As part of our ongoing internal training and capacity building, we’ve been attending training sessions at the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution. Since this Institute, and the interesting work it does, is both highly relevant for Canadians, and little known, I thought I would share a few of my learnings with you.
I think it is fair to say that many people want to resolve company/community conflict more constructively and improve conditions on the ground; that said, there are many ways to get there. Our job is to make a collaborative problem solving tool available to those people who might want to use it to find workable solutions to environmental and social conflicts. It expands the range of options, beyond legal tools, and helps people find common ground. This kind of approach has been adopted in other settings because it offers the opportunity for people to come up with something better than what they might have without the dialogue.
Since the Office of the CSR Counsellor was launched, we’ve emphasized how we act as a resource to people who want to try to resolve disputes in a constructive fashion. But people we talk to often have a hard time visualizing what that really means, and we have little practical experience in Canada with this type of approach, particularly around issues of social and environmental performance in mining. Can collaborative approaches truly solve difficult disputes between project-affected communities and Canadian mining companies abroad? Isn’t it still better to go the legal route? In an effort to answer these questions with real-world facts, I’ve been tapping into global bodies of experience and expertise.
As a result, we came across the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, established by the US government in 1998. Since that time, they have been finding workable solutions to environmental related conflict in the US. What’s interesting is that social and environmental conflict is on the rise around major projects everywhere – the people on one of my courses were from across a wide spectrum: local community groups, the American Department of Defense, the Bureau of Land Management, just as a few examples.
My office has drawn heavily on the proven methodology and approaches of the US Institute, - the well known “interest- based negotiation,” perhaps familiar to those of you who have taken the Harvard Program on Negotiation or read “Getting to Yes.” What was fantastic about this training was the opportunity to learn firsthand from an experienced US Institute mediator who has worked on many cases over the past decade.
Some of my key takeaways can be summarized like this:
“Go slow to go fast” - setting up a credible process is a step most people tend to skip, as they prefer to “get on with it” and get to outcomes. The US Institute’s experience indicates that taking the time to set up a credible process pays off in spades once the process gets going. Time and resources are significantly reduced, but perhaps more importantly, people will live with outcomes (even those they don’t really want) if the process is seen as fair and credible;
Listening is not just about waiting for your turn to talk - you need to make a commitment to hear what people are saying. Sometimes this is resisted, because people fear it will validate opinions they don’t agree with. But the Institute shows that listening to concerns does not mean you agree with them, or that you will act on them, but it goes a long way to establishing a more positive relationship;
Different kinds of processes are good for different things - yes, legal processes are important for some issues AND collaborative problem solving is a good option for other situations. The Institute has helped establish criteria to determine where this is more likely to be “appropriate and effective:” in situations where parties are interested in working together to find mutually beneficial solutions. They need to have a desire to build their relationships, and in exploring options and potential solutions.