Reducing the “Bad Blood” Factor in Conflict Management: from Peter Williams

I thought I’d repost this because Peter has much experience in this area. It originally came up in the context of “what is privatization” and “why do all the big Monument designations happen in Utah? What are the dynamics of some folks picking Utah as a target, and then attacking them for reacting? What’s behind it? Brian mentioned bad blood of longstanding duration between different political figures.  But what to do when there is bad blood, lack of trust,  or past negative interactions?  If you’re in partisan politics, or the media sources that echo them,  you seek to inflame them to make yourself look better, to get more clicks or to advance your narrative. But is there an alternative path of joint story- telling, compassion and peace-making (hmm. is this touchy-feely?)

But Peter Williams has experience in trying to work through conflicts and here’s what he thinks:

What to do about “bad blood” is an interesting question in this discussion, as well as a crucial challenge in any collaborative effort. Brian Hawthorne, Sharon, and Jon all touch on it. In my experience, which I assume others can attest as well, not only can there be bad blood, there can be different stories about why it happened. And Sharon reminds us of another related problem, which is that folks may not ever talk with you about those past issues. Some call those “the undiscussables,” a pretty apt name.

This thread has strong examples of the challenges of bad blood. Taking just one, we can look at how Utah residents and others have been affected by the Utah Wilderness battles, the subsequent declarations of National Monument status, and, twenty years from when it flared up, the boundary changes and subsequent business reactions of some in the outdoor recreation industry. And that doesn’t even get into the background history going to the 19th century at least.

Maybe a question is how to find a way forward when history is hot, alive, and emotional. From a collaboration perspective, combined with ideas from conflict management, I find it helpful to recognize as early as possible what I call “competing histories” because finding a competing history tells me I need to look for the frames or lenses through which people receive their story, their version. Those frames are the source of the bad blood and, with the right approach, folks will tell you enough, even if most of the story is still largely undiscussable. If successful, I also know I reached the stage of “sufficiently trusted outsider”, not always easy, sometimes not even possible, always worth trying.

Then I do at least two things with those competing histories. First, I find ways to acknowledge those in my discussions with folks, to speak to the undiscussables myself so they don’t have to, because, as a sufficiently trusted outsider, I can do it with less emotion, less baggage. This is all part of what I call “re-humanizing” the discussion, getting beyond caricatures and stereotypes enough to have a conversation about a joint future. Folks who do collaboration work, like me, sometimes need to take on a “third-party” role of sharing what we’ve heard–with permission–because that relieves the actual participants from doing it themselves with all the emotion that can conjure.

Second, I find ways to document the history, like in presentations or documents, which acknowledges it has been heard and, where possible and needed, gets at facts instead of stories. This is a way to use validation to accomplish some needed de-escalation.

Let me leave you with this idea: Finding ways to distinguish “bad blood between people” from the history of events that produced that bad blood may give the people a better chance of finding a way forward. With hot issues, like debates about privatizing public lands, this could be helpful because you can create space between undiscussables and whatever really needs discussion.

16 thoughts on “Reducing the “Bad Blood” Factor in Conflict Management: from Peter Williams”

  1. Well, I have a idea. For USFS lands, anyway.

    If stakeholders could somehow agree to support projects that moved the existing conditions to a more Natural Range of Variability (NRV — or whatever it is called) maybe we could move past past disagreement towards a management objective most stakeholders can support.


    • I think perhaps that’s the same thing… if it involves cutting trees or building temp roads then moving toward NRV runs into controversy? Which makes me suspicion that people might be against the practices themselves, regardless of the reason, including moving toward NRV.

      To be fair, if you change we are cutting trees to make lumber, to we are cutting trees to move toward NRV, to we are cutting trees for fuel treatment, it could make people suspicious.

      On the other hand, a discussion with stakeholders about “what practices would be OK with everyone to move to NRV?” might be interesting and perhaps has been done.

      • There are some people out there who would love to see ALL timber sales, EVERYWHERE, banned forever. Since they don’t currently have a legal way to stop such projects, they try other avenues, including lying to their potential contributors and using fake online petitions to affect public opinions.

        • You are right, Larry.

          But do those stakeholders agree that moving to a more NRV is a good objective?

          If yes, then count me as one multiple use advocate who is at least willing to talk about how we achieve our mutual NRV objective without any commercial timber sales.

          Is it possible? Is there room for compromise? Would these stakeholders be willing to consider timber sales in certain situations/areas? What other management options are there?

          I am willing to consider any options if could at least agree what the objective is.

          Don’t misunderstand. I personally do not mind the fight. If I wanted, I could make a decent living. Matthew and I might agree… it isn’t a bad gig.

  2. Okay.

    I had hoped that if all stakeholders could agree on a common objective, well, that would be a good place to start.


  3. I am admittedly fairly new to this discussion, but my impression at least of the conflicts in Utah, is that the bad blood there to a large degree stems from the unwillingness of the most influential environmental group (the Southern Utah Wilderness Association) to compromise with any other interest group. Their flagship “America’s Red Rock Wilderness” proposal is dead set on converting almost all BLM land in Utah to Wilderness, regardless of what conflicting uses are already there.

    And unlike other wilderness advocates in other states like Colorado that are willing to work with other user groups and re-draw wilderness boundaries to ensure minimal impact to existing trail networks, SUWA is very vocal about the fact that their goal is to close many existing motorized and mechanized trails. They even want to convert most BLM lands around Moab to wilderness, despite it being a nationally recognized mecca for motorized and mechanized recreation.

    If SUWA can’t even agree to let Moab remain open to forms of recreation incompatible with wilderness, what hope is there for any agreement between them and other user groups? Their goals are simply incompatible with everyone else, and the end result is an acrimonious all-out war for the future of public lands in Utah.

  4. Patrick wrote:
    “….my impression at least of the conflicts in Utah, is that the bad blood there to a large degree stems from the unwillingness of the most influential environmental group (the Southern Utah Wilderness Association) to compromise with any other interest group.”

    I dunno. I admit to making plenty of “hay” from the fact that SUWA had the term “uncompromising” in their mission statement. (BTW… Its Alliance, not Association)

    But the way I understand it, SUWAs funders directed a uncompromising policy primarily in response to how they interpreted Rep Hansen’s response to the first statewide Wilderness bill. (Sorry if I misspelled his name in previous)

    Too easy to blame Hansen, IMO. But I think SUWAs policy is a result of the controversy, not a cause.

    Also… In fairness, I understand SUWA has removed the term unpromising from their mission statement.

    Please don’t tell anyone I said that!!!

    • My bad on ‘alliance’. Hard to keep track of what the ‘A’ at the end of pretty much every non-profit organization’s acronym stands for.

      And I grant that SUWA is not the only part of this problem, nor even necessary the original cause. But it was enlightening to listen to some of the meetings and debates about the San Rafael Swell wilderness bill and hearing how pretty much everyone in the room at the county commission meeting viewed SUWA as the ultimate boogeyman. I don’t know how one organization managed to get so much power that they basically dictate federal land use policy in Utah, but at this point the war over Utah public lands seems to be pretty much SUWA and the feds vs. everyone else.

  5. NRV as a solution to “bad blood” – an interesting concept. Actually I think that was an undercurrent of the sentiment behind the objective, science-based approach to planning under the 2000 and then 2012 planning regulations. Desired conditions that describe NRV are also the eventual manifestation of Chief Bosworth’s focus on “what we leave” (outcomes) rather than “what we take” (outputs).

    I think there are people who would rather see plantations than “decadent” forests as an NRV, but I agree that the bigger problem is probably how to get there. Larry’s favorite alternative of “whatever happens” would probably get us to a sustainable NRV at some point through passive management. To me, the basic planning question is what kind of active management and where would be a better option than this, and why. (And the “how to pay for it” question makes it more complicated.)

    Forest plan revision is the place where we should be wrestling with this, but I’m not optimistic. Until plans are revised, most do not have agreed upon desired conditions based on NRV. For plan revisions, the Forest Service does seem to be taking the position that NRV is a constant, and not looking at alternative desired conditions. Unfortunately, the Forest Service also seems reluctant to tell the public what it wants NRV to be in its revised plans, often suggesting they can figure it out later. The 2012 Planning Rule says it’s time to quit kicking this can down the road so we can try Brian’s suggestion of developing projects from some basic point of agreement.

    • I would say that the 2000 and 2012 rules were definitely not “objective and science-based”. I doubt whether any regulation has ever been. It’s a value (not objective and not particularly scientific) to go to NRV and will always founder on the shoals of 1. (what NRV as or is- scientific disagreements) to 2. what extent that is relevant to what kinds of things today (veg yes, ski areas no, and so on), 3. whether it can be done (technically), 4.whether it can be done (public support) and 5. whether anyone can afford to do it with other priorities (recreation, wildfires, and so on). I think the FS is wise to avoid wading into this value swamp as long as possible. Nevertheless, if you and Brian think it’s a good idea, maybe someone should try it..

      • I didn’t say the regulations were science-based. I said they intended a science-based planning process. And science-based doesn’t mean value free. It just has sideboards on what values are consistent with the agency interpretation of the law. It also creates a reasonable decision-space to focus on which should improve the efficiency of planning (if you think it is inefficient now, take away the NRV sideboard).

        “I think the FS is wise to avoid wading into this value swamp as long as possible.” Isn’t that their job? If your alternative is to not plan, I think that ship has sailed (in 1976).

  6. This is a really interesting discussion. From a collaboration perspective, it might be worth separating the challenge of dealing with “bad blood” from that of working through a land management policy process or reaching a more local decision because those seem woven together in the discussion here. My original post was about the former, about ways to help folks work together on a policy issue or planning process when there is and has been bad blood. I was talking more about setting the stage for working in a more collaborative way.

    The other part about the overall policy process also is important, obviously. Using NRV or any other policy goal as an example, there’s a difference, already discussed well here, between (a) the goal/end/policy and (b) the means/method/how. And, in addition to the “how” of action on the land, like silvicultural practices, which has been the focus in this discussion, there’s what might be called a “process how,” because how you get to the decision is as important if not more so than the decision itself.

    To state the obvious, there’s a difference between approaching those matters collaboratively and doing so through negotiation and compromise alone (note that a collaborative process can include negotiation and compromise methods for parts of the process, but a typical negotiation/compromise approach doesn’t include substantive attention to collaboration).

    Negotiation and compromise seek *agreement* among everyone who has an interest or opinion, sometimes called stakeholders, regarding which goal is the best or right one to address some problem, often assuming wrongly that there’s agreement about what is the problem. The result is a process that promotes and creates disagreements because everyone assumes there is a single best answer, theirs, worth arguing over. And it produces winners and losers, and more “bad blood.”

    A collaborative approach, however, looks to build a community of sorts with as many people as possible who are “willing to live with” the eventual decision, perhaps even “willing to help implement” the decision. The result is often called a “win-win” solution. I describe this as “looking over the horizon” in another blog post:

    Perhaps, in the case of goals like NRV, more people would be willing to live with it as a goal if the policy decision included language about means/method/how a more local decision would be made, which is what most of the NFMA/USFS planning rules have included since about 2002 (full disclosure, I worked on aspects of those, from implementation to policy content, during my FS career).

    Brian’s ideas about starting with a generally shared objective seems spot-on, like Jon and Sharon also are saying. What I’m getting at is that it also seems important to include that “process how” piece, some clear directions in the policy about the process expectations, not in the sense of prescriptive steps that can become legal cudgels, but in the sense of guiding principles, process goals, or characteristics. Perhaps more folks would be “willing to live with” an approach like that if they understood why that approach was included in the policy, why it might help them and their community.

    • Thanks, Peter, I think this sounds like “how can mistrust of the process be turned to trust” perhaps you know of literature on this topic.

      • Yup, that pretty much goes to the heart of it: how might we move from a low-trust situation to a higher-trust situation? It seems useful to think about trust as a range or in degrees, rather than all-or-nothing or binary choice between trust and distrust or mistrust, because there’s usually a range across the folks in any given situation and any given person might trust another along some lines and not others.

        Anyway, there’s a fair amount of literature, some focused on Trust and understanding it, some focused on process, like “procedural preferences” and even “procedural justice.” In the Trust literature, there’s a usual distinction between trust of a person (like me), trust of an organization (like USFS), and trust of an institution (like the federal government). What that means in practice is that it is possible for me to earn trust as a person even from someone who doesn’t trust the organization I might work for or the fact that I might be a federal employee.

        The key for me on all this goes back to the idea that “how we get there matters.” This seems especially true if “there” includes having folks willing and able to help implement a decision, like by helping raise money or volunteers for projects on public lands. There’s also a connection between “how we get there” and subsequent behavior, like whether someone is willing to abide by some new rule or regulation that applies to their activities on public lands.

        So, if we want folks to help share the costs of implementation or agree to help with peer-policing and self-policing, we need processes that aim at the “willing to live with it” standard for as many folks as possible.


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