Conflict Maps

Paul Wehr

Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Colorado

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 ???).

Here at the university, the physics department had become paralyzed with an internal conflict, especially in one of the divisions. The conflict between individuals and factions, in part of the department, had become so heightened, and so destructive, that the department had actually suspended recruitment of graduate students and new faculty until this conflict could get resolved. And word was spreading around the world physics community, "Don't go to Colorado, there's just too much conflict there." The chair of the department came to my office one day and said, "Could you help us? We need help." So I gave it some thought, because physics is the Queen's science, and often physicists don't believe that they need help from anybody, that they're the ones who have the answer. I thought about that, whether I would be accepted as an outsider, as a sociologist, as a soft scientist. Would I be seen as a meddler? I said I would give it a try. I didn't know how I was going to approach this, but I had been using in my courses, with my students, several approaches to conflict management. One is the concept that I developed in the late 70s, which is known as conflict mapping.

Another is one that Roger Fisher has used; I think he used it in his work as an advisor to the Carter administrations, during the Camp David negotiations in the later 70s. It's called single text agreement. So I used those two concepts in my teaching, and they were the logical first stops in my consideration in this, and how I might approach it. The first step was a mapping step. I went around and I identified all the parties in the conflict. Then I went around and interviewed all the parties, two-hour interviews. I used a template for the interviews, which was essentially a mapping form. I told them I want to understand what's going on here. I need you to describe to me what you think is happening here, who the parties are, what the issues are, what the possibility for resolving this conflict is. All of these questions I was asking them, and recording. I told them it was a mapping exercise and we could only get a really accurate map of the conflict if a lot of different observers participated in it. 

I told them I was going to make a map of the information and circulate it to you, and I want you to critique it, I want you to tell me where it's wrong. This all came back again. This is just the mapping part. And we went through four maps before everyone essentially agreed that this was going on, and in that there were suggestions about how the conflict might be resolved. So we had a map to work with, to build an agreement on, but more importantly we had initial agreement from everyone involved in the conflict that this was in fact what was going on. So this was a success step. And I made them very aware of that. I said, "Okay, you've reached a first agreement on this, even though you've never been together in the same room talking about this, but this is what you've told me, and I've represented it, and you've agreed on it."

The next step was the single text agreement where you draft from the suggestions of the mappers of what could be done to resolve it. You draft an agreement, a set of rules of communication for example, rules by which people agree to behave in the future. It could be as simple as don't email someone, go and talk to him or her. Because part of the conflict was all of these aggressive emails going back and forth, but people afraid to talk to one another face to face. The communication was just horrible. The tension level was very high. Here were two people, who's offices were side by side, who weren't really speaking to each other in the halls, and they would get back to their computers and they would cuss each other out electronically. So communication was a major part of this agreement in other words, how were going to communicate with one another. 

The first draft of this agreement went out, and I solicited critiques on this, what would you not accept, what was possible and so forth. We went through another four drafts of that single text agreement until we finally got to a point where we could say, ok, I think this is good enough, I could sign this, I could put my name to this. So we got everyone in the same room, the agreement for every single party to sign on to it and I brought along a bottle of champagne. I had a toast, and essentially a peace signing agreement. That was about five years ago. And that agreement has held. To this day I see one of the principle conflicting parties at the recreation center and I ask him how it is going, and he says fine, so that's a high point.

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But the maps are always changing, so you can't turn off your hearing aid. You've got to be constantly listening for new developments, new facts, so the map is a constantly evolving guide. Listening is very much a part of that. And involving the parties in the solution is very important. Involving them in the mapping and the creation of the agreement is very important, so that everyone owns it; everyone has a piece of it. So I would suggest peacemakers should be particularly careful with that.