On Conflict, Collaboration, and Leadership: An Interview with EDR Program Director Danya Rumore


Jun 07, 2021 | EDR Blog

By Tania Lown-Hecht

Learn more about EDR Program Director Danya Rumore, her work, and conflict, collaboration, and leadership. This interview was conducted by Tania Lown-Hecht and originally appeared on Outdoor Alliance’s Outdoor Allies blog on March 10, 2021. We are reposting a version of it with Tania Lown-Hecht’s permission.

Tania Lown-Hecht (TLH): Tell us about your relationship with the outdoors – what do you like to do outside?
Danya Rumore (DR): I grew up in northern Idaho and like to do a little bit of everything. I’m an avid backcountry skier, mountain biker, backpacker, and trail runner, but I enjoy anything I can do outdoors that gets me moving through beautiful spaces. I feel lucky to live somewhere where I can get to mountain biking and hiking trails from my house, despite living in the city.

TLH: You studied environmental policy and now run the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah. What got you started in this work?
DR: I remember learning about conflicts over wolves and snowmobiles in Yellowstone when I was a kid and feeling like everyone was losing as a result of those disputes. That set me off on a lifelong journey to figure out how to help people work together to solve complex environmental and public policy problems. I studied environmental science at Oregon State University and realized pretty quickly that science isn’t the problem; people are the problem. So I learned about people and what it takes to get people to work together, even when (or especially when) they don’t see eye-to-eye about things. After studying environmental management in New Zealand, I was fortunate to do my PhD at MIT working with Larry Susskind, a founding father of the field of environmental conflict resolution and consensus building. Through my doctoral studies and working with the Consensus Building Institute, I discovered the skills of mutual gains negotiation and conflict resolution, which are the pragmatic underpinnings of effective collaboration. I now practice and teach those skills and am on a mission to help people have the awareness and tools they need to work together to solve complex problems.

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TLH: Tell us more about these skills! A lot of these environmental conflicts seem very deeply embedded. How does it help you navigate those issues?
DR: A first step is for us to create a healthier relationship with conflict by accepting that conflict “just is.” We don’t always see eye-to-eye, we have different interests and perspectives, we don’t always want all of the same things, and that’s ok! It’s what we do with conflict that matters. In fact, conflict can be quite generative; like an estuary, where salt water and fresh water come together to create one of the most fertile ecosystems, the convergence of different ideas or perspectives can create something new and better. However, for that convergence—that conflict—to be productive and not destructive, we have to communicate effectively. And effective communication isn’t “just talking”; we have to talk about the right things and, most importantly, we have to listen to and truly try to understand each other. If some course of action needs to be decided upon, we need to go one step farther and work together to create mutually beneficial strategies or outcomes. And that is what mutual gains negotiation and consensus building are all about!

One of the most importance skills (or maybe it’s more of an awareness) I teach people is the need to separate interests from positions. The words we use create the world we see. Many of us only see what we call “positions,” i.e., the strategies or solutions we espouse to address our concerns. Effective communication and collaboration require that people peel back the layers of the onion to get to their core needs or concerns—what we call “interests.” Unfortunately, most of us learn to focus on positions and often we aren’t very clear about our underlying interests. That is a big part of why so many environmental and other public sector conflicts seem intractable: our positions (such as designating an area as wilderness or not) are often mutually exclusive, whereas our underlying interest (such as a desire to recreate in certain ways, be able to find solitude, or to protect wildlife) are not mutually exclusive.

To give an example: often when dealing with public lands, you might see conservationists saying things such as “There should be no mountain bikers in this space; this area just isn’t appropriate for mountain biking. We should designate this area as a wilderness.” The mountain bikers might say in return “Hey, wait! We love mountain biking in this area. Why do you get to lock us out? We should be able to mountain bike on public trails!” In that situation, I spend time talking to representatives of all affected stakeholder groups to try to illuminate what their core interests are. By asking really good questions and really listening for underlying needs and concerns, I might learn that the conservationists are really worried about maintaining spaces where they can hike in solitude without worrying about a mountain bike barreling down the trail. Or they might be concerned about protecting wildlife habitat and have reason to believe mountain bikes are disturbing certain species. Or they might be worried about mountain bikes degrading trails. Or they might be worried about all of those things. Likewise, mountain bikers might illuminate a desire to have access to certain key trails that are particularly high quality for mountain biking. Maybe there are certain trails that connect other favorite trails, and they don’t want to lose those connector trails. They may also value solitude, wildlife, and well-maintained trails. In that situation, we find that people who thought they were diametrically opposed actually have more in common than they thought and that their points of difference aren’t mutually exclusive at all. Once people realize that, they then can work together to creatively “co-create” mutual gain solutions – i.e., solutions where all parties do better by reaching agreement and working together than they would have if the conflict had persisted. In this case, involved parties might agree that prime wildlife habitat should be designated wilderness, that some trails should be set aside for mountain biking only and others should be hiking-only trails, and that all parties will work together to improve trails and support ongoing maintenance. Most often, everyone does better by working together than if they hadn’t reached agreement.

TLH: We’re in a moment of pretty intense conflict as a nation. What advice would you give to the new administration about how to handle what feel like these intractable conflicts, about conservation or any other issue?
DR: The main thing is that we need leadership—true leadership—right now. Unfortunately, most of us don’t really understand what leadership is, which makes it hard to exercise leadership and to foster and encourage leadership.

Ron Heifetz, a leadership guru based at Harvard University, defines adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” As that definition implies, leadership is an action, and that there is no such thing as “leaders;” there are only people who are exercising leadership—who are mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive—and those who aren’t. Many of us conflate leadership with authority, calling authority figures leaders. While this all might seem like useless semantics, the reality is words have power and the words we use create the world we see. If we can’t see a difference between authority and leadership, we can’t see that many of our authority figures aren’t exercising leadership in any shape or form. Additionally, if we see authority and leadership as the same, then we overlook the opportunities all of us have every day to help mobilize people to tackle tough challenges and to thrive, whether we have structural authority or not.

Right now, we are facing all sorts of massive threats to our ability to thrive as individuals, communities, and a global society, from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change to staggering income inequality and all of the issues that presents. What I think we really need right now is for people in positions of authority – whether that’s President Biden or Congresspeople or federal, state, and local public officials or teachers like myself – to leverage their authority to mobilize people to tackle these tough challenges and to thrive amid change. Additionally, we also need people, regardless of their authority, to recognize we all have to be part of the problem-solving enterprise and to mobilize to work together to solve these issues and other challenges facing our communities and society.

A key step in the right direction will be becoming better listeners and learners by approaching challenges with curiosity and a willingness to better understand different people’s experiences and concerns related to these issues. For example, when someone says, “I think climate change is a hoax” or “I think this area should be open to ATVs,” we need to respond by saying something like “Tell me more about that. I really want to understand your perspective and where you’re coming from”—and to truly listen to learn and understand. If we want people to mobilize and work together to make positive change, then they need to be part of the problem-solving enterprise. If people don’t feel heard or understood or respected, they’re not going to want to listen to and understand you, nor are they likely to want to work with you to co-create solutions.

That all raises a related shift we’re going to have to make. People tend to have a scarcity and zero-sum game mindset. We tend to see the world as win-lose; in order for me to do well for myself, someone is going to have to lose. The reality is the world isn’t zero-sum; we can create value and expand the proverbial pie by working together, getting creative, and bringing our different resources and knowledge to bear on challenges. Like I said earlier, think of conflict like an estuary: through bringing different perspectives, interests, and resources together, we can create something new and better, just as freshwater and saltwater coming together creates a highly fertile ecosystem.

TLH: Any final wise words about managing conflicts?
DR: The basic takeaway I want to leave people with is that conflict just is. It doesn’t have to be destructive; indeed, it can be enormously productive if we know how to work through it and harness its productive potential. Most of us aren’t taught how to do this, but we can all learn these skills. I think we’re going to have to rapidly learn these skills and build a culture of collaboration if we are going to work through the tough challenges facing society and thrive. That’s why the EDR Program is on a mission to foster a culture of collaboration. We would love to connect people with trainings, tools, and resources to help them build this skillset. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if there is some way we can help.

As a starting point for anyone looking to build their collaboration and conflict resolution skills, I encourage you to check out our video on the Fundamentals of Conflict of Collaboration.

Tania leads communications at Outdoor Alliance, where she gets to tell the funny and engaging stories of why people love getting outside through our campaigns, social media, website, newsletters, and emails. She has a PhD in English, writing articles that reached five or so people; she also once ran a blog that reached a quarter million people. Tania lives in DC and is passionate about the slowest-speed outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, backpacking, and cross-country skiing.