Collaborative Problem-Solving Helps Resolve Environmental Disputes

By Michele Straube, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

I often start collaboration trainings with a thumb-wrestling exercise — “pin” your opponent’s thumb as often as you can in 15 seconds. At first, the pairs behave competitively, trying to overpower their partner. The total count for each player is low. After a little conversation, some pairs change their behavior, alternating “pins” as quickly as possible in each 15-second round. Their total count increases greatly. These pairs have discovered collaborative problem-solving.

Collaborative problem-solving is often referred to as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or environmental dispute resolution (EDR) process. I like to think of it as an Additional Dialogue Required (ADR) or Even more Dialogue Required (EDR) process — hearing differing or opposing perspectives as a way to understand each other and find creative solutions that can work.

The work that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does offers many opportunities for collaborative problem-solving. Regulations and policies are developed to solve or prevent problems, with a lot of room for creative thinking. They can be, and often are, developed collaboratively.

DEQ’s discretion in permit issuance and enforcement is more limited. The agency must determine whether or not the proposed activity meets all statutory and regulatory standards. Nevertheless, a collaborative problem-solving approach that does not exceed legal authority can be beneficial in these aspects of the agency’s work, helping to inform decisions that meet all needs.

I’d like to share with you some fundamental concepts for successful collaborative problem-solving.

Be inclusive and proactive

People resist decisions that are imposed on them. That’s just human nature. Effective collaborative problem-solving, especially when creating a new regulation or policy, needs to include the following parties:

  • Those who will feel the direct impact of the final decision.
  • Those who will have to implement it.
  • Those who have power to block a solution, be that legal, political, or community leadership power.

Leaving any one of the groups out creates uncertainty about whether proposed changes can and will actually happen in a timely fashion. Inclusive conversations need to start early in the decision-making process, before “preferred options” have ever been considered, and they need to occur often. Starting dialogue early ensures that the conversation is not a “sales pitch” for a predetermined result, but rather allows for constructive consideration of all possible alternatives.

Focus on collaborative learning and problem-solving, not on getting your way

As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” Especially in complex environmental issues, there is no one entity that has all the information or all the answers.

Rather than assuming that there is a best solution to every problem (yours!), effective collaborative problem-solvers work together to gather as much information as possible to fully understand the issues, then explore a variety of options to craft solutions that have a real opportunity to fix the problem. They resist giving decision-making authority away — especially to a judge who will decide right or wrong — instead sharing the opportunity to create an effective solution with those who have to live with the results.

Strive for consensus

Consensus exists when every participant agrees that they can live with and will implement the solution. Striving for consensus encourages creative solutions and builds long-term relationships that can prevent conflict in the future.

When a process is set up to strive for consensus, there is no voting, no one has veto power, and there is no jockeying for power or advantage. Rather, it is clearly stated from the beginning that all participants agree to share individual responsibility to propose solutions that could meet everyone’s needs, not just suggest options that satisfy their own interests. No one can get away with simply saying “I don’t like that.” Instead, participants ask each other questions to explore why a particular option is not workable and keep tweaking the possible solutions until something acceptable is identified.

Consider using an impartial facilitator

Bringing opposing interests together to find mutually satisfactory solutions is not easy. Given strong personalities and passion for the issues, it can quickly turn into a free-for-all. A facilitator unaffiliated with any of the participants — someone with “no skin in the game” — can help design a collaborative process that guides the group through the minefield of learning together and brainstorming options.

Through confidential conversations with individual participants, often held before the dialogue starts, a facilitator can hear all perspectives and listen for common ground. During and between meetings, a facilitator is the group conscience, having the “difficult conversations” needed to keep the focus on collaborative problem-solving. There are many times when this role can be played by an agency staff person, but in situations of low trust and high conflict, an outside, neutral person will be more effective.

Collaboration done well is a magical and transformative process. I have seen former adversaries become allies and friends. I have seen them co-create solutions that no one party alone could even imagine, solutions that will be put into action without legal challenge or significant resistance.

If you’d like to learn more about collaborative problem-solving, visit our Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program webpage. Read our EDR Blog to find out more about the ways EDR has helped solve environmental conflicts and brought groups together to look for solutions through dialogue, mutual understanding, and respect.

Michele StraubeI am the Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program at the Wallace Stegner Center, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah. When not promoting the benefits of collaborative problem-solving, I go hiking to replenish my reserves of patience and optimism.