Good Versus Bad Narratives

Sarah Cobb

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason 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 ???).

A: Conflict evolution is the application of the normative model of narrative that says some kinds are better than others. It's better for people to have narrative with these sorts of features than not.

Q: There are bad narratives, pancake narratives, bi-polarized, good guys, bad guys, not a lot complex-very simple-plot, no responsibility for what we are doing and then there are good narratives. The good narratives are richer narratives because they have some sense of complexity, and responsibility for the things that have happened to the victim. How do you get from one to the other?


A: I do it through irony so I develop a description with people about how usually there's an underbelly to what it is that they have argued is their strength and the basis of the legitimacy. I always find the underbelly and it's always easy to find. Then I invite them into the exploration into that underbelly. They usually come giggling when I invite them or pose this to them. They get there, so they are less legitimate then they were in the beginning part of the conversation. The other, the hated other, is a little more legitimate. Nobody's perfect, nobody's great. That shift right there is a major turning point. It's in my practice then that there is a whole lot of laughter and giggling.

Q: What does the underbelly look like?

A: The underbelly contains issues related to the irony of the very thing that people have advocated as their strength. So for me it would be like if you were talking to me and I was mad at somebody and arguing that they are limited because they are rigid. I, on the other hand, am open to possibilities. I can easily change directions and extremes and I'm not rigid like this other person. This is often a nice polarity-you find it all the time. I'm open and flexible and this other person is rigid. It's easy to explore with people what the underbelly of being open and flexible is but how did you do that. Have there been any times when flexibility has gotten you into a whole lot of trouble? And you see immediately people start to giggle, they have a little twinkle come in their eye when they remembered a time like that. The fact that they actually couldn't hold like a rigid person and they make all kinds of jokes about rigid people holding the line and flexible people wishy-washing around and getting stuck in the mud. It takes about two minutes for people to start telling the stories and the accounts of those things and giggling about them. Whether or not I do that in front of the other people is another question. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. It depends upon what the stakes are or how upset or afraid people are, and how well they know me. Once they get to know me they know that they aren't going to get hurt. I might muck around their stories but I'm not really dangerous. If I don't know people well I won't do that in front of the other, I'll do that in private sessions. This is why I've argued since 1990 that people who are not comfortable doing the evolution or not comfortable participating in the evolution should do private sessions. They should work privately with folks. When you are facilitating or mediating or working with people who are in conflict you should have private sessions with them first. Meeting with parties individually and separately is a great idea.