Last year CBI was asked by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to help with a vexing corporate-community engagement problem. A palm oil company was not meeting the IFC’s social and environmental requirements, while operating in a region marked by violence and social instability.

The context and the history of this case meant that addressing community concerns and getting the company into alignment with the IFC standards would require more than a course-correction on corporate policies and procedures. We soon realized we were tackling head on a conflict with clear links to deep structural problems: longstanding disputes over land rights and access, pervasive regional crime, impunity, and polarized views regarding what sustainable development should look like in a troubled region, just to name a few.

Any one of these issues alone was daunting. Together, they amounted to a nearly impossible mountain to climb. Yet intense international pressure has also created a small window of opportunity to bring parties together. Moreover, none of the stakeholders is satisfied with the status quo.

The key tensions in designing a dispute resolution process also quickly became clear: a) how to define the scope of the issues in a way that all stakeholders would see as legitimate?; b) how to sequence issues in ways that was logical given the conflicts, and that maximized the opportunity for trust building and initial successes?; c) what to do about influences like narcotics trafficking and corruption, which could not be addressed directly and created risks to agreement building efforts?

We don’t have all the answers, but several insights are emerging. Here are seven.

1) Naming structural issues. When corporate-community conflict crosses over to national-level structural issues, ignore them at your peril. A key move in meaningful stakeholder engagement is naming of issues and problems to be addressed in a mutually legitimate way, even when it pushes the boundaries of scope. The real challenge is framing these as opportunities for shared value creation, not just pitfalls too big to tackle.

2) Recognizing informal influences. When assessing these kinds of conflicts in context of weak governance, understand that insidious influences on stakeholder agendas are real, serious, and often ostracizing – such as endemic narco-trafficking and corruption warping governance and skewing economic interests. Acknowledgement and navigation of issues that cannot be controlled is difficult, but the risks of leaving them unacknowledged is even more serious.

3) Leveraging international frameworks and protocols. Addressing core issues (e.g. land access, human rights, impunity) accurately and fairly matters a great deal. Voluntary international social and environmental frameworks can become a mutually credible means for addressing the most prickly corporate-community issues. In this case, the company is aiming to be the first in Central America to implement the Voluntary Principles on Business and Human Rights (

4) Sequencing. No surprise, in extremely polarized disputes, there are competing priorities. The question is: are their any common ties that bind? In this case, building agreement on immediate security and human rights protections (for both civil society and private operations) may be the best starting point for building trust and creating initial success. They also happen to the issues with the most company control, and thus a chance at demarcating some progress.

5) Joint learning. Organizing joint learning among stakeholders (including but not limited to ‘joint fact-finding’) can provide the first scaffolding for relationship building. Even though pervasive distrust will likely continue for some time, side-by-side learning on critical issues can help build mutual understanding of issues, options, interests and values.

6) Being patient, transparent, and iterative. It’s natural for all stakeholders to carry a constant sense of anxiety and frustration in disputes such as these. Nobody wants wasted time or effort, especially where trust is low. Therefore, striking a balance between always listening to and validating concerns, yet respectfully naming uncomfortable truths about what it takes to make progress (and take good faith actions on all sides) becomes a dialogue art in itself.

7) Envisioning the roadmap. Finally, powerful and practical metaphors (and even accompanying graphics) are fundamental for issue exploration and alignment building. A good story that reflects how the stakeholders could ultimately work their way together to a much better place is often the most powerful engagement tool in the box. That’s because the experience of shared narrative can only come from stakeholder exchange of viewpoints and joint refinement of something that could work for all.

Indeed, we’re deep in uncharted territory on this one right now, but with a little suerte (luck) we might just find a way forward.