Blog: Power and Powerlessness: dialogue in asymmetrical conflict

16 March 2021
The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas refuse
s to directly negotiate with Israel; local residents stop their negotiations with Schiphol Airport because of
preconditions of growth; and when the province of Groningen wants to talk about nitrogen emissions, the famers respond with: ‘We are not going to take a seat at the table with a rope around our necks’.

These are just a few examples of cases in which dialogue was attempted to solve conflict
but where sudden death grabs the process because key stakeholders do not come to the table.

This is remarkable, since dialogue (in particular one guided by an independent facilitator) is often seen as a safe space in which conflicting parties can engage on the basis of equality and mutual understanding. That sounds promising. Then why do some parties refuse to take part in dialogue? And if that is the case, what can independent facilitators
do to overcome this?

The examples all have in common that there is an asymmetrical power balance between the parties. This power balance can break down any sense of equality in the dialogue.
Even more, a dialogue can make a certain party feel disadvantage once again. The more powerful party can have an advantage because of the availability of knowledge,
persuasiveness, strategical framing or agenda setting. Meanwhile, the smaller party can feel powerless because they are unable to get a grip on the situation, eloquently
formulate their interest, worried they might be persuaded or they donot feel the conversation agenda addresses their interests.

With that in mind, the less powerful party fears that a dialogue, despite the constructive collaborative intentions of the facilitator, might turn out in a one-sided contribution to
the interests of the more powerful party. Based on that fear and those feelings of
powerlessness, smaller parties might appear to have an unreasonable attitude when
walking away to a different arena.

And those arenas exist. Examples are: politics, (social) media, going to court, communal
resistance and violence. These are presented in the figure below. Awareness of all these
arenas is important because dialogue never takes place in vacuum. Other outside factors will always have an influence on the process and the results of the dialogue. Parties often interact with each other in more than one arena and what happens in one influences what happens in the other. An opinion piece in the newspaper, a critical debate in the parliament, military forces at the border or a statement in court can all influence the
power balance and the course of the dialogue.

Parties that feel powerless in the dialogue, might also choose to not take part in the dialogue at all. They might put all their efforts into alternative arenas in order to resolve the conflict. They are often convinced that they are able to gain a better a result there. It is in these other arenas where parties will look for their BATNA: the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. For the facilitator, these arenas offer valuable information about the possible BATNA’s. It offers the facilitator the opportunity to guide towards an agreement that has equal or higher value than the BATNA on offer in the other arena.

An analysis on arenas and BATNAs will not always be sufficient to keep the parties engaged
in the dialogue. Even when the powerless party doesn’t have any guarantees on a better
alternative, an agreement that feels unjust will not be easily accepted. The powerless party
might still choose not to sign the agreement or even come back to the table and try it’s luck in a different area.

In order to keep everyone engaged, more is needed than an agreement that has more value than a BATNA. The power disbalance cannot be dissolved through dialogue alone. However, it is the task of the facilitator to make sure the process is as balanced and as transparent as possible. At the start, the facilitator should make sure that the parties agree on rules and criteria that are being considered fair or reasonable by all parties. During the process the facilitator should make sure that important issues do not go unnoticed and that the interest of parties are being explicitly recognized.

Even if the process is fair and transparent, it is still possible that parties continue to feel powerless. This might be the case because their believes are not widely shared, they are unable to keep up with the substance or they are not able to oversee their rights and obligations. A Joint Fact Finding and/or an independent legal or technical advice might be able to help the process along. This will allow parties with less power to be an equal partner in the dialogue. In the end, this serves the interest of all parties involved. It helps grow the level of trust, it prevents a move to the other arenas and it increases the possibilities for value creation.

Author: Robin Schram