The story of a collaborative journey – through the lens of reimagining the conflict narrative using lessons from Indigenous Australians.

Dr Rosemary Howell and Dr Emma Lee

narrative 2

Picture credit: Creative commons

The annual ADR Research Network’s Roundtable is a welcoming, safe place for academics in the conflict resolution space to share new ideas about research, explore different ways to join the dots and gain constructive peer feedback about structure and substance.

It was the prospect of this environment that encouraged the two of us to take the next step of exploring the ideas we first shared in our Kluwer Blogpost in July this year. That post drew on an ABC News story about Dr Lee and the remarkable dispute resolution process – ‘love-bombing’ – which was part of the movement to reset the relationship between Aboriginal Tasmanians, government and the broader public.

That was our first effort at collaboration.

Coming from very different academic disciplines and cultural perspectives, we saw the blog as a cautious first step in developing our professional relationship and a beginning to our joint exploration of the potential for a new approach to dispute resolution built on lessons to be learned from our First Peoples.

The response to this first step was encouraging and affirming. We continued to build our own working relationship with the idea of developing a more formal and academic framework for the ideas we were workshopping.

We proposed to the organising committee of the Roundtable that we would develop a piece of work titled ‘Reimagining the narrative and its special place in Conflict Resolution using lessons from Indigenous Australians.’

As the central themes of our paper we identified some important elements of conflict resolution that are missing from the literature namely:

  • we have failed to undertake significant research to explore and identify the persuasive role of the narrative in conflict resolution; and
  • we have overlooked the resources of our First Peoples whose oral tradition has provided masterful examples of narrative power

Unsurprisingly, mainstream mediation (which is dominated by mediation in the shadow of the law) adopts a mediation approach dominated by facts and legal arguments where parties are silenced and their narratives unrecognised and unheard. The narrative does not feature and has been consigned to the box in which narrative mediation resides – sidelined as a specialised field of mediation and never to emerge as narrative in mediation.

Research from many fields demonstrates that the narrative is important.

In our paper it was initially our intention to present research from the fields of education, psychology and the social sciences demonstrating the significance of the narrative and the cost of its absence in conflict resolution research.

Our collaboration took us to an entirely different place.

Over the course of our many interactions we came to appreciate the absence of an intersection between the worlds we occupy and between our cultural experiences. It became very clear that if this collaboration were genuinely to add a new piece to the dispute resolution narrative we needed to proceed very slowly and respectfully. It was not an outcome that would arrive fully formed as the result of simply combining our work.

It was remarkable to discover that the expectation that the Roundtable would offer a safe space to present ideas was not shared by both of us. Before proposing our paper we had not recognised and explored the extent of our differences. It became clear this was what we needed to do before we could produce any formal outcome from our collaboration.

So the formal, linear discipline and process of writing about conflict resolution emerged as an impediment. It did not offer a safe way to explore and learn from the conflict resolution learnings springing from unimaginable suffering and cultural appropriation experienced within the framework of an oral tradition. It was a revelation to us both that we could not just assemble our own learnings about the narrative into a single formal document.

We realised that if we were going to find a way to join our stories we needed to slow down the collaborative process. We agreed, with support from the organising committee, that our presentation would be in two parts. The first part would lead participants through the initial concept of the paper – setting the scene for the role of the narrative and why it matters. It would then begin to explain how the collaboration process showed us we needed to do things differently.

Dr Lee would then join the conference via a pre-prepared video in which she explains her perceptions around safety and cultural sensitivity and delivers an invitation to the academics present to support the journey of collaboration that has begun.

We are hoping that the commentators assigned to the session will create a space where the audience engages in contemplating the value of the journey and develops an appetite to discover what the next steps will be.

The authors

Emma Lee

 Dr Emma Lee

Dr Emma Lee is a trawlwulwuy woman of tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania, Australia.  She is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Research Fellow at Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology.  Her research fields over the last 25 years have focused on Indigenous affairs, land and sea management, policy and governance of Australian regulatory environments.  Dr Lee has published in diverse journals ranging from Biological Reviews to Annals of Tourism Research.  She is the 2018 recipient of the University of Tasmania’s Foundation Graduate Award and has won prestigious fellowships to study in Europe and Asia.


  Dr Rosemary Howell

Dr Rosemary Howell is a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales and a Senior Fellow at The University of Melbourne. She has studied Negotiation and Mediation with the Harvard Faculty and worked as a Teaching Assistant to Professor Roger Fisher at Harvard and during his Australia-wide training programs.

Her doctoral work explored ‘How Lawyers Negotiate.’

She has a particular interest in developing experiential learning models for the teaching of Negotiation and Dispute Resolution which draw heavily on the role of the narrative.

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rosemary Howell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rosemary Howell

I am a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, delivering dispute resolution programs to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company, Strategic Action, provides mediation, facilitation, coaching and bespoke training to business and government.

4 thoughts on “The story of a collaborative journey – through the lens of reimagining the conflict narrative using lessons from Indigenous Australians.

  1. I have read this post and regret that I was unable to hear the presentation personally as it coincided directly with mine. As always, Rosemary, your thought leadership is extraordinary.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment John. It has been the journey of a lifetime for me and I felt the Roundtable offered a very safe place to share it. Congratulations on your Presidency. Your own journey has been such a great example to us all.

      Liked by 1 person

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