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Dinner With A theorist?

Back in 2006 11 dinners were arranged at 11 of Boston’s finest restaurants by the organizers of the Environmental and Public Policy section meeting of the Association of Conflict Resolution.

At each of these dinners two worlds, one inhabiting lofty towers all across America and the other more comfortable with the dank smell of the practice coal-face, collided over appetizers and mains (and pudding for the adventurous) as they engaged in some novel ADR theory/practice dialogues.

What was discussed at those 11 dinners has only now come to light – safe to do so with the passing of time and the cooling of heads.

All is revealed in Noah and Lawrence Susskind’s description of the experiment last month in the Negotiation Journal; Connecting Theory and Practice, Volume 24, Issue 2, April 2008 (no link/subscription needed).

“The work of the theorists who participated in these meetings has a direct bearing on practice, and the work of these practitioners has much to say back. These theorists challenge conventional wisdom to improve praxis. They coin and popularize labels for patterns and phenomena to make them easier to recognize and work with or around…”

While Susskind’s article remains not-for-your-eyes behind its pay-wall, what we do know is that a team of mysterious rapporteurs fanned out over Boston that balmy June night, tasked with preparing summaries of the conversation between theorists and academics at each dinner.

Here are my picks – some are better than others;

Robert Bordone
In a dinner session at the Portuguese bistro, Atasca, with Robert Bordone, (Harvard Law School Professor and Deputy Director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project) dinner guests were treated to an evening of great food and stimulating conversation on the principles of dispute resolution system design and the building of new institutions to facilitate democratic exchange. At the conclusion of appetizers, Professor Bordone put forth a handful of questions…. read more

Robert Baruch Bush
Presiding over a kosher dinner, Baruch Bush discussed his theory of transformative mediation… Bush claimed that consistently holding up to disputants an accurate “mirror” of their comments is often enough to induce a resolution to their dispute, but this resolution is only tangential to what Bush sees as the ultimate goal of transformative mediation… read more

John Folk-Williams
Even subtle shifts in the power balances around a collaborative table can undermine the ability of a group to reach consensus on public policy. Often, though, the real sources of power are players, events, constituencies or conditions that are not at the table, no matter how carefully the process has been structured. How do we deal with the very real impacts of these distant forces?… read more

Robert McKersie
Our dinner discussion tried to bridge the gap between conflict resolution techniques and interrogation practices. Interrogation practices have appeared frequently in the media recently, especially relating to the activities of US forces at Guantánamo Bay… read more

Bruce Patton

Bruce Patton, co-author of Getting to Yes and Difficult Conversations, and TITLE Project on Negotiation at Harvard University, hosted a lively dinner discussion that contemplated what skills, resources and models could reimagine the U.S. Congress as a more creative and effective negotiation and problem-solving entity. The table drew upon their diverse conflict resolution experience, offering examples, witty observations and actively wrestling with how to push the boundaries of public dispute resolution… read more

Michael Wheeler
Please think of two things that you do differently today, compared to when you first began to mediate. What specifically prompted your new approach or technique? Is what you’ve discovered only learnable through experience, or could some of it be taught to students and beginning professionals?… read more

Links to all 11 dinner summaries


Geoff Sharp

Geoff Sharp is a Commercial Mediator from Wellington, New Zealand. Geoff works in the Asia Pacific region, including New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and Pacific Islands. He is a mediator resolving business problems. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Mediators and mediates complex and hotly debated litigation covering… MORE >

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