assumptions explicit about the kinds of facts we want to look at here. Can both parties, or multiple parties, at least get some kind of frame of reference in which we agree to look at this? It might be something like saying, "Well, what is our vision of the future of this country?" That in itself is immediately going to trip people into very fundamental attitudes like "the future of this country is that we should basically go for ethnic cleansing. We've got to have partition. We've got to have regional autonomy. We've got to have secession. We have to have reunification with our ethnic brothers down the road, etc. etc.," this is one vision.

Another vision if you like, and I guess that this was an incredible vision in its own day, was to say despite everything that the vision for the future of South Africa is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-colored South Africa. Different people may say, "Ok, well what would that look like in terms of government, justice, administration, policing, education, jobs and so on and so forth?" Until we can sort of get to that cross-over point where we leave some of what we hold our basic assumptions in suspension, then we can start to do business, and not before. It was the same idea if you were to go back when people started talking about creativity being essential for conflict management. Frames, deeply held frames, inhibit creativity, even without our being aware of it. We simply cannot be creative. We don't have the psychic energy, the freedom to look at alternatives, to visualize alternatives for joint gain. We don't have that energy because it's robbed if you like, by the pain of what it might do to some of our most dearly cherished assumptions.

Q: So, asking about what the future would look like is one way to get at those assumptions. Do you have any ideas of other ways to get there?

A: It's not all done by "tinking," some of it is done by a kind of meditative kind of process. In some ways, "tinking" is part of the problem. We really need to get into a state first of all for ourselves, and ideally with others in which we're almost in a kind of state where we are suspending our normal talk processes. I think that some of the work that Lin Riskin has been doing with lawyers, encouraging them to meditate, and the extraordinary response that this is evoking from hard-nosed practical practicing lawyers is that, "Yeah you know we got to get out kind of some of our existing routines. This may be useful adversarialism, etc. They may be useful but we've also got to into something kind of different." So that's one thing that occurs to me.

The other reason of course, and that brings us back to the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base, is a lot of learning can take place by analogy. We really need to step back from your own conflict in which you are immersed and look at somebody else's. That's part of what learning is. I think many practitioners have known this for years. Working by analogy is a way of learning that sometimes brings insight blocked if you try to look at it at your own back in a way that is door.

Q: So by analogy, you mean someone steeped in the Northern Ireland conflict might take a step back and look at where for example, to get some insight?

A: Oh yes, and it has been done and is being done, where people look at other people's conflicts. If you look at the dynamics of the conflicts some of these dynamics are similar. Of course they will each have their own particular cultural, historical, political, and economic particular negative. The essence of the thing is to stop the defense from rushing in.

The classic example is in the Old Testament, I forget which prophet he was, but he gets the message from God to go and confront King David that he has not only been living in sin with someone else's wife, but has actually caused her husband to be killed. From the point of view of walking up to your king and saying, you know, "Excuse me, but I have a message from God for you," is a hard way of doing it. So he goes about it and says, "Your majesty, I would like justice for somebody in your kingdom. This poor guy has only got one sheep, but one of his neighbors who had about a thousand sheep, came by and stole it from him." (That's not something that you want to push to far, because it would be offensive to women.) Then King David jumps up off his throne and says, "This is totally unjust. Bring me this man and I will punish him as nobody's ever been punished." The old prophet doesn't exactly say, "Gotcha," but it boils down to the same thing. This is a classic example of learning by analogy, but you can also do the same thing.

Q: So the idea is self-revelation. You are ensconced in your own conflict and would look at another conflict and say, "Wow! I can't believe you're behaving like that," and then in that second you say, "Wait a minute, that's exactly what we do!"

A: Right, and I think that analogy is sometimes used quite deliberately. It was used in N. Ireland where there was a deliberate attempt on the part of John Hume to say to the other guys, "Look, this is not the way you would look at it. You're thinking of it as an imperialist conflict, on which there is an imperialist aggressor seeking. It's actually not that, it' much more like Cyprus." If you think about Cyprus, you have 2 conflicting communities

and the problem is how do they share par on this one island. That's the way the actual power holder felt, which in this case was Britain. They actually don't care, and we can get them to say that they don't care what the solution is, so long as we can agree between these 2 communities. Now it took some years, but gradually people began to reconceptualize what is the nature of this conflict. Some said, "Well if that's the nature of it, then we've got to persuade these other guys," and it's hard to persuade people on your own.

Q: Analogies, and meditation, and the other ways of the future vision. For a 3rd party going in there, the meditation might be a little trying, but the other 2 really wouldn't but the 3rd party really needs to be aware of their own frames.

A: They need to be aware of their own frames, and in some respects they need to be aware that the goals are not preset. That the process is so important, and this actually puts a certain demand it seems to me on the 3rd party. It's one thing to be in a position of power like, "Ok, I guess I'll go in and mediate this or I'll negotiate this," and "I'm the kind of person who's been through this several times and I know where they're going to wind up and I know what the issues are. I just help them with the process till they get to where I know they're going to get to in the next period of time."

It's much more demanding to actually go into one of these situations where you say, "I don't know really what the outcome is. I have some ideas, but the goal is unclear to everybody, including myself. In fact the nature of the problem we still haven't really figured out."

There's an intriguing phrase from 2 guys called Mark and Olsen in organizational literature and they said, "Change develops meaning through the process by which it occurs." I still am trying to understand that. It continues to challenge me because our conception of rationality is so strongly gold driven. I'm not saying that this is irrational, because I don't think it is; but I do think it is a sort of discovery. It's a voyage of discovery towards a destination that actually nobody knows and that's pretty scary for the participants themselves, and also for the 3rd party to be able to have that kind of definition. That is why in some ways I have one reservation about ICKB, and that is that it implies a theory of learning that seems to be overly passive. There is the body of knowledge and in you go and you tap into that, but it always seems to me that, as Piaget said, "Talk presupposes action, and learning takes place in activity."

In an ideal world, I would like to see and I think other people have worked on this, some sort of on-line interactive facility where by it would be almost a kind of dialogue process with the knowledge. It might even in practical kinds of terms come down to not only people accessing the knowledge base, but doing assignments related to a particular conflict or particular interests or particular thing, and in the light of that engaging in some kind of dialogue.

Now I fully appreciate that an online dialogue is not the same as the fullness of a human person and the 3rd part such as we were talking about earlier. Having said that, even in educational terms, it seems to me we need to go a bit beyond simply saying here is this wonderful resource, you can tap into and reaching for a sort of action learning action research almost mode in which people could interact with that.

Q: That's very interesting because Susan, who was just here, had a similar idea. She had mentioned that there needed to be more of a multi-media approach and more interesting to the average passerby and also interactive to an extent like you're suggesting. I bet that'll be a theme the next couple of days.

A: It'll be interesting to see.

Q: So, in terms of advice for practitioners, one of the themes, you seem to have just said is that they shouldn't assume that they know what's going to happen or where it's going or even what the outcome's going to be. They're sort of riding on a boat on the way to somewhere, but we don't know where. That actual boat ride, given that one quote that you just read will sort of determine our understanding of what that change was, that journey. So what other advice would you give to practitioners?

A: I think in terms of the continuum that I mentioned earlier, I think there's merit in both of those insights to conflict. I also think it's important to hold both of them at the risk of caricaturing it. I am of the opinion that one has to accept that while there is a huge amount of work to be done on people's psychology and feeling and all that sort of stuff, there are realistic issues that need to be sorted out. Well, maybe they can't be sorted out which I think is the thrust of what I'm saying until some work has been done there. Equally at the other extreme if you like, while there are grounds for saying there is such a thing as power politics, there is such a thing as realistic conflict, there are such things as conflicts of interests.

They do exist but at the same time, I think one needs to understand that they are not as objective as all that. That they are always percieved through interpretive schemes, which is one reason why things that seem utterly, incredibly important at times seem to be basically capable of being negotiated away later. So they always exist through these. Consequently our understanding of them, of 3rd party interventions must be to try to hold both of these together; that's reflecting at least the way I seem to understand conflict management.

Q: Steering between the objective and relative in a sense, steering between we'll find what we look for and this is actually what's there right now.

A: Yes, but maybe not so much steering between, as trying to hold both in the one conceptual frame which is uncomfortable.

Q: It is not an easy task. You've made a few references to organizational literature. Do you think that there are, funny I've talked to a few other practioners who've done similar things, which is not a bind I'm particularly familiar with, but it seems to have a great deal of relevance in conflict resolution without calling itself conflict resolution literature. Do you agree with that?

A: I do. I think they're doing things in relation to learning and in relation to understanding organizations, which we could learn about or borrow. Again, to quote Morgan, "If you want to begin to understand the environment, you've got to start by understanding yourself. If you want to change someone's understanding of the environment, you've got to start with them understanding the changing of themselves." To some extent our understanding of the environment is always a projection of ourselves.

This is why we have tended to fish out large tracts of the ocean because if my understanding of myself as a fisherman is that I'm somebody who goes and fishes, and I don't have a systemic understanding of the relationship between myself and the environment, then I'm simply going to be driven to go and fish.

Q: Do you mean to say that if you don't have an understanding of the system that you're not likely to fish in a manner that's sustainable and so you'll deplete the resources?

A: Without some systemic understanding we run into situations where the easiest thing to do is to blame somebody else. We easily trip into these type of games, in the game theory sense or social dilemmas in the sense that ??? underlying the difficulties that you and I are in, there is actually a systemic relationship that we may actually be making worse by our attempts to negotiate our conflict. So there is that kind of thing needs to be in there, but that needs a bit more explanation than I'm giving it at the moment

. Basically I think people are saying the real basis of competitive advantages is on people's ability to learn. It seems to me an awful lot of what's done in the name of conflict resolution or conflict management is essentially getting people to learn their way out of the difficulties that they're in, there's a crossover.

Q: What else should we talk about?

A: Well! I suppose, the one other thing that occurs to me that I haven't really mentioned is trust. That's maybe another necessary condition before people can allow themselves to question their most treasured assumptions, and if a 3rd party can create conditions in which trust can take place. That's particularly difficult in situations where there is either previous violence or even ongoing violence, and you get into Walton's??? classic paper on 2 strategies of social change and their dilemmas, where he's sort of saying, "from time to time, people will engage in an attitude-changing strategy and other times they will engage in a power bargaining, and in the ultimate of course in power bargaining may be violence."

This is extremely difficult for a 3rd party to manage or to hold in one arena and understanding of both those ways of dealing with reality. It also raises huge problems of trust, because it boils down to the fact that the people who are making peace overtures may be at the same time engaging in violence. Most people in conflict resolving fields are people who are personally are totally committed to non-violent ways of dealing with it. This is very challenging and you need to develop ways of dealing with that and ways of detoxing from it because it's very challenging.

Q: So, how does trust factor into a situation where there is the threat of violence? It sounded like you were suggesting that violence is one way of dealing with conflict. We can pretty much agree on that, and yet as 3rd parties, we have this commitment to non-violence, to a certain extent. Does that affect the way we develop trust with the parties that we're involved with at all because they're assumption is that violence is not a viable option and yet, the parties we're dealing with think that it is? Does that affect our interventions or their trust of each other?

A: Well, I think the difficulty with any kind of violence, of course, is that it's extremely corrosive of any trust between the participants and to create those conditions really involves a huge kind of work on exchanging meaning between those people, and creating the conditions for any kind of dialogue almost certainly means some sort of cessation of violence. Even as we've seen in Northern Ireland, a cessation of violence is hugely problematic in that people will immediately say, "Well, I don't want to negotiate to somebody with a gun to my head." The fact that you've stopped today, does that mean that you'll stop for all of time? Will you sign up to principles of nonviolent ways of dispute resolution and so on? The personal willingness of the 3rd parties in those situations, their personal integrity and their personal ways of listening, but not necessarily agreeing, are crucial to bring about a situation where people can move on and can agree to engage in a non-violent dialogic process. It's huge. It even boils down to the fact, "Can trust survive the odd stab in the back?"

You can see this in a less serious context and the industrial relations you very often have to create those kinds of situations. One of my favorite recollections when I was in industrial relations years ago was a particularly troublesome shop steward who was really hard to deal with, but he was very intelligent. I felt in a more ideal world he would not have been in the job he was in, he would have gone onto college and so on and so forth. And anyway, we had fought it out a bit.

Q: You as the mediator?

A: No, this was when I was in the personal manager role, and we had fought out on many occasions. One time he came to my office and he hummed and hawed for a bit, and shuffled around and then he finally came out and said we were going to not mediation, but something close to arbitration. He finally said, "I just want you to know that when we go there tomorrow, something you said last week, I'm going to quote it against you." I really thought, well how delightful, he's telling me in advance that he's going to stab me in the back. This in a sense, is that trust is not uni-dimensional either. I was quite delighted.

Q: So that was apart of the trust building for you saying, "Sorry but this is what I'm going to do."

A: Yeah, exactly, and on that sort of relationship you can actually build a lot.

Q: So is that something you can take out to a larger context?

A: I don't know. In a larger context where there's violence, I'm not so sure. But certainly in other ways, there's the trust building process, it's crucial, but it's sometimes more subtle then we look for.

Q: Ok, other things about trust or ? ?

A: Well, I think we probably dealt with most of it.

Q: Anything you've learned along the way, insights?

A: Well, I think the other thing is that I said, a way of seeing, really is a way of not seeing, and that also comes up in what many mediators experience. Mediators would know, that in order to make progress, you must really get into each of the parties' heads. The difficulty is getting out again and holding both your own role and these 2 very conflicting roles together; that's the mediator's art. One example of the mediator's art is to get beyond the particular way of seeing and at the same time respect it but bring the parties as a 2:2 position, in which you're saying there are other aspects to reality, there are other sides to the elephant.

Q: ? ?while preserving their own view at the same time. Here's your piece of the elephant, you feel that and it's accurate from your point of view, but there's also this other piece. The mediator who can get a participant to hold both worlds in their mind at the same time is quite an expert.

A: That's where change comes from in a terms of a kind of Gestalt, that we may not actually be able to hold both, but it's like one of those very Gestalt images where occasionally you can see it flipping where you can see, "My God, there might actually be another way." Sometimes that is so insightful that you don't want to do it again. That means, if I really allowed that insight in, I would have to shift my own position, and shift my own understanding not just my own position, but my understanding and so on. That's where the defensive routines come in.

Q: How do you mitigate the sort of defensiveness that doesn't come from what would seem like true progress? Say "Wow this is possible," and saying, "Wait! What does this mean for me and mine?"

A: Right, I think that's where it needs something almost beyond what is taught, it can't be kind of logiced in. It's in the domain more of insight, more of a slow process that's maybe happening over time and it's really in the domain of recognizing the inconsistencies and incoherencies in our own thought. That's never going to be easy because that's sort of full of dissonance, but that's where learning comes from, but it's also where discomfort comes from and maybe another role for the mediator is helping people manage that discomfort and then kind of live with it. Which is why I kind of come back to saying that there's some kind of atmosphere.

This is maybe another sort of art of the mediator is to create through their own person, through the kinds of things Susan was talking about, through their own reality of their own human personhood to the quality of their listenign and presence, through the permissions that they both ask for and give to the parties to experience somethings that are pretty difficult for them to experience, maybe even to articulate. So yes, I'm a believer in process.

Q: Well Leo, thanks so much. What sort of lessons

can we apply from the organizational development world to conflict resolution?

A: Well, there are some common dynamics, and some differences obviously. I think there are really experienced organization development consultants that have some very interesting stories to tell about how you function in getting people to change, getting people to reach insite, and of course very often, the reason that people are called into OD is because the organization is ridden with conflict.

A friend of mine who's a very good OD consultant used to tell this story. It's always stuck in my mind. He said, sometime people won't tell you what the problem is, but they'll actually demonstrate it for you. The story he used was that he'd been asked to consult with this business company and they were all set to do two days of consulting. He and his assistant arrived and they were starting with a dinner the night before, and it so happened that they were in a hotel, with small round tables and his assistant was seated next to the CEO of the company. Naturally during the dinner they got to talk and then the following morning during the first session, they arrive in the conference room, everything is prepared, he has thought of how he is going to run this session, what he's going to do, what they're going to do about diagnosis, what they're going to do about sharing and so on, but before he can say anything, the chief executive announces very aggressively, points at his assistance and says, "I'm not fucking working with this guy." He says for all the things I had not prepared for, was to have my assistant fired in the first minute. There I was thinking, it's hard enough to do with 2 people, but now I'm going to have to spend 2 days working on my own.

On the other hand he said it might've taken us a lot of time to work at what was the problem here. Obviously one of the problems here, is that the CEO occasionally goes into these kinds of loops but he didn't tell us, he actually demonstrated it for us, so that's what we'll do, we'll work with that, that's the data, and we'll take it from there.

Q: Which is more than any employee would've said, with the CEO sitting right there in the room. "You know what the problem is, this guy over here, he gets in these moods, and makes these rash decisions vicariously," or whatever the example may be.

A: And that's where we go from exploring, like including himself, how do people deal with this.

Q: Right, what's the decision making process around here?

A: You could go a long time talking about participation and decision making in that organization.

Q: That's a great story.