Escape the clutches of the current negotiation setup to attain peace

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

After the meeting of Philippine President Aquino and MILF Chairman Murad in Tokyo, the real work for peace begins. The work now consists of looking for new, fresh and effective ideas to consider and build an agreement.

But how can the parties get new ideas? A place to start is to be aware that the current setup is not designed for agreement. In fact, it is a setup for deadlock and non-agreement. If they are aware that a deadlock or non-movement is due to the mechanism and design of the peace process (and not because of each other) then they might be able to escape the clutches of the current setup and achieve a peace agreement.

Let me explain. The Philippine Government have their own frames, ideas and proposals that they will bring to the negotiating table by August 22. The MILF had already submitted their frames, ideas and proposals.  Right now, it can be presumed that both parties are so convinced of the practicality, justness and rationality of their respective positions that as far as they are concerned their proposals are the right proposals and the purpose of the sessions in Kuala Lumpur is make the other party see the “truth” of their positions. So everyone’s grand strategy is to convince the other guy. All the preparations that the parties are doing this very minute revolves around explaining and defending their positions. All of them are tensed.

The theory in traditional negotiations (and the GPH-MILF negotiations is in one) is that when the parties negotiate (trying to change each other’s mind), the parties will find “common ground” and achieve a  “compromise” agreement. The results of this kind of setup has not been encouraging – whether in the Philippines or elsewhere.

This type of negotiations is severely limited. Why?

Because the traditional negotiations process does not allow for an joint exploration by the parties of a wider area of thinking, of other possibilities other than those they have already thought of, other than those already present in their minds.

Both parties have to play the game of negotiations: defend your positions and evaluate and oppose the other guy’s position. The parties are like horses on a race track – with blinders not of their own making.

Again, this is not the fault of the parties. It does not show lack of good will, intention or desire to agree. It is just that the structure of negotiations does not give the parties an opportunity to relax their positions. The negotiations have no feature for the parties to put their respective hard positions in a safe corner and say: “dyan ka muna” and then explore jointly a wider area of thinking to look at other possibilities – options they haven’t thought of but might attain the same ends, give the same benefit with the least hurdles or impediments in implementation. The negotiations does not have a feature that assures the parties that they can always go back to their initial positions but not after exploring a wider area of possibilities. In a sense, the parties need a design feature that says:

“OK, you have chosen a tree to dance around but you still have time to go and explore the forest and look at the other trees. Malay mo may mapupusuan kang iba na mas maganda. In any case, you can always go back to this tree and say: “I have seen all the trees in the forest and frankly my dear you are the best of all that I have seen.”

If one party says: “Plan ‘Blue’ is the answer to peace in Mindanao and the other party says: “No, it is Plan ‘Green’”, they are severely limiting themselves to their current level of thinking and there will be no end to the debates. At best, the parties will sign a compromise agreement to implement “Plan Cyan” – which is what you get if you mix the colors green and blue – leaving both parties not happy and the conflict unresolved and untransformed.

But there may be Plans ‘Red’, ‘Magenta’, ‘Purple’ and a host of other possibilities which they miss to look at because their thinking have been transfixed on their current proposals. Sadly this what negotiations is all about – defend, debate and argue rather than a joint exploration of new ideas and possibilities. The parties miss out on the other possibilities because their minds are not “relaxed”. All their energies are focused on defending their plans and arguing how the other’s plan would not work.

When we contemplate solely at one color, we miss out on the rainbow of possibilities. And when we miss out on the rainbow, we also miss our chance at finding that proverbial pot of gold.

(Next: A Proposal to escape the clutches of current negotiations setup)

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Author: Bong Montesa

I teach children how to think. I am engage in the work of ending armed conflicts and bring about a just, inclusive and sustainable peace in the Philippines and in the world.

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