Adam Kahane has worked on some of the more challenging social problems that the world has faced in recent history, for example the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and building connections between the Government and drug cartels in Colombia. His voice is highly relevant because there are few others in the field of conflict engagement and dispute resolution who have worked with such challenging problems for so many years, and have achieved some successes.
In my view, one of the greatest values of his writing is his willingness to be repeatedly vulnerable as he records his mistakes and what he learns from them. Kahane says he rewrote his most recent book Collaborating with the Enemy six times as he clarified what he wanted to express. The result is a short, easy to read, and terribly relevant book. He asserts that what he has learned in very challenging situations is also relevant to many of the everyday conflicts that we encounter.
The essential message is that we misunderstand the nature of collaboration. Adam presents three alternatives to the normal understanding of collaboration that together he calls ‘stretch collaboration.’
The first stretch is we need to embrace both conflict and connection. In stretch collaboration, parties must fight their way to a better situation at the same time as they cooperate their way to a better situation. The fight is required because integrity periodically calls the parties to advance their values, but their values clash, leading to continued struggle. Adversarial behaviour that a mediator might normally interpret as a lack of readiness to engage in dispute resolution is understood as part of how the conflict goes forward.
One of the practical consequences of accepting opposition is comfort with a pattern where parties have cooperative communication in the facilitation room, but continue to fight outside the room. The fight could include adversarial legal contests, acrimonious public debate, or actions that are detrimental to the other party. Adversarial interaction does not necessarily mean that parties are not collaborating.
Secondly, we should experiment our way forward. It may not be possible to reach consensual agreements. This does not prevent collaboration. A subset of the parties may try out a new policy or initiate a project. If it is helpful it can be built upon and may gain more general support. If not effective, it can be modified or dropped.
A frequent practice in dispute resolution is to seek agreement on a problem (or problems) to work on. In complex social problems Kahane contends that it is unlikely for people to reach agreement on what the problem is, and furthermore, the problem may be so complex that no one is able to understand it. Even when lack of understanding or misunderstandings of the problem are present, one can still experiment the way forward.
Step into the game is the third stretch. As Adam writes, if we are one of the parties in a conflict, we are fully part of the problem. He emphasizes a point that I have made in other blogs (31, 32, and 51): our tendency is to want the other party to change when really we only have control over our own. The only true decision to be made is what we will do next.
People often acknowledge that they are part of the problem, but Kahane takes this to a different depth. The use of the phrase ‘part of’ separates one from the problem. I think Adam would find the notion of being woven within the problem as a more adequate description. Our relationship with the problem is better expressed as “I am the problem,” as opposed to “I am part of the problem.” And this is true for all involved. Metaphorically, we’re not late because we are stuck in traffic; we are late because we are traffic.
In summary, the shift from conventional understandings of collaboration to stretch collaboration requires three stretches captured by the phrases:
Embrace conflict as well as cooperation
Experiment the way forward
Step into the game
Kahane is speaking in Victoria, British Columbia as part of Leadership Conference 2017 on October 6 and 7, 2017.