Facilitating Problem Solving Workshops

Herb Kelman

Professor Emeritus, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

In '67, during the war, I began to think that maybe Burton's approach could be applied towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, i got in touch with Burton and we explored the possibilities, he actually raised some money. The problem was that I didn't have the kinds of contacts that you would need to really set up a meaningful workshop and Burton didn't really either. We tried but didn't get very far, we let it go and the main lesson for me was that if you want to do this kind of work you have to really work at it, you can't just do it in passing, you can't become an instant diplomat. You have to do a lot of preparatory work, including in my case, I realized, becoming acquainted with the Arab world, which I was not acquainted with at all. I was acquainted with Israel, had been there a few times and so on.


In 1970 I went to Israel and I explored this idea with a number of Israelis, and I got mixed reactions. Some very enthusiastic. Some said, well, it's worth trying, and there was one negative reponse, which really had an impact on me, a man whose name I won't mention, a personality, known figure, who said we don't need outsiders, I think he said specifically American Jews, coming around and telling us what to do. I don't know the exact words that he used exactly but he said, for us, meaning the Palestinians and the Jews, these are matters of life and death, and you just come in and out. Basically he was saying that if you want to do this you have to be really serious about it. I didn't accept all of his reasoning or his attitude but what I did accept was the idea that if I am going to do this I have to really be prepared to make this a central activity. It is not the kind of thing you can do with your left hand if you are right handed. Since I wasn't ready to do that, I moved on.

Q: He didn't want you to parachute on in and try to solve the problem and then jet back out.

A: Basically although I think he was more negative than that. That's what I concluded from it. I didn't accept the idea that the contributions of an outsider are irrelevant. But I accepted the idea that, as an outsider certainly, you want to make a contribution, you can't do it half-heartedly; you have to do it whole-heartedly. That was the conclusion I drew.