This should not be fun…

I am at a table with fifteen people around it. They represent several tribal governments, a federal agency that has caused critical contamination of their natural and cultural resources, a state agency responsible for natural resource protection, and another federal agency thrown in for good measure. Some of these parties have lawyers with them, some have technical experts. There is a consultant to research, gather data and help the group come to agreement on the facts. And there is me, responsible for the negotiating environment at the table.

The goal is to determine damages to the resources and find ways of compensating for those losses. Some of the damages cannot be remediated, some tribes are suffering economic, social or cultural impacts, or all three, and there are limited funds with which to compensate.  The damage is done and these parties are left to pick up the pieces and reconstruct a way forward. In the world of natural resource mediation this is about as grim as it gets.

I should dread these meetings, and yet I look forward to them. How can this be and what does it tell us about handling conflict?

Those at the table have been meeting for many years (before I joined them) and have more years to go. They have worked through suspicion, resentment, guilt, despair and a host of other high emotions that they might have felt. And they have come to the inevitable conclusion that the perceived enemy is not embodied in that man or woman across the table who wears that name tag. Yes, the government may have acted recklessly and caused irreparable damage, but that employee sitting at the table is not personally responsible and should not bear the blame. The tribal representatives may not have even been alive at the time of the original contamination, but their parents and grandparents remember it well, and they themselves carry the burden and the pain. We all bring our histories to the table with us, and those histories deserve respect.

The various representatives – tribal, federal and state — have struggled to hear and accept each others’ stories. They have taken field trips. They have spent hundreds of hours together and survived challenging times. The latest study may bring good news or bad news about the extent of contamination and the potential for restoration. But by now there is an honesty and a level of trust at the table that allows the group to talk about painful and controversial topics with patience, thoughtfulness and a shared view of reality. As a result they have been able to see past those ID badges and connect with each other, human to human. Amazingly I sense at times they have real affection for each other.

I’m not saying that tough times don’t lie ahead. They do. I know that mistrust and anger, aggression and defensiveness will bubble up again. But the foundation is there. The relationships that have been built through stormy times will endure. And that is why, rather than dreading that upcoming meeting, I look forward to seeing everyone, catching up, having a laugh or two, before we settle down to business.

10 thoughts on “This should not be fun…”

  1. comment is awaiting moderation.

    Hi Lucy
    Your blog reminded me of the many tribal/federal reg-negs I I’ve been privileged to facilitate over the years. I can really appreciate your comments and thoughts about the respectful relationships that have developed and that you as a mediator/facilitator skillfully enjoin. I don’t know if you ever read an article that I co-authored with Juliet Falkner about the FMCS’ first ever venture into interest-based negotiation for reg-negs 2o years ago and published in Larry Susskind’s ambitious anthology i’ll send it to you later tonight
    all best and warm regards


    1. Thanks, Jan, for commenting, and for reminding me of the article. I would love to read it again. It’s exciting for me to realize that each experience and each lesson in conflict resolution fits into the big and messy body of knowledge about the field!

  2. This is the hard stuff. Most approaches to environmental issues are related to technological, economic and public policy intervention . They do not get into the variety of impacts of Environmental damage that exists and will be worsened by climate shifts. Thank you for your work.

  3. You find the middle, the collective desire to solve problems. So different from politicians pandering to bases w/ no regard for the other side [s].

    1. So sad to think that the “middle” is sitting there, all alone, neglected, ready to welcome the warring sides who are too busy, or afraid, to venture into that space.

  4. There are many definitions of fun. One, it can be described as providing entertainment, and another as violent or excited activity or argument. I suspect both occasionally occur in the scenario you provide. I suspect what is really “fun” for you may be the satisfaction of bringing out the best in adversarial situations. It must be very fulfilling to see folks actually recognize the person across the table as another human being and knowing you had a part in that happening. I’m jealous. Applaud you on your talent for bringing that about.

    1. Thank you, Larry. I like to think that I am providing a safe space, but the real credit goes to the parties at the table and their ability to see beyond the stereotypes and resist the temptation to blame.

  5. Some of the damages cannot be remediated, some tribes are suffering economic, social or cultural impacts, or all three, and there are limited funds with which to compensate.
    This is very sad. Irreversible water pollution. What is there to mediate? Just how much money to allocate? Still, the damage remains…. Fun?

    1. Well, David, I may be losing it. The way you say it (which is what I said) sounds bleak. And it is bleak, I agree. There may be different kinds of compensation that bring tribes closer to being whole — we will see in the ensuing years, but that is what we will be working on. For me, walking into a room where people are all focused on the best solution, rather than on beating each other up, is a good day. I guess it’s all relative.

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