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Interview with Dr. William Hall, Conflict Resolution Specialist at the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Home Forums PCDN Interviews with Key Practitioners and Scholars Interview with Dr. William Hall, Conflict Resolution Specialist at the United States Environmental Protection Agency


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    Profile photo of Craig Zelizer
    Craig Zelizer

    Interview with Dr. William Hall, Conflict Resolution Specialist at the United States Environmental Protection Agency

    This interview was conducted with Dr. William Hall. The views expressed in this interview are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Federal Government.


    1. Can you give us a brief bio about yourself and how got into the field?

    I was motivated to get into Conflict Resolution by a number of things. I served in the Peace Corps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when it was still Zaire and was able to see a lot of things that I would not have been exposed to otherwise.  I worked in community development as a water and sanitation volunteer. My job was to try and bring better water and sanitation to my village and surrounding ones. I have been to 34 countries around the world, something that has been really eye opening for me.  I began working at the EPA in 1992 and saw a lot of areas of conflict in the environmental field.  In the mid-90s, I decided to go to graduate school and stumbled across the field of conflict resolution. I felt it really fit my life and career goals.  I had been the lead for a project that involved dialogues on urban storm water pollution, which was my first exposure to environmental conflict resolution.


    2.    What ethics guide your work?

    I have four different ethical levels that guide my work.  First, as a federal employee, I am responsible for following the entire set of ethics and guidelines that apply to federal employees. Some examples of these include not using a public position for personal gain, reporting waste fraud and abuse, and having a limitation on personal gifts that I can receive.  Second, as a conflict resolution practitioner, the ethical principle that guides my work is to first do no harm and then look for where improvements can be made in the situation. Sometimes guidebooks and ‘recipes’ for conflict resolution are good for pedagogical purposes, but not for practical implementation. I try to find areas for improvement even if they are not perfect. Third, when doing research with people, informed consent and providing either confidentiality or anonymity are really important. Fourth, I aspire to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of each human being and believe that I should leave people and places better than I found them.  I try to be humble and mindful of how little I know, which offers me a great opportunity for further inquiry about people and the world around me.


    3.    How do you maintain a balance between work and personal life?

    It is not an easy task these days for any of us, especially in modern times.  I believe that two things-careful planning and taking care of my personal health- help me maintain a balance between work and personal life. Every morning, I sit down and plan out my day.  I also I plan on a weekly basis. I believe it is really important to be deliberate about that type of activity. I try to make time for the things that are important, but not urgent in life. Urgent and critical projects will take over if you let them. I also find that it is helpful to turn off electronic gadgets and take time away from the phone, email, news, etc. I believe that health is the foundation to maintaining a balance between work and personal life. For example, I ride my bike into work almost every day and believe that eating right is also really important.


    4.    What do you see as the upcoming growth areas in the field in the next 10 years?

    A professor of mine once told me “the need is great, but the demand is small.” The challenge is to get people to pay for and support conflict resolution.  There are three areas that I see as growth areas for the field in the next ten years, two of which flow from the same source of people wanting to be empowered to solve their own challenges. The first growth area is conflict coaching, which is applying the skills, frameworks, and analysis that we know in providing one-on-one advice. These skills, frameworks, and analysis can have a real impact on people because they can help guide them in resolving issues in a constructive manner.  The second area is training. At the EPA, we see a lot of demand for conflict resolution training. We have trained over 1000 people in the past couple years.  People are really receptive to the trainings, and the more people we reach the better. The third growth area is reflected in the increasing interest in how to use new technologies in this field.  We can now collaborate in ways we never had been able to before.  However, there are also some pitfalls to technology, as anyone who has hit the send button on an email that wasn’t well thought-out knows.  There is a need for younger generations to help lead the technology growth in the field, more than just through Facebook, computing technology, and analytical modeling.


    1. What gaps do you think need to be addressed in the peacebuilding and development fields?

    The peacebuilding and development fields are strongly interrelated, so I am glad that you framed the question this way. My view of the future is that we need to take a look at what our collective goals are, especially as they relate to sustainable development and peace.  What are we striving for? We are all in some ways still developing.  In that regard, there is a very interesting recent study worth reading by Diener, Ng, Harter, and Arora in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the relationship between wealth and happiness. They found that there is a category of psychological needs-the need for respect, autonomy, and learning- that is a really important component of happiness but is not reflected in concepts like the GDP. A certain level of wealth and economic development is undoubtedly important, but there is also another category of needs that is not being universally addressed.


    1. What challenges do you face in your work and at your organization?

    I think there are three main challenges. First, is the question of resources.  In this country we need to be very wise in the use of resources we have and start doing more with less. Conflict resolution can help with this- conflict costs money and time, and we can help mitigate those costs through conflict resolution. Second, is the language we use to describe our work. The jargon is too academic and lofty and we need to find ways to convey the ideas that we are trying to share with the general population without the jargon.  In my work, I can explain the jargon and people are smart and will get it, but having to do so means that there is a gap where the jargon prevents people from being immediately drawn in. Third, the conflict resolution field needs to do a better job of showing our relevance to the rest of the world.  We need to match our work to our clients’ needs and show them how we are meeting those needs. One way this can be done is through evaluation. We need to come up with more evidence to show that our work is useful and that it is having a positive impact.


    1. What makes your organization unique? What kind of frameworks do you normally use?

    What makes the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center at EPA and the people who work here unique is that they all see their work as more than just a job, they see it as a vocation.  People are not just showing up to punch the clock. We each contribute in different ways and have different strengths, but have a common sense of purpose.  The center is the product of a very long history- EPA has been using conflict resolution techniques since the 1970s. The agency and its stakeholders have seen the value of the work and looked for better ways to collaborate to solve disputes.


    There are several frameworks that I find useful.  Interest-based negotiation is really important, which is about the distinction between the claims that parties are making and their actual needs.  I find that people are really receptive to this idea. Another one is Adam Curle’s Progression of Conflict Model. It is a great way of thinking about the different types of interventions that are needed at different stages in a conflict. I also find Jim Laue’s work on intervention roles helpful. It shows that it’s possible for many kinds of people in many kinds of situations to play those different roles.


    1. How does your organization collaborate with other organizations?

    Your question highlights how important it is to collaborate with other organizations, and it is becoming increasingly more so. Our organization collaborates a lot internally with our regional offices, as well as with other federal agencies. We collaborate a lot with like-minded folks in our regional offices, where conflict resolution may not always be part of their job description, but they are willing and eager to work with us to improve their conflict resolution skills and provide services to clients. Within the federal government, we have many strong relationships: there are quarterly meetings with representatives from other agencies, we share information- especially our training materials, and we invite other agencies to join us when there are open slots in our trainings and vice versa.  We also collaborate on evaluation activities. It’s nice to have a standard way of asking questions for evaluations. It makes it easier to look at data across the federal government.  We also participate actively in the national conference on environmental conflict resolution, which is hosted by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution in Tucson, Arizona about every two years.


    1. What other organization or practitioner’s work do you look up to and why?

    Dr. Wallace Warfield was a really inspirational and influential practitioner, as well as a personal mentor when I was a student at George Mason University. He had an amazing ability to meet you as you are and where you are. By that I mean that he had an ability to connect with many different people on a level that is rare.  He was a truly great mentor and his contributions to the conflict resolution field will be long remembered.


    1. What book(s) are a must-read for people interested in this field?

    There are so many books out there and different books resonate with different people.  Lewis Coser’s The Functions of Social Conflict questioned the idea that conflict is dysfunctional, and said that conflict can be functional, can lead to change, and can maintain group cohesion. His work was really thought provoking and helped me see that we need to be mindful of the negative consequences of conflict, but also need to understand that conflict can be useful, productive, and beneficial for society.  Conflict needs to be well managed to minimize the negative consequences while bringing out the benefits. Another book that has influenced my thinking is John Dryzek’s The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses.  It really helps the reader to try on different lenses and worldviews for environmental issues. I find it really useful and have even assigned it as a required text for a class I teach on conflict resolution and the environment at Georgetown University where, as far as I know, my students also find the book valuable.


    1. In your opinion, what traits and skills make someone in this field successful?

    In my opinion, there are four main skills that make people successful in our field. The first is analytical skills- the ability to think about challenging situations in new ways.  I have yet to encounter a work situation where analytical skills weren’t an asset.  Second is communication skills- writing, speaking, being able to summarize things effectively.  Communication skills also include knowing the nuances of language- when, where, and how you say things are really important in conflict resolution. Third, and related to communication skills, is listening- being able to really fully listen is the foundation of conflict resolution.  When people feel that they are really being heard, it gives a whole different dynamic to the situation. The fourth skill is patience and taking the long view on conflict resolution. There is always a temptation for a quick fix, but we may have more of an impact in the long term than we realize. Because of this, we need the patience to know we will get there eventually and that although you personally may not see the results in your time with a particular organization, your work may well contribute to a more sustainable peace.


    1. Do you have any advice for people or students who want to pursue a career in the field?

    Do some soul searching and really think about what you feel enthusiastic about.  To be satisfied and successful with a career in conflict resolution, it needs to be about a lot more than just a paycheck.  After that, build your skills and resume around the things that you want to do.  Do informational interviews with people doing the type of work you think you might be interested in- people love to talk about the work that they do. Do ‘snowball sampling’- ask the people that you do informational interviews with “who else do you know that I should talk to?” Other questions to ask them are: “What skills and experience do you seek in the people you hire? What do you do in your job and what are the tasks that are the most important? How did you get started, what path led you to where you are?” For some people, you may able to use the information you gain from your interviews to build skills in your current job. Your current employer may be willing to help you with professional development. For others, this information could mean going back to school.  Make sure to consider volunteer opportunities, like community mediation and facilitation.  These types of volunteer activities can help you build a reputation for good work, and a reputation carries with you.  Being paid for the work is not as important as creating a reputation that you do good and skillful work.


    1.  How can conflict resolution theory and practice assist short and long term management healing and recovery after the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? And what are the lessons for future environmental catastrophes? Is there a framework we should be applying in such cases? 

    This question is a little hard to answer because it is something the EPA is currently working on, but it comes back to the notion that in any crisis like this, it’s really important that people listen to each other.  It’s the first step to healing.  The lesson that we can really take away from situations like this is the importance of prevention- it is much easier to prevent things than to fix them once they have happened.



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