Conflict Resolution Consensus Building

John Forester: Dealing with Differences


Many who spend their time trying to find agreement among adversaries have long been familiar with the work of John Forester. A professor of planning at Cornell, he’s always followed his own path directly into the realities of facilitative practice rather than the intricacies of theory. Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes is a remarkable presentation of what he’s learned over the past decade.

His earlier books, Planning in the Face of Power
and The Deliberative Practitioner, focused on the immediate work of planners and public managers and their experience with participatory methods.

Dealing with Differences uses this same approach. Through his skillful interviews with dozens of facilitative leaders, he elicits the stories that capture choices they made in the midst of contentious disputes. This is the immediate drama of discovery experienced by practitioners and participants alike. As he summarizes his method of interviewing:

Asking “What did you think about X?” we have found, gets us a theory or speculation; asking “What did you do when X happened?” gives us a flow action to consider. Asking what someone thought about a bluff or strategy gives us the considered opinion of a spectator; asking how they responded to the bluff or strategy gives us the considered judgments of an engaged actor — and that’s what this book’s about: the hows of dealing with differences of interests, values, and power.

How adversaries manage to learn from each other is one of the book’s major themes. The diverse practitioners who tell their stories share an ability to help people locked in confrontation to set aside their combative mindsets. We hear exactly how they moved groups from the conviction that fruitful communication could never occur to an openness to learn from differing views and exchange new ideas for future action.

  • We listen to Shirley Solomon describing the moments of human understanding and learning between county and tribal residents in Skagit County, Washington. By talking together about what they valued in the place they shared, rather than arguing political positions, they were able to set aside decades of conflict to focus on practical steps.

  • Mike Hughes in Colorado talks about progress on HIV/AIDS issues that surprised stakeholders who had thought any constructive outcome impossible because of deep value differences. The approach in this case was to agree to respect those differences rather than waste time trying to convert each other. The stakeholders could then move on to consider specific areas of possible cooperation.

  • Carl Moore describes how he shifted residents of a midwestern city away from repetition of familiar problems to possible action for the future.

  • In facilitating a roundtable on the highly charged issue of off highway vehicle use on public lands, Lisa Beutler relates how she was able to reframe discussion and shift from hostile argument to dialogue on practical issues the stakeholders could work on.

An important dimension of Forester’s approach is his broad view of facilitative leadership. He does not limit himself to professionals who devote their careers to mediation and dialogue. While their work offers valuable examples, his larger concern is for the thousands of planners, managers, elected leaders and others trying to use collaborative methods in many different professional roles.

Like Peter Adler in Eye of the Storm Leadership, John Forester understands that it is these leaders who will play critical roles in spreading knowledge of the usefulness of collaborative methods far beyond a single professional circle. Dealing with Differences tells powerful stories to help public policy leaders move from theory to effective practice.

This is a passionate book intent on pushing aside facile arguments against collaborative process. It takes on the political “realists” who have simply given up hope for change and want to rely on confrontation and conflict. And it challenges the “practical” critics who regard the approach as too time-consuming, costly or simply idealistic. Forester insists that criticism needs to be constructive and based on considered review of specific accomplishments and methods, not a matter of offhand judgments.

To make that possible, he clearly summarizes the practical wisdom drawn from the narratives of facilitative leaders. These summaries resonate more deeply than most “lessons learned” because he conveys so well the immediate drama of practitioners responding to challenges within the dynamic of group experience. He creates an exceptionally helpful context for the stories of how participants can be guided to make important breakthroughs.

These are exactly the “war stories” that practitioners love to share because they are so helpful for relearning basic lessons and sharpening skills. This book opens that dialogue to a wider public and organizes it clearly and evocatively so that others can learn from these experiences. Those are exciting stories to hear, and few have communicated their essence so skillfully as John Forester.