Thursday, September 25, 2014

Disentangling Ferguson’s Conflicts

RopeMany of those writing about the Ferguson conflict have proposed ways to improve or resolve it, from orders for more sophisticated police equipment to calls for “racial conversation.”

Save a few pieces, most articles reflexively point fingers or broadly call institutions into question without providing any helpful action steps that the parties involved—or interested observers like the media or average Jane citizen—can take to improve the situation.

Even more, the “situation” is rarely defined. What are we hoping to fix? Race relations in America? Community-police interactions? Our criminal justice system? The decline of young people’s respect for authority? Perhaps all of the above, but general platitudes or accusations linking Ferguson to any or all of these causes do not help us actually work to better them.

If we want to address conflicts that bubbled to the surface because of Ferguson, first we need to disentangle the issues. Thankfully, in the seminal negotiation book Getting to YesRoger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton described a tool—the Circle Chart—to use in diagnosing conflict and generating options for resolution. The Chart outlines four steps for inventing options: noting the symptoms; diagnosing the problem/cause; brainstorming general approaches about “what might be done”; and identifying specific action steps and who will take them.1  In keeping with this approach, examining conflicts in Ferguson through the lens of the circle chart might help us begin addressing them more systematically.

One way to use the Circle Chart is to move through the four phases from symptoms to action steps. We can use the symptoms of a conflict to identify possible causes and, subsequently, propose actions that we could take to improve or mitigate the underlying causes. For instance, we can look at the symptom of people being outside past the city curfew. We can brainstorm potential reasons why this symptom occurs. Perhaps it had been a hot summer and people were just glad to be outside at the coolest point of the day. Perhaps they feel that violating a law—any law—will bring attention to what they feel like is a legal system weighted against them. Perhaps they don’t know about the curfew. Perhaps some are youth who would be out late anyway. As you brainstorm other possible causes for the symptom of breaking curfew, you can see the list is non-exhaustive.

Step three has us pick one of the reasons we brainstormed and generate some options for how to address it. From the above example, let’s select that some people feel like the legal system is set against them. We might suggest that the local government initiate a stakeholder assessment process to better understand why people feel the legal system is set against them.

For step four, we enact the option we chose by designating a specific action step, and someone to complete it. For instance, the mayor’s office will call the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program to discuss HNMCP conducting a stakeholder assessment. In turn, the stakeholder assessment may reveal more symptoms, which can lead to further analysis of causes, which can lead to more experimentation (like Ferguson municipal courts announced recently) to determine if those causes can be resolved or improved.

By using the Circle Chart to brainstorm potential causes for the evident symptoms, we can begin to disentangle the causes from the symptoms and start testing approaches matched to the causes.

We can also use the Circle Chart in reverse; if we hear a proposed action, we should consider whether that option actually addresses the underlying problem one is trying to resolve. Say we are at a Ferguson town hall meeting and the stated purpose is to discuss ways to reduce the likelihood of future violence between police and citizens in Ferguson. Someone in the audience issues a call to “get out the vote” as a response to the Michael Brown incident, pointing to a clipboard and asking people to sign up to canvass Ferguson neighborhoods.

As participants, observers, or decision-makers aware of the Circle Chart, we might ask how signing up to register people to vote (a specific action step, the fourth step of the Circle Chart) reduces violent late-night activities in Ferguson (a symptom, the first step). Certainly, the call to have more people participate in our democracy by voting is a worthy one. Perhaps during the inquiry, you discover there are ways that this action directly addresses the symptom of late-night violence. Yet, by working backward, we may learn that getting out the vote seems to address underlying causes different than those we originally set out to address. Before the town hall goes down a rabbit hole to debate the merits or logistics of “getting out the vote,” we can ask whether we want to continue brainstorming approaches (the third step) that may address the original topic—reducing future late-night violence—or instead shift focus to the different problem of low voter turnout.  This line of questioning allows a group to focus in on brainstorming actions that match the group’s purpose while also acknowledging that there may be other worthy purposes the group can analyze at a later time.

The Circle Chart itself will not resolve the knot of problems that became apparent in the Ferguson conflict. However, the Circle Chart can help us begin to untangle and address distinctive aspects of the conflict. Using the Chart, diverse groups of stakeholders can brainstorm approaches to a problem and propose actionable ways to address the problem. Decision-makers can also use the Chart to evaluate whether a proposed action actually addresses the problem at hand. Thinking prospectively, the Circle Chart can be used as a tool for ongoing, systematic discussions about conflict in a region, a family, or a business. Most importantly, the Circle Chart can help us generate some ways we—no matter our role in this particular conflict—can act to reduce conflict’s symptoms and address its underlying causes.

Heather Scheiwe Kulp is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and a Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program.


1 Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, & William Ury, Getting to Yes 68 (2d 1991).