“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.

Scott Slovic
1 February 2019

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

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 Kittredge 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 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 one.

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.

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