The trust factor
The first key variable that affects how an intermediary approaches the task of understanding an armed group is trust. Trust is the 'bandwidth' of the connection between an intermediary and the armed group. In technological terms, high bandwidth means that lots of information can flow over a computer network while low bandwidth means that information flows slowly and unreliably. In the same way, if there is a high degree of trust between an intermediary and an armed group, the amount, quality and honesty of the information exchanged is much greater.
Building trust is an incremental process. Often the first level of trust is implied by the fact that an intermediary is meeting at all with an armed group. In order to secure a meeting, an intermediary usually needs to address some basic questions that the armed group will expect to be answered. These include: who is the intermediary (are they trusted by someone we trust)? Who invited them? What is the purpose of the meeting? What are they going to do with our answers? What is their future role? Trust is more likely to be built if the initial meetings are confidential, focus solely on understanding the individual's perspective (as opposed to arguing with it), and allow the individual (or group) to have a say in what, if any, future role the intermediary will play.
Assuming that an intermediary can overcome this initial hurdle of 'gaining entry' to the armed group, the intermediary needs to be true to their word. Ultimately, trust grows and contact continues if the armed group sees it as in their interests to keep talking. Further, groups may decide to use an intermediary to test whether they can build trust in a negotiation process. The intermediary may strive to gain the trust of the group's leaders, in the hope of transferring that trust to other parties or to a specific process. If there are several intermediaries, multiple armed groups, government politicians, plus neighbouring countries or interested international parties, building and sustaining trust among them becomes very complex indeed.
The intermediary as participant in the conflict
A second variable that affects how an intermediary understands armed groups is the fact that, once engaged with the combatants, the intermediary becomes an actor in that conflict system and has an impact (consciously or not) on the conflict dynamics. As Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us, observers influence what they observe. An intermediary brings attention to the conflict and, depending on their profile, may bring prestige and offer a potential conduit to other resources such as important governments, individuals, or funds. Contact also entails risks for the interlocutor from the armed group. If the group is declared illegal, then it is risky for anyone to speak for the group or be identified with it. Even if not declared illegal, members of an armed group may feel that talking to outsiders can be a threat to their personal safety.
The intermediary also needs to be aware that in the process of understanding a group, he or she may also change the armed group itself and how the group relates to the conflict. The intermediary may be the first to seek explicitly to understand all sides of the conflict, and the armed group may, for the first time, decide to participate in an inclusive process. The process may change how the group thinks about its positions, needs, hopes and fears, and bring internal differences to the surface (or even resolve them). It may be one of a few times the group is in discussion with someone who is neither a supporter nor an opponent. The process of making themselves clear and gaining a basic understanding of the other combatants has potential to influence the group's structure, internal and external communications, and even their understanding of themselves.
Information does not flow in only one direction, from the armed group to the intermediary, but from or through the intermediary to the armed group. Just as the intermediary engages with an armed group in order to develop a better understanding of them, the armed group is seeking to further their understanding of the intermediary, the motivations of other parties and the broader context. All sides in a conflict generally pursue more than one strategy. They prepare for negotiations and for the next offensive at the same time. Their question is: are other parties really interested in negotiations? If they do negotiate, are they able to deliver on their agreements? To be effective, intermediaries must be aware of what their words and actions are telling the armed group in relation to these critical questions.