©2023 Cherolyn Knapp, B.Comm, LL.B, Q.Med
In this time that some say is characterized by polarization and extremism, when a large group of people assemble to make an ideological point, it can be seen as an important political protest or a dangerous mob, depending on your perspective. Highly inflamed protests can take on some high conflict personality characteristics: emotions can be unmanaged, behaviour can be extreme, thinking can be very all or nothing, and there is a lot of blaming and accusatory rhetoric. It is worth considering how HCI’s conflict resolution techniques could be of use in resolving this type of situation.
Background: “Freedom Convoy” Protests
Take, for example, the “Freedom Convoy” truck protests that entangled Ottawa, Canada starting in late January 2022. The stated purpose of the convoy was to protest social restrictions and vaccine mandates that had been in effect for almost two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In other parts of Canada, blockades prevented flow of traffic and commercial goods across primary border crossings between Canada and the US.
For more than three weeks, a convoy of big rig trucks and large vehicles clogged the downtown streets of the Canadian capital. Traffic was cut off, there was a constant cacophony of honking and noise, residents reported harassment from convoy protesters, and businesses were obstructed from operating. There was tremendous public pressure to eject the protesters.
Emergencies Act Powers Invoked
In mid-February 2022, the federal government invoked temporary emergency powers under a national security law that allowed the government to ban certain protests, prohibit certain gatherings, commandeer tow trucks to help police remove vehicles, and freeze assets being used to fund the protesters. The legislation that allowed the Canadian government to take those special steps also required a public inquiry into whether the use of the special powers was proper, which took place in late 2022.
Public Hearing Testimony: “Engagement Proposal”
At some point during the public hearings, it was reported that there had been a proposal to have federal government officials meet with some of the convoy organizers about a week and a half into the protests. An idea was discussed between Rob Stewart, then the federal deputy minister of Public Safety, and Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Marcel Beaudin, who oversaw the provincial liaison team during the convoy protests, to have representatives of the federal government and the City of Ottawa meet with the core leaders of the Freedom Convoy movement to convince them to leave the capital or relocate.
According to public hearing testimony, the idea was brought to cabinet ministers but never taken up. Here’s what the CBC reported about the proposal:
Commission counsel Shantona Chaudhury asked Stewart if he thought, with hindsight, the proposal would have had any effect.
“I only know what Insp. Beaudin was telling me, which was that he believed it was worthy of consideration,” Stewart said.
”If I were to push it, I would say I had the feeling that it was a very low order of probability that it would have had a material effect because the protesters had been in Ottawa in a determined way for an extended period of time.”
Stewart said there were also different factions within the convoy movement.
Beaudin, who testified before the commission last month, said he thought the plan would have allowed the protesters to feel heard.
In a Feb. 6 email, he told the Ottawa police that “any efforts for communication with MPs, [Deputy Ministers or Assistant Deputy Ministers] may allow the group to save face, get a win and go home.”
”Many people are tired and probably looking for an exit strategy,” Beaudin added.
Stewart said the idea — known as the “engagement proposal” — was discussed with his counterpart in Ontario and made its way to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
According to an interview he gave the commission in September, Stewart said it was not easy for the government to figure out how the proposal would work in practice — and some confused it with a negotiation.
He added that the RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was reluctant because she thought enforcement could work and believed the Mounties could handle the protests.
Beaudin said that on Feb. 13, the day before the Emergencies Act was invoked, Stewart wrote to him saying that he could not secure a commitment from the government to meet with the protesters. 
When groups with opposing ideological views are pitted against each other, some say the only approach is to be adversarial, defend your ground and go on the offensive when required. Others say that the only way out of an impasse between camps who want nothing to do with each other is through listening, creative problem-solving, identifying common ground and negotiating the path forward.
In this case a senior police representative saw the value in people who are shouting loudly to feel heard and he persuaded a senior government bureaucrat that the idea was worth bringing to the cabinet. The situation was very inflamed. Unfortunately, other senior government officials and politicians couldn’t see the pathway into that opportunity. They had no idea what it could look like and they didn’t want to be seen to be negotiating with people who were considered to be extremists.
High Conflict Resolution in Protest Situations
In situations of high conflict, effective dispute resolution only happens when we can all access the parts of our brains that perform complex problem solving and productive communication. We must get out of reactive mode and into thinking mode. Expressing empathy, attention and respect to people whose emotions are running very high allows them to feel heard, become more calm and communicate about options to solve the problem, rather than continuing to escalate. When we feel heard, we are all more able to problem-solve.
In Calming Upset People with EAR  , Bill Eddy recounts an interaction involving a police officer who used EAR statements in assisting to bring about the peaceful dispersal of protesters blocking a state freeway following the death of George Floyd. The police officer approached a protest leader and expressed respect for the impressive amount of media attention the protesters had attracted, including TV cameras and a news helicopter overhead. The officer stated the police wanted things to stay peaceful. The officer went on to point out that there were miles of rush hour traffic backed up who wanted to get home to their families, and it would help the cause more, now that there was lots of news coverage, to also go home. Within a few minutes, the protesters got up and marched off the highway.
What matters for getting out of a high conflict situation is focussing on the path forward. Perhaps the Freedom Convoy protesters wanted the government to come on strong with a forceful ending to the protests in order to bolster fundraising efforts for future protests. Or perhaps many of them were looking for a way out of camping outside in freezing temperatures in the middle of winter.
Perhaps meeting to hear the concerns would not have changed a thing about the Ottawa and border crossing blockades. Or perhaps it could have opened a dialogue about how to bring the protests to a peaceful and orderly conclusion without invoking special emergency powers that some say intruded upon personal rights and freedoms far more than the types government policies that were being protested in the first place.
How It Could Work In Practice
If we had been flies on the wall when the proposal of government representatives meeting with convoy protestors was discussed, we would have painted a picture of what such a process could look like using high conflict principles. Here are some of the points we would make:
Parties to such a potential meeting should have their representatives meet to discuss and agree on various aspects of the meeting, including where it will take place, who will attend, timing, who will facilitate, role of media, use of a mediator, and other logistics. The pre-meeting should be facilitated by a neutral mediator;
A neutral mediator should be chosen by both parties who is trained in high conflict dispute resolution. It should be established up front that the goal is to bring parties together to express their perspectives and listen to each other. Arrangements will take further facilitation by the mediator. This type of planning is complex and nuanced and requires a mediator who can maintain their composure through difficult interactions and who will be respected by all parties;
Listening is just listening. It doesn’t mean agreeing or arguing. It means listening respectfully and asking questions to understand the other parties’ perspectives and digging underneath positions that are presented initially;
Expressions of empathy, attention and respect (EAR statements) by all participants pave the way to productive discussions about how to move forward;
Brainstorming and assessing options together, with the assistance of a high conflict mediator, means even participants who dislike each other and disagree strongly can find paths forward. By exchanging proposals, as outlined in Bill Eddy’s book, “So, What’s Your Proposal?” participants can get to the heart of what’s important to each of them and develop plans to move forward out of an undesirable situation in a way that meets needs on all sides;
At some points, it may be necessary to respond to hostility and rhetoric in a manner that is brief, informative, firm and friendly (BIFF). However, a lot of the rhetoric can be left unresponded to. Everyone already knows the parties disagree on most, if not all, of their positions;
It will be important to set limits in terms of what is being discussed and over what period of time. Ideally this is another topic to collaborate on with the help of a mediator;
The issue for discussion needs to be framed carefully. Framed as “we’re discussing you moving your protest out of town”, sets up an either/or dynamic which won’t lead to solutions. Frame the issue neutrally so it can be discussed and brainstormed by all parties; and
Confidential conflict coaches could be provided for each party, who works on keeping parties out of the realm of reactivity and blaming and instead engaging in flexible thinking, moderate behaviour, managed emotions and collaborating on solutions.
High conflict behaviour can play out publicly amongst large groups of people, as much as it can between individuals. Although certain disputes can be ended with government orders and special police powers, ending the immediate situation, the broader conflict hasn’t been addressed. In fact, more fuel may have been added to the fire. Engaging in mediated discussion and listening does not mean agreeing and it doesn’t mean giving in. When conflict is very high, it may be the only path forward.
 Catharine Tunney, CBC News, “Proposed meeting between federal representatives, protesters was unlikely to work, public servant says” <https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/emergencies-act-meeting-federal-1.6651211> Posted: Nov 14, 2022
 Calming Upset People with EAR, by Bill Eddy (Unhooked Books, 2021), 110-112.
CHEROLYN KNAPP, B.COMM, LL.B, Q.MED is a conflict resolution consultant, mediator, trainer, workplace investigator and lawyer based in Victoria, Canada. Since 2022, she has been a trainer for the High Conflict Institute (HCI), specializing in workplace disputes and is lead trainer for HCI’s New Ways for Work method. In 2019, Cherolyn opened Knapp Resolutions and now focuses her practice on helping people to navigate workplace conflict.