Close to 20 years ago (in fact, in 1995) a group of us met in Cambridge, MA, under the auspices of the Program on Negotiation’s public/practice offshoot, to talk about just one question, roughly paraphrased – what’s left of the “Harvard model” of negotiation once you add culture? In part this was a response to the concerns expressed by critical commentators that this supposedly neutral process of negotiation was, in reality, a cultural model in its own right. We can date that meeting tragically, as Jeff Rubin, one of the participants, died in a mountaineering accident the following weekend.
No report ever came out of that meeting; but we can see the burgeoning literature on culture, conflict and negotiation as continuing the conversation.
It’s interesting to recall, however, the one simple conclusion was reached as to the impact of culture on this core (Western) model of negotiation: people need to tell their stories. And the task of negotiators – and mediators – is to attend, to respect, to challenge those stories; to modify their own; and jointly – in the kind of metaphor used by John Paul Lederach – to weave solutions out of those narratives.
None of this will come as a surprise to practitioners of narrative mediation and the work of John Winslade and colleagues, in which the narratives of a conflict lie at the heart of understand and transforming a conflict.
It’s also recognised that we spin stories, augment the truth, deceive even ourselves in recounting the “truth” of conflict. See, for example, this blog by Cinnie Noble: http://www.adrhub.com/profiles/blogs/true-or-not-so-true-conflict-story-telling.
The point of this note is partly just recall that challenge to the model that has become so central to contemporary negotiation practice – and to note, as far as I’m aware, that nothing ever became of the conclusion. It’s partly also to link negotiation and, even more so, mediation, with the “narrative gift” which Jerome Bruner sees as not only central to how we make sense of the world but also as “one of the principal forms of peacekeeping.” (Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA, Harvard U.P., 1990; p.95).
Three aspects of narratives or stories at least can be linked to dispute resolution and transformation practice:
- first, the existential foundation, the recognition that we do, and need to tell stories, to construct a narrative reality (taken to quasi-fictional extremes by Bruce Chatwin in his The Song Lines, and his view of the Australian Aboriginal world sung into existence).As Eli Wiesel comments:
“Our lives are rooted in story. Our stories are our lives. We find out who we are by the stories we tell and are told. The lives we live and the conflicts we embrace are held together by motif and myth. If we are to gain a sense of who we are, where we stand in the world, what our relationship in and with the world is to be, then we must see how our story works. A story is a way to articulate what it is we are living through and how the world lives in us as we live in it … Stories give meaning to common and shared experience.” [Eli Wiesel, quoted in J. Elkins, “The quest for meaning: narrative accounts of legal education,” Jnl of Legal Education v. 38 (Dec. ’88) p. 577-98]
- second, the process aspect: the implication of the first point necessarily is that if stories are what people come with, this is the material we work with; and
- third, the socio-political, hermeneutic dimension, recognising that negotiations are part of the ongoing contraction of social meaning and, to crank this up a level or two, can form part of the kind of deliberative dialogue, civic conversations, democratic iterations, public reason . . . or whatever the preferred term, that writers like Habermas, Kingwell, Benhabib, Sen, and Appiah promote, with differing emphases and arguments, but with the same core idea of the essential, political and constructive role of dialogue. There’s a hoped-for dimension to this too – in that much of the underlying political concern is that there is a lack of civil and deliberative dialogue – so, in that sense, the job is to recover and reinvent the tools of collective narrative; and in this respect, the role of dispute resolution processes is not merely to work with existing narratives but also – more so? – to build that capacity for constructive dialogue.
If, then, people want to tell their stories – and it’s a conclusion amply sustained by the long story-telling traditions of surely every society and culture – then we can look in two directions to work with that material: one, is to look at the narratives people bring to current negotiations and mediations, as the material to work with; the other is to take that foundational resource and turn it to the optimistic and participatory goals that inform cosmopolitan (Beck, Appiah) and democratic (Benhabib, Habermas, Kingwell) writers.