Conflict Resolution|International

Shoes, Constraints and Framing

The first of three short films on community/corporate relationships, on the Ambuklao/Binga dams in Luzon,  is about to be premiered at the United Nations, in Geneva, on June 16.  We are also just about finished the second one, concerning the Tintaya mine in Peru.  An interesting coincidence has arisen in editing the interviews:  In both films, someone talks about shoes.

In the Philippines, a community member who was displaced and whose rice land was submerged says, “If you were me, if you were in my shoes, I think right now you would also be crying.”  And in the Peru film, a corporate manager narrates the leap he made from making sure the company paid taxes and employed people properly to perceiving that the communities’ very livelihood had been unalterably ruined when the mine was built two decades before, by saying “You have to put yourself in their shoes.”

Being reminded of this ancient principle of communication and negotiation prompts a fresh and critical look at some of the practices that parties and mediators engage in.

An elemental step towards “adult conversations” is moving on from merely stating what you want, and considering as well what the other guy can offer.  Examples of crude self-expression of desire would include bumper stickers and my daughter’s screaming when she was two years old.  The next step is finding out whether the person you’re screaming at indeed has what you want.

Expressing your displeasure with the garage owner because he doesn’t have milk is a waste of time and contributes to dysfunctional relationships the next time you need a flat tire fixed.  One of the indigenous people said to us in Luzon, “Now we do not simply say what we need.  We also consider what it is possible for them to do, what is practical.”

The immediate follow-on of this insight is the art of “framing the problem.”  The statement “I need a gallon of milk” does not frame the problem in a helpful way.  “I need milk and the store is closed” is a much more interesting “framing” because it states a problem, not just a need.  And it invites work on how to remove the obstacles to satisfaction.

Thus the chagrin upon listening to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s May 24, 2011 speech to a Joint Session of the American Congress.  He framed the problem as follows: 

“Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state. This is what this conflict is about.”

Granting for florid rhetoric and the needs that statesmen have to garner alliances, nevertheless this is a depressingly unsophisticated proposition.  It is a bumper sticker — or worse.  In light of the thousands of young people killed and the millions upon millions displaced over a period of generation after generation, to frame the problem in this way displays no acknowledgement of the validity of the counterparty, no perception of the constraints under which other people operate, and therefore evidence whatsoever of problem-solving.

If we all chipped in and bought the Prime Minister a pair of shoes, perhaps along with a quotation from the Book of Ruth, would he get it, I wonder?

And Trading Shoes For A

  1. Another posting that is both brilliant and accessible. Being neither a lawyer nor an arbitrator in no way diminishes the meaning for me of the breadth and thoughtfulness of this discussion of “walking in another’s shoes.” This post is second only to the discussion of pirates: the narrative arc reads like a modern-day fable for all who care about finding an ongoing positive energy for their personal and professional relationships. (I especially like the variety of wordings, might we say intentions, in the biblical glossary.) Thanks!

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