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When Interest-Based Bargaining Is Not Enough

What good is identifying interests if once they are identified, they are beyond one’s ability to comprehend? How can parties whose motivation is based on completely different moral values negotiate the termination of hostilities? Two recent works, one readily available and the other relatively inaccessible, attempt to shed some light on the complex subject of seemingly intractable human conflict. Much deserving of attention are Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide by W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn (Sage Publications, 1997), and When the Parties Bring Their Gods to the Table: Learning Lessons from Waco, a 1998 doctoral dissertation for George Mason University by Jayne S. Docherty.

Pearce and Littlejohn, both professors of speech and communications, find what they call ‘moral conflict’ in the culture wars between the Religious Right and the Secular Humanists, in the ongoing gun control and abortion debates, and within the many ethnic, racial, gender, religious, and sexual preference conflicts around the world. Even though Docherty is able to find worldview conflicts within more everyday conflicts such as when one divorcing spouse understands marriage as a contract and the other understands it as a life journey, she focused her doctoral study on a single conflict, the standoff between the Branch Davidians and the U.S. Government near Waco, Texas in 1993. Through careful analysis of the twelve thousand pages of negotiation transcripts and personal conversations with agents, she explains how standard interest-based processes of dispute resolution failed because the parties could not manage their worldview differences.

For Docherty (and Oscar Nudler, her mentor), a worldview is not only a noun used to describe a set of shared beliefs, it is a verb which describes an ongoing process of belief formation, maintenance, and revision. Worldviewing includes a person’s theory about what exists (ontology), beliefs about how the elements of what exists relate to each other (world order), beliefs about which aspects of existence are most important (axiology), and beliefs about how and to what extent it is possible to know about what exists (epistemology). While most people are unable to clearly articulate their worldview, since its domain lies more within the unconscious mind rather than the conscious, all groups of people engage in the interactive process of worldviewing, and every human interaction involves the management of worldviews? (p. 49). This management is relatively simple when human interaction is confined to people of common background, but fraught with risk when different social worlds collide.

In the tragic confrontation between the Branch Davidians (a religious community actively preparing for an imminent second coming of Christ), and the ATF and FBI (two different federal law enforcement agencies), the parties continually moved back and forth between negotiations over the nature of reality (the will of a spiritual god in direct communication with David Koresh vs. the will of the ‘god’ of law as determined by the U.S. justice system), and solving the immediate problem, which each side defined differently. For the FBI negotiators, the objective was to remove everyone safely from Mount Carmel while enforcing the law. For the Branch Davidians, it was to get everyone safely out, but only if at the same time they could guarantee justice for those involved in the February 28 shootout, and leave in a way that advanced God’s plan for the Second Coming. In this situation, standard negotiating techniques such as empathy building, active listening, and separating interests from positions were extensively used and proved helpful, but because the parties answered to different gods, these tactics proved grossly inadequate. The FBI considered the Branch Davidians delusional, and under the control of a religious fanatic. They believed the community members needed to be forced out to protect them both from Koresh and themselves. The Branch Davidians, however, feared God more than they feared the government, each individual insisting that they needed to wait for God to give the order to leave. Even though small deals were successfully executed, the Branch Davidians eventually came to the conclusion during the standoff that the U.S. government was in fact ‘the beast’ predicted in the Book of Revelation. The FBI was therefore in the unenviable position of needing to satisfy an interest it found impossible to comprehend.

So how might a mediator help move parties caught in worldview conflict toward what Pearce and Littlejohn call ‘transcendent discourse’? For Docherty, the first step involves helping parties acknowledge the existence of their worldview differences. This means that the mediator needs substantive knowledge and intimate familiarity with both worldviews in order to act as a translator. While biased with their own worldview, the mediator still needs to display respect for the alternative views, since neither side’s morality is negotiable. As in any other kind of translation, the mediator needs to be able to fill in the gaps of what is said in order to convey meaning to the other side. This may mean holding a mirror up to each side to help them recognize their own set of beliefs. Accomplishing this task without appearing overly critical is obviously quite difficult.

Pearce and Littlejohn suggest that a new kind of conversation is needed: one that is philosophical (based on what is essential according to one’s own personal experience), comparative (based in the framing and viewing of different moral orders side by side via stories), dialogic (which values respect more than persuasion), and critical (which recognizes the powers and limits of one’s own beliefs which are ultimately based on assumptions taken by faith).

At Waco, while it is impossible to know for sure, FBI negotiators might have been able to avert the eventual tragedy had they resisted the urge to persuade. They might have concentrated more on understanding how the Branch Davidians both validated the Constitution yet mistrusted the government’s ability to implement its principles. They could also have explored the kinds of actions and outcomes which might have been in accord with the Branch Davidian understanding of their god’s plan. According to Dochtery, the FBI should not have acted in ways that reinforced the belief that the U.S. government was actually ’the beast.’In that sense, these should have been considered diplomatic negotiations (rather than textbook ‘hostage’ negotiations) recognizing the long term implications for governmental legitimacy.

What is most important to recognize is that not all conflict is amenable to the same set of dispute resolution tactics. Context matters a great deal, so negotiators and mediators perhaps need to become more familiar with different tools and different bases of knowledge for different situations.


Cris Currie

Cris M. Currie has been a mediator and conflict management trainer since 1987.  He holds a Master of Arts degree in conflict resolution from Antioch University.  He co-designed the Certificate in Conflict Management program at Eastern Washington University and teaches courses in conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation.  He is a… MORE >

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