Gradual Approach to Negotiation

Joshua Weiss

Associate Director, Global Negotiation Project, 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 ???).

A: Well, I should probably just explain what I mean by sequencing, because there are a few different conceptions out there. I mean, the reason I actually chose to study this topic for my dissertation was because I felt like it was a very understudied, almost assumed kind of idea, particularly in that larger intractable conflict realm. And what I mean by sequencing is that mediators tend to have a plan in their head about how to go about ordering the issues involved, and about when to deal with the issues in the process that are considered by the parties to be the most contentious. In other words, the traditional method in intractable conflicts is what I call a gradualism approach, an incremental, step by step kind of thing. I think the Oslo process between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a very good example of that.

Q: Which means you start small, you agree on process, you agree on

A: You start with the easier issues and you work your way up to the harder ones eventually. I mean that's the theory behind it all, and it makes sense, because there's not trust between the parties. In the literature I kept seeing that this was the way you would do it, and I never really saw a deep analysis of what we mean by sequencing and of whether we are sure that that's the only way to do this. I guess if there's anything that I would say characterized some of my work, it's to look at the fundamental assumptions that we make about different processes and to ask if those are accurate or not. With regard to sequencing, I just wasn't convinced that it was. That doesn't mean that I don't think a gradual process can't work. I think for most people in this field, if they work on divorce mediations or more interpersonal kind of things, a gradual approach may very well be the best.

I think part of the decision about how to sequence issues is dependent on the context of the conflict. It's dependent on the relationship between parties. There are a lot of variables, and so what I set out to do was to ask, is this actually the only way to try to make peace in these situations? And what I ended up finding was that there are actually three main models on how to do this., There were a few more peripheral ones that need some more research, and there could quite possibly be other models as well. I think there is an "A" way to sequence negotiations. I think that's point number one. And I think a lot of the ways in which people try to sequence these issues depends on their experience in the past, or habituation. I mean, if they've used something in the past and it's succeeded, if it's tended to work, that becomes our general approach until it disproves itself.

Q: Isn't that fairly limiting?

A: There are some conflicts that different processes have been tried and the level of frustration is high. Let me just use Oslo for an example because the core of the conflict, the final status issues were left essentially to be dealt with at a later date. And there was an attempt to get there but the reality was that they never really got to the final status issues, and by the time that they were making the attempt there was a lot of frustration on the ground, because they've been fighting for decades and the core of what they're fighting about hasn't really been addressed. One of the premises of the gradual approach is that you build trust along the way. The problem is that there are a lot of spoilers and other people who don't want the process to succeed. On one level, I felt like the gradual approach doesn't really take that into consideration, or if it does it minimizes the importance of that. You know, one thing that I believe in is that there is a natural momentum once you sign a peace agreement.

I think one of the conclusions, or a tentative conclusion, that I came away from my dissertation with was that you don't have to resolve the core issues of the conflict right away. I think what you have to do is you have to start working on them and show the people on the ground, who ultimately make this thing work or not, that progress is being made on those issues. Otherwise, their ability to support the process or their desire to support the process is going to wane quickly. You also have to make certain that some changes are happening on the ground so people can see that their lives are improving from peace processes. Gradual approaches don't often tend to do a lot of that. I'll go back to Oslo for a minute. One of the premises was this sort of "Oslo spirit" that was developed in the negotiation process, and that's fine between the parties involved, but very little was done to bring the societies along in the same way.

Q: The grassroots, the sort of lower levels?

A: Yeah, because they're the bridges that are going to make this thing stick when problems exist. In fact I heard similar complaints about the process in Northern Ireland, that there really seems to be a gap between the people at the top who negotiate the agreement and the people at the bottom who need to support it and maintain it and sustain it over time. One of the other strategies, and I borrowed the term from McCormick???, who was talking about it in a public policy context, is sort of a "boulder in the road" approach, where one of the major issues is at the beginning. It's a boulder that has to be moved before anything else can really happen, and you can't work your way up to it. A good example of that was apartheid in South Africa. It was fairly hard to not do away with apartheid before you would deal with everything else.

To be fair, they reverted to more of a boulder in the road process after they had tried gradual approaches that didn't really seem to get them there. So there is almost a sequence of sequencing strategies, or there can be. Then in Northern Ireland and in other places there was sort of a committee approach, where instead of trying to deal with easy to hard or hard to easy issues, they determined what the core issues were in the conflict. They sort of divided the teams to deal with them simultaneously and move forward with the agreement that there was no agreement until everything was agreed to, basically. And there are a few other approaches, but those were the three dominant ones that emerged. And part of the reason why I think it's helpful to have that is because now the mediator can look at a situation and say, okay, I know in the past I've used a gradual approach, but let me gage the level of frustration here. How many issues are involved in this problem? Maybe one of these other strategies is worth trying. Still, the gradual approach is one that is safer, and it is also one that the more dominant party tends to want to use because they can control it more easily.

Q: Because they don't have to make big concessions on the real issues?

A: Right, exactly, whereas the boulder in the road approach is sort of high risk, high gain. If the process collapses, it's going to be hard to start a new one, and it may in fact even lead to renewed fighting. It's hard to know. So there are different challenges with each one, but I think my dissertation was in some ways, at least in my mind, a way of laying a foundation to really study this topic, because people had mentioned it but there wasn't really a deep assessment of it all. And there is a lot more. I mean, the value at the end of the day is to be able to say which sequencing strategy is most appropriate in which conflict. Well, if I could do that I probably wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be advising some people. And the problem is that there are naturally so many variables involved in peace processes, and sequencing is just one. It doesn't determine success, but I will tell you for sure that if you don't get the sequencing right, it's certainly going to lead to failure.

Q: If you get it right

A: If you get it right, nobody notices. If you don't get it right it can collapse the process.

Q: And how do you know you had it right if it didn't work anyway?

A: Potentially, it may not have been the cause of the failure, but it could be. You know, the best analogy I could give, if I was explaining this to the layperson, is to say look, when you get up in the morning you don't put your shoes on first, because then you can't get your pants on. If you realize that, you put your pants on first and then you put your shoes on, and after a while it becomes second nature and it becomes something that you do and you don't think about it. That's sort of what sequencing is about, that it's a hidden kind of issue, and until it doesn't work, you don't notice it. So I think that was part of my purpose, was to draw attention to the fact that that's how we see sequencing as well.