Sarah Cobb

Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Topics: narratives and stories, values, neutrality

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: My work revolves around understanding and intervening in conversations. I do practice that is based on narrative facilitation, narrative evolution, and theoretical frameworks. The interventions I use in practice come from narrative theory. I do research on conflict processes in an effort to understand the social construction and transformation of the narrative. I teach narrative processes and I participate in the development of ICAR, as the director, from a narrative perspective. In this, I try and understand the institutional stories and how they are anchored and the way in which the identity of the place is in fact a story in which we tell about who we are and what we are doing.

Q: What is narrative facilitation?

A: Something I made up.

Q: What does it mean?

A: It's facilitating from a narrative perspective using narrative theory as the base. It's a very different set of practice skills, very different orientation and different set of mandates.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what it looks like? What would somebody see from the outside looking in at a narrative facilitation?

A: Well, for instance, they wouldn't see disclaimers that would be based on neutrality and objectivity. They would see ground rules being set that would signal the facilitator's intention to understand and participate in the evolution of the way the problems are framed and discussed. And signaling the anticipation that that might be uncomfortable or unpleasant or difficult and folks should be both ready for that and also tuned in so they can protest if they need to. The ground rules are very different. In terms of the practice, the way I do it is by doing something called narrative mapping. Any conversation, which involves people in the initial phase of a dispute/conflict, is really about the map of the narrative and it's not about the problem. Rather it's about the way in which people are framing the problem more explicitly. We work with the participant to design the map. As it's designed, the problematic features of the story emerge and are challenged. People end up being able to suggest, invite, and otherwise allow for the evolution of the narratives that people are telling. It's a very different kind of practice.

Q: Let's backup for just a second. Unless someone has read some of the articles that you've written or other articles that people have written about narratives and narrative theory, it's a little bit hard to contextualize what narrative has to do with conflict. Can you describe what narrative is for those of us who don't know what narrative means in a conflict?

A: Let me back up and say that contextually most conflict theories come out of IR or social psychology or behavioral economics. Those are fields that have tended to see conflicts pre-existing in the way in which people describe the problems. There are disciplines and traditions that are not based or do not have much affinity with social constructionism. In those fields, those approaches to conflict presume scarcity in terms of resources or even unmet needs. Neither scarce resources or unmet needs attends to the way in which the story is coming from, its life history, how it affects them, and how it affects other people. This is the actual problem in addition to scarce resources and unmet needs. In other words, you can't meet people's needs and anticipate the conflict is going to be transformed. Neither can you reduce the scarcity of the resources or increase the abundance and assume that the conflict is going to be resolved because the ways in which people historicise and tell the story of what happened is going to make a different for who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.

Narrative really has traditionally three or four parts. One would be the context or the setting. Second is the character set-the folks that are involved. The third is the values and moral themes and moral corollaries that are attached to the last plot. So the moral corollaries are a function of the way in which the plot and the characters populate and structure the narrative itself. From that perspective, conflict narratives have particular features. They have very, very skinny underdeveloped plots that are usually externalizing responsibility. They have no evidence of interdependence, in terms of you did that and so I did this. There's no circularity. Third, they have very, very polarized and flat character traits with very little complexity. There are two kinds of folks-good guys and bad guys. Usually everybody's unwilling to talk about the ways in which their own participation as characters has not been legitimate and again they externalize responsibility. They usually don't have temporal complexity. They are either only about the past or only about the future. Almost never are they about the past, present and future in very complex ways. And the moral corollaries are very polarized and skinny. There's usually one way to be good and one way to be bad. The sort of narrative facilitation that I do is like adding water to a dehydrated narrative. How about that for a metaphor? It gets more three-dimensional. Three-dimensional people learn and there are new options and new ways of understanding things, and new dimensions for relationships to evolve.

Q: What is the relationship between someone's narrative and someone's identity?

A: It depends on what your theory of a person is. For me, I'm a social constructionist and believe we are the stories we tell. Now there are developmental and psychological theorists that would argue that there are stable "character" personality traits that persist independent of context. I am not one of those folks. I don't aspire towards that theory. So I would say, depending on the context, which is dependent on the network of stories that people are embedded in, they are going to enact them. That is why we have this terrible problem with re-entry with the problem solving workshops. Folks understand themselves in a new way, go back into a setting where they are performing in a new way and they encounter a lot of "resistance" because they have altered their identity. So they bolted the story they tell about who they are and what they are about. So I think we are the stories we tell about ourselves and about others. There are core narratives that have to do with how we understand who we've been and who we are going to become and how that related to other important people around us.

Q: So changing stories is hard because it somehow threatens people's identity to change the story?

A: I don't think it's that hard. I think that part of the homeostatic function lies not in the intentions of the person to resist change, as dominant psychological theories would suggest. Rather maintenance of the status quo lies in the hegemonic processes of narrative itself. Narrative does not like challenges to its own dominion. It will not tolerate reorganization easily. It's not the people who don't like their narratives reorganized. It is narratives themselves. I mean that is what a narrative is. It is a coherent, closed system that seeks to maintain that coherence and you alter the component parts-either the plot, the character or the themes-and the whole thing changes. There is an enormous disorganization that accompanies that process. Not only psychologically, but also the narrative itself. There are very limited ways in which narrative can change. In other words, if you take a given narrative about a conflict like the Middle-East conflict, it is not open to an infinite number of changes. The narratives will not tolerate simply the introduction of any new character or any new moral corollary or any new plot line. You can't do that. So they have their limitations. There are constraints on narrative evolution that people don't put, the narratives put. The logic that an intervener or conflict specialist would have to follow is one that doesn't come from a textbook and doesn't come from some narrative theory. It comes out of the wisdom that all of us have already about what narrative will permit-what kind of changes it will tolerate and what makes sense.

Q: How does someone's narrative change after they've experienced violent conflict?

A: Again, I think that violent conflict doesn't come as a thing that happens to people on their heads. It is a story about some bad folks doing something really bad. Often times it is for either their own gain or because they are malevolent or crazy-either bad or crazy. Those are the two logics. They either do the bad things because they are bad or they are crazy. Again it goes back to narrative constraints. Basically those are the two possibilities. Or often times, people don't even know why the bad things were done. So if you look at testimonies from the interviews with Holocaust survivors done at Yale, you can see that there are kinds of violence that can resist narrative because there is no logic. There is a wonderful book by a guy named Martin Langur, who writes about this in his book. I can't remember the name of the book but I think it might be called Holocaust Testimonies. So he believes that there is no logic that anybody can create to put the events together. Nobody would understand why Nazi officers would tie women's legs together while they try to give birth. Nobody can make sense out of that. It is so horrendous that we can't make sense of those kinds of things. That kind of violence myriads outside of the perimeter of narrative's capacity to contain it. When you ask what happens to people who've experienced violent conflict, I would say that it depends on how the violent conflict is narrated. There is some that resist all narrative and that is the worst kind. It just sits there like a terrible cist in the life of a person that has to be encapsulated and then can't be part of the rest of their lives. It sits outside of the domain of the regular life because it can't be included because it can't be narrated. It's almost easier for people to have some kind of narrative account of what happened to them, even when it's horrific it's better to have narrative than no narrative.


Q: Because then you can deal with it?

A: Yes, because then you have at least some account. It is part of your sense of your own self. It's part of your sense of the world. It is very different than having something happen where it's otherworldly; it's literally not able to be part of life. If that is the case then it's continually dangerous because the only way you can contain, as in reduce the danger, is to create an account of what happened that would imply it's not going to happen again, or it's not going to happen tomorrow or today. If you can't have an account of what happened then you have no way of ensuring for yourself or for other people that, in fact, it's not something that could crop up again because you don't have anyway of predicting. You need narrative to predict what is going to happen. So life becomes very unpredictable when you can't narrate violence.

Q: So to do that either in a trauma sense or in a conflict resolution sense you would need to somehow create language or a narrative that accounts for that kind of incredible violence?

A: Yes. I think that the best stories are those that are not conflict stories. In other words, they have complex descriptions of character traits. They have interdependence in terms of circularity. They have temporal complexity, they have moral complexity and it takes a while for folks who have experienced violent conflict or trauma to move beyond the very pancake narratives that they have post-violence. Here the characters are starkly drawn. The setting is simple and so is the plot and the moral corollaries. Whereas, when you talk to people some period of time after, they've got a better idea of the humanity of the victimizers. They've got a better idea of the things they didn't do themselves to keep themselves safe. So they've got less externalization of responsibility and more complexity of the whole situation. It doesn't necessarily have to take a long time. I don't think we have institutional forms that enable that evolution to take place. It didn't happen in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which is the closest thing we've had as an institutional form where we can tell the story of the violence or retell it in a new way. Those forms were not conceived if it was anything other than witnessing and documenting the stories that already existed. There was no transformative capacity even though people argued that transformation did occur. I would agree with them. I don't think it was because of the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to function that way. And certainly court settings don't do that. Mediation settings don't do that either because we don't think in terms of the evolution of transformation of the narrative. We don't think about the ethics of narrative. That's really what I am talking about. I am talking about conflict evolution is the application of the normative model of narrative that says some kinds are better than others. It's better for people to have narrative with these sorts of features than not.

Q: There are bad narratives, pancake narratives, bi-polarized, good guys, bad guys, not a lot complex-very simple-plot, no responsibility for what we are doing and then there are good narratives. The good narratives are richer narratives because they have some sense of complexity, and responsibility for the things that have happened to the victim. How do you get from one to the other?

A: There are technologies for narrative evolution and transformation. I've just finished writing a paper on turning points in narrative evolution and I'm just making stuff up because there is nothing out there in the literature. A year from now I might think this is a crazy, stupid idea. I'm really interested in these turning points. You can see it. You know you've been in the room with it and you feel that something has just happened here and people begin to laugh, they start to smile, they give a little sheepish grin, they twinkle-something happens where the pain begins to reduce and there starts to be some other possibility. Or if they are not laughing and happier, they are more related or the quality of the relationship they have with the hated other begins to alter in some way. Or they report having a different experience themselves that they are not used to or they are surprised about. When you're in a conversation when those kinds of things are happening, we don't necessarily have the theoretical framework for understanding what just happened but we get it. I've been interested in trying to figure out what it is. I went back to Victor Turner's work on ritual to see how he talks about significant transformation. And how he talks about how ritual is a place to think about transformation and trying to look at theoretical frameworks that document transformation. You can go to intra-psychic models, which I don't like because they are not about the social. If you look at a lot of the social models they are either on the macro level and they have no account of the conversation and the power of what happens at micro level practices. The literature on the evolution at micro levels is really some of this literature from ritual, which would talk about how people are inserted in groups differently post ritual-that the ritual participates or allows for the evolution of the nature of the person in the context of the group that they are part of.

Victor Turner says that there are three phases. There's a separation phase, a liminal phase, and an aggregation phase. The separation phase is where people have separated into the groups they are part of. When you look at a narrative process you will find that's the way most conflict narrative conversations open. I'm different than this crummy person over here. I am very, very different than they are because I am wonderful and they are crummy. People do that for a while and this is what I've tried to do. So there's a lot of separation and there's a lot of work in the narrative to separate self from the other and there is a lot of physical and emotional separation on all those dimensions. Turner says the second phase happens when reversals start to occur. It involves play. I went back and thought about my practice and I tried to think about it. I have a very, very playful practice. I don't do traditional mediation. People in the places where I work are always giggling, winking, laughing, and joking. There is always that stuff going on. I was trying to figure out what was happening. It turns out that what happens is that Turner identified is reversal. He argues that it often comes as the markers are stripped off. These are markers that people would use to identify who they are. The ritual might be the traditional clothes they might wear or the symbol they normally have that they no longer have. So they no longer have that particular identity because the markers of that identity are taken away. It's not that they are just taken away they are reversed. The king becomes the peasant, the peasant becomes the king, the woman becomes the man, and the man becomes the woman. So the structures of power and hierarchy are actually flipped. If you plot that to narrative it's a long shot. You could argue that what happens in this liminal phase of narrative is that the structures of legitimacy and de-legitimacy are flipped. In other words, I am wonderful because of all these reasons and you are terrible-that begins to flip. I watch myself in my practice do this. I do it through irony so I develop a description with people about how usually there's an underbelly to what it is that they have argued is their strength and the basis of the legitimacy. I always find the underbelly and it's always easy to find. Then I invite them into the exploration into that underbelly. They usually come giggling when I invite them or pose this to them. They get there, so they are less legitimate then they were in the beginning part of the conversation. The other, the hated other, is a little more legitimate. Nobody's perfect, nobody's great. That shift right there is a major turning point. It's in my practice then that there is a whole lot of laughter and giggling.

Q: What does the underbelly look like?

A: The underbelly contains issues related to the irony of the very thing that people have advocated as their strength. So for me it would be like if you were talking to me and I was mad at somebody and arguing that they are limited because they are rigid. I, on the other hand, am open to possibilities. I can easily change directions and extremes and I'm not rigid like this other person. This is often a nice polarity-you find it all the time. I'm open and flexible and this other person is rigid. It's easy to explore with people what the underbelly of being open and flexible is but how did you do that. Have there been any times when flexibility has gotten you into a whole lot of trouble? And you see immediately people start to giggle, they have a little twinkle come in their eye when they remembered a time like that. The fact that they actually couldn't hold like a rigid person and they make all kinds of jokes about rigid people holding the line and flexible people wishy-washing around and getting stuck in the mud. It takes about two minutes for people to start telling the stories and the accounts of those things and giggling about them. Whether or not I do that in front of the other people is another question. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. It depends upon what the stakes are or how upset or afraid people are, and how well they know me. Once they get to know me they know that they aren't going to get hurt. I might muck around their stories but I'm not really dangerous. If I don't know people well I won't do that in front of the other, I'll do that in private sessions. This is why I've argued since 1990 that people who are not comfortable doing the evolution or not comfortable participating in the evolution should do private sessions. They should work privately with folks. When you are facilitating or mediating or working with people who are in conflict you should have private sessions with them first. Meeting with parties individually and separately is a great idea.

Q: What about circular questions and appreciative inquiry?

A: Those are all things that are wonderful opportunities for generating these kinds of turning points. There are two or three different kinds of turning points. I think there's a turning point that is a function of this underbelly. I think circular questions and appreciative inquiry and positive connotation, negative explanation, reframing are all technologies, most of which are not studied in our field. This is because our field has traditionally not paid attention to the package that the conflict comes in which is of course a discourse package. It's not about attitude and behaviors. It's about how people talk about what's going on. It's sort of like fish swimming in the water; they don't notice the water that they are swimming in. That is really what my take on the conflict resolution field is. They are swimming around in narrative and they are not paying attention.

Q: So what is a circular question? What does that mean? How do I use that?

A: Working from a discourse or narrative perspective everything hinges on how you orient people to the question or to the story that they are telling. If you ask them to tell a story they are going to tell a pancake story or a conflict story. They are going to embellish it a little bit and it's probably going to be even more polarized. They love it and they've told it a billion times. It's like a cross-country ski track that a hundred people have been down. I mean it's got these good groves in it and you can just roll right along. To get them to break out of that story that they've told and retold requires some interruption in the plot, characters or themes. And if you challenge people on the coherence of the narrative they are simply going to get totally furious with you. It's not a polite thing to do. It's a rather dangerous thing to do as a facilitator. Inviting them into the alteration or the process of the evolution of the narrative through a circular question or any kind of good question will provide the basis of the legitimacy of the speaker. That's what constitutes a good question. Embedded in the question is the positive connotation to that person that the facilitator is speaking with. So it is essentially, it's an invitation. 99.9% of the time people who are presented with a question on which their legitimacy is premised they will answer the question. It is in fact not a challenge to the sense of their value and worth. Questions are all important because they are the way in which the dominant narrative is disrupted or destabilized and people don't tolerate destabilization. The narrative doesn't tolerate destabilization unless you provide this foundation of positive connotation built into the question. So that is why appreciative inquiry is so effective. Appreciative inquiry does not destabilize narrative except in the direction that is already providing legitimacy for the person you are talking to.

There are two kinds of circular questions. There are the kinds that compare temporal conditions and there are circular questions that compare traits and characteristics of people. A temporal question might look like you are really in a horrible situation with this person and it looks like you've been doing everything you can to get out of it-is this worse or better than the kinds of struggles that you've had at other times? Or you could ask have you ever had a time where you've struggled so difficultly with people where the struggle has been so painful and so hard? People say, "No, this is worse," or "Yeah, this is just like the one I had three years ago with so and so." You can have a conversation about how they managed to survive the struggle and how did they get through it. This opens the door for the possibility of framing the previous conflict as something that is survivable and if they didn't have anything like that before, well then there is certainly a new groundbreaking learning being challenged. There are all kinds of positive things about that.

The circular question that asks for comparison on traits would be something like, "Of all the people involved in this conflict who do you think is the most anxious about it's outcome?" People will never say themselves. Never. They won't say I'm the most anxious because none of us want to portray ourselves as the most vulnerable. If you ask the question who is the most vulnerable in this conflict they will say oh this other guy because he is all screwed up. That is what makes him so vulnerable because he is terrible, but me, I'm all right. But framing other people who are vulnerable and anxious is very different than framing them as creepy. It reduces the hegemonic rigidity or the power of a dominant narrative for the speaker. If he asks us questions in front of other people, in front of the hated other, then all heck starts to break lose in a very good way. Circular questions yield something called relational knowledge, it's knowledge not just about what I think, it's knowledge in front of you about what I think. It gives you knowledge about our relationship as I am answering the question about us. So people come to the edge of their chairs and you can usually hear a pin drop when you ask circular questions focused on traits or characteristics. They are very powerful questions.

Q: I don't quite understand while they are called circular questions.

A: Well they are circular because usually they are comparing. The information is actually feeding back. Think of the feedback loops. You are asking me the question but it is ricocheting over to have implications for the other person in the room. So it creates a circle of relational information between the interviewer, the questioner, and the people who populate the traits and characteristics of the question. I think for the temporal sequence of circular questions they are circling from one time back to the present and back again. It's a circle of information between the interviewer and the interviewee. I asked Salvador Minutian this one time because he's a very important family therapist who has written wonderful things and is one of the most competent practitioners in these kinds of conversations. So I asked him why is it called circular question? He said that it was originally because what happened in the family (this was a technology developed in family therapy) was it generated conversations around the circle. As the family sat in a circle, usually in an interview, to ask who is the most anxious in the room and why do you think this person would be more anxious? What you end up doing is creating these triangles and people start talking in new ways to each other. I'm happy with either definition of circular.

Q: Let's talk about this in practice, if you can think of some of the work you've done or read about or heard about where this is implied, what it looks like, people reactions to it and then how it changes?

A: The work is the work that goes on everywhere. It's not defined to when somebody picks up the phone and says, "Sarah come solve this problem with us." It is a way of making sense of what's going on all the time. I use it a lot as the director of the institute. I try to understand problematic stories when I hear them, trying to imagine ways to destabilize conflict narratives, trying to invite people into better formed stories wherever I can. I am sort of a narrative transformation machine. In my more discrete practice, which is largely been in some environmental disputes, and lots of family business conflicts it has all been enormously effective. Very effective. What the group ends up with is not consensus. They end up with a brand new way of understanding the nature of the problem. And more than likely if you look at really good practitioners, even those that are based in behavioral economics, and social psychological perspectives, they are doing this narrative evolution even though they are not tracking it.

Q: It sounds like a name for things that are out there and for things that have heard you and this more positivistic education. It sounds like a name or a thread for various elements that are fragmented in the education that I have. I am not surprised that somebody who wasn't educated in this kind of theory would actually do it. Either intuitively or just have a pattern.

A: To not pay attention to it, to be swimming in the soup and not know you are in the soup only means that you don't have access to all the information that you could. You don't have available to you the possibilities that you would otherwise have as a facilitator, mediator if you were paying attention, if you were paying attention to what is going on.

Q: So what I would really like is a specific example. Could you think of the last time that you really had an intervention where this was the case? I know you are using this all the time. But is there something that has a picture of what it sounds like, what is looks like?

A: I'm thinking of an example that would be the most interesting. I did some work in Rwanda. It was funded by UNHCR. I'll give you this example and a different one that just happened. In this project in Rwanda there were three groups that had been funded by UNHCR and they wanted some kind of an evaluation done on the groups. So I went and met with the people. In one group there had been about 350 widows to the genocide that had formed an agricultural co-op that had gone on to do unbelievably interesting things including the development of a craft enterprise, a school for the children, they built something for grain and seed storage, and they were then training women in other communities. So it had some second-order or generational feature to it. The women were just electrified, laughing and talking about building houses with pants on and showing me how even though they had on skirts they could walk up and down ladders. It was a quality of joy and possibility in this group that was just phenomenal. They had a lot of other criteria of success besides the stories that they told about themselves, which were that they had overcome incredible hardship and have come together as a group and respected each other across these ethnic lines. They did it because they didn't have any choice. And they did it because it was the right thing to do. They benefited economically because of it.

Q: So they were widows from both sides?

A: Yes. There was another group (widows from both sides) that had gotten money from UNHCR and they had started a bottle co-op. They had collected bottles from all around and stored them in this shed that they built. They had been able to purchase these things that you carry the bottles in. Somebody broke into the shed and stole everything. They sat in front of me saying that they have had incredible hardship. Thank God somebody paid attention and tried to help us, but now the bad people have come and we have been victims all along. We are always going to be the victims.

There was a third group of men and women of about 300. They had money from UNHCR to develop a sunflower-press enterprise. So they had land that they were working on collaboratively as co-op and they worked like dogs. The land wasn't so great. They didn't have all the right things they needed like fertilizer and stuff. They managed to do an okay job but the UNHCR didn't deliver the press in time and the crop couldn't be processed properly. They couldn't get the product to market and the whole thing was a fiasco. They blamed UNHCR for this. This is again a story of an enormous amount of suffering but there wasn't a story of coming together. There wasn't a story of mutual respect. There wasn't a story of mourning together. There was a pragmatic count of what they had needed that they hadn't had.

I asked all three groups what happened in the genocide. The third group said there was incredible poverty that then led to people needing to take control. They did that because they wanted money so the genocide was caused by power, but fueled by greed. I would then ask, "What's going on now?" "Well you know we aren't really sure and clearly nobody's thinking about us." Again we ended up with a story about victimization. Second group said, "Well people went insane." "Why did they go insane?" "We don't know." This is the bottle group. We can't make any sense of it. We watched our children and fathers die. We don't have any ways of understanding that. "How does that relate to what's going on now?" "Well, it could happen again. We don't understand anything." The first group said that there was an enormous amount of poverty and ignorance. Then what happened? After poverty and ignorance people got terribly afraid. They were afraid over a period of years and they got more and more and more afraid. Then they became angry but they weren't really angry, they were just really afraid. So the genocide happened because of fear. So how does that relate to now? Well, we are fighting fear, we teach the children how to do skills, we have a craft thing, we have an agricultural thing, we do training of other women, we are empowering people, and we are working to reduce fear.

When I reported back to UNHCR it was really clear. The question is whether or not the group had that story in place before they got the money in the first place. You give all three groups money, they land in the context of the given story of what's going on and then it's no surprise that the money ends up following the story, not transforming the story. I think that's what happened in the first group was a combination of things. I asked them how did their group form? We had the possibility of a grant so we came together to see what would happen and how we could do things. This is just what they all said. But this group said in addition to that that they realized they didn't know each other. Then we realized we had so much suffering in common. We spent the first period of time just mourning. None of the other groups did that. I came away from this with a fundamental interest in thinking about mourning processes. I wrote to UNHCR that they should design mourning processes. They should in some way facilitate, not require, the possibility of groups mourning as a function or as a part of them becoming funded. I think this should be written into the projects.

I have a little example of what happened that made me laugh last week. I was in Hague and I was talking to the new head prosecutor. He said read this. This is going to be my press announcement for this week. I am going to talk about why the US can't be prosecuted for crimes of aggression and I'm going to talk about the limits of jurisdiction. People want to know what the Court's jurisdiction was. So I read the thing and it made legal sense. And I thought why should anybody care about jurisdiction? Why does it matter? What is it really about? Is it a good thing? Why is it good? Why should we care about it? He launched into this long account about the connection between jurisdiction and respect. The importance of boundary, the importance of rule, the importance of clarity around rules and boundaries and that is what you needed for good relationships. He really had a legal theory of jurisdiction that was actually based on relationships. So I said write this into the press release about what it is that you are doing. Your court is intended not to follow jurisdiction or rules but to enact respect and to be a model of respect at the international level. So he did. I was laughing about that because I thought that that kind of intervention helping people understand the values that they really have at the base of whatever story that they are telling. It's very powerful and interesting work.

Q: I don't often think of jurisdiction as having some sort of moral component to it. But I guess it does. Your first story sounds a lot like the play Man on the Moon. I don't know if you ever read it?

A: No I didn't. What's it about?

Q: It's almost exactly what yours was. It's about three women growing up in Harlem. One flourished, the other didn't do so hot, and the other is just pathetic. It's all about their attitude. I now want to talk about neutrality. I figured it's your other favorite topic.

A: Actually I find it really boring. That's just because I thought about it a whole lot like thirteen years ago. So it's over and done with for me but everyone finds it really important.

Q: Well anything that goes against common wisdom is pretty interesting. So tell me why a mediator can never be neutral.

A: There are a lot of different, nasty pitfalls about the notion of neutrality. One of them is that people are not going to bring their own attitudes and values to bear on the mediation process. At the very extreme it's kind of like trying to be a blank slate and not really be there. You think of people who wouldn't have attitudes or values as like chairs or something. They become inanimate objects because that is what makes us human beings. I think another terrible pitfall about it is that it's not just that we are supposed to be blank slates but that we are not supposed to be advocates for folks for either side. I think that is a terrible mistake. People who are suffering and having bad conflicts with others; they need advocates. They need all the help they can get. My job, as I see it, as a facilitator and a mediator, is to be there for them. I really want to be there for them and that means being with them, being for them, and helping them show up as totally, legitimate and appropriate people.

Usually when I am in a mediation or facilitation conflict process, there is always somebody who looks like they are pretty much out to lunch. They are in the worst position, they can't really escape the act they've done and they are really hanging out there at risk. There is always one party or more that is more vulnerable to claims of moral and inappropriateness than others. Those are always the ones I feel sorry for. I always take special care of them. Part of the problem of neutrality is the assumption that the third-party doesn't have attitudes and values. The other assumption is that in the session the third party is not supposed to be the advocate of folks. I disagree with that. I think the people are trapped in narratives that they did not make and they cannot control. It takes somebody who can be in the narrative with them to open the narrative, to illuminate its sparkling wonder, to release it from its hegemonic force, and to do all of that in a way that doesn't de-legitimize people.

I think that back in 1990 when Jan and I were looking into this concept, it was real clear that some of the family therapists had a great idea that if you just take this whole notion of neutrality, put it to bed, tuck it in, give it its pacifier so it doesn't wake up and instead call it multi-partiality. That's what we are doing. We are going in there and being multi-partial to folks. People need different kinds of help. I had to be partial differently. In session there are sometimes people that I can touch. I can tap somebody on the knee. I can put my hand on somebody's back. I can reach over and pull the hair out of a child's eyes. There are other people that I can't touch. So I'm going to be different with different folks in the session. Not only how I am physically but also in what kind of story I'd launch with them and how I might deal with them. For some people I don't need a private setting. I am working with a group and I have one person in particular who is very vulnerable and I'll need a private session with them. The whole notion of symmetry is also built into the notion of neutrality. I don't buy that either. Both in my personal life and in my professional life I don't think everything has to be equal because it's never going to be anyway. Folks are different and they need different things. My job is to try to help everybody be legitimate. If I can do that the rest will follow. Good stuff will follow.

Q: So your job is to help make everyone legitimate. I think someone who just went through their 40 hours of mediation training would ask you what is your interest in this? If you're not neutral then what are you? What does multi-partial mean? What is your goal when you go in there?

A: My goal was the evolution of narrative such that they are different than they were when they came in. And they are less pancaked and everybody is legitimized. My goal is not agreements. My goal is not fixing anything, not helping people reach consensus. However, I do focus on the evolution of the narratives and the formulation of summaries. These then provide the platform for documenting the legitimacy of all the folks involved and people figure out what they are going to do. I have the same kind of fabulous success rate that all mediators have usually. Mine's well over 80%, which is the industry standard. In fact, I would say that I've maybe had very few instances where things haven't worked.

Q: When somebody calls you and says Sarah I have a problem, I need help. I have a conflict. Do you say well I'm not going to help you solve it. I'm just going to help you change your narrative?

A: That's all my technical know-how. I think that for all of life there is a front stage and a backstage. I don't talk to my faculty about the budgets. They don't care about that. That's not their problem. They just want to know that when they get to work in the morning the building is going to be here, their salary is going to be intact along with their graduate students. My job has technical aspects to it. They don't need to know what they are.

Q: But if someone calls you looking for your help to solve their problem, isn't that a little weird?

A: No. I say things like let's talk about it. I'd be glad to have a conversation with you all and see what it is you are looking for and I'd like to try to help you understand the problem better. If we can do that then, that's just great. If you can understand the problem differently better either you live with it, you're more comfortable living with it, or you figure out some other way to manage. I don't ever promise anybody that we are going to get an agreement or anything. I am very tentative about having those kinds of outcomes set out. Not because I don't think we can do it. But I don't think that's the point.

Q: When I hear you talk like that it, sounds a lot like transformative mediation. Do you identify with them?

A: They've done fabulous work in the field. I think they helped the entire field break out of the behavioral-economic stranglehold that game theorists and negotiation experts had. They conceive the field differently. They've helped us re-imagine ourselves as third parties. I think that the goals that they put of mutual recognition and respect are extremely problematic. They are using intra-psychic vocabulary about what it is people are supposed to feel as evidence for the transformation. What I would put as evidence for the transformation is not how people feel but the actual social construction of the problem. My evidence is in the discourse, not in the people and what they are feeling and not feeling or even what they are doing. It's how they are making sense of it. Fabulous practitioners do narrative work in the ways I'm talking about. They reconstruct and reorganize narrative with people. I am absolutely convinced that if you spent any time with ??? you would realize what a wonderful guy he is. As a person he is somebody who invites people into the evolution and transformation of narrative. That's who he is. He doesn't talk about it that way. He doesn't theorize it that way, but that's what he is doing. I think that the advancement and contribution they've done to the field is huge. It's not couched in a vocabulary that really does it justice. I'd rather see it couched in discourse and narrative theory. But oh well! Lot's of different folks in the world.