Friday, November 25, 2016

Lost in translation

How do we know whether those with whom we are dealing have hostile intentions? How do we establish communication with them? How do we develop trust? The new science fiction movie Arrival addresses these common problems in conflict resolution.

Confronted by forces that appear new and dangerous, our human instincts urge us to fight or flight. Those instincts may also lead us to interpret ambiguous gestures in a threatening way. We face these challenges even when we are dealing with people we know who are speaking our language. Imagine being confronted by an alien race that communicates with symbols we have no key to interpret. The movie nicely illustrates the linguistic complexities involved in asking a simple question like, "What is your purpose here?" It also shows what can happen when communication is misinterpreted. Did the aliens really use a word meaning "weapon"? Or did they mean "tool"? A lot rides on getting the right answer to this question.

The film attempts to make some larger points about language, arguing that the language we speak can actually affect the way we think. The idea that learning a new language might also awaken some new abilities in ourselves takes this point to a more magical level. But sticking to the known and  familiar, we know, when we try to resolve conflicts across cultures, that different cultural norms and habits can affect the way people perceive a problem. The way people of different backgrounds express a problem also affects the ways they approach solving it.

Not only does this film show just how difficult it can be to establish communication, it also preaches the virtues of collaboration over competition. The problem presented by this story can only be solved by twelve different nations working together and sharing information. Once these groups start distrusting one another and withholding information, they risk war. So it's a film that works both on the micro level of establishing communications between two parties who have difficulty understanding each other, and on the macro level of building world peace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Senator George Mitchell, the architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreements, spoke at the SCMA Conference the Saturday just before the election. Not knowing or making any assumptions about who would win, Senator Mitchell addressed what we, and the next president, need to do next to help bring us together and solve some urgent problems. He stressed the importance of listening to opposing views, and working together to find consensus on policy issues. Our political system is supposed to encourage that kind of cooperation because our system of separation of powers, unlike a parliamentary system, rarely puts one party in total control of the government. So what tends to result when the two parties fail to cooperate is political gridlock. That just makes voters even more disgusted with the political process, and even less interested in cooperation. It's a vicious cycle.

Since the election, I see few signs of adversaries reaching out to work with political opponents. President Obama has been gracious and cooperative, but he is about to surrender power. On the Trump side, the names being floated for Cabinet and White House positions do not inspire much confidence that the Trump White House will act in a conciliatory manner. And on the Democratic side, we are already hearing much talk about engaging in the same kind of total opposition to anything the president proposes that the Republicans have engaged in for the past eight years.

While the instinct for payback is natural and understandable, those combative tendencies are not necessarily politically smart, or good for the country. Talk of complete resistance to anything the new government proposes may only increase its authoritarian impulses. Instead we still need to make an effort to listen to opposing points of view, and find points of agreement where we can. We need to have faith that respect for the rule of law will be strong enough to prevail against the most potentially dangerous proposals of the incoming administration. And the new administration needs to make good on early promises to unify the country.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Public Meetings

Dorit Cypis put together an interesting workshop at the SCMA conference this past weekend, in which participants explored the power of forming small groups to engage in dialogue. This format has been used successfully in a number of contexts to allow different points of view in a community to be expressed and understood. (See my post below on the Days of Dialogue programs on the future of policing.) It works because the participants in these groups learn to see one another as human beings They feel safe in telling their stories and expressing their feelings because they are taught to listen respectfully when other members of the group do the same. The topic in our small groups at this conference was the very process in which we are engaged. In other words, we were encouraged to talk about our civic interests and experiences, and the tools we could bring to bear to facilitate dialogue on public issues.

Last night I happened to attend a public meeting in my neighborhood sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers and attended by other interested groups, to talk about plans for a nearby stretch of the LA River. They did not set up the room with round tables inviting random members of the community with varying concerns to engage in dialogue with one another, the format we were exploring over the weekend. But they also chose not to use the typical public meeting format either, where members of the audience are situated in opposition to officials who sit in the front of the room, and given a few minutes in front of the microphone to voice concerns to the people with authority. Instead the sponsors of the meeting employed a hybrid format where a number of tables were arranged around the auditorium, staffed by groups with different areas of expertise and interests who could answer questions from the public.

At least one member of the public was upset by this format. At the end of a short introductory message, where a Corps spokesman explained they would not be taking questions from the floor, she stood up and loudly protested being denied the right to publicly ask her list of questions, crying out, "This is supposed to be a public meeting!"

As much as we recognize the limitations of the traditional format of public meetings, it seems that some members of the public, and perhaps some officials also, actually prefer a confrontational style. Perhaps they feel that an "on the record" format is the best way to hold their officials accountable.  Or perhaps they simply enjoy engaging in confrontation rather than dialogue. I didn't get a chance to ask the woman who was unhappy about being denied the chance to stand up in front of everyone and ask her questions publicly, why she felt that was so important. But the episode did make me realize that it may go against the grain for at least some members of the community to ask them to eschew confrontation and conflict and instead engage in dialogue and collaboration.

I also learned that the thing that members of the public such as myself think of as the river bike path is instead thought of by the Army Corps of Engineers as an access road to a flood control project, that they allow the city to use as a bike path. A number of meeting formats can allow these different conceptual views to be expressed. I continue to believe, however, that a more collaborative process is best for designing solutions that serve all legitimate interests.