by Ryan Bennett, U.S.A.

When hearing about international crises, large or small, I have always had a tendency to imagine the negotiations and meditations surrounding them as complex, yet elegant processes that pull together all the issues within the conflict. The debates that bounce back and forth, I imagined, must revolve around the positions and interests of the parties – breaking down details until common ground is developed. This all changed after participating in a simulation run by Dr. Wanis-St. John.

Ok, so maybe it isn’t fair to say that my view of such proceeds changed completely. Let’s say it drastically altered what I thought was involved and how negotiations and meditations could break down. The simulations involved two fictional, neighboring countries – one with a stable but authoritarian government and the other having descended into ineffectual factionalism with a humanitarian crisis to boot. The discussions brought to the table the governors of the bordering regions, the UN, a coalition of governments, and a large international NGO. It seemed almost timeless as I could conceive of multiple different real-life scenarios that were quite similar. Each side had clearly defined positions and interests which, as we were told from the start, allowed room for an agreement albeit narrowly. During the discussions in my group, we made progress on issues when we talked and listened effectively. Yet we couldn’t come together. Unfortunately, I would not use the word ‘effective’ to describe large parts of our conversations.

In negotiations and meditations, one of the largest parts of finding solutions is to ensure that the communication is effective. Parties need to clearly express their ideas and there need to be moments where all parties stop and ensure that all sides are on the same page. It is too easy for one side to feel progress was made while the other side is wondering why the discussion just moved on. Parties can mishear one another or just completely miss what another said. The facts and emotions that underlie the discussions may not come out completely while talking, no matter how frankly the parties speak. It must be the role of any negotiator or mediator to understand the difficulties in language for conversations to truly move forward. This may seem to some as if effort is being wasted on how we talk rather than the issues, but as I found out, what causes problems is often the simple things.