This interview was originally conducted in the spring of 2003 for a paper that I was writing on Third Party Roles for the Masters Degree program at Antioch University McGregor [Yellow Springs, Ohio. Faculty: Selena Sermeno, PhD]. My intention in playing the third party role of interviewer was to direct the process in a linear mode by asking specific questions related to course material. However, after asking the first question an invisible architecture entered the arena, and shifted my role from the director of the process to facilitating it in a circular mode with a “dialogue from center” [Isaacs.1999]. I followed Bill’s lead with questions to expand and clarify his answers. Several ‘pre-conceived’ questions taken from Dr. Sermeno’s Introduction and Purpose for the Course  were ‘naturally’ answered as the interview spiraled around and up. Questions included:
- What motivates Bill to do the work he does, and what is his attitude toward it?
- How is he rewarded?
- What is Bill’s belief about conflict behavior?
- How does he balance power, and constructively shift power?
- What is his ‘systems perspective’ for conflict management, analysis, and intervention?
- Is he open to exploring new ideas after 36 years in the field of conflict resolution?
The following is a transcription of the audio taped interview with Bill Lincoln, recorded on February 26th 2003. My comments are italicized.
Ana: Bill, Thank you for being here today. When and where did your work in conflict resolution begin?
Bill: In 1967-or 68 as an ecumenically supported intercity chaplin and community organizer with Saul Alinsky in Rochester, NY. It was rough in those days with a diverse, low income to moderate income, frustrated community of Italians, Spanish, Blacks and blue-collar Whites. As a community organizer I was certainly a rabble-rouser in fulfilling my primary purpose for being there—literally to help provoke the resolution of grievances, whether it was poor housing or police brutality or victims of non-responsiveness to the community. More than once I gave last rites to suicides and homicides all the while people knowing I was not a Catholic priest, and also knowing their local parish clergy at that time were unlikely to come, and because other outside priests would be unavailable or reluctant to come to various parts of this community.
Ana: So how did you get from there to where you are today?
Bill: In the very early 70’s I was talking to Saul Alinsky, ‘the dean’ of community organization. He is best known for his books Rules for Revolution and Reveille for Radicals advising community organizers to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’. He died in 1972. I once said to Saul ‘Now that the Black community is organized and the White community is organized—well if we could just bring them together what a community this would be’. He said it was not his job. I responded, ‘It is somebody’s job.’ To which Saul replied ‘Maybe it is yours.’ [Perhaps this was a motivating factor for Bill!]
Ana: Was Alinsky a mentor for you?
Bill: For a lot of people. Look up Saul Alinsky on the web and you will find out more about him.
[I looked on the Web and found many sites about Saul Alinsky who was born in1909 and died in 1972. In essence, he focused on building strong citizen organizations for power, action, and justice.]
Ana: What happened next?
Bill: In 1971 there was a school desegregation battle in Rochester, New York. A Washington D.C. representative person from the American Arbitration Association called me up and said ‘We’ve been asked to organize a massive mediation effort. People are getting hurt, and some schools are being temporarily closed. Someone in the community has to convene this community, and your name keeps coming up from Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, unions and the school departments.’ I was not surprised. I had relationships with all these people. I was known in negotiation for being very tough, but always as a gentleman. I gave no reason for people to walk away from the table. [A personal reward for Bill!]
Ana: What do you mean by tough?
Bill: I would say ‘When I ask you a question you always give me a wonderful answer that has nothing to do with the question. So, I am going to ask you again: Why are you the only one in this entire community who feels you were not a major contributing cause of this conflict? Okay, I will make a concession–only you, your wife and your children feel you were not the cause of this conflict.’ Hit them hard, straight and relentlessly. That was my motto—then, not now. [Bill’s attitude toward his work is ‘total honesty’ and ‘no baloney’.]
My first—informal as it was—mediation was in the streets of Rochester New York in the midst of a racial disturbance while arranging for fire fighters going into intercity areas without fear of being shot.
Ana: Who was the mediation between?
Bill: It was right in the street between several fire fighters, police officers, and several Black leaders. I said ‘We’re not going to resolve racism and the grievances of Blacks and Whites tonight, but it may be in the best interests of the entire community if buildings here are not burned.’ We had to work out that the firefighters would not be targets, and how they could kind of ‘team up’ with Black leaders. Without such cooperation—indeed the commitment by community Black leaders—we would never have made it through that night.
Ana: Did you write the agreement down?
Bill: Oh, no. It was a tacit agreement. I said to some Black leaders ‘We’re holding each other accountable: Do you feel this is achievable? One shot, and we’re all out of here. You heard that: One shot—not even a noise that sounds like a shot!’ I said to the fire fighters, ‘Do you feel secure enough? Do you feel these guys are giving their word on that? Are you ready to give yours? Okay we got a deal. Now let’s make it work!’
Ana: Straight talk!
Bill: Absolutely. It was close to ugly. I have to say the Black leaders were very responsive and responsible. We couldn’t have done it without their courage and commitment.
Ana: From this particular experience, what still sticks with you today?
Bill: When a situation really ‘sucks’, and enough is enough, then it is time to go in. If I believe we can prevent, manage or resolve it?then we go in and do it. [Bill’s beliefs motivate his actions.]
Ana: So when do you decide enough is enough?
Bill: A combination of reviewing newspapers, listening to radio, TV news coverage, talking to people—getting kind of sick in thought while just shaking your head and saying ‘That’s it!’ That is how we felt in Nicaragua and Guatemala and how we feel in the Sudan now. I cannot even explain how I feel about Iraq today. I am just tongue-tied. [Bill stated this on February 7th 2003. By March 12th, Bill’ untied his tongue’ as a guest Op-Ed columnist for the Seattle Times. His comments included] ‘A Bush summit in Baghdad—if genuine—could do much to achieve a meaningful peace.’ and ‘After Iraq, please, Mr. President, go directly to North Korea, Jerusalem and perhaps even Cuba. These would be the acts of true American leadership in the world.’ [Sadly, as this interview is now being released, the United States war with Iraq has begun, and many people are being killed or maimed. For a person like Bill Lincoln who, on an international level, has experienced the power of using words instead of weapons to resolve conflict, and who believes with all his heart in conflict resolution, prevention, and management processes and techniques as the alternative to killing others, this is a dark night of the soul. It is surely enough to make Bill ‘fit to be tied’. Meanwhile, a plaque on a wall in Bill’s Boardroom at CRI’s headquarters states: “Courage is not freedom from fear. It is being afraid and going on anyway”.]
Ana: Where did that come from? [I asked, pointing to the plaque.]
Bill: A coffee shop. I wanted our Board Members to see that—wondering whether we should continue our work in Sudan or perhaps involve ourselves in another situation. I try to get our organization to say ‘We need to go and that is how we are going—with fear, commitment and courage!’
Ana: How do you decide to go or not?
Bill: It is a combination of data and feelings building to a point when you just have to go. You know, mediators have big egos; they’re fragile, but they’re big. They have to be big if we think that somehow we mediators have a competent talent, confidence and a personality that can lend assistance to a particular situation. I mean, who are we when someone says ‘Can you do this?’ We say ‘I have no idea.’ But we go. Someone says ‘So what if mediation doesn’t work? We will have a heck of a dispute on our hands.’ We say ‘So what if you don’t do mediation, you are still going to have a heck of a dispute on your hands.’ I did not know if we could do anything in Nicaragua and Guatemala. In the Sudan I thought we could be good for something, but I did not know what. CRI staff did not hide the fact that there is an indescribable mixture of fear and courage among us. [Courage motivates Bill.] I often say to disputing parties ‘We will try with you.’ Frank Sargent, then the Governor of Massachusetts, once said, ‘Bill, I need some guarantees.’ I said ‘Sir, a lot of the outcome is up to you and how committed you are to resolution—it’s not about me.’
Ana: Tell me what happened in Massachusetts?
Bill: It was a horrendous prison situation—a few years after the Attica uprising in which 39—I think that was the number—prison officers died. This prison—Walpole—was taken over by the inmates in ’74 or ’75. The guards left; the State Police came in, and we were ‘invited’. The question in everybody’s mind—including ours—was whether or not we could do anything. I said ‘I am committed that you are not going to have 39 guards killed, and I will do everything in my power so that no inmates get killed either.’ [Bill’s commitment to peace and social justice motivates him to enter dangerous situations in order to help resolve grievances.]
Ana: What was the conflict about?
Bill: Walpole was built as a small federal maximum-security prison which the feds refused to accept at the time of the scheduled “turn key.” Thus it became a State facility: a terrible place made for 500 prisoners and at this time was severely overcrowded. The inmates felt that the confinement was too rigid, and that the rules were not consistently applied and enforced—rules cannot change every day. You cannot make rules for this person that are not applicable for every person. The prison also had approximately 13 inmate murders in about a12 month period. People were even killed in their cells. Walpole prison was the home of the alleged Boston Strangler who was himself stabbed to death in his cell. The inmates were demanding both fairness and better internal security for their own protection.
Ana: So what did you do?
Bill: We went in—I was with the New England office of the American Arbitration Association in those days—and quickly found out that the inmates and the guards did not know how to negotiate—they were just able to yell a lot. I said ‘You’re not negotiating you’re just fighting! It will be a lot easier for us to mediate if you know how to negotiate.’ So, we got a temporary truce that kept things the way they were: the inmates still controlled the prison and the guards and state police remained outside. We then conducted intensive separate three-day training programs. The inmates wanted to be darn sure that we were not giving the guards any extra tips and the guards wanted to make darn sure we were not giving the inmates any extra tips—so both sides watched close circuit TV on us during the trainings. Nobody trusted anybody. After the 4th day I was able to move everybody to the table.
Ana: In the same room?
Bill: Yes, to face each other. The guards wanted to wear their guns. I said ‘You have got to be kidding! It is not in your best interest—never mind mine—to wear guns. They can be too easily taken from you. What is the likelihood of an inmate taking a gun from you? Remember, there is no capital punishment in Massachusetts? The guy who already is in for life has nothing to lose. So, what are you armed with? You are armed with your brain, your heart, and your thinking—that’s it. Besides, if you insist on wearing your guns I am going to have to let the other guys bring whatever they want! What do you think they might bring? How do you think we are doing so far? We will find a room where both sides can have quick and separate exit.’
Ana: How many guards and how many inmates?
Bill: On the prison’s side there were three guards, a couple of civilian non-unionized staff, and one or two people from the administration representing the State. On the other side of the table, we had two Black, two Hispanic, and two White inmates.
Ana: So you balanced the table best you could under the circumstances.
Bill: No. We asked the inmates ‘How do you want to do this?’ [Here, Bill constructively changed the’ status quo’ in who holds the power from the authorities to the inmates by asking them for input.]
Ana: You asked for their input? [I was shocked until I realize that in this context Bill’s strategy worked, and may have been the only one that would have worked.]
Bill: Absolutely. I said ‘These are not my negotiations. They’re your negotiations, and by the way, if you don’t resolve this mess it’s still not my problem—it’s yours.’ [Bill stated his ‘worldview’ by shifting the responsibility for outcomes to the parties involved. This ‘shift’ most likely empowered the parties.] What I had to do was take a crisis conflict, and move it to a dispute level that would be well organized: here are the parties, here is the table, here are the issues they all agree to negotiate, here is the sequence of the issues, here is the length of time for team caucusing etc., —all determined by the parties coupled with my kind of Colombo style of non-intrusive, yet candid and necessary assistance nonetheless. [By moving the crisis to a manageable dispute, Bill deflected this potentially ‘intractable’ conflict into the light of a ‘tractable’ situation. He did this by empowering the inmates who were the’ injured party’ from treatment they considered to be unfair.] Transform crisis conflict into a dispute, and then train the disputing parties in internal horizontal team, vertical team, and bipolar interest based bargaining—and never let them forget the inevitable negative consequences in the event of a protracted conflict or actual impasse.
Ana: What do you mean by horizontal and vertical team bargaining?
Bill: No one wants any of their team-members at the table that are not in agreement with the rest of the team. If you have a six-member team, but have two people on your team who do not agree with others, well that is one third of your negotiating team in conflict with the rest of the members. You’d be crazy to meet the other side(s). You have to get everybody on your team above the ‘no’ line. That is horizontal internal team bargaining, and often we have to help them achieve team unity. ‘Vertical’ is negotiating with your own constituencies or hierarchical authorities. Within these structural complexities are sown the seeds for process equity, ownership and trust—essential ingredients for team unity, team trust, and team effectiveness.
Ana: No “Getting to So So! [This is the title of a separate article soon to be published. In it Bill and his colleagues tell of mediocre settlements, and what they did or didn’t do to contribute to ‘so so’.]
Bill: No ‘So So’”—hopefully, if we have done our homework! Again, all we had to do was move it from a crisis conflict to a dispute, help parties develop their own procedural agreements, help them resolve several of their issues, and help move the prison to open to where it was before the riot but with agreed upon improvements. So-called mere ‘normalization’ would have led to more problems. First we employed crisis reduction to get the prison to some degree of normalcy. Then it took a couple of months to address and resolve the remaining very complex and difficult issues.
Ana: Were issues addressed?
Bill: Oh, yes. It was done well. We had to address the ‘skin check’ issue, inmate job and pay issues, mobility issues, security issues, conjugal visit issues as well as the educational and vocational issues. The inmates who helped the most were the ‘lifers’ who had no chance of getting out. They were saying ‘This is our home.’ They wanted a peaceful environment. [Bill was rewarded with the personal satisfaction of ‘a job well done’ and with helping people get what they wanted without hurting one another.]
Ana: What piece did you take from this case that influenced your work through big crisis conflicts?
Bill: Ana, this case was big. Anyway, if someone had taken the clothes off everybody, I wouldn’t have been able to tell who should be on what side of the table. They were all just folk! Another thing I learned is that despite parties’ accusatory venting back and forth, there is no such thing as a wrong perception. You have to look at the criteria on which perceptions are based. When inmates say ‘This is not fair’, then let us look at the criteria they are using to say it isn’t so. For the first time I understood —pre Roger Fisher days?what are underlying interests, the principles at stake by the stakeholders. At Walpole, it wasn’t about ‘We demand the doors be locked’. It was about security. It wasn’t ‘We demand that better food be served’. It was about health and acknowledgement, and being treated as a human being. I did not know how to phrase it yet, but I was beginning to see those underlying values and principles, i.e., ‘interests’. [Addressing ‘the criteria on which perceptions are based’ and underlying interests as a principle eventually became part of Bill’s ‘personal theory’ for conflict analysis and conflict management.] So, a few years later it was very easy for me to teach at Harvard Law School with Bill Ury and Roger Fisher because Roger was beginning to articulate the underlying and now popularized concept of interests. All I’m saying is that the interests are coupled with a menu of issues that have to be addressed if the interests are going to be satisfied. Then and only then give attention to proposals, i.e., demands, threats, beggings or whatever in terms of how disputing parties believe that the issues have to be addressed in order to satisfy the interests. This way the parties get away from their myopia, their focus upon demands, demands, and demands!
Ana: Early labor negotiations were all about demands!
Bill: Only somewhat. ‘We do not give a damn whether you want to or not, just do it’ with the other side—labor or management—responding similarly. But think about it—the settlements were interest based without full acknowledgement of the concept?economic security and fairness for both sides, organizational acknowledgement of and by both sides, industrial peace, etc. The seeds and stalks of contemporary theory were there.
Ana: What other aspects of negotiation began to evolve during those early days?
Bill: For me, and remember, too, I am saying I was—still am—fed up with the unnecessary alienation I saw in my community organization days.
Ana: You want relationship?
Bill: Don’t know; some people don’t want to be reconciled! They just want the damn thing to be over, and then to be left alone. Fine! I make a big difference between resolution and reconciliation. With the parties I pursue their resolution before reconciliation. However, like at Walpole prison, it wouldn’t have made a big difference if all substantive issues had been resolved because the prison still would have operated pretty much at the consent of the inmates. Inmates perceive and feel when a fair and predictable process exists. They sense the relationship when a guard is saying to an inmate ‘Congratulations! I understand your daughter is getting married.’ or an inmate says ‘Hey, I am so sorry your mother died’. It is the guard-inmate working and interpersonal relationship that is functioning—through whatever is genuinely in their heads and their hearts. The guards had no guns, no hats, no badges, and no mace when they were inside the cellblock. The one tool they had was that they could pick up the telephone—if they could get to it—and say ‘I’m in trouble in cell block six’. That is all they had. I was beginning to say WOW; the job is not between contesting parties as in some outdated examples of labor management relationships. Some degree of reconciliation must occur so there is truly a working relationship, not just a whole bunch of substantive agreements! [Reconciliation. A transformative process that changes relationships!]
Ana: WOW! That’s great. Thanks!
Bill: If reconciliation happens I am delighted ‘cause the people with whom we deal are always going to see each other again. But my big concern and where I am putting a lot of focus right now—is in the area we call ‘conflict aftermath’. You think it is resolved, and it is not. Many things can happen afterwards—perhaps because all of the issues were not resolved or even identified, or because unrealistic expectations prevail ‘Like nothing has changed yet’, or because there are residuals of the conflict, or because of misinterpretation of settlement language, or just because of honest mistakes. How do we prevent the agreement from unraveling; the conflict from re-occurring? When people are ready to sign at the table we ask ‘What if...’ questions about what could possibly go wrong. In terms of working now in the Sudan we ask ‘Suppose the donor nations do not give the money you expect or it does not come on time? What could possibly go wrong? What are other possible variables?’ Ana, think of a marital termination example in which you say to one party in caucus ‘You have just committed yourself to give spousal support of $23,000 a year for the next seven years but suppose you lose your job? Then what?’ We push that kind of approach. Let us anticipate such things right now. If we cannot avoid them then can we at least have an understanding of how we will address them in the future if indeed they do come up? [In his work with ‘conflict aftermath’ Bill remains open to new ideas and ways to implement them.]
Ana: This makes me think of Turkey as we speak in late winter of 2003. The US has been negotiating to use Turkey as one of the military bases for northern operations against Iraq in return for a 15 billion dollars aid and loan package. However, the US never paid the aid they promised Turkey for their help during the first Gulf War with Iraq in 1991. Turkey said they want past debts paid, and a written agreement about future debts. But they also remembered in 1991 when Yemen said ‘no’ to the USA, and immediately lost all its aid. Turkey has since backed away from significant cooperative involvement in the US and Iraq war scenario. Of course, they could change their mind. Persuasion by the dollar can be a mighty thing! [Latest news as of March 21sth, Turkey is now debating the hugely decreased price for the use of their airspace by the US in its’ war against Iraq.]
Bill: Have you heard the international accusations that our nation is perhaps being perceived as having employed an old ‘Chicago style’ in our current approach to international relations, namely vote buying of the United Nations Security Council and even the broader ‘coalition of the willing’? Where do you think nations got that idea, and how long do you think it will prevail? Well, back to conflict aftermath and a favorite illustration of mine: One of the primary reasons for WWII was because the terms and conditions of surrender imposed on Germany in WWI were so heavy that there was no way Germany could ever recover economically. Just goes to show the world once again—disenfranchised racial, ethnic, labor, ranchers, environmentalists, the unemployed, the poor—that those who have nothing to lose are really powerful, maybe terribly powerful. We need to remember that and be appropriately and morally responsive.
Ana: Conflict aftermath was inflamed in Iraq by the sanctions imposed on Iraq primarily by US influence in 1991. While the USA is entering a much weakened Iraq than it was twelve years ago, the likely retaliation from other Muslim countries and the present complexities in the Middle East could create more ‘conflict aftermath’ than we may know how to handle. I understand that you are also interested in systems change.
Bill: Well, first of all the USA and the “willing” are not entering Iraq—it’s an invasion. Everyone for themselves will have to decide whether or not the war is justified. Remember what we said above. There are no such things as wrong perceptions – that only the criterial data may be wrong? Think about it—Americans, British, Australians—why do you think anybody would perceive this war in Iraq is Anglo against Islam? Ana, how would anybody get that idea? What criteria would they use? How does one challenge such criteria in likely causes of conflict aftermath; it is going to happen, and it may not be easy—particularly with the Iraq situation, in which we are not involved.
Ana: In the Sudan, what will be the agreement, and between whom?
Bill: It is between the Sudanese People Liberation Movement/Army and the Islamic Government of Sudan, basically the civil war has occurred between the primarily Islamic North and the more Christian South. There are many complex issues. People who are not Islamic do not want Islamic law imposed upon them, and the indigenous tribes want the right of self-determination to develop their own government and traditional ways of life. Other outstanding issues related to where the line has been drawn between North and South, a line which pertains directly to wealth distribution via oil deposits and political power sharing. As of today, there is an awful lot still on the table. Note that CRI is not part of the mediated negotiation process despite some indirect Track II?unofficial and nongovernmental activities—we are working impartially with the North primarily—but not solely—because everyone was working with the South. CRI has a tendency of going first to the party that our own government does not favor. [Most likely this ‘tendency’ appeals to Bill’s strong sense of social justice that was formed in his early days as a social activist when he was influenced by Saul Alinsky.] That is why we went first straight to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua while believing that if we could get them to agree with our training and process coaching roles in preparation of the transitional government negotiations—we would then be able to successfully approach the political opposition, UNO, to do so as well. UNO was backed by the US Government. For the same reason, that is why in Guatemala we went to the URNG guerilla freedom fighters prior to going to the military or the civilian government when we performed similar role functions in preparation for the Guatemalan peace process.
Incidentally, thinking of various elections as in Nicaragua—sometimes I think that elections are a very poor way to resolve conflict. The smaller the group, then the worse majority rule is. Think in terms of our own country—few victors have ever accepted the fact that in ‘majority rule’ they have a responsibility to those who cannot win elections. For example, Native Americans may be satisfied with the results of a national election, but they will never ‘win’ a national election.
Ana: What about building consensus?
Bill: How are you going to get a consensus with millions of people? I cannot see how it is ever going to happen except perhaps between authorized and genuine representatives of the people, okay.
Ana: When you mediate, what sort of decision-making model do you use?
Bill: 99 % of the time we use full consensus of all parties at the table—2 to 25—and then they have to verify and ratify with their respective constituencies or authorities or whomever that their representative responses are okay. Once in a 22 multi-party environmental public policy dispute the parties decided by full consensus to make all future decisions by ‘consensus minus two’. What a disaster!
Ana: Tell me about your training program?
Bill: CRI’s trainings are comprehensive and prescriptive, but not formulaic. We consider that mediation is an extension of the negotiation process not a substitute for it. Our work manuals are developed from our involvement in ‘hot’ dispute resolutions—I and staff taking scraps of paper, writing things down, going home, adding something else, and generating ideas. We emphasize procedural, substantive and psychological satisfaction. We include participants in the process of developing proposals—that is really a science as well as an art, and not a trickster kind of thing. We spend considerable time in identifying the contributing causes of conflict, forms of consequences—even the positive aspects of conflict.
Ana: What is positive about conflict to you?
Bill: Conflict has many functions. I will just mention one: I am sure you have said this in your life: ‘Thank God everything is out in the open because now we have to address it.’ Conflict isn’t all bad. Let’s talk about that topic another time.
* * *
I hope the opportunities will arise to continue this fascinating conversation with Bill Lincoln, and with his permission share it with interested parties. Bill is a source of inspiration for many and is undoubtedly one of the ‘unsung heroes’ of this profession. I am a relatively new person entering this field of conflict resolution - a mother of three and a grandmother of three- at the age of 60, believing it is never too late to learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. Bill, at 62, has spent much of his life dealing with the complexities of conflict. His courage to go into dangerous situations is found where peace and justice are absent. Bill places his words and actions where his heart lies and he has risked his life for his beliefs. While he may be afraid, he goes ‘on anyway’. How many people today are willing to face fear with the courage of a warrior armed with faith, words and competency instead of weapons?
Contact information: William F. Lincoln,
The Lincoln Institute for Collaborative Planning and Problem Solving, Inc.
615 Commerce St., Suite 100,
Tacoma, Washington 98402-4645
Phone: 352-597-8100 Fax: 253-597-8103
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