Nicole Waintraub


You’re a Senior Research Associate at the University of Ottawa. What does that entail?  

I handle a suite of projects addressing on-going conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. There are three main components to my job: facilitation, operations and research.

1. Facilitation: The central feature of our work is that we facilitate meetings between individuals from conflict areas. This involves recruiting participants, developing agendas, chairing meetings and steering difficult discussions toward, in some cases, new understandings of conflicts and policy recommendations.

2. Operations: I oversee project implementation across all of our projects. This includes development, planning, reporting, evaluating, staff supervision and partnerships.

3. In support of our facilitation work, I, along with the project team, conduct conflict and current affairs research.

In parallel, you were also Research Assistant to Sen. Roméo Dallaire, with a focus on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy. What was that like?

Working for Senator Dallaire was a privilege. He has such passion, a tireless work ethic and an incredible appetite for knowledge. During my time working with his office, I learned a great deal about the legislative process and had the opportunity to contribute to the Senator’s engagement on a wide variety of issues. I had a role in identifying experts for testimony to senate committees, drafting speaking notes, delivering briefings on issues up for debate, and advising on votes. It was an honour.

Quite a bit of your career has been focusing on the Middle East and defence. Why these two topics?  

The subjects that I’ve pursued have been largely determined by opportunities that I encountered early in my career. In the first year of my Masters degree, I successfully competed for a position with the Department of National Defence of Canada and had a research assistantship working on Middle East issues. Over time, these early experiences enabled other opportunities and eventually I had acquired enough of a background to market myself on that basis. It hasn’t just been a matter of momentum though; I have also become deeply invested on a personal and professional level in the challenges confronting the Middle East in terms of security and governance.

You have a BA in Political Studies and MA in Public and International Affairs. How do you use your degrees in your career?

My education served primarily to train me to think critically and write with discipline. There are times when I draw on specific knowledge that I acquired over the course of my degrees. More often, though, I’m making use of the analytical skills that I gained through seminar-based debates. An educational environment that pushes you to test ideas, formulate arguments and express them clearly is invaluable training for the work place.

Throughout your career, you’ve also engaged in Track II diplomacy. Can you please talk a bit about your experience in that and why it’s an important part of diplomacy?

The term 'Track II diplomacy' is actually a bit misleading since it’s not a part of a formal diplomatic process. What we aim to do with our work is bring together people from countries in conflict, especially when the conflict dynamic might make it difficult for them to meet and broach certain topics in official circles, for policy-oriented and semi-moderated discussions. We spend a great deal of time working to get the right people in the same room and make progress on outstanding issues – whether it’s reviewing the standard operating procedures along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan or exploring the intangible requirements of Palestinians and Israelis in a hypothetical agreement over Palestinian refugees. The topics we take on vary greatly and always driven by an expressed need from people in the region. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it conflict resolution; those who participate in our processes are not there in an official capacity and the recommendations we generate are strictly exploratory. As a result, there is no guarantee that the ideas we develop will make their way in to policy.

All that being said, I do think that Track II can be an important complement to an official process. I have seen first hand the role that it can play in shaping the thinking of influential people and providing opportunities for meaningful interactions that otherwise would not have taken place. It may sound trite, but I believe that the exercise can, over time, make a difference in how people view a conflict and the potential for conflict transformation.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?

The most rewarding aspect of my career is that I get to facilitate a process through which people wrestle to find solutions to their problems. We engage some phenomenally bright and talented individuals. Our value added is that we provide a forum and guidance that, on the basis of our understanding of the conflict and the needs and motivations of our participants, best enables a productive exchange. I find it enormously fulfilling to anticipate these elements and support the development of ideas that could help to shift a conflict dynamic.

I don’t know that there is anything that I can point to as being particularly unrewarding in my career. That’s not to say that everything that I’ve done so far has filled me with a bubbling sense of pride. It’s just that most things that seem unglamorous at the time usually end up being quite formative experiences. There are, however, aspects of my work that I find draining. In support of our projects, I travel internationally at least once, if not twice, a month. I realise that it might seem a bit disingenuous to complain about overseas travel, but it can be a challenge to carrying on a normal life back in Ottawa. This all comes full circle though; the travel is necessary for our projects’ success and is thus a fundamental component of what’s rewarding about my job.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?

Observe as many different facilitation styles as possible. You may find that at an early stage in your career, once you identify someone with whom you can work, you fall in to the role of an apprentice. This is great. There is so much you can learn by watching someone else do the job and asking him or her about strategy, tactics, etc. It’s important to remember, however, that everyone brings something different to the role. I think that observing different styles helps you to understand how your own personality can colour your approach.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

Negotiating: My career has often required that I be a strong negotiator. This has been true in predictable settings (like when we’re sitting down with representatives from countries in conflict), but also in some less obvious settings (settling a hotel bill with a difficult event manager). In all cases, it’s a matter of trying to understand everyone’s motivations, highlighting possible scenarios and outcomes, and helping people arrive at an outcome that everyone can accept. Some call this is a 'middle child' skill. Though I haven’t had any formal training in negotiation, every job I have had has – either officially or unofficially – given me the opportunity to develop the skill through practice.

Relationship management: Forging and sustaining partnerships is of fundamental importance to my job. Engaging and retaining participants, attracting new funding and entering in to long term funding partnerships, collaborating with policy stakeholders – all of these activities require that I be attentive to the needs, ambitions and expectations of our partners. This skill is also one that I’ve developed over time with no formal training. Some of the best learning opportunities in relationship management have been the instances in which I’ve mismanaged a situation, perhaps by failing to anticipate where people’s objectives were in conflict or by being too hands off in certain communications.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

I have had a bit of an unconventional career path. A difficult lesson through my professional development has been to not measure where I am based on the path taken by others. When my classmates were securing their indeterminate contracts with government departments, I was fundraising for all of our operating costs, including my own salary. It was difficult, at the time, to feel like I was making progress. Being overly concerned with those benchmarks held me back in the beginning. Once I let go of the typical markers of success, I was better able to take (informed) risks and pursue opportunities as they presented themselves.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced professionally is the fact that, at work, I am often the only woman in the room. We work with people from military and diplomatic communities as well as civil society in the Middle East and South Asia. These are not exclusively male domains (aside from the militaries), but men tend to constitute the vast majority of the pool from which we draw our participants. In the early days, I found it difficult to be heard – both literally and figuratively. On that first count, my voice is not loud and yelling seemed like a sign of weakness. On the second point, not only was I generally the only women in a group of men who were speaking assertively and loudly, I was also the youngest person in the room. I had thoughts and opinions that I wasn’t able to express. In order to address this challenge, I played to my strengths. Rather than fight to be heard above the din in session, for example, I resorted to side conversations during coffee breaks so that my colleagues could get to know me better. Once I had established a rapport with them, it became easier to command attention in meetings without having rely on raising my voice or using a microphone. Many women find themselves in similar situations with dynamics specific to their line of work. It can be quite difficult to develop measures to address the challenge in a comfortable yet effective manner.

What achievements are you most proud of?

The achievement I’m most proud of so far has been establishing a solid institutional foundation for our work at the University of Ottawa. Five years ago, we had an idea and a set of operating principles. Through the hard work of a small yet devoted team, we’ve been able to not only establish and sustain our operations, but also grow them to take on territory that previously would have been inconceivable. Now we run seven distinct projects in the Middle East and South Asia and consult with senior military and diplomatic officials worldwide – all this while cultivating a reputation for professionalism, adaptability and innovativeness.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

To be honest, I don’t yet have someone who I would refer to as my role model. There are many people in my life that I profoundly respect and admire. There is not yet anyone, however, whose approach to life has become the model for my own. I’m working on it!

Nicole Waintraub - Senior Research Associate at University of Ottawa

Seven years' experience

CV in brief: 

Studied: Political Studies at Queen's University; Public and International Affairs at Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Previously worked at: Center for Middle East Development, University of California Los Angeles; Global Public Policy Development Seminar, University of Ottawa; Department of National DefenseQueen's Centre for International and Defence Policy

Find her online

Twitter: @NicoleWaintraub

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