On the Difficulty of Pure Neutrality in Conflict Handling

Our long term correspondent Victor, suggested that on an issue I posted on last year, I did not maintain appropriate neutrality. I think he was quite right, but it is not my intention to be neutral in conflict. As a conflict professional, I was paid by the management side of my conflict with my unions. The unions had no doubt where my interests lay, but that did not mean they did not trust me. Indeed my value lay in the fact that I so clearly represented one side, but was very open to learning about the interests of the other side: the unions and finding creative ways to meet both sides interests. That is what I tried to do in the situation Victor commented on. But it did not work out as all sides involved proceeded to work on a positional basis, totally ignore their interests and came up with an eventual outcome that was damaging to everyone involved. Such often is the case with positional thinking and positional bargaining.

So what are my thoughts on the neutrality issue? Trust and neutrality are of course very different. Indeed, in some ways I think pure neutrality is impossible. Third force intervention always has its own interests, and it is best if the party intervening knows what these interests are, and also makes it clear to the parties in the conflict. Quakers don’t believe in violence absolutely, and it is fine for them to intervene in a conflict, so long as the parties involved know this belief. If I were a Hungarian Jew in Budapest in 1944, I would prefer US Rangers were doing my negotiation than Quakers, though Raoul Wallenberg


was a good substitute given there were no armed allies available. And Wallenberg was probably not neutral, though his country was.

The US intervenes in the middle east but no one thinks they are neutral; indeed it is so far from neutral that this may be a problem. Complete lack of neutrality is different from merely the absence of pure neutrality: there are degrees. A blind hatred of one side or a complete alignment of your interests with one side and complete ignorance of the other side’s interests, is probably disqualifying. 🙂

So what qualifies my neutrality?

  • Firstly, I believe in conflict process discipline and think it arrives at better solutions.
  • Secondly I think that interest based bargaining achieves better outcomes than positional bargaining.
  • In the case Victor is talking about, I predicted at the start that my efforts would be caught in the cross fire, because most people don’t understand interest based bargaining. Sure enough the cross fire happened!
  • Most people on one side in conflict, see any attempt that is not accepting fully that the other side is wrong, as being an alliance with the other side.
  • Systematically unpicking the interests of both sides, without much thought to who is right and who is wrong, is what I do as a conflict professional.
  • But I don’t pretend (nor do I in this blog) that I have no preferences, no thoughts on the interests and their relation to wider political, religious, and other issues that concern the future of our species or merely some local optima.
  • But as I am trying to uncover real interests and allow both sides to see their real interests, my preferences don’t really come into it.
  • This is the sense I am neutral: I am neutrally suggesting good creative processes to uncover the real interests, and creatively re-frame conflict so higher level solutions become possible.
  • In doing this, I try but sometimes fail to be neutral. But it doesn’t really matter: if both sides honestly do their homework, check out what I uncover and compare with what they really feel are their interests, how the deal on offer compares with what they can get without a deal, then all is well.

There are of course many roles for the ‘third force’ that are well described in Bill Ury’s book ‘The Third Force’, also published as ‘Getting to Peace’: witness, mediator, arbitrator, problem solver etc. I don’t volunteer for that role if the job description is ‘pure neutrality’, though I know some Swedes and Swiss who might come close to being able to do this. And the Canadians have done a great job at keeping two sides apart over the last 65 years.

Victor’s point though is well made in relation to the odious Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister, who has just been rejected as a neutral envoy by the Palestinians. They think he is too pro-Israeli, though actually he has no real stake in the long term interests of Israel, whose intransigence will eventually lead to its destruction. What Tony Blair has interest in is Tony Blair. His narcissism and ruthless pursuit of self-interest is intolerable to most people I suspect, and the British people would probably strip him of his citizenship if they could.

Finally, in the former Yugoslavia,  in July 1995, at Srebrenica, UN Dutch peace keepers stood by while 8000 Muslim Bosnians were massacred. I am not that sort of third force. I would not be neutral in that situation.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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