When Dean Rebecca Ivanoff of the University of Oregon School of Law invited me to train 120 first-year law students on creating more inclusive cultures around gender identity and expression, I recognized an exciting opportunity to integrate an inclusion discussion with training in developing understanding, as we think of it at the Center for Understanding in Conflict (CUC).
By Melanie Rowen
The intersection of understanding and inclusion comes up often in CUC trainings and in our community discussions. Lacey Wilson, Natalia Lopez Whitaker, Eric Butler, Becca Vershbow, Catherine Conner, and Gary Friedman have developed and offered Real Talk, a training on conversations about race, which sits at this intersection. At the University of Oregon, I was excited to bring CUC’s skills training approach to law students in the context of talking about gender identity and expression.
Dean Ivanoff and a second-year law student leader, Sarah Osborn, worked with me to make sure the class session would both fit in with the school’s’ professional development goals for students and make a positive contribution to school climate for LGBTQ students. It was also important to us that the students have a chance to practice the “inner work” of recognizing their own judgments and biases, and inwardly processing their own reactions in the moment in order to stay present and connected with the person they are listening to.
In a 75-minute class session, the students worked on listening to understand another person, using “looping” to discuss prompts about how their own multiple identities, including gender identity and expression as well as race, class, disability, and others, shape the perspective from which they approach their work. They also learned the basics of implicit bias, and explored how we can create environments that are gender-inclusive, avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes, and are welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming people. Throughout, they were encouraged to practice attending to their own judgments and biases, and to notice their own reactions.
One challenge we faced was time. This was a lot to fit into just over an hour! To make it possible, it was crucial to teach the skill of “looping” first. By learning to loop one another, and by practicing guided self-reflection at key moments throughout the class, the students had the opportunity to process their own ideas and assumptions around gender, and to benefit from their classmates’ understandings and insights, at a deeper level. They also had the opportunity, through looping discussions, to experience judgments in the moment and to practice noticing them.
We could have spent a day-long training (or more) on applying skills for developing understanding in the context of creating more gender-inclusive environments. Thanks to looping and to the students’ engagement and focus, we were able to accomplish quite a bit in one class period. It’s exciting to think about what else might be possible for trainings at the intersection of understanding and inclusion.
Melanie Rowen is a mediator and conflict coach who believes in the power of understanding-based conflict resolution to transform our world. She frequently trains individuals and groups on effective communication in conflict situations and on creating inclusive environments, particularly around gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Melanie previously litigated civil rights cases, including marriage equality, employment discrimination, issues involving transgender and gender non-conforming youth and their families, and issues facing LGBTQI elders, at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Before that, she worked in business litigation at Latham & Watkins LLP. Melanie serves on the Board of Directors of the Transgender Law Center and is the Associate Director for Public Interest Programs at UC Berkeley School of Law.
About halfway down Mexico’s Pacific coast, the small fishing village of Chacala sits tucked away along a small cove. Overlooking the ocean to the south is Mar de Jade, a tranquil retreat enveloped with lush vegetation. Since 2007, this spiritual oasis has served as the backdrop for the Center for Understanding in Conflict’s (CUC) biennial Inside Out: Self Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive (SCPI) retreat.
While most mediator training revolves around external parties—what do you do when the people you are mediating behave a certain way—SCPI concentrates on the internal mechanisms of the mediator. The focus of the SCPI program is to teach conflict professionals to access their inner lives in ways that are constructive for professionals and productive for their clients. SCPI is facilitated by Gary Friedman, who literally wrote the book on this practice, and Zoketsu Norman Fsicher, a poet and Zen Buddhist priest from the Everyday Zen Foundation.
Woven into SCPI practice is meditation, including sessions guided by Fischer, whose Zen teachings are deeply respected around the world and woven into the overall SCPI and CUC ethos. “The structure of the course, and the incorporation of meditation and Zen concepts, promote an awareness of one’s own feelings, emotions, and responses, improving one’s ability to connect with others,” comments Jennifer Sullivan, a Senior Assistant Dean at the University of Colorado Boulder Law School.
Sullivan was one of the 18 individuals who participated in the SCPI program at Mar de Jade this past February. While the program has historically attracted law professionals, a diversity of professions were represented in this year’s cohort, including a gynecologist who deals with patients trying to navigate in a broken healthcare system and a doula who accompanies people at the end of life. “What we’re teaching goes far beyond law…it’s about humans trying to find a way to help other humans,” comments Friedman.
“I have a better sense of calm and awareness that helps me embrace others’ fears or anxieties, often expressed as anger or belligerence,” notes Lisa Lewis, a gynecologist. “Looking back, I wonder how doctors succeed without these skills? More importantly, how could any patient succeed without their doctor expressing understanding and compassion?”
She was introduced to SCPI by her husband, Randy Lewis, a court appointed receiver and mediator, who has participated in several CUC trainings over the past 30 years and was also part of the 2020 SCPI cohort. He notes, “The Conflict and Compassion program created a unique opportunity for me to better understand my role in the conflicts imbedded in my work. The week allowed me to carefully separate my role and the roles of those around me. I am better able to own, use and understand what belongs to me without compromising my values or the value of my life experiences while making similar allowances for others who are also involved.”
The presence of couples was another unique addition to the 2020 retreat. Prior to SCPI, most participants attended CUC workshops on the Understanding-based model, which resonated not only with their work, but that of their partners. Several realized that the retreat could not only be a benefit in their partner’s professional endeavors, but within their own interpersonal communication as a couple. Friedman notes that part of the appeal for including partners was wanting an intimacy “that came from having their spouses have a window into their professional life in a way that could give them the ability to talk about it differently”.
Concentrating on understanding their conflict and pain, participants learn to channel these emotions into compassion. “It’s about using yourself as an instrument to understand what’s happening in you,” Friedman explains. This intimate understanding opens pathways of empathetic understanding for the conflicted parties participants mediate. It also helps those working in conflict to more intimately understand why they are compelled to this line of work.
This concept brings Carl Jung’s wounded healer archetype to a modern context—we seek to help others through conflict because of our own experiences with conflict. According to Friedman, “the sores that we’re working out that come from our childhoods that are right there in the middle of our mediations, and if we can find a way to to help others, that actually starts to heal that pain that we experience [and] that we’ve been carrying around our whole lives. [This] actually turns out to fuel our desire to help other people.”
For Carolann Mazza, a conflict resolution professional who recognizes that “we all have stuff,” what she had learned from SCPI has allowed her to be more effective in her work. “When I can connect with people in conflict, I am able to be with them more fully than when my own unresolved/ignored feelings get in the way. Through real, raw connection with my own stuff and others’ stuff, I have a better appreciation of the way my clients show up during their conflicts,” Mazza explains.
The Buddy System
At the beginning of the retreat, participants are paired up with a person they do not know. Friedman explains that when “you’re on a plane, and you talk to somebody you don’t know, you put up your whole life story in a way it’s so different than you would if it was with your most intimate partner.”
This buddy system is what Friedman considers to be “the heart of the program.” Through regular and intimate conversation and activities that adhere to guidelines set forth by the facilitators, participants can support each other. To help facilitate understanding, participants use looping skills in their conversations.
The key caveat in the buddy system is that buddies cannot give each other advice, nor can they ask for it. This is deeply rooted in the Understanding-based model, which views mediation as a way to help people find the solution while never losing site that people know better what they ought to be doing with their own lives.
“One of my ‘buddies’ pointed out to me we need negative forces to balance positive forces, like a battery,” notes Lisa Lewis. “InsideOut taught me to convert negative energy into a more productive and positive place.”
In a sun drenched room overlooking the ocean, buddies joined with another pair and dedicated late afternoons to deeper dives into their cases and situations. According to Friedman, “These are very important moments for people because they feel the support of the whole group to do this and they also learn the skills of how to help other people.”
These groups of four stayed together through dinner, before breaking off with their buddies for the final activities. In one-on-one conversations with their buddies, participants concentrated on feeling what they have been learning and making the move from pain and conflict to compassion so that they can feel the love and understanding in their body.
The supportive buddy partnership does not end with the retreat. Buddies continue supporting each other through continued dialog after the retreat, be it meeting up in person or video calls.
While the work is intensive at an emotional and spiritual level, breaks from SCPI activities allowed participants to swim, hike, explore Chacala, and reflect in their own spaces. Participants walked away from SCPI with a deeper commitment to their work and an enriched set of skills to assist in connecting to people more deeply and authentically. They also developed a deeper understanding of why they do this work. “We think it’s an antidote to burnout, to be able to access your motivations and understand your motivations and work from them,” Friedman posits.
For Randy Lewis, “the week allowed me to carefully separate my role and the roles of those around me. I am better able to own, use and understand what belongs to me without compromising my values or the value of my life experiences while making similar allowances for others who are also involved.”
“This course is about mediation, but it’s also about how to be a better human,” Sullivan concludes.
What comes next?
While the next Mar de Jade retreat is not until 2022, the CUC is planning some one-day programs to be held throughout the year. Additionally, the CUC with the Everyday Zen Foundation will be holding an intensive in Talloires, France this fall.
In “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk explains how traumatic experiences leave a lasting impression—not just in our conscious minds, but actually in our bodies. The book also explains why human beings need to have deep connections with each other in order to be able to recover from trauma. As I read it, I found myself wanting to recommend it to all of the mediators I know—if we are committed to going beneath the narratives of conflict, we need to attend to how the body experiences, knows and remembers what our conscious minds do not. And fundamentally, as mediators we are here to shore up the connections between people. For anyone interested in exploring these ideas from a neuropsychology perspective, “The Body Keeps The Score” gives an accessible and engaging overview of the science of trauma, offering insight into how we can better understand ourselves and others.
Last week we completed our fifth SCPI program in Mar de Jade, Mexico, with the theme of blame and vulnerability. With participants from Europe, Canada and the US, Norman Fischer and I explored the depth of our personal relationship to blame and vulnerability as they impact our work with clients. Central to all of our SCPI programs is the recognition that our responsibility to our clients compels us to understand ourselves.
We made some interesting discoveries. We all easily recognize the problems that blame presents when it arises in conflict: blame cycling into escalation between parties, trapping them in defense and attack mode, disempowering the blamers by placing all of the responsibility on the other. It also protects the blamer from not only outside attacks, but also from recognizing the layers of vulnerability underneath that can hold the key to opening the lines of communication between parties.
What is more subtle is to recognize the positive qualities of blame particularly for those people who have felt powerless to stand up for themselves rather than allow themselves to be doormats for someone wanting to overpower them. Being able to distinguish between whether the use of blame is helpful to dealing with the conflict or problematic can be a significant challenge.
We also discovered that when, as conflict resolvers, we pretend to ourselves that we are not angry, upset or blaming of our clients, the cost is often loss of connection with our clients. When we admit our own sense of blaming, at least to ourselves, we have the opportunity to investigate it to reconnect with the people we’re trying to help.
So when we make blame wrong, or blame blame, we are reinforcing conflict professional tendencies that if recognized and worked with can open a door not only between us and the parties but between the parties as well.
While it is true that blame often protects us from seeing our vulnerabilities, it can also be true that blame and vulnerability can exist simultaneously. Dramatic examples of this are occurring in the Me Too movement, particularly with the athletes in Michigan speaking up in court against their abuser with full expression of blame and vulnerability. Particularly turning self-blame, as some did, into a more accurate pinpointing of the blame to the outside can be empowering.
With respect to vulnerability, we also explored how our fears of being weaker by showing our vulnerability are often not realized when we express it, which often is accompanied by feeling more, not less, powerful than when we keep it hidden.
Most of all, our universal experience in spending a week together exploring these themes in our cases and our lives create support that we will all be able to carry into our lives back home.
We’ll be working with this same theme in Talloires, France from August 28-31, 2018.
There is a wonderful new documentary that has just been finished that I find quite compelling for two reasons. First, it’s a film done by my son, Cassidy Friedman. I have always found anything he does compelling. The second reason, which I think would be of more interest to you, is that the film focuses on the professional and personal life of an extraordinary conflict professional in the restorative justice field, Eric Butler, who is part of the CUC teaching team in our next mediation training program for mixed race participants. A Hurricane Katrina survivor who works to keep Black teenagers in school in Oakland, California. Eric finds his personal and professional lives colliding when his 15-year-old son goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
For so many of us doing this work as mediators or other conflict professionals, walking our talk means a lot. The effort for us to be congruent in our personal lives with our professional aspirations promises the possibility of an integrated life. For those of us coming from a background of law, the experience of finding ourselves living a contradiction between our personal and professional lives is a frequent motivation for us to work as mediators or other conflict professionals. We watch Eric struggle with the disparity between his remarkable ability to connect with and touch the lives of high school kids at risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline and his failure to reach his son at the crossroads of the same tension.
Eschewing the formulaic approach to restorative justice, Eric connects with the kids he is trying to help through extraordinary empathy, unwavering commitment to the students and total authenticity. As a result , these students find a kind of support from Eric that many of us count on from our parents but which is rarer and life-changing, and for many of them, missing elsewhere in their lives. Yet Eric’s son; Tre, feels the same lack of understanding from his father that Eric provides to the others. As the story unfolds, we watch from the inside as Eric and his son come to terms with Tre’s growing up that allows Tre to avoid the abyss.
Eric’s work is very much in the trenches of the conflict resolution field, the schools where at-risk youth predominate. We watch him find the support he needs from the school principal to break the norms of going through the motions to make real connections that penetrate to the inner lives of the students. We also get a look at Eric’s own background and challenges in his own growing up and the support he was able to find to escape the same fate that met many others without sufficient parental understanding and support.
The film is now entering its phase of the film festival rounds and will be shown at the Oxford, Mississippi festival in February. If you’re interested in the film, let us know and we’ll keep you in the loop so that you can have a chance to see it and you can also follow the film by searching @restorativejusticefilm on Facebook.
As neutrals, most of us work pretty hard to keep our opinions out of the mix in helping parties reach agreements. As a matter of fact, in the Understanding Model, that is one of our agreements with parties in deciding how to work together. In this supercharged political environment with the headlines of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and a whole host of situations that show up in our offices or impact the people who come to us, we have a particular challenge in keeping quiet about our opinions when that poses a danger of allowing a more dominant party to take advantage of a party more inclined to avoid or accommodate to adapt to a situation.
Part of our agreement with the parties includes two exceptions to our not weighing in with an opinion. One of the exceptions is that we weigh in when the parties are making an illegal agreement, that is, one that would not be enforceable by a court. That’s pretty clear. The second exception is that if it seems to us that one party is taking extreme advantage of another, we want to leave room to speak up and even refuse to draw up an agreement that in our view would be unjust. This is a tricky bit of business, because there are many agreements the parties might make that we would not agree to if we were a party. That’s fine and that makes sense. But how do we determine the difference between such instances and becoming accomplices to injustice. Isn’t this rather subjective, one would ask? Yes, of course, but that does not mean that because it’s subjective, we stay silent. It does mean that we need to be quite clear that our consciences are part of the mix in determining how we operate as mediators.
So how then do we work within ourselves to be able to find the line that determines whether we speak up or not? First, we need to distinguish between our speaking up and the consequences of doing so. It may well be that our expression of an opinion leads to a conversation where we realize that we are off base, that some prejudice of ours has blinded us to the fact that the parties’ agreement does make sense for them.
Second, and this is probably the most important part of it, we need to distinguish between the dynamic between the parties and the substance of their agreement. When the agreement appears to be the result of one party speaking forcefully or aggressively and the other party withdrawing or retreating, we need to scrutinize the result much more carefully than when there seems to be real give and take between the parties. Of course, when lawyers are participating in the process, there is much less danger of this taking place.
If the problem is not the dynamic but a reaction to the substance of the agreement, we need to ask ourselves the following questions. Are we uncomfortable with this agreement only because it differs dramatically from the law or the likely outcome in court? Here we need to recognize that even without mediation, when lawyers negotiate with each other, they often recommend to their clients results that they know would leave their clients worse off than going to court. Why? Because for a number of situations, it is more important for clients to be able to put the conflict behind them than to go through a prolonged litigation process even if the likelihood is that the result would be better for them.
What this all calls upon us to do as mediators is to be straight with ourselves and the parties we are trying to help. Critical to this is the ability to self reflect and notice our own internal dynamic to distinguish between our judgmental reactions and a more dispassionate analysis of what is going on between the parties or us and the parties. Have we allowed a personal dislike of one person to impair our judgment or is there something else to this? Part of our job is to make these discriminations and not let ourselves off the hook by deciding that our neutrality must lead to our muzzling ourselves and at the same time not use our reactions as a way of imposing our ideas on the parties we are helping by acting as judges or arbitrators.
All in all, keeping this and other tensions alive is a fundamental obligation we have to ourselves, the parties, and our world. What a challenge.
“Only when individuals can trust the culture or organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole. For no other reason than, in the end, it’s good for their own personal health and survival.”
“Great organizations become great because the people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them.”
I have been thinking about trust in the work we do. I have been thinking about the role of trust and trustworthiness in developing positive neutrality. When we work with parties in conflict, we lower our guard and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them as an invitation to do the same with us. We hold ourselves in a place of openness and invite them to do the same. Our openness and vulnerability creates a virtual net for the daring action of the parties in conflict to let down their guard and seek connection rather than defensiveness.
I’m intrigued by the idea of positive neutrality. It means to engage with each party as fully as possible for that party. To open oneself to both and not choose between them. It also requires allowing them to own their conflict. Taking responsibility for their conflict would in some ways be closing myself off to them—to what is truly going on for them. How does this relate to trustworthiness? It does because if I am going to take over the conflict, then I disempower each party from coming to a resolution they own—if they worry that is true then they may not trust me with the whole of their truth. If I take over responsibility for the conflict than I will ultimately be choosing between them or engaging in some form of power dynamic with them rather than staying in the supporting role. People may WANT me to decide so they no longer have to sit with conflict but I understand that if I do, I give up positive neutrality—and the trustworthiness that comes with it—for the role of the arbitrator and that is a very different place. There the parties trust me to make a decision –good or bad-but they don’t trust me with themselves.