by Jonna Kangasoja
I was invited to speak at the NELIS (Next Leaders’ Initiative for Sustainability) Europe Summit 2019 in Helsinki last week.
The request was to share some key lessons on leading through conflict.
Any wisdom I have, I have learned from wise teachers, both the official ones, and the unofficial ones in the everyday life with whom we learn about ourselves in conflict.
For the sake of applicability the lessons are formulated as maxims:
1. Always trust first. In any relationship there is the question of whether to trust the other or not. You can set the tone of a relationship, or a process by making the first collaborative move. It is more than likely that – at least in most cases – you will be reciprocated. Trust begets more trust, mistrust begets more mistrust. That is why the first move is very significant.
2. Always be curious about the story behind an opinion or a claim. When you hear a strong opinion, claim or demand, pause and ask what is important to the other person and why. If you learn to listen well, you will get to hear about the experiences that have shaped the opinions and values. Remember that behind every story there is a person who needs to be seen and heard.
3. Always be a little kinder than necessary. There are moments when you feel that no matter what you do, the other person appears to stay unreasonable or offensive. Pause. Apply maxim #2. Keep treating them like the collaborator you would like them to be. Keep acting like the person you want to be. This makes it more likely to maintain the connection, and in case it gets broken, to mend it.
4. Always cultivate connections. Connections between people are the first casualty of conflict. It takes an effort to reconnect, and that’s why connections may remain broken for a very long time. Be the first one to signal an effort to reconnect, and do it early rather than late. In cases when you for some reason cannot be the first one, if someone invites you to reconnect, run to meet them.
Environmental disasters can become important events in our individual lives and in the collective memory of a nation. Even eras can be named after them as we may refer to a time before and after the Chernobyl accident. At some point of our lives, almost all of us can expect to be directly or indirectly affected some way by a natural disaster, major industrial or technological accident. Such events often also become landmark cases in environmental policy.
Big environmental disasters have the potency to cause significant changes in existing governmental policies and practices. Some evident examples are the Three Mile Island and the more recent Fukushima nuclear accidents, which induced major shift in several states’ energy policies. In Finland, Talvivaara clearly stands out as an event that changed how the country has viewed mining ever since. These so-called focusing events cause many people – bureaucrats, media, elected officials, and the public – to pay greater attention to the problems revealed by the incident.
Furthermore, people tend to react differently depending on the perceived cause and the characteristics of the disaster. Whereas natural disasters have been found to produce therapeutic response in which communities unite, technologically induced disasters have a corrosive effect on community life. Indeed, if the disaster is seen as an “act of God” or a freak accident, our attention turns to what we can do to help the victims. However, if the disaster is seen as a result of human failings – poor design, operator error, “corporate greed”, or “governmental neglect” – our attention turns to the voluntary acceptance of responsibility or to the more coercive process of fixing blame. Either way, the public is likely to demand safer and more sustainable policies from the decision-makers.
This creates a window of opportunity for change. Action is taken, all in hopes of “learning something from this incident” to ensure that something similar does not happen again. However, there are no guarantees that this will lead to a positive and sustainable outcome. Action may be taken in a rush, in an attempt to please the public, without sufficient learning behind it. The question then becomes, how to ensure that the decisions and the policies made after disasters are a consequence of learning and not a knee jerk reaction to the public pressure? Sometimes it can be quite difficult to see the extent to which governments learn after critical events.
Thomas A. Birkland develops a model for event-related policy change in his excellent book Lessons of Disaster (2006), offering one way to examine these processes. According to him, there are several key steps that must occur for learning based policies to be created. The first crucial step for the event is to gain attention. The size and importance of the event are socially constructed but the event must come first, and it must be large enough to gain attention. The second step is group mobilization. If mobilization does not occur, it restraints learning, because learning requires competition between advocacy coalitions, as each side tries to gather evidence and knowledge about the policy process and political tactics to advance its goals.
The third, and perhaps the most important step, is the discussion of ideas in various forums about the reasons for the event and whether the existing policy can address the problems revealed by the event. If a policy is shown to have failed, the discussion will include policies that seek to remedy the failure and prevent reoccurrence. A change can also happen without such discussion, but it is possible that “superstitious learning” is at work, as Birkland calls it. It can also lead to a positive outcome, but rather by accident than by design. However, if we can draw a link between ideas, an event, and increased attention to ideas and new policies, then we have strong evidence of instrumental policy learning and possibly some evidence of social policy learning and political learning. Even if no policy change occurs, the event can lead to accumulated experience which may promote learning in the future.
Historically the field of environmental policy is rather unique in a sense that significant events have always played a major part in shaping it. While slow change allows for gradual adaptation, abrupt change is more challenging for the social structure and the production system, which do not adapt easily. This is particularly an issue when such events do not occur frequently – memory decays and risk perception weakens. Nonetheless, policy leaps may occur. Every disaster brings losses but also gains, if we make the most of them.
Birkland, T. A. (2006). Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Georgetown University Press. Washington DC.
Kotilainen, J. M. (2015): Environmental Disasters as the Drivers for Policy Change – Case Study: Talvivaara Mine. Master’s thesis. University of Eastern Finland.
Kroll-Smith, J., Couch, S. & A. G. Levine (2002). Technological Hazards and Disasters. In the book Dunlap, R. E. & W. Michelson (ed.) Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT.
The Regional Council of South Ostrobothnia and The Finnish Environment Institute together with Akordi assembeled a citizen jury to discuss the use of marshlands as a part of preparing the Regional Plan of South Ostrobothnia. The aim of the proposed plan is to integrate the interests of peat production, conservation and other marshland usages. The work was launched as an experiment for testing new kinds of ways for public participation. Jonna Kangasoja from Akordi assisted and facilitated the meetings.
Alltogether 15 members were picked from 37 registered volunteers that represented different age groups and occupations from around the Region. The jury met three times during September and October 2018. The members had different viewpoints on the issue as some were more supportive of peat production and some in protecting the areas. Also the views of water protection and recreational use were discussed.
Allthough the jury wasn’t unanimous on their views, it did form a statement for the the proposed Regional Plan of South Ostrobothnia. According to the statement the aim of the planning should be to use the marshlands in the area in a sustainable way. The feedback from the jury about the experience was mainly positive and encouraging for similar work to be done in the future. Allthough the group didn’t reach consensus, the participants felt it was important to be offered a time and place for an open discussion.
News about the citizen jury (in finnish):
We asked Akordi mentor, professor Lawrence Susskind, founder of the the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, “What do we know about environmental dispute resolution?”. He offered the following list of fifteen things we know – for an actual fact.
The still timely list was Originally published on Consensus Building Approach, “Fifteen Things We Know About Environmental Dispute Resolution” on May 22, 2012.
– 1 Environmental dispute resolution (EDR) can be used “upstream” during policy-making and planning as well as “downstream,” once disputes have crystallized over administrative decisions (e.g. permitting, licensing, funding, etc.), or even after disputes have entered adjudication.
– 2 EDR only works if the parties are motivated to come to the negotiating table. It is fine if they have very different motivations (e.g. no good BATNA, an opportunity to create value, a desire to improve or repair relationships, pressure from coalition partners, etc.).
– 3 EDR needs a process manager; ideally, a professional mediator or facilitator (but not always). This person must be acceptable to all the parties being invited to come to the table.
– 4 The parties in EDR must have a chance to participate in or at least approve the agenda, ground rules, selection of parties, timetable, and other elements of process design before EDR begins.
– 5 It is perfectly reasonable, even necessary, for a facilitator or mediator to get involved in a variety of away-from-the-table activities on behalf of the group. These can include making sure that all parties are prepared properly. The mediator might also work with the parties to help them remain in touch with their actual or putative constituents throughout the EDR process.
– 6 EDR works best when there are opportunities for joint fact finding and they are managed by a facilitator or a mediator.
JFF should be highly interactive, involving all the stakeholder representatives in specifying the questions that need to be answered, selecting the experts of various kinds who will be called on to help, and making decisions about which analytical methods should be used.
– 7 EDR should always emphasize value-creating opportunities (and not just zero-sum choices).
– 8 EDR can never substitute for statutorily-mandated decision-making by public officials or agency staff. It can, however, supplement whatever formal decision making is required by law.
– 9 EDR will, of necessity, take different forms in different constitutional contexts around the world.
– 10 EDR can rarely, if ever, be precedent setting. It needs to be fitted to the unique contextual details of each dispute/conflict/decision-making process. The outcomes of EDR efforts are rarely recorded in the way court decisions are. They are not likely, therefore, to be accompanied by a legal rationale that justifies whatever agreement is reached.
– 11 EDR can include opportunities for confidential give-and-take among the participants even though open meeting laws, sunshine laws, and other transparency requirements must be met. Transparency is the mediator’s responsibility along with an obligation to maintain promises of confidentiality. These can be balanced by allowing the mediator to carry messages between the parties and through the work done in caucuses.
– 12 There are substantial advantages to creating EDR “systems”” rather than treating each EDR opportunity anew. This often requires that dispute handling systems be enabled by statute or regulation.
– 13 The costs of EDR need not be shared equally by the parties. Each party can contribute what it can without compromising the nonpartisan or neutral stand of the mediator. Funds to support an EDR effort (regardless of who provides them) should only be allocated with the support of all the participants (perhaps through the involvement of an elected executive committee of stakeholders).
– 14 It is possible to evaluate and improve EDR efforts. It is unlikely, however, that consistent quantitative measures of benefits and costs will be central to such assessments. Rather, in-depth, case-by-case analyses – before, during, and after each effort- undertaken by independent evaluators are required. These tend to focus on the satisfaction of the parties relative to their pre-defined BATNAs along with their sense of how the process “worked” given the alternative ways of handling the situation that were available.
– 15 Parties involved in EDR should consult legal counsel. Court-connected EDR will undoubtedly involve parties and their lawyers throughout. The presence of lawyers in EDR, however, should not be allowed to create barriers to informal (problem-solving) dialogue among the parties themselves. Professional neutrals need not be attorneys.