She Stands on Common Ground

What side are you on? Mediation expert Susan Podziba facilitates dialogue between prochoice advocates and prolife activists, between Israelis and Palestinians, and between environmentalists and fishermen.

Where there are organizations, there are people. And where there are people, there are conflicting interests. One of the most basic — and most difficult — jobs of a leader is sorting through conflicting interests to make choices and achieve common ground.


Susan Podziba, 39, has spent her career moving people to common ground. And she’s developed ideas and techniques that help more people get there on their own. Podziba, a faculty associate with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, has facilitated dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, between environmentalists and fishermen, and between prochoice and prolife activists.

What’s her secret? That there is no secret. Her work is based on the assumption that warring factions hold the key to resolving their own conflicts. “Life isn’t fair,” she says. “The reality is that people everywhere have hard choices to make. My job is to challenge people to see the complexity of a situation and to encourage them to take an active part in making those hard choices.”

So what, exactly, does Podziba do? First, by talking separately to each party, she untangles the issues, emotions, perceptions, and dynamics that surround a dispute. Then she decides whether mediation can help. “You don’t use a hammer to tighten a screw,” she says. “Mediation is a particular kind of tool that works only when appropriately applied.” It won’t work if one of the parties expects to achieve more through other means, such as a lawsuit. And it won’t work unless everybody agrees that some resolution is better than no resolution.

Podziba’s next challenge is to design a consensus process in which everyone agrees to participate. People on both sides of the dispute help develop a mission statement, as well as ground rules that will govern their deliberations: What’s an achievable goal? What’s the deadline? What are the roles and responsibilities of the mediators? “The ground-rules document is a tool for teaching people how to work by consensus — because it’s a low-risk agreement that they create,” Podziba says.

With the mission statement, Podziba is careful to explore both worst-case scenarios and the greatest aspirations of participants. “The mediator helps get these fears and outrageous hopes out of people’s heads,” she says. “When these issues are exposed, the group can analyze them and see what is truly realistic, and what’s not.”

At this point, Podziba guides the details of the discussion itself. She elicits data, then frames and reframes the situation to keep the discussion moving. Participants can speak out against proposals, but they must also develop alternatives that everyone agrees on. Indeed, the group spends a significant amount of time on good communication practices. In one instance, Podziba was hired to facilitate sessions between Israeli and Palestinian health-care managers who were studying at Harvard. Podziba used a listening exercise that involved pairing people to discuss their feelings about the conflict in the Middle East.


During the sessions, each person had to repeat what the other said. Participants told stories of being stopped at military checkpoints and of Palestinian mothers who let their children throw stones at armed soldiers. “These stories are very painful to repeat,” says Podziba. “When you’re retelling the other side’s story, you skip a lot. This exercise illustrates that people are very selective about what they hear and digest.”

Finally, Podziba serves as a reality check. She helps develop what she calls a “universe of options.” People brainstorm all the ways of addressing a situation that will satisfy everyone’s basic needs. The exercise not only helps the group come up with inventive solutions; it also shows all sides that there are a limited number of options available.

“When the process is successful, people force themselves to think in a new way, and they reach a new level of creativity,” says Podziba. “They start to work in a problem-solving mode. They understand why it’s been hard to reach a resolution, and they see that they can tackle the problem together.”

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Sidebar: A Life-or-Death Dispute

On a winter morning in 1994, a man walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, shot and killed a receptionist, and wounded three other people. He then drove to a nearby clinic and killed another receptionist and injured two more people. In the aftermath of the shootings, Susan Podziba undertook one of her most sensitive facilitations: secret conversations between prolife and prochoice activists. “The emotion of the time is hard to describe now,” says Podziba. “I was frightened. What if the wrong person found out that I was facilitating those meetings?”


Both camps agreed to tone down the rhetoric. “If abortion doctors are called ‘murderers,’ then people on the fringes of society feel there’s a justification for violence,” Podziba explains. “Neither side wanted that.”

The participants, who met on and off for three years, also established a hot line modeled after the Cold War-era connection between the United States and the Soviet Union. In at least one instance, prolife advocates used the hot line to inform prochoice activists of a plausible threat, thereby averting potential violence. “The mediation process was life-changing for all of us,” says Podziba. “The level of relationships built among people who had been ‘enemies’ was just mysterious.”