Also see: Conflict Resolution | "No formula" | "Community Building" | Recommendations


Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit. — Sir Peter Ustinov

As you read, remember that I am but one person, and the way I facilitate for a group the resolution of a destructive environmental dispute, the framing of a vision statement, sustainable community development, or the entire process (from resolution of a conflict through sustainable community development) is only one way. This does not make it the right way or even the best way. Nevertheless, while it has worked well over the years, I did not start out to become a facilitator.

In the beginning, I merely noticed that many of the destructive environmental conflicts grew out of the incompatibility of human material desires with the sustainable health and productive capacity of the environment. This situation was compounded as society's questions of value with respect to environmental issues were increasingly subjected to objective scientific study, to derive objective scientific data, to provide objective scientific answers. Yet despite millions of dollars and thousands of person hours devoted to such study, intrinsic cultural values and objective scientific data remain miles apart because no human can be objective.

With this in mind, I began conducting workshops in the mid 1970s, while employed by the Bureau of Land Management. The purpose of these workshops (the vast majority of which took place in smokey rooms on ranger districts of the U.S. Forest Service) was to help bridge the chasm between human material desires and the sustainable health and productive capacity of the environment. To accomplish this, I presented participants, primarily personnel of the U.S. Forest Service, with the ecological concepts (based on the best available data) and the social concepts (based on their expressed cultural values) within the context of systems thinking. Word of my workshops spread over time, which resulted in the Bureau of Land Management and conservation groups asking me to conduct conflict-resolution workshops for them.

My sole intent was to help them understand the environmental issue from a interdependent ecological-social systems point of view, encompassing the past, present, and future. In this way, they could expand their common frame of reference in preparation for someone else to facilitate the resolution of the dispute.

It was always emphasized that the data presented were the most up to date that I knew of, but that neither I nor anyone else knew what was right or had the answer. Over time, and much to my surprise, participants began asking me to stay with them and guide the entire conflict-resolution process. I had no idea conscious idea of what I was doing, however, because I had no training in either a conflict-resolution technique or a conflict-management style. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agreed, but limited myself to dealing with conflicts stemming from environmental issues.

All I had in my favor was an undying belief: (1) in the inherent goodness of people; (2) that their blindness—their lack of conscious awareness of cause and effect—is born of ignorance, not malice; (3) that each person does the level best they know how to do at all times; (4) that given a place in which to feel safe, an empathetic ear with which to be heard, and the empowerment with which to overcome fear, people can and will change for the better; (5) that there is no turning back once a person starts down the path of personal growth, with its increasing sense of freedom through self-control and self-direction; and (6) that society as a whole is lifted up each time an individual grows and matures emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

beautiful rainbow

Rainbow of hope.

My approach to conflict resolution was intuitively transformative because it seems much more important to cure the cause and eliminate the symptom than to merely alleviate the symptom without touching its cause (the problem-solving approach). The transformative approach inherently: (1) assumes that human relationships take precedence over procedural outcomes; (2) opens people to a greater compassion for one another; (3) allows people to argue for and protect one another's dignity; (4) is a meticulous practice of the best principles democracy has to offer; (5) balances intellect with intuition; (6) improves society by allowing people to grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually; (7) focuses on the cause of a conflict; (8) helps participants understand the consequences of their choices within the context of Nature's impartial law of cause and effect; (9) allows the outcome of a conflict to be decided solely by the participants, despite the fact that resolution may not take place until some months after facilitation is completed; and (10) inspires the possibility of sustainable community development.

I intentionally go into each conflict with very little specific knowledge of the conflict itself or the participants. Although someone obviously contacts me about facilitating the resolution of a destructive environmental conflict, our conversation regarding the details is kept to a minimum. Beyond that, I deal with as few participants as possible prior to the facilitation process. If interaction is necessary, I avoid discussing the conflict in any detail. In this way, I am, as much as possible, unbiased not only going into but also during the process, which helps me remain detached from the outcome.

Further, I agree, with a few exceptions, to facilitate an environmental conflict only when the disputants have exhausted every other avenue of settlement because only then are they really ready to listen to one another and thus actually open to change. At that point I can help them; until then, I cannot.

There are three basic parts to my conflict-resolution technique: (1) introduction, (2) body, and (3) conclusion.


The introduction serves several purposes, which collectively sets the stage for the facilitation process. The first is to establish common ground among the participants and between the participants and me. I usually use cards with the participants' names on them to arrange seating, so that participants sit next to someone not of their choosing and begin to mix. Next, we take some time to introduce ourselves and share a little about our respective backgrounds, often including interests and hobbies.

At other times, the participants may form into pairs with their neighbors, take a few moments to learn about each other, and then take turns introducing each other. In this way, preliminary communication is initiated, which simultaneously starts to bring each person out of their protective shell through mutual participation that captures and holds their attention and has within it the seeds of trust.

The introduction serves to clarify why the participants are taking part in the conflict-resolution activity and what each hopes to gain from it. At this time, we discuss whether all necessary parties are in attendance; if not, why not; and what can be done to rectify the situation. Here my task is to help the participants develop an inclusive attitude by helping them understand why all parties are necessary to the process and its outcome.

Next, I help the participants develop a receptive attitude toward the conflict-resolution process itself. This is done by helping them understand what it may hold that is beneficial to them personally, such as learning how to use democracy as a tool of self-government as well as community government.

The introduction also allows the participants to learn what they can expect from me, what I expect from them, and what they can expect from one another. This is done in part by how I present myself as a person and in part by establishing the rules of conduct, such as waiting your turn to speak, being kind and polite at all times, and accepting one another's ideas without judgment.

Finally, the participants must understand they will get as much or as little out of the conflict-resolution process as they are committed to putting into it. After all, it is their process and their results; I am only there as a midwife to their process.


The body is the main part of the conflict-resolution process. When possible, I use a three-day process. The first day is spent discussing what an ecosystem is, how it functions, the reciprocal nature of how and why we treat a system as we do and how and why it responds as it does. This is done by using slide presentations. It is easier for the participants to begin shifting their thinking prior to their explaining to me what the dispute is about, because they know that under this circumstance I am as unbiased as possible.

Explaining how we view environmental issues and why we often misunderstand them.

The second day, with as much of a systems view as possible, we put the current conflict into a social-environmental context in the field, preferably in the area of contention. Going into the field is critical because it helps to make the abstract concepts of the first day into concrete experiences of immediate relevance to the environmental issue at stake. Here the discussion begins by focusing on the teaching/learning of the first day, namely on what an ecosystem is, how it functions, the reciprocal nature of how and why we treat a system as we do, and how and why it responds as it does.

During this time each person in turn expresses their perception of the dispute from their understanding of how the ecosystem in question functions. The purpose is for each person to educate me about the dispute from their understanding of the whole and their perceived relation to the whole.

As each explanation unfolds, the person recounting it clarifies their own understanding of their perceptions and the other parties hear for the first time the whole of someone else's story from that person's point of view. During this story-telling, I learn what the dispute is about because I hear it from various sides and am thus able to find common ground, differences, negotiable areas, quagmires, and hidden potentials for resolution.

Because the environmental issue at the center of the conflict has a historical perspective, it is necessary to help participants examine this perspective. From our examination of the concrete historical and current perspective, we progress to a more abstract, futuristic perspective. This perspective allows scrutiny of possible outcomes resulting from various kinds of decisions as each might affect the health and productive capacity of the environment, present and future. It is vital that participants be able to move from the concrete to the abstract, based on their concept of current knowledge, if they are to craft a shared vision of the future as a resolution of their immediate conflict.

Toward this end, it is imperative to accept people where they are in terms of their understanding, which normally means using simple examples of how two or three components of a system might function together and then gradually expanding the examples to show how a more complex system might function as a whole. This includes helping participants to understand such concepts as change in terms of a continual, creative process; self-reinforcing feedback loops; isolated pieces versus interdependent functions; the dynamic equilibrium of an ever-changing system; and so on.

By accepting people where they are in their understanding, it is possible to help them move from a known point of departure, with respect to their perceived knowledge, toward new ideas and concepts, while retaining their dignity intact. This process is greatly enhanced if I can lead people from more widely accepted ideas to those less widely held.

When I feel that I have an adequate understanding of the environmental issue(s) and the participants seem ready (usually by the third day), we discuss the concept of a vision, goals, and objectives. Once the participants have an understanding of these concepts, they begin to work out their vision and goals (it is not yet time for objectives), crafting them carefully on flip charts. Doing it this way, the vision and goals can usually be drafted and agreed to on the third day.

Occasionally, however, this does not work. If the participants just do not agree, they are sent off by themselves (sometimes for a day or a couple of weeks) with the instruction that each party in the dispute, which usually consists of a number of individuals, is to craft its own vision and goals. When they have completed the assignment, we reconvene, at which time each party shares its vision and goals with the other(s).

The purpose of one party presenting its vision and goals to the other(s) is simply for the other people to help make sure—without judgment—that the stated vision and goals fit the agreed upon criteria. If they do not, the wording is corrected so that the criteria are in fact satisfied. Each party in turn presents its material, and each party in turn helps the others assure that the criteria are met.

Once this process has been completed, all parties look for areas of overlap. I may help them out with questions, a powerful tool when used wisely, because questions open the door of possibility. For example, it was not possible to go to the moon until someone asked the question: "Is it possible to go to the moon?" At that moment, going to the moon became possible. To be effective, however, each question must: (1) have a specific purpose, (2) contain a single idea, (3) be clear in meaning, (4) stimulate thought, (5) require a definite answer to bring closure to the human relationship induced by the question, and (6) relate to previous information.

For example, in a discussion about going to the moon, one might ask: "Do you know what the moon is?" The specific purpose is to find out if one knows what the moon is. Knowledge of the moon is the single idea contained in the question. The meaning of the question is clear: do you or do you not know what the moon is? The question stimulates thought about what the moon is and may spark an idea of how one relates to it; if not, that can be addressed in a second question. The question as asked requires a definite answer, and the question relates to previous information.

Once the areas of agreement and/or a willingness to compromise are found, they may constitute up to eighty percent or more of a common ground, and there may be little dispute left to negotiate. Once this point has been reached, the parties are ready to conclude this phase of the conflict-resolution process.


In winding down this phase of the conflict-resolution process, the important elements of the dispute and its resolution are retraced, so the parties, having been consumed in the process, can now stand back and see in perspective how it works, which may give them a better understanding of the whole. This review both reinforces what they have learned and improves their retention of it for later reference. New ideas are not included at this time because they are likely to confuse the participants.

Finally, I must help them to determine what their next step is, usually another meeting to refine their initial draft of the vision and goals. They must decide how they want to do this and when. It is imperative, however, that they have their next meeting date set and committed to prior to adjourning.

Transformative conflict resolution helps the parties create a shared vision and goals for a sustainable future in which they can all somehow benefit and in which they want to share. Only now do I consider the dispute largely, but not completely, resolved. Full resolution of an environmental conflict requires putting the shared vision into action through sustainable community development.

Resolving a destructive environmental conflict depends first on understanding the cause or causes of the conflict. Such understanding must uncover the chain of events set in motion by the participants' decisions, which in turn triggered cause-and-effect relationships within a range of alternative decisions and outcomes. My perception of a conflict must be as objective as possible and not based on judgment as dictated by my standard of right or wrong.

Beyond this, you must understand that: (1) each conflict is a personal choice of behavior based on a fear of loss, (2) the process to resolve the conflict is the root of the resulting decision, (3) conflict is a classroom in which each participant is in a learning partnership with every other participant, and (4) the outcome must be a transformation in personal behavior to a higher level of consciousness and thus greater compassion.



Chris Maser
Corvallis, OR 97330

Copyright © 2004-2011. All Rights Reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection