Maintaining Neutrality in Conflict Assessment

Larry Susskind

Co-Director of the Public Disputes Program, Inter-University Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

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 ???).

Q: What about the convener, how does a neutral come in, convene by someone, sometimes I am sure they are a party to the conflict, and still maintain legitimacy with other parties?

A: I think the sort of three or four ingredients in professional strategy as a neutral deals with the fact that the person convening it is anything but neutral. The person convening it has a huge stake in making something happen. When someone calls me and says I'm a party and would you be the neutral. I say only so far as producing an assessment is concerned. Whether it goes forward beyond that is purely a function of the results of the assessment. The fact that there is a method and the method is explicit and the decision about going forward is in the hands of all the parties is one of the most important tools that I have to distance myself from the bias of the convener. The second is that I stand for a professional code of ethics and I make those explicit. I say, "You may be convening this thing, you may even be paying for the assessment, but you don't get to call the shots, I do. If you don't like that call somebody else," it's very important. The third thing is I have a track record, my organization has a track record. If somebody wants to know why you're being hired by this convener slash stakeholder, "how can we trust you to be fair?" I say, "well I have done this a couple hundred times, tell me what kind of group and what kind of contacts you'd like to talk to and I'll give you their name and number and you call them or you go look on our web page and you see the things that we've done."

So we have track record. We subscribe to a code of ethics. We have a method that is quite transparent and explicit and finally to the extent that we can we ask several of the key parties to be co-conveners or with the very least, we ask several of the parties to contribute to the cost of convening so that to some extent it might deflect concerns about the convener calling the shots. Those are the tools that we use. It doesn't always work. There are still instances in which people say, "You look just like the convener, you don't look like me, no way I can trust you." In which case I may have to make an adjustment in the staff. We work in teams so we have co-assessors and we often try to match the membership and the assessment team. I am working right now between the Bedouins and the Israeli government and we have to have Bedouin, at least Arab, but preferably Arab Bedouin members of the assessment team or there's no way that Bedouins are coming to the table. They couldn't take any money from the Israeli government to do this, so I have to go and raise the money from philanthropic sources to support this even though the government is the convener.

Q: It also sounds like one of the underlying assumptions here is that you don't actually advocate for engagement in the process in the beginning.

A: Correct. Quieted explicitly not

A: We say this is two-stage process. There's an assessment, if the assessment produces a clear indication that mediation or some other form dispute resolution or consensus building makes sense, then great. If it doesn't then great, that's fine and that's what we mean. My own view is that when the whole profession of public dispute resolution subscribes to this and the methods of conflict assessment, it's going to be a lot easier for everybody to understand that the neutral is not an advocate of mediation in the interim, in the beginning. The neutral is an advocate for exploration of alternatives, and the parties have to make and facilitate the decision.