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Examining Difficult Conversations in Environmental Conflicts
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This dissertation explores difficult conversations in environmental conflicts. Environmental conflicts emerge over complex environmental issues, and the resulting decision-making processes are fraught with difficult conversations among diverse individual and organizational actors. Such difficult conversations among diverse actors play out in public decision-making forums and can amass considerable public attention. However, many of the difficult conversations that move these issues forward occur among organizational representatives, and they take place across a range of public and private settings. Unfortunately, we know very little about the dynamics of these interorganizational conversations, particularly those in private or semi-private settings. This dissertation seeks to contribute insight into representatives’ interactions in difficult conversations through three separate studies that explored (1) the interactional challenges representatives encounter in inter-organizational conversations and the issues they pose, (2) the role of emotion in their conversations, and (3) the situated challenges encountered as well as management strategies used by researchers in studying interorganizational conversations. To investigate these research questions, a case was used regarding an ongoing controversy regarding Navy training activities and their potential impact on marine mammals. An engaged scholarship approach is used in this dissertation, which places emphasis on collaboratively designed research among researchers and participants. It calls attention to the joint creation of relationships and encourages reflexive self-awareness of one’s research practice. I engaged in twenty-nine qualitative interviews with representatives involved in the Navy-marine mammal issue. In the third study, I supplemented interview data with reflection journal data and email correspondence from participants. The analyses of the three studies offer a multi-faceted view of difficult conversations from both representative and researcher perspectives. The first study’s findings suggested that representatives perceived conversational challenges stemming from scientific interpretation debates in light of larger contextual factors such as organizational, legal, and political interests. Representatives might manage these challenges through personalized relationships and a shift to more systemic thinking regarding their relationships. The second study suggests that professionalism was a key concept regarding how emotions were managed in the emotional moments of representatives’ conversations, that a negative characterization of these moments leads representatives to neutralize emotion display, and that individuals’ need to protect their professional identities lead them to engage in particular management strategies. In the third study, conversational challenges regarding relational connection and research access emerged, which needed to be managed with situated practices sensitive to larger legal and political contexts, through the use of situated judgment. Taken together, these studies suggest that key factors in difficult conversations relate to (1) contextual influence, (2) systemic connection, and (3) relational climate. These factors combine into a proposed model of difficult conversations, which distinguishes between stuck conversations, which keep actors locked in old ways of relating to each other, and more constructive expansive conversations.
Gesch-Karamanlidis, Eleni (2016). Examining Difficult Conversations in Environmental Conflicts. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from