“Bright words:” finding common ground in environmental negotiations

We cannot create what we cannot imagine, and to
imagine we need stories and words to tell them.

Credit: Flickr/US Fish
and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
. CC0 Public

In the American West there’s an old saying: ‘whiskey is for
drinking and water is for fighting.’ But is this necessarily the case, and should it be?

Rather than thinking of natural resources as commodities in winner-take-all
negotiations where some gain and others inevitably lose, what if we learned to
begin conversations about resource management with the premise that every human
being has an equal need for (and right to) water, air, energy and food, and that
this need and right is shared by other living beings?

Water policy expert Jerome Delli Priscolli has spent his
career tackling water disputes as a mediator, and he asks negotiators to begin
their presentations with their own stories in order to reveal their
personal connections to disputed places or resources. The immediate response to
an abstract policy statement is likely to be a counter-proposal or a quarrel – a
‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ Stories, on the other hand, evoke another story and another
one after that. The accumulation of such stories clarifies the common ground on
which further conversation has the potential to take root and achieve a
mutually-positive resolution.

Adopting stories as a negotiating tool hinges on the idea of
‘narrative empathy,’ defined by theorist Suzanne Keen
as “the shared feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing,
hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.” The
particular kind of narrative empathy at work during negotiations between
representatives of different communities and perspectives is known as
“ambassadorial narrative empathy.” The key point from Keen’s work is that
stories have the ability to strike a chord even with adversaries. Environmental
author William
suggests that “Storytelling invites readers to make up a story of
their own, to use the story they’re being told as a mirror in which to view
their own responses to their own concerns.”

This is true for public officials and seasoned negotiators,
and it is also true for regular citizens. Delli Priscolli advocates the need
for more forums and channels for public involvement in guiding decision-makers
to receive and absorb public comments. Just as the citizen science movement
recognizes the value of receiving empirical observations from the public in
studying biodiversity and climate-related topics, it is important to consider
the potential of ‘citizen storytelling’ as a means for producing and
incorporating the will of the people into public policy effectively.

In her book Democracy’s Edge: Choosing
to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life,

the writer and activist Frances Moore Lappé argues that “We cannot create what
we cannot imagine, and to imagine, we humans need stories and we need words to
tell them.” In all areas of civil society, there is potential to cultivate
storytelling skills and bring narrative discourse into the professional
contexts of law and policy-making. Legal scholar Charles Wilkinson made this
case in 1992 in his landmark essay “Language, Law, and the Eagle Bird.”

He suggests that gray, emotionless, hyper-rational language
supports the status quo of contentious debate rather than promoting consensus
with regard to natural resource management decisions: “Those who favor the status
quo have much to gain by keeping emotions down. Evocative statutes with a
strong emotional and scientific and philosophical content make a difference. A
federal judge can more easily see the force behind the statute when he or she
is alerted by bright words.”

Wilkinson’s call for the use of “bright words” in natural
resource negotiations and the laws and policies that emerge from such
discussions refers not only to the specific diction used by negotiators but also
to the possibility of broader styles of communication—such as stories—that
capture readers’ or listeners’ attention and empathy.

Psychologists such as Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll have
explained that the human capacity to feel empathy is limited to small-scale
phenomena. We are prone to appreciate the situations of small groups of
characters or individuals rather than large groups, even when the goal of
communication is to describe the impact of a decision on a large class of
people or on other species (or different kinds of abstract phenomena). Storytelling
is a communication strategy that helps the tellers and the audience to find
common ground. The website www.arithmeticofcompassion.org
highlights the role of stories as an antidote to the numbing, distancing
effects of abstract information and technical jargon.

But even if we all have the potential to be citizen
storytellers – raising our voices to share personal experiences and galvanize
the attention of our communities and our public officials to issues of shared
concern – this doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand what goes into an
effective story and how to pull together salient details from our lives into
efficient, focused narratives that reach toward public consensus.

As a writing teacher, I train my students to read examples
of policy-oriented storytelling, which can be found in the short essays by Bill
McKibben, Nicholas Kristof, and other contemporary writers whose work appears
in newspapers, on websites, and elsewhere. General introductions to the style
and structure of op-ed essays can be found on websites such as this

We hear a lot of talk these days about the distressing
tribalism of American society and the splintering of our diverse communities
into bitter factions. But if we step away from political partisanship and
entrenched stances on pipelines, border walls, and who’s hacking whose campaign
website, we have genuine potential to listen to each other’s stories and find
common ground. Organizations like Hands
Across the Hills
show us how to do this effectively.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t
live on the same planet and require natural resources in order to get by? Do you
know a single person who doesn’t have a story to tell? Nature brings us all to
the table, and stories allow us to hear each other when we get there.