Blame and Vulnerability on the Beach in Mexico — by Gary Friedman

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.  

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Cutting to the Heart of Our Lives – CIRCLES by Gary Friedman

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.

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