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Your identity is impacting the way you negotiate. Find out how experienced humanitarian professionals cope with it

By November 4, 2021January 3rd, 2022All Stories, Thematic projects
Neelum valley, Chamata. Discussion around the relief distribution list.  Photo: ICRC/BARRY, Jessica

Have you ever asked yourself what influence your identity has on a negotiation? How about the identity of your counterpart? 

Negotiating access to a prison, traveling safely through a conflict zone, or delivering assistance in a refugee camp is only possible if your counterpart trusts you. But how do you reach that level of trust so that an armed guard lets you speak with detainees, or cross the frontline to assist the wounded of their enemy? 

To support those in need, humanitarian professionals need to build a relationship with their counterpart, and part of creating that relationship is about appearing legitimate in the counterpart’s eyes.

“The most important skill a negotiator needs to have is to be able to understand the sources of legitimacy in a particular context and adapt one’s personal profile as much as possible to that context.”
CCHN Field Manual on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation, p. 92

A humanitarian organization’s good reputation, being competent in a certain domain, or adapting easily are all useful strategies to increase a humanitarian negotiator’s legitimacy. They can also use their network of connections, or their personal features — such as physical appearance, gender, religion, personality, language, or nationality. 

It is around this last aspect that the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) has conducted research and interviewed over 20 frontline humanitarian negotiators to better understand how their identity and personality influence the relationship with their counterpart and, ultimately, the result of their negotiation.

In this series, you will get an insider’s view into how humanitarian negotiators navigate their own identity in the field and encounter topics such as: 

  • Negotiating with female counterparts,  
  • The weight of colonial baggage,  
  • The importance of speaking the local language,  
  • The impact of gender on negotiations,  
  • … and much more. 

We will release a new “chapter” each week. As the testimonies become available, the respective button will turn purple. Stay tuned to discover more!

APPEARANCE

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Sara
International staff, Greece

Up to today, I can still remember how part of my identity made some negotiations easier. If I could, I always opted to go to the Middle East, because I associate myself more easily with it, even though I’m not an Arabic speaker. I can disappear within the crowd without them noticing I’m a foreigner. 

Read more

In many contexts, this made my life very easy, especially in Iraq. I came from the region, I was Greek Orthodox, so they could place me and understand me. They told me: “We can work with you. We don’t understand all these others who say they are atheist.” Even my hair color had an impact, because they could associate it with something, they didn’t feel I was a threat. There was a mutual feeling of: “I know you have to do your work, but I also have to do mine, so let’s find a compromise.” 

“I can disappear within the crowd without them noticing I’m a foreigner.”

Robert
International staff, Asian origins

I worked in Myanmar before the coup, when it was not a democracy yet but still a military regime. Under these circumstances, the fact that I am Asian was really an advantage. I was told very directly by my counterpart in the Myanmar Red Cross Society: “Since we have you here now, we know we’re going to understand each other.”

Read more

Myanmar is deeply Buddhist, just like 90% of my country’s population, but we never talked about religion. It was mostly about personality and the physical appearance. It was not white faces only, like in most organisations. When dealing with the Military and the government, the Head of Delegation used to take me with him everywhere, to show that we were not there to inflict them with white Western principles. 

White people don’t know that they have this natural bias towards other white people. In Asia it’s the same thing basically.   

When I say that I’m French, people don’t really believe me. Then when they realize that I understand the Western culture and speak French, they call me a banana. That’s what racism looks like in the humanitarian sector. 

“When they realize that I understand the Western culture and speak French, they call me a banana.”

Anika
International staff, New Zealand

My age has probably been one of the things that has affected my negotiations the most. I realize I have been compensating for my age, so introducing myself I would say: “I come from the Country Office, I am part of the management team, I have spent the last 6 years in the Middle East”. I say this to try and send a message that I understand the geopolitics and so that they know that I can’t be in my 20s. Then I’ve probably tried to overcompensate a little bit with toughness, but this is emotional and reactive, more than a conscious thing.  

 

“I’ve probably tried to overcompensate a little bit with toughness.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

NATIONALITY

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Alina
International staff, Swiss

Once, in Iraq, we were dealing with Yazidis regarding the issue of mass graves. I never mentioned my actual origins because a lot of foreign fighters are from there, but I was obviously non-Arab and non-Muslim.

Read more

Being non-Muslim was a positive thing; among the many ethnic and religious stigmas, I was perceived as neutral and independent. However, being a foreigner, you are not taken seriously, and it takes a lot of time to build the trust. You get the message: “You can never understand what happened before because you weren’t here.” 

“You can never understand what happened before because you weren’t here.”

Andrea
International staff

Some colleagues come and say: “It would be better if you said this to him. We can’t have this conversation but, because you’re international, you can.” Male colleagues would be the ones looked at and spoken to, but this pales in comparison to this national-international dynamic and these power relations.

Read more

Female Bangladeshi colleagues have been told in front of me in Bangla by local government officials: “You should be more amenable with me, because she [referring to me] will be leaving, but you are stuck here with me.”

“You should be more amenable with me, because she will be leaving, but you are stuck here with me.”

Dalia
Local staff

When I know my gender is going to be a hindrance, I make sure to wear a lot of visibility of the organization I belong to as a source of legitimacy. I try to look a little older, I carry myself and speak in a certain way, I deepen my voice.

Read more

I am very careful about the way I address people and I use words that are used by older people, that are very traditional. I try to blend into the culture more and not stand out as a millennial woman who’s speaking English around them.  

It’s challenging to be someone who is a local but is formed academically and ideologically by the West. It’s very difficult to find a balance between the two that can work in my context.

 

“It’s challenging to be someone who is a local but is formed academically and ideologically by the West.”

Sofia
International staff, German

I adapt a lot. I’m German, so we are used to speaking more directly. When we want something from someone, we just go and ask for it. Here, you have a long conversation before, talking about family, news… An then you ask your actual question. I learned here that you don’t just approach the person with your request.

Read more

Also, Germans are perceived as being on time, working a lot and being friendly to Syrian refugees. Everyone knows Angela Merkel. So saying I’m from Germany helps, it’s a starting point of trust. They like Germans in general. They don’t ask for my religion, they assume I’m Christian.

“Everyone knows Angela Merkel. So saying I’m from Germany helps, it’s a starting point of trust.”

Graham
International staff, British

In Africa, whilst working in a UN Mission, I was part of three-man team whose task was to persuade a non-state armed group commander to stop fighting and join the political process. At first the organization wanted to send three African officers, because they thought they would be better able to talk to him.

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But he said: “I don’t want Africans, I want Westerners.” So we were sent, two Brits and a German. We did 5 trips to the field over a month, and although we didn’t ultimately achieve what we sought, we made a lot of progress in advancing the dialogue.

“I don’t want Africans, I want Westerners.”

Emma
International staff, British

I have been working in British post-colonial countries, and, surprisingly, it didn’t affect as much as I expected. I’m even surprised at how little. Maybe it is more residual in some countries than others.

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For instance, in Palestine, being an Arabic speaker helped mitigate a lot of that, because they understand that you respect them if you speak their language. But it is true that this topic would systematically come up, and they would love to engage on it. The conversation could have gone anywhere depending on how I took it. My reaction would be to be apologetic, and say sorry for what my parents did. It all goes back to personality and how we [the negotiators] engage with the interlocutor.

There is a colonial legacy, but people remember the most recent one. Interestingly, South Sudan had fond memories of the Brits, and resented the Arab colonialism, which is the more recent one. If you think about the Ottoman occupation of the Middle East, when there also were terrible violations, they are beyond that because the most recent colonialists were the French, the Brits and the Americans. It is interesting how memory and politics shape everything.

“There is a colonial legacy, but people only remember the most recent one.”

Angie
International staff

In Bangladesh, there is this unspoken cultural protocol. You go meet your counterpart and you get turned away at first. So you leave but then you come back, because it’s what it’s expected.

Read more

The negotiation culture is also quite indirect. There is a certain maneuvering of talking about something without talking about it directly. My positive negotiations started with a lot of personal relationship-building. The first meeting, we didn’t even talk about what I wanted, but we had tea and talked about personal stuff. Then I found out I could go to him with requests, and it wasn’t an extensive negotiation every time.   

There are a lot of unspoken rules you are expected to adhere to. Sometimes it’s not even clear to our local colleagues either. Personality is also extremely important: it’s all very individual, very circumstantial. Some counterparts just hate humanitarians, some love us. It just varies so extremely from one case to the other. 

“My positive negotiations started with a lot of personal relationship-building.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

GENDER

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Nicole
International staff, New Zealand

Even negotiating with men, my gender would be a distinct advantage, more so with military or security actors. It automatically deescalates the situation; there is not so much ego, bravado and chauvinism in the room.

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It pains me to say this, but we can play on misogyny, sexism, and flirt. You can let them joke about how many goats you are worth and other things that become icebreakers. If we are in a joint negotiation, I would let male colleagues use me as an icebreaker. 

It just opens ways to keep things calm, particularly in the case of military actors. I haven’t really reflected about if it works equally with civilian male counterparts.

“It pains me to say this, but we can play on misogyny, sexism, and flirt.”

Lucie
International staff

I have negotiated in almost every context: Europe, Afghanistan, Darfur, Central America, the Sahel…

Read more

Being a woman has never been an inhibiting factor. I have never found anyone so reluctant to engage with me because I’m a woman, not even in conservative settings.

Once, I spoke to an Afghan leader of a military group. They guy didn’t want to look at me, so I had to sit with my back facing him. But it was a very “good” conversation. He took me very seriously. We had a substantive discussion, he was respectful.

“Being a woman has never been an inhibiting factor.”

Isabel
International staff

My gender and being young-looking are key factors in the cultural context in Bangladesh. They think: “What possible experience could she have?” Plus, I have a baby face, so regardless of my experience I have that against me. 

Read more

I go in being hyper aware of this. I am definitely changing my personality, trying to be more polite and culturally sensitive. Being aware of how much is going against me, as opposed to against my male colleagues.  

There are so many patriarchal norms here that are so ingrained. It’s an issue of credibility. I generally feel that being a woman here is more of a disadvantage. I have gone to negotiations with my supervisor, who is older but still female. And the reaction she gets, it is the same kind I get, where they want to put you in your place: “How old are you, you look too young. Are you married? Do you have kids? What are you doing here if you have kids?”  

I remember once that I went to negotiate access to the camps during Covid, to open our facility to do minimum services. The local authority immediately asked where my male colleague was. Male managers get away with not having to maneuver like I do. They have an added credibility automatically by being older and male. However, knowing how Bangladeshi women are treated, they have it harder than me. Being international, European in particular, helps. 

In some scenarios, I have been able to negotiate services better by having a softer approach and being more polite, being more hyper aware of the cultural context, not getting impatient or easily frustrated. But these are the exceptions to the rule. I’m married, so I try to play the young mother card to build more trust. Somehow being married gives you a little more respect, playing up to being a family woman, a “good” woman. 

“What are you doing here if you have kids?”

Adama
Local staff

In Burkina Faso, there are many men working in the context of humanitarian response, and less and less women. Generally, men are taking difficult contexts and women are left behind. But in many contexts, there are certain parts where women can have added value.

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For instance, a big part of the beneficiaries are women and children and, because of local practices, it is difficult to get information from them if you are a man. There is no gender balance, when comparing the high number of women among beneficiaries and the small number among humanitarian workers. 

We lose a lot of information because of this lack of diversity. Humanitarian actors have to focus on the style of communication. When people talk about Africa, they describe a difficult context to work in, so managers don’t want to send women here. There is a lack of knowledge about the history; in certain tribes, women are described as legends in the history of their cities. But these stories of women taking the leadership are unknown. 

“In certain tribes, women are described as legends in the history of their cities.”

Olivia
International staff

It’s there that I find the power. When people don’t take you so seriously, they think it will be easy. Then when you start to engage in the conversation, they are surprised. At first they think: “She’s not experienced, she’s not strong…” and they release their defenses, so it’s easier to reach them. 

Read more

In Iraq, they told me directly that at first they had thought: “They are sending a woman? They are not taking this seriously.” Then they told me: “You are a strong woman, we like that, we respect that.”

“They are sending a woman? They are not taking this seriously.”

Hilary
International staff

We were meeting with a religious leader that denied my existence. He greeted my male colleague, and it was like I wasn’t there. I realized it was my time to stay quiet, even though I was leading the visit.

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However, my colleague didn’t really know what we could and couldn’t do, he didn’t have the necessary information. So, I tried to make my voice heard and, once the counterpart realized I had the answers, he actually started listening to me and interacting with me. At first, he would look at the floor, but towards the end he even called me by my name while looking at me!  

This team combination was also useful when visiting prison inmates. They started telling me about private and more intimate stuff, while to my colleague they were asking requests like: “Can you fix my shower?” Being both, it was great. If I had gone alone, they wouldn’t have talked to me. If he had gone alone, we would have missed the more private stuff, which is extremely important for one of the organization’s main missions.

 

“They started telling me about private and more intimate stuff, while to my colleague they were asking requests like: ‘Can you fix my shower?'”

Taylor
International staff

I keep my sexual orientation to myself because I could get crucified. You need to make sure that your personal life is kept secret, even though I must admit that it’s very stressful.

Read more

When you join the organization and participate in managerial courses, there is no course or training related to diversity, be it regarding females, be it regarding LGBTI+. There is no approach to how to handle this. For me, this is a red line. If you want to be a manager, you need to have this cultural diversity. Before thinking of security measures, I want my line manager not to discriminate or bully me. We are looking at the last picture – negotiation – but are your staff from minority groups feeling safe and comfortable in your organization? No, honestly. I didn’t even come out to my organization out of fear of losing my job.  

My female partner is not recognized by my organization: for you to fill in the papers, you need to have your house, or your bill under the name of both. This is ridiculous because 80% of your staff don’t have this privilege. I’m not going to have an official paper where both our names are written. In third world countries, even male and female that are living together but not married won’t be able to have their names on a same official document. We are far behind. It’s all very white, Western-oriented. It’s regulated by laws that don’t apply to 80% of the world. 

“Before thinking of security measures, I want my line manager not to discriminate or bully me.”

Amalia
International staff

We have been addressed by our organization on this topic when it comes to security, asking if there needs to be different security measures for LGBTI+ people. My colleagues said that, prior to thinking of security for staff, there should be more awareness for staff.

Read more

I’m playing with the role of a female even if I don’t identify as female. Even within my organization, because they are way behind with these topics. I have been misgendered for years.

I identify as a trans male, but I am in an organization that does not yet have all the means to support minorities and make them feel safe. This topic is very sensitive to me. We have a lot of problems with diversity prior to reaching the negotiation stage. These challenges are back in our organization, before even addressing a third party. 

“I keep my sexual orientation to myself because I could get crucified.”

Anaïs
International staff

We had to negotiate with our counterparts at the Government, and it was difficult because no organizations were well perceived at the time. I would spend hours at the Ministry to get to meet them and no one would talk to me, not even take my name. Then once I happened to go there with lipstick, and that got me a meeting within half an hour, with coffee, water… However, if you do this, where do you stop? 

Read more

Turns out the problem came more from being from a humanitarian organization than from being a woman. It depends on these biases that our counterparts may have, which are often instrumentalized and not necessarily true. It was probably helpful that I was a foreign woman – this was true in certain countries in the Middle East. We are considered as some kind of “third sex.” You can do things that local woman can’t do, and also things that local men can’t do. 

For instance, I once had to negotiate in a remote area to distribute sanitary pads, which was very badly perceived. The head of the monitoring and evaluation team didn’t manage to talk to the local recipients of assistance because he was a man. I would wait outside while he was meeting the sheikh, and I talked to the women. As a woman, I could talk to the beneficiaries; as a foreigner, I could also talk to the sheikh. 

“As a woman, I could talk to the beneficiaries; as a foreigner, I could also talk to the sheikh.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

LANGUAGE

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Ismael
International staff, Syria

Once, we met with a cross border governor. We didn’t speak his language, so we brought an interpreter, who wasn’t able to transmit the same message we wanted to.

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We did not prepare enough before the meeting. All of us were high level, and we didn’t agree who would speak, so we let the Country Director speak because he was older and more experienced. He didn’t have all the necessary information, so we weren’t clear in our petitions. We should have adapted during the meeting: if we were seeing it wasn’t going well, we shouldn’t have just asked for anything. It was catastrophic – we came out worse off.  

The interpreter was a bit confused, because everybody was asking something from him. We didn’t provide any added value. The next time we went, we printed some materials in the counterpart’s language, saying: “You can check what we are saying on page x.” This really helped us.  

The interpreter was really a liaison officer. He was from the same nationality and spoke the language of the counterpart, but he didn’t have the ideal personality for a negotiator. He was from a rural area, had a background in tourism. He was young, didn’t have the skills, was not trained in negotiation. We just expected him to interpret, not to negotiate, so we didn’t share with him a lot of information or background on the subject matter.

“It was catastrophic, we came out worse off.”

Martina
Local staff, Indonesia

There are many delegates that can speak Indonesian. However, we still have different cultures, gestures, and ways of thinking. Most Indonesians can understand some English; they can catch some words. So, once, I was with this French delegate, and he said in English: “But that’s bullshit.

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They understood that and it was very harsh. Even if you speak Indonesian, that doesn’t mean you will communicate smoothly. People don’t know the weight of the meaning of words. 

I could see that the military men were a bit offended by that, so I tried to de-escalate. At one point, the military guy asked me, because he thought I was taking the side of my delegate: “Why are you defending him? Are you Indonesian or what? How much are you getting paid?” I was perceived as a traitor to my country. 

Similarly, at one other moment in my career, I worked with a delegate from Switzerland. Even though she knows Indonesian, she is very “Swiss”. She is always on time and very rigid. While, in Indonesia, especially after a disaster, you cannot expect people to be always on time. People are too relaxed in the area, and it is not out of disrespect. You have to consider whether it is useful for you to talk about how late they are.

“I was perceived as a traitor to my country.”

Olive
International staff, New Zealand

There is a big difference between the military and the civilian administration.  From my experience, military actors are normally much easier to work with, in countries like Yemen and Iraq. A lot of them had worked with peacekeeping missions and had been trained by coalition forces.

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There is quite often a level of understanding of the humanitarian mandate and of working with humanitarians; they understand the basic concepts around humanitarian principles.

There are opportunities to connect on practical levels also. They may want to practice or show their English or want to talk about their time in America, which can be a particular reason to involve international staff profiles.

If they are managing a humanitarian response, they are at the front, so they are often more empathetic because they see what civilians are going through. When the civilian administration came in later, they only cared (it appeared for the most part) about paperwork and maintaining their position, especially when there is a vacuum of power.

“[Military administrations] are often more empathetic because they see what civilians are going through.”

Amina
Local staff, Jordanian

The first time I met with a female counterpart, it was with someone from the Ministry of Health. I showed her respect because she was a respectful lady. And we built a good relationship, so she said she wanted to deal with me from then onwards. My Program Coordinator didn’t like that.

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So, she went herself to negotiate with her about GBV, to test how she felt about this issue. The reaction was totally different. Because the Program Coordinator wasn’t aware about the interlocutor’s religion and what she thought about this issue: they would not grant access for non-married ladies to a gynecologist, nor allow abortion or distribution of pills…

The counterpart was Christian and when she heard the word “abortion”, she got mad. This is not the topic we should have negotiated with them. The Program Coordinator didn’t “read” the lady, she didn’t have a relationship with her. On the other hand, if you are from the country, they will talk to you as a national, not as representing an international NGO. As a person from the same country, I could have had a side talk with this lady.  

You need to know not only the language, but also the words to use: you need to speak the counterpart’s language on certain topics. If you know she’s conservative, you present the topic conservatively. And this lady later helped me when I wanted something from the Ministry of Health; she talked to the director about me.

“You need to know not only the language, but also the words to use: you need to speak the counterpart’s language on certain topics.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

RELIGION

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Adam
International staff

I normally say I am Christian. In Muslim countries, they don’t really care about this. They care more if you are Muslim and from which affiliation. If they ask, we say we don’t talk about religion. And if they find out, you are not a threat. Atheism is the worst; for some conservative Muslim countries, it is even worse than being a drug dealer. 

“[Being an atheist] is even worse than being a drug dealer.”

Martina
Local staff

As part of the emergency response after a tsunami, we had to approach the religious circles. I am a Muslim, although I’m not a practicing one and I don’t wear a veil, so it was a disadvantage.

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Considering this, it would have been better if I was a Christian. Luckily, the leader of a faith-based organization here is my friend from university, so dropping his name helped a lot. 

I would overcompensate this disadvantage with my story, my experience. I have been working for 7 years as a journalist in conflict areas. I used to live in East Timor during the conflict, so it is something I can relate to. “I was there, I remember that the commander at the time was X…” I show that I’m here because I’m experienced, not because I’m female or getting paid. And they are surprised: “Really? You were there? How old are you?”

“It would have been better if I was a Christian.”

Zaina
Local staff, Jordanian

I have worked many years in different Muslim countries. Being a Muslim and an Arabic speaker, I wouldn’t say this gave me a privilege over other humanitarian workers, but it somehow gave that proximity when we talked. It created that immediate trust because we somehow belong.

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It might be that humanitarians from other nationalities might have had to put a little more effort. 

In certain non-Arabic-speaking Muslim countries, when I met people from the government and other NGOS, they told me: “We wish we could read Quran in the Arabic language, which you can do.” These kinds of interactions transform the atmosphere into a more friendly one faster, so it could be that I have a privilege over other nationalities.

“We wish we could read the Quran in Arabic.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

ORGANIZATION

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Jake
International staff, Canadian

I was in Pakistan after the huge earthquake in Kashmir in 2005. The national authorities and their army were trying to force and strongly influence NGOs to go into specific areas to try to benefit certain regions and tribes, to the detriment of other racial groups for the delivery of aid.

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Due to MSF’s culture and its value of independence, we decided to go into some areas that the military didn’t agree with. During a freezing morning, I was having a coffee outside after an NGO meeting, and a young army officer approached me and started to introduce himself and ask where I was from, and where we were heading with the humanitarian assistance.

He tried to smoothly influence me to go into different areas, saying we would be safer… I changed the direction of the discussion by getting back to more personal issues and I found out that he had studied in Toronto. So I opened the door by saying I was Canadian and talking about life in Canada.

This kind of discussion reduced the level of tension and misunderstanding. After 20 minutes, we went back to the discussion of where we should go and he told me: “MSF, you are free to go anywhere, we don’t have the right to deny your access, you are independent.” 

Later, at another meeting, the chief of the army of the area responsible for the liaison with the cluster asked the representatives of the NGOs to introduce ourselves. After my turn, he stopped the presentation and said that before, when he was younger in a former conflict (in Bosnia if I recall correctly), he was rescued by MSF. So he was really grateful that MSF was there and assured us that nobody from the national authorities would pose problems for us.

“MSF, you are free to go anywhere, we don’t have the right to deny your access, you are independent.” 

Celia
International staff

At the beginning of the response, we were the big actor, so we had a lot of legitimacy and credibility. My agency was positively considered by government counterparts. Of course, there were and are also some government authorities who do not like humanitarians at all. What I try to do is act more as the channel – I’m coming as my agency’s representative, not as my specific unit. It makes the conversation easier, because they don’t want us there. 

“[I] act more as the channel – I’m coming as my agency’s representative.”

Shona
International staff

Knowing the context is a very important element, but, if you don’t know it, you can still fall back on being humble. I have spent years in the Middle East, so I know it very well. After many years there I went to Myanmar: it was my first time in Asia, and the culture is not a get-to-know-quickly kind of place; there are layers and layers to get through.  

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My advice is to be transparent about not being an expert, show willingness to learn, and ask them to teach you. That’s a big source of legitimacy, even bigger than being an expert. Acting like an expert, you can come across as arrogant, as a representative of a colonial power. Showing respect is fundamental. 

“My advice is to be transparent about not being an expert, show willingness to learn, and ask them to teach you.”

Blair
International staff

International organizations haven’t been present in Libya for a long time; we recently relocated partially. There was also the Covid issue, so there has been a period where Libyans weren’t used to having foreigners around.

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Resident staff would question me: “Why are you here?” They have a certain ego where they feel they don’t need international organizations.

Before that, Libyans were a rich community with high profiles, they had people that worked for them. Now it is us who are in managerial positions, dealing with the interlocutors. It’s even worse if you are a female, and even worse if by any chance you are perceived as having a different sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“Resident staff would question me: ‘Why are you here?'”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

PERSONALITY

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Jana
Local staff, Jordanian

The personality of the interlocutor affects how I structure my discussions. If I see someone very stiff and serious, I tend to be more formal and straightforward. I elaborate and wait to see the reaction. Sometimes I make it a point: maybe this person is being like that to test me.

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Then I tell them: “I am not there to question, nor to investigate; I’m there to raise a few points to see how we can work together.” It helps to make the atmosphere more relaxed. Nobody likes to be attacked or questioned, so don’t go in with this mentality. 

Sometimes I go and I see someone acting immediately in a friendly way and it becomes a beautiful meeting. I’m very relaxed and spontaneous by nature, the sky is my limit in terms of how spontaneous I am. I make jokes and quotes, and the meeting is wonderful. On the other hand, when the counterpart is very serious, I make my points clear in a very friendly way. I would try to make negative points in a positive way: “I’m your partner, we work together.”   

My face gives that comfortable feeling, everybody tells me that. Being charming is an added value, whether you are a woman or a man. I don’t pressure by wanting to go out with any promises, but I open the door for a follow up discussion: “Let’s have a technical committee to discuss this more.” It’s a technique. The personality dictates who I approach, but it does not make me leave without what I wanted. This is why I like to read about the person before. It’s also good to read a lot about other things to have an access point, to start the conversation with something neutral before discussing the actual topic. 

“I’m your partner, we work together.”

Aimee
International staff, British

When negotiating with someone with a double personality, I.e., someone who acts very nice and friendly in front of you, but of whom you have heard viciously tortures prisoners, how do you react?

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You have to stay very calm; you have to do some self-regulation. When you have seen a tortured prisoner, this is of course very hard. I’ve done a lot of interpreting before, so I see my relationships with other people as some sort of interpreting.

You are reading, analyzing, absorbing information and then you have to interpret it, analyze it, understand why it’s happening, and see what chances you have of affecting the outcome. Then you have to translate into a language that your counterpart can understand. A lot of energy goes into this process. 

It goes into you, it’s very exhausting, because you have to engage with a person that’s inflicting suffering on others. It’s an incredibly challenging process. That is where emotional self-regulation comes in. You need to find ways to be very pragmatic.

“I see my relationships with other people as some sort of interpreting.”

Eleni
International staff, Greek

I don’t like being in the lead; I love being behind the scenes. I’m much more into lobbying, networking, building alliances… this is my nature when I negotiate. I know my strengths are there. However, if I have to negotiate, I do.

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When I was in the lead, I always tried to have a team who could also contribute based on their own negotiations experience. I don’t expect to know everything in the negotiation, so I would delegate to my colleagues. I don’t like technicalities, I don’t memorize them easily, which is a limitation but also a strength. I would always try to find a compromise.  

I had a boss that expected me to be tougher. He was trying to make me more of a mature negotiator. I never bought in, because maturity comes with knowledge and from personal experiences. I don’t think I can skip phases. It’s visible if you try to push it.  

For certain people, negotiation is about performing. For me it is not like that; I just want to be myself. If this means I can’t negotiate everything, that’s fine.  

My advice would be not to change your personality throughout the negotiation. If you need the negotiator to be harsher, consider putting somebody else instead. Negotiation is an art.

“If this means I can’t negotiate everything, that’s fine.”

Sandra
International staff, British

It’s so much about personality and soft skills and competences; generally, it is more about that. How you present yourself; how you engage with the counterpart. The identity probably comes in at an unconscious level, but I believe it is more about experience and personality.

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It also depends on the stage of the negotiation. At a first meeting, it is going to be so different than if you have actually built a relationship. One of the main challenges is where there is constant rotation of interlocutors, because the relationship-building element is very important. How you interact with someone in the first five minutes of a meeting is very different.  

I would always try to be straightforward – which is slightly different to honest, which has a connotation of full disclosure – by trying to be transparent about my objectives of the meeting. I try to be of added value to them, because I am aware that they have their own wishes and agenda. Also, it is always me who is asking for the meetings, which starts you off on a different footing. We need to make something appealing to them.

“The identity probably comes in at an unconscious level, but I believe it is more about experience and personality.”

Kayla
International staff, New Zealand

A Yemeni person told me once: we cannot forget to think about the psychology of where an actor is coming from. Consider that they were bombed consistently over a decade. We need to understand the psychological trauma, the tribe where a group is coming from, their sense of victimhood.

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We need to allow them their space, allow them to perceive themselves in their way, not treating them solely as the international community perceives them.  

The psychological background is thus very important. Negotiations are often at the very local level, at the parallel checkpoint level, so it comes down to having conversations about where their family is since, due to the conflict, they might be struggling somewhere else in the world. You play to their individual circumstances and try to humanize the situation in order to gain access.  

It is essential to understand the behavioral competencies, the defaults of these communities. In Yemen, we completely underestimated the pride factor. I have worked in the Middle East for the past 6 years and I’ve never seen pride as in Yemen. If you push them against the wall, if you don’t acknowledge their pride and don’t give them the opportunity to save face, they will completely reject and retaliate.   

However, this Works both ways. Why does my organization have a good reputation locally? If we don’t give the authorities X or Y, we will be antagonizing them, but we will also be well respected. Why? Because we hold a firm position. Being consistent and being firm, the authorities begrudgingly respect that we also have pride, that we remain true to our aims. Even though we don’t always agree, they respect us for holding our lines.

“Even though we don’t always agree, they respect us for holding our lines.”

Scott
International staff, Canadian

Most of the time, our counterparts were really open to us. In a first meeting with foreigners, they will always be very respectful, even if they think you are the incarnation of evil. They will offer you tea, they will invite you to sit to initiate the conversation about your presence in their area.

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We thought they would have a very rough, strong personality (or cultural identity), due to their way of living, the lack of commodities, the tough weather… They are people from the mountain.

But when the discussions started, we realized that they were very calm and respectful. I didn’t face any direct or indirect threats, but after 3 months, the government officially said that the NGOs had to leave the country. They knew there were Taliban in the country, maybe they were putting pressure on the government for Westerners to leave. 

Before leaving, a young man told my translator that he wanted to discuss with me: all his life, going to the mosque almost every day, he was always hearing that Westerners were the incarnation of the devil.

He told me: “For the first time, I see you here distributing aid to my people, and I am questioning that.” This helped me understand the perception from the other side, their worldview. Our presence there was strongly shaking their values and beliefs.

“We thought they would have a very rough, strong personality. They are people from the mountain.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

COUNTERPART’S IDENTITY

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Chiara
International staff

I think my ideas of counterparts have evolved over time. For instance, I had a very specific idea of criminal gangs in Latin America, mostly based on movies. When you engage them –often through intermediaries–, you realize it’s not just senseless killing or violence, there’s a deliberate approach, a highly organized structure, and a purposeful message in the violence.

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That was a revelation to me. It made me humbler to recognize there’s a lot I don’t know about them and about any interlocutors in general. That is why it’s very important to rely on people who know the area, to take your time to understand and have bilateral conversations with people who know. 

We never negotiated directly with criminal gangs. But if you go to an area where they have to allow you to go in, you have to be very clear about your impartiality, that you’re not there to spy on them and that you will not relay information about them or their activities to those that may use it against them. If that happens, the civilian population you have been engaging with is the one that will suffer. If you convince them that the projects are for the better of the community, as long as they don’t “sabotage” (too much) their objectives, they will let you access. You need to know what you can push and how far you can push it.  

What I was wary of the most were law enforcement officers; police officers. The army is still more structured, they still have a clearer modus operandi and command structure even in countries where they could be engaged in violations of human rights. But policemen and police units are not as organized: they can be more corrupt. Individual policemen can act more on their own and get away with it – at least that is my experience. Although I must admit that nothing has ever gone terribly bad.  

Do I think that if I go into a meeting with this perception, like walking on eggshells, this has an impact on my negotiation style and makes the negotiation less successful? I am not sure. With the police, it makes a difference being a woman and petite and young. It’s almost as if I know what they are thinking. You feel it in this kind of dismissal: the attention of the officer is on other things, he makes little space for a conversation, he gives you orders, “this is as it is”. Or he flirts with you. It depends. This is communicated in the first five minutes. With them, I try to be polite but also assertive. If I’m being pushed around, I try not to convey any nervousness. 

They are a tough group. I know in many organizations they make sure to almost always send a guy to the police station.

“With the police, it makes a difference being a woman.”

Sheree
International staff

Generally, relationships with the army are somehow better, while some local government authorities are usually more difficult. Other authorities tend to act like the kings of their camp, put in this position of power, whereas the army is more hierarchical. 

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The army was part of the Bangladeshi peacekeeping missions, for which they received training. They were the first responders to the Rohingya crisis, they were seen as humanitarians at the beginning and, most importantly, they see themselves as part of the humanitarian response. On the other hand, local authorities here are very bureaucratic. They rotate every six months, which makes it very difficult to have to build a relationship with someone new every time. But then, if you have a difficult one, it’s also good knowing he will be leaving after six months. It is a very different culture.  

However, I always try to be very self-aware during the planning phase of my negotiations. After so many negotiations, you do start making assumptions and value judgements. “This local authority is probably going to be a toughminded male – if he’s young I know he’s going to try to prove himself…” I love it when I am surprised, and my assumptions are challenged.

“I love it when I am surprised, and my assumptions are challenged.”

Ruby
International staff, French-Moroccan

There is a category of counterpart that is quite easy for me to navigate: the sleazy men. The “don’t you look good today” kind of people. If I put lipstick, I can get that person to put the stamp on the piece of paper. I have to hear the denigrating comments and grind my teeth, but they are easy to navigate.

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I would encounter this quite regularly, surprisingly more in the institutional settings, where there are rules and protocols about this. 

I have been confronted to sexism long enough in my career, so I have developed a practice or an ability to suck it up when I need to suck it up. An ability to de-escalate by anticipation, turn it into a joke, and not something that becomes more serious than it could be.

In the humanitarian sector I have reinforced this ability because you have an agenda. Don’t become angry because that will defeat your objective of getting that paper signed or getting to meet that person. It’s very easy to be labeled as “that angry woman who can’t take a joke”.

Humor has always been a good tool for me to de-escalate. The objective shouldn’t be to change your counterpart’s mind – you won’t turn them into a “not sexist” by that one meeting. So, I would try to diminish the impact so that I can keep the relationship with that person.

“It’s very easy to be labeled as ‘that angry woman who can’t take a joke.’”

Adrian
International staff, British

I have never negotiated with women specifically as counterparts. However, I did learn a sobering lesson in Bosnia, where I was looking for a multinational team, including some ladies that were interpreters. I was in charge, and I said to the team: “The gentlemen can use the bathrooms x, the girls can use the other bathroom.” One of them said: “Would you mind referring to us as ladies?” I couldn’t see the problem then.

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Now that I’m married to a feminist, I know. You don’t know about the problem until you know you are causing one.  

I have very often worked with female interpreters. Quite often the fact that they are female has been an advantage or disadvantage. Occasionally it’s a disadvantage, because the men have been offensive to them without me knowing. On the other hand, in Iraq, the counterpart liked our female interpreter and that was a benefit to us. He was fond of her, which helped our negotiation. 

“You don’t know about the problem until you know you are causing one.”

 

Jacinda
International staff, New Zealand

The psychology and objectives of Ansar Allah, an Islamist political and armed movement in Yemen, make it feel like they see everyone (even fellow Yemenis) that is not from their movement and loyal followers as a threat, making it extremely difficult to find any leverage or analyze what works. 

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With Ansar Allah, you go in knowing that you’re going to get weighted down. You never feel like you have had a ‘win’. Nothing you can do is right. Early on, of course I hoped that I would be able to find some common ground or icebreaker. But there’s just nothing. 

So, you quickly get used to the fact that you’re going to walk out feeling like you didn’t achieve anything no matter what. But sometimes there are breakthroughs, and you just cannot know what to attribute them to.

In one instance, I walked out feeling very despondent but a few days later, what we were concerned about suddenly went away. And you cannot pin it to that particular conversation, because several are going around at once. 

“[Negotiating with Ansar Allah] you quickly get used to the fact that you’re going to walk out feeling like you didn’t achieve anything no matter what.”

 

Tasya
Local staff, Indonesian

I once negotiated with a female counterpart when talking to the police regarding the forensic evidence. The head of the unit was a lady, and it was the easiest negotiation. We both were female and Muslim, and neither of us wore a hijab. The negotiation went well and then we became friends. When I had difficulties in dealing with other people at the police, I would ask her to help us out. 

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If I had been a man, it would have been hard for me to reach out to her. When a male delegate went there with me, she was not really comfortable, and she kept talking to me instead. 

If I had been a man, it would have been hard for me to reach out to her.

 

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

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