Yarn and Seed Bombing: Guerrilla Art Tactics for Negotiators and Conflict Mediators


by Robert Benjamin

June 2011

Robert Benjamin

June 11th is International Yarn Bombing Day. I’m not sure who set the date, but the activity has apparently been going on around the world for some time in cities as far-flung as Seattle, Berlin, Paris, Portland, Vancouver, B.C., Moscow and Morocco. For those ill-informed, as I was until just a few days ago, yarn bombing is essentially graffiti knitting and crochet where practitioners of the art form shamelessly knit colorful sweaters, coats, hats or leg warmers for sculptures, tree trunks and any other protuberance that catches attention. Pink cherry blossoms are knit for trees in winter and bike racks, otherwise blandly naked, are not so obvious targets. www.yarnbombing.com Seed bombing, a sibling art, involves the strategic placement of seeds and plants in unlikely places; picture a pothole in the middle of a street sprouting daisies or a crack in the sidewalk giving rise to a pansy. Any piece of dirt is a target for an improbable attack of flowers.

As usual, with art in general, and these guerrilla art forms in particular, there is a value and purpose, that while whimsical, go beyond mere whimsy. In fact, it may be just because the actions are whimsical that they are so useful in doing what art does best: to help tweak how people tend to see the world around them and to jar their taken-for-granted habits of thinking. There is a magic in events that become apparent suddenly, unexpectedly and indirectly; incongruous moments foment shifts in thinking. They foment incongruous moments that often have a power greater than the most compelling and direct logical argument to challenge or even change otherwise settled notions of mind and sometimes even entrenched beliefs. (R.D. Benjamin, “The Beauty of Conflict: Art Lessons, Lateral Thinking and Creative Problem Solving," see also, CD Rom, The Beauty of Conflict: The Visual Arts, Theater, Film and the Practice of Conflict Management, www.rbenjamin.com, 2009.

The impact of yarn or seed bombing cannot be planned; the artist can not know who will walk by, if the target party will be prepared or ready to notice anything different, and if they do, how they might react or be affected. The technique essentially relies on the notion that if you spread enough novel ideas, people are bound to eventually trip over one of them. “Cracks...,” as the poet Leonard Cohen said, “...are how the light gets in.”

A close variation of yarn and seed bombing are the guerrilla tactics used intuitively, if not intentionally, by the best and most experienced mediators and negotiators, especially when the issues involved are complex and the parties are stuck in their positions. (R.D. Benjamin, “The Joy of Impasse: The Neuroscience of ‘Insight’ and Creative Problem Solving,”) Many practitioners relate how they have learned the hard way, after years of trying to rationally convince, persuade and argue with people, that logic is the most ineffectual way of convincing anyone of anything.

Peter Adler, a long time public policy and environmental mediator, has written on managing scientific and technical disputes. (Adler, Birkhoff, et.al., “Managing Scientific and Technical Information in Environmental Cases,” www. Keystone.org, 2000) He has often spent days locked in a room with a gaggle of technical experts and scientists hashing out difficult matters, and all of whom are religiously devoted to the truth of their “evidence based facts” as derived from their research anchored in the highest standards of scientific methodology. These technical/scientific issues are some of the most “wicked” and difficult to manage; no surprise then, most of them categorically disagree with each other as to the interpretation of the “facts" that supposedly "speak for themselves." When embedded with folks immersed in the Myth of Rationality, avoiding the pitfalls of over extended logical debate is essential. Such experts are typically just a little too sure their evidence is correct, the solution should necessarily be dictated by the science, and there is nothing to negotiate.

One of Adler’s techniques in conflict management parallels yarn bombing. He describes throwing out any number of alternative possibilities for framing the issues and thinking about workable solutions, many outside of the proverbial box and some which appear to border on crazy. This kind of idea ‘bombing’ serves to confuse the parties and disrupt the hyper-rational atmosphere that is strangling the problem solving process. This allows the parties the opportunity to stumble over other notions and approaches not previously considered. Not unlike Leonard Cohen’s “cracks are how the light gets in,” Adler’s suggests that “even a blind hog finds a truffle once in a while” so he discreetly plants them in the hope that it will be sniffed out by one or more of the parties.

Except for his Hawaiian shirts, Adler pretends in public to be the consummate rational problem solver. In private, however, he admits that in the real world, few people solve problems the rational manner prescribed by theoretical models or self help manuals. Most people---including professionals and not a few scientists---start out by routing around in the middle of a problem, wallowing in confusion and becoming not a little frustrated, and only towards the end beginning to back into a workable solution. That is actually not such a bad way to work: in especially difficult matters, the confusion and frustration are often a gateway to the insight necessary to see things differently. (R.D. Benjamin, “The Joy of Impasse: The Neuroscience of ‘Insight’ and Creative Problem Solving,” 2009)

For just this reason, many of the working assumptions of mediation and conflict management practice, reliant on Rational Decision Making Theory have been drawn into question. The work of behavioral psychologists and neuro-scientists increasingly compels accepting that a good measure of human behavior is “predictably irrational” (Ariely, D. 2008; Kahneman, D., and Tversky, A. , Choices, Values and Frames, 2000), and given how the human brain functions, “there is no such thing as a ‘cool-headed’ reasoner (sic). (Damasio, A., Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, 1994).

Paradoxically, the most rational strategy to dislodge people caught up in circular logical arguments may be the strategic use of what have previously been considered irrational techniques. This is the operating premise of ‘crazy wisdom:’ doing or saying something outside the expected can shock, amuse, and otherwise nudge people into a different mindset and allow them think differently about an issue or problem. (Nisker, W. 1990) Guerrilla art tactics like yarn bombing, calculated to shake-up peoples expectations about the make-up of the world around them, serve as a useful incitement for negotiators and mediators to use similar techniques to shake up peoples’ self imposed limits and expectations when they are caught up in a conflict.

If all people are in part predictably irrational in their decision making, especially those mired in conflict or faced with daunting issues, and being rational and logical does not effectively counter that irrationality, then the strategic use of irrationality might be effective. In effect, the negotiator or mediator plots a strategy of being rationally irrational. Many experienced negotiators and mediators have intuitively come to this understanding and have effectively developed a variety of techniques that avoid engaging in logical argument.

There are other strategies and techniques in mediation and conflict management practice that parallel to guerrilla art forms. The paradoxical injunction uses, rather than confronts, resistance. For a party insistent on the validity of their position or the pursuit of a principle, giving them permission and sometimes even encouragement to remain committed to their view can paradoxically allow them the necessary emotional space to abandon their zealous commitment and open up enough room for other ideas to be considered. This is more than mere reverse psychology; the actor/mediator/negotiator must find a way to authentically convey support for the party’s belief as dubious as it may seem from a rational or logical perspective. This is hard to do because rational persuasion is the natural inclination of most professionals, including mediators. Using the technique requires accepting that the use of logic in an attempt to convince a person of the folly of their thinking is as likely as not to backfire and cause the party to double-down in the rightness or righteousness of their position. (R.D. Benjamin, “The Guerrilla Mediator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” 1999).

Art and conflict management have much in common. A negotiator or mediator, not unlike an artist, attempts to re-configure the natural energy of the conflict that surrounds him or her, and to re-direct that energy toward a different, more constructive perspective or reality. Rationalist strategies presume natural energy can be contained and force fit into neatly structured models based on the principles or reasoned or ‘civil dialogue’. Guerrilla strategies, in art and mediation, accept that conflict must be engaged on its’ own terms. A cherry tree in winter is bare and will not have any cherry blossoms; a good yarn bombing will not solve that reality or be a substitute, but while attaching knit pink cherry blossoms to the branches is no substitute for the real thing, the act can still alter the reality of a dreary winter day. In like form, negotiation or mediation often cannot solve the core underlying problems of parties in conflict, but well done, the parties might gain a bit greater sense of control over the issues they face as the result of a good idea bombing compliments of a ‘crazy like a fox’ mediator.

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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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