The Process Behind Problem Solving Workshops

Herb Kelman 

Professor Emeritus, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

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 ???).

Could you describe the workshops more, and explain how they are different from a dialogue? You mentioned the pre-negotiation, or the pre-meeting phase, rather, and also the fact that it was confidential so there's a little more freedom to come up with ideas. What other things characterize the problem-solving workshop?

A: The confidentiality and everything else that we do, our ground rules, and our action as third-parties, are really geared, as much as possible, to create the kind of atmosphere, in which people, to begin with, are willing and able to speak to each other and listen to each other. In other words we try to create an atmosphere in which, when I talk to my students about it-I sayit is easiest for me to describe it in showing how it differs from a debate. In a debate people take positions and they need to win, they need to persuade audiences. They're not interested in what the other says or learning anything from the other. They listen to the other only tactically. I have to know where are the other guy's weak points so that I can attack him more effectively. What do I have to do to outshine the other and so on. They focus more on the audience whereas we try to create a situation in which they focus on each other. They listen to each other in order to try to understand, they speak to each other in order to make themselves understood.

Confidentiality is central to this, but also the behavior of the third party is very important, and this is why I say when my students participate they are subject to third party discipline. There is a real discipline for the third party and part of that has to do with the fact that we are not evaluating, we are not taking positions, we are not adjudicating differences, and so on. The third party role is very important in that, so it is to create that kind of atmosphere where people listen to each other and eventually try to be analytical in the sense of gaining entry into the others perspective, to try to understand the situation from where the other comes from, and in the process into their own perspective. Very often people learn from this process what their own priorities are: what is more important, what is less important. When you are involved in this kind of positional bargaining and debating and so on, everything becomes equally important. When you engage in a more analytical process you begin to distinguish what is really important to me? That's what we tried to get them to focus on; in a way it's an extension of the logic of Fischer and Ury, Getting to Yes kind of approach. It's an extension in the sense that we want for people to get behind their positions and explore their needs. So it's getting an understanding of each other's, and indeed of their own, needs, fears, concerns, priorities, and that's the first part of the workshop.

The second part is joint problem solving, joint thinking is the term that we use, where they really try to think about not only what is good for us-what do we have to get out of you-but what is good to both sides on the assumption that that is the only kind of viable solution is one that is responsive to the needs of both sides. Substantively our discussions are very unstructured. We don't give an agenda of topics or any such thing, but they're structured in the sense of the kinds of questions that we pose for people, that we want them to address themselves to. The agenda changes when you have a continuing workshop because then some of these things happen over a series of meetings. But in some ways it replicates itself at each meeting, even at a continuing workshop. The first thing we usually try to do is for the two parties to talk about what's happening on the ground in their own communities. Tell each other what's the mood in my community, what are the different opinions, how do people line up, where do we stand personally with regard to that range of opinions, and so on, and that fulfills some important functions. It's a ice breaker, it's more descriptive and informational, and information-giving so that they don't immediately get into a confrontational mode of discussion. It also establishes a very important element-the role of the other as a resource, not only as an adversary, and this goes back to Burton. If you want to find out what's happening in the other community and how it's being interpreted and understood, you have to go to the other. So it establishes the role of the other as a resource and that, I think, can then be drawn upon in the rest of the meetings. When we have a continuing group, they know each other and have formed relationships, and so on, but we still always start with a kind of review, and that's very helpful.

The second phase is a needs-analysis where we ask each side to talk about the needs, fears, concerns, on their own side. The other is not expected to argue with these and to debate them but to try to understand them. They can ask questions, make challenges, but basically to try to understand them, and even when we have a continuing workshop we may repeat that as we take up-in a general workshop we might just start with what are the basic needs and fears that have to be addressed for a solution to this conflict to be acceptable in your community. In a continuing workshop we might do this with respect to a particular issue. On the issue of Jerusalem, what are the needs, and so on and so on? That same format applies even when you have a group that has worked together for some time. Then we end that at some point. You can't give it an artificial ending but at some point we come to a conclusion a) we've gone as far as we can go today, and b) we want to move on. So we usually end it by asking, we haven't always done this but now I do this fairly routinely, each side to summarize what they heard from the other. This is kind of a test and then the other can correct it, say well no, you didn't quite understand this, or maybe we didn't make this clear. It's a way of testing how well they have understood.

Then we move into the third phase which is the joint thinking phase that I described in which the assignment is a difficult assignment of not only being a spokesperson for your own side but being a spokesperson for a mutually acceptable solution, and really working together in shaping that. The next phase, the next element of the agenda, is discussion of constraints, which are extremely important, the political constraints, and the two sides need each other to understand that, the public opinion on the other side. This is something that the parties in conflict generally don't understand. They understand their own public opinion very well, they know what the constraints are, but they kind of seem to think that the other can operate without constraints. I prefer not to do too much of that in the earlier phases, like in the joint thinking phase, because this is sort of consistent with the whole logic of brainstorming, you don't want people to chop off potentially creative ideas right at the start. I don't want them to say that this will never work. I say lets leave that for the moment and see if we in this room can agree on something, and come up with a formula. Then we ask if it can work, if not, why not, and what can we do about it. That's why I try to reserve discussion of constraints for the next phase. The final phase is how do we overcome the constraints and that's what we talk about, what can we do, individually, collectively, together, apart. The agenda is structured in terms of these general categories but not in terms of the substance. There we want the participants to be as free as possible.