Board Profile >> Jennifer Sullivan

Board Profile >> Jennifer Sullivan

Jennifer Sullivan is a mediator, facilitator, and litigator who brings the power of understanding to her work. Jennifer’s background as a commercial litigator informs her focus on mediating civil and business disputes. She presents and teaches regularly on mediation techniques, is a member of the ADR Section of the Colorado Bar Association; a co-owner of a litigation, mediation, and corporate boutique law firm; and is the Senior Assistant Dean for Administration and Program Development at the University of Colorado Law School. She is a strong believer in second chances and is involved in a Boulder non-profit that supports formerly incarcerated individuals who are re-entering society.

Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?

As a junior associate in the litigation department of Faegre & Benson LLP (now Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath), I took a mediation training course from Judy Mares-Dixon in Boulder, Colorado. Judy was the first person who taught me that effective mediation could include promoting dialogue between parties.

Throughout my time as an associate and then a partner representing litigants, I rarely encountered mediators who provided opportunities for party-to-party dialogue in commercial mediations, even though it could be helpful to achieving a better resolution. My first introduction to the CUC was through the Harvard Program on Negotiation, where Gary Friedman was one of the instructors for the forty-hour mediation program. I was hooked by Gary and his co-teachers’ (Dana Curtis and Robert Mnookin) challenge to keep everyone in the room and establish authentic connections. Following that training, I began to apply the Understanding-based model of mediation in my work as a mediator, and to incorporate aspects of the model into my work at the University of Colorado Law School, as well as in my litigation practice. I can’t overstate how transformative the Understanding-based model has been in my life.

I have since taken several CUC trainings, and each time I come away with renewed inspiration. I appreciate the community of like-minded mediators and conflict professionals that the CUC has created, and I love to learn from the CUC teachers as well as the community. I have seen how promoting dialogue and striving to increase understanding can radically improve the outcome of disputes and its potential to solve all sorts of problems. I am passionate about continuing this work.

Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?

Recently, I was mediating a conflict regarding the sale of a business. One of the parties was talkative; the other reserved. After developing some trust and rapport, I shared my observation regarding the parties’ dynamic. This simple observation—that one party was quiet while the other more talkative—dramatically shifted the dynamic: the talker recognized the need to make space, while the quiet party explained why she’d been reticent.

Following this acknowledgement, the quiet party aired feelings she’d been keeping to herself. It was a breakthrough moment. The parties found their way to a resolution that recognized the issues most important to each of them. Both seemed relieved to have resolved the case in this way, and both wished each other well in the future. This positive parting was a direct contrast to their earlier antagonism.

What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?

Because I’m still relatively new to mediating, I’m focused on my fellow newbies. And my advice to them is: find a way to start mediating, so you can develop your inner game. I’ll explain.

When I finally started actually mediating (as opposed to role-playing), I’d taken a lot of trainings and I was holding a jumble of different techniques and processes in mind. Call these the “outer game”: the steps you follow, the techniques you learn from others. Focusing on the outer game made me a bit wooden and overly concerned about my role as a mediator, instead of the parties’ dispute. I found myself prioritizing process over my instincts as a human, which made me less effective. In order to overcome this, I went back to my mental training as an athlete, and combined this with what I’ve learned through the CUC.

There’s a concept called the “inner game” that comes from a book called The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, which can be applied to all sorts of endeavors, not just sports. Essentially, the “inner game” involves letting go of your ego and focusing on the desired outcome.

I love to learn about mediation, read about and discuss different techniques, and teach these techniques. But when it comes time to actually mediate, I find that I must let go of these specifics and focus on understanding the parties’ perspectives on the dispute, trying to communicate that understanding back to the parties, and then using that understanding to explore options for resolution.

I’m grateful to the CUC for providing opportunities to continue to develop skills for achieving this understanding.

What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?

I’m an avid reader and writer, and have been at work on a book. Shhhh…don’t tell!!

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Parties Understanding Each Other

Parties Understanding Each Other

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The Understanding-based model of mediation fosters understanding for parties in conflict, of themselves, the situation they faced and even, possibly, each other. Understanding offers an alternative to coercion, and allows the parties to move beyond the right and wrong framework. The expression of that understanding of the emotions, matters of import, and the realities of the parties serve as a paradigm shift in the conflict. 

Achieving understanding requires a multi-dimensional approach. First, we want to offer people the opportunity to feel empathy for each other, and the mediator can help the parties develop this empathy. Second, the parties in conflict work to deepen their understanding of the other person. We want to deepen not just understanding each other’s position, but what lies behind it—what it is they care about and what is important to them. Finally, the parties should be able to demonstrate their understanding of the other person. 

Looping—listening with the intent of understanding, demonstrating understanding, clarifying, and closing the loop—can offer insight into the dynamic and relationship. For example, if parties are stuck in the conflict, facilitating discussion through looping by asking them to share what they think is going on with the other person can help those involved in the conflict to better understand their own realities, the external realities they share, and how they perceive the other person and themselves in these contexts.

If both people can understand their own view and each other’s, then they are in a much better place to be able to solve the problem because they have the whole picture. Otherwise, if each person is holding only their own piece of the picture, it fractures the process making it impossible to see the entirety of the conflict. The other person’s view is part of the external reality that the other person faces, and each person faces problems individually as well. 

This process also sometimes means opening up to vulnerabilities. Not everybody can do this, nor is everybody willing to do this—particularly when the issue of vulnerability conflicts with needs to protect oneself or involves poignantly painful emotions. Mediators can be supportive in helping their clients setup boundaries to avoid hurt feelings and toxic emotions so they feel empowered and not threatened by the process of expressing understanding. Most critically it is important to distinguish between understanding and agreeing. To demonstrate understanding does not mean that you are agreeing that the other person is right. Nor should it necessarily weaken a party’s conviction about their own view.

Most critically it is important to distinguish between understanding and agreeing. To demonstrate understanding does not mean that you are agreeing that the other person is right. Nor should it necessarily weaken a party’s conviction about their own view.

It is worth noting that participants do not necessarily need to emotionally care about the other person’s realities to find a solution; however, in order to negotiate something that the other person will say yes to requires caring at least intellectually to better understand the landscape in the big picture. This mental approach also lessens some of the vulnerability tied to understanding. 

If lawyers are present in the mediation, they can be helpful in creating the bridge to demonstrating understanding between the parties. The lawyer can demonstrate understanding—even if a client cannot. Feeling support from their lawyer can also allow an opening beyond the person’s capacity should their lawyer not be present. This is something that the mediator cannot provide for them in the same way.

In some cases, the parties may never be in a position where demonstrating understanding will be helpful. It is important that the mediator structure the process with the parties so they feel safe before engaging in a formal expression of mutual understanding. The parties should be given the opportunity to discuss whether this is something that they actually want to do, and to express any concerns they may have about the process. It is important for parties to have a real conversation, rather than pressure from the mediator—particularly to avoid the cost of the parties losing themselves. Ultimately, it is up the parties to determine if they want this approach and mediators need to be wary of offering false promises to add weight to the parties’ decision on whether to proceed with the expression of understanding.

Ultimately, the effort to understand is what matters. Whether or not we can truly understand what it’s like to be somebody different from us,  we can demonstrate understanding of our common humanity. While there are things that we share, we have to respect that there are things we do not. To respect the other person is fundamental, and demonstrating our willingness and desire to  understand their perspective can help create an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Want to learn more? Join Gary Friedman and Katherine Miller for their webinar, Parties Understanding Each Other on Monday at 12 PM PST / 3 PM EST.

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Board Profile >> Ivan Alter

Board Profile >> Ivan Alter

Ivan Alter is a collaborative attorney and mediator with offices in Westchester County and New York City. Practicing law since 1994, Ivan previously had a career as a commercial and matrimonial litigator before discovering the understanding based model at the CUC. Since then, Ivan has focused all of his professional energies on practicing, promoting, and teaching mediation and collaborative law. He is member of the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals, the Family and Divorce Mediation Council, the International Association of Collaborative Professionals, and Northern Westchester Collaborative Divorce.

I always imagined that being a lawyer would mean helping people out of a difficult place and into a better one. But too often during my years as a litigator, I found that the process designed to resolve the conflict instead caused it to escalate and deepened the divisions. This was especially heartbreaking in cases involving families.

Learning about understanding-based mediation from Jack Himmelstein and Katherine Miller was a revelation. And my response was to hang up my litigator’s hat immediately and immerse myself in mediation and collaborative law. Aligning my work with my values and beliefs has been a source of great satisfaction for me. And its a message and a process I can’t help but share.

Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?

I come from a family of litigators and I learned to value the power of persuasion. But sometimes “making a good case” didn’t solve the problem, and I found that solving the problem was ultimately much more satisfying. And even though I worked hard and advocated for my clients, I couldn’t shake the thought that there was a way in which I could do better for them.

That realization, along with the birth of my children, led me to realize that if I was going to involve myself in the lives of families, I had better dedicate all of my efforts to really understanding and trying to solve their problems. Mediation training with Jack and Katherine made everything fall into
place. And I knew I would never litigate again.

I am thrilled to serve on the board of the CUC because it gives me the opportunity to spread the word about the powerful change that understanding can bring.

Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?

Learning to listen and try to understand has informed both my work and my personal relationships. Once I realized that the things that matter most deeply to people are often not about what they say they want but why, it changed everything.

What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?

For me I think its to try not to smooth over every conflict or flare up. Initially I thought that it was part of my job to suppress the tension, but I learned that when I do that I often fail to listen to what someone is trying so hard to tell me.

What are some important issues for today’s conflict resolution professionals to be connected with?

I think balancing what mediation is with what people think it is can be a challenge. I find that there is not widespread understanding of what we actually do and people often come to the process with expectations and assumptions that we first need to overcome.

What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?

I have a degree in landscape design and I love to imagine and create outdoor spaces, even if its mostly in my mind these days.

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The “Bully”

The “Bully”

Watch our webinar on this subject by clicking here.

It is a unique challenge for mediators and conflict resolution professionals to deal with the dynamic in the room when a “bully” is engaged in a conflict. “Bullies” can dominate the process, intimidate, not only the other parties, but also the professionals involved in the dispute, and derail the pathway to resolution. However, it is often possible to  transform disruptive dynamics into an asset by understanding the underlying motivations of the bully’s behavior and the undercurrents of the relationship between them and others involved in the conflict can help the professionalIn our experience, we have found that conflict resolution professionals, ourselves  included, can reinforce a “bully-victim” paradigm if we don’t understand what is underneath the dynamic. We get drawn into wanting to protect the person who is more passive or intimidated to make sure they are not taken advantage of or coerced. However, in doing so, we become part of the system and can further entrench the dysfunctional dynamics.

One critical component is determining whether the behavior is part of a longstanding pattern of a person who is controlling or abusive, or if this is a response to conflict, or perhaps a reaction specific to the current situation. In reality, this is much more complex than saying “we need to deal now with the bully”.  The situation is often systemic, with one individual labeled as the bully, while the other is the victim. However, this paradigm can shift when we look at each person’s part in the system. If even one person is able to change their behavior, often the others also change. 

In his book, the Power of TED, David Emerald explores the Dreaded Drama Triangle developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman, which puts the parties in conflict in roles of the victim, persecutor, or rescuer. Here, the professional tends to take on the rescuer archetype, with the parties in conflict serving either the persecutor or the victim.  It is also important to note that the professional can quickly go from rescuer to prosecutor. Ultimately, in this dynamic, the professional can be disempowering to all parties. 

A fundamental component in our Understanding-based model is that those in conflict are the ones who hold the solutions, and as the professional, our role is to help enable them find these solutions. This is partly why we find Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle an interesting concept in our work. In his update to the Dreaded Drama Triangle, he looks at the roles as creator—the positive alternative to victim, challenger—what we might label a bully, and coach. With the Empowerment Triangle, the professional takes on the role of the coach, helping the parties find their voice so they can become a creator or challenger instead of a victim or persector.  

These are only a few steps in the ongoing dance in the relationship between the “bully” and the “victim”. In our webinar, The “Bully”, we dive deeper into these dynamics and examine how self-reflection, looping, and other tools can help the professional understand the larger picture and turn the “bully” into a benefactor. 

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Book Review >> A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns

Submitted by Melanie Rowen

As we work to understand others, our practices for interpersonal engagement evolve. We learn what feels respectful to others and try to meet that. In A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, a short comic book about non-binary gender identity, Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson beautifully and accessibly explain why basic respect includes using each person’s correct gender pronouns, including the singular “they” when that is the pronoun someone uses. (As in, “Melanie is looking for their pen – they volunteered to take notes.”) It also coaches the reader through different strategies for correcting others who misgender someone. Although it’s a quick read, the book answers many questions that may come up for those who are new to thinking about gender from a non-binary perspective. But primarily, it’s a great tool for shoring up our skills in approaching each other inclusively and with respect, and helping others to do the same.

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Randy Cheek, Catherine Conner, Laurie Phuong Ertley, and Gary Friedman

When people are in conflict, emotions are inevitable. Yet, there is often a pull to “just get down to business”, with parties and professionals hoping to minimize emotional reactions. However, experience and research show that both emotions and cognitive processing are integral components of decision-making so learning to embrace emotions is a key skill for conflict professionals.

How do people access their emotions? Each person falls along a range in terms of capacity to access their emotional state. For some, this access comes easily, while others may have developed coping mechanisms that give a sense of lacking feelings.  Bringing attention to more subtle indications of emotions in the body such as changes in breathing or the micro facial expressions33, helps to recognize an emotional response. There is also a difference between a patterned, habitual emotional response tand a more genuine, spontaneous response. A conflict professional can benefit from ongoing study of their own emotions so that they can more readily understand the emotions of others in the room.

In addition to the difference in accessing emotions, people differ in their expression of emotion. This may be a personal preference based on temperament, a culturally formed response , and/or it may be impacted by outside and systemic factors such as societal expectations or restrictions regarding the expression of emotion based on a person’s gender, race, or other group. 

It is important, particularly in the contracting process, to normalize accessing and expressing emotion. Having an explicit conversation early on that emotions will arise sets the expectation that there will be emotions in the room and that they are important.

It is possible that emotions will bubble over, particularly when there are feelings of anger, sadness, or betrayal. In emotional and tension filled situations such as a conflict, a person’s limbic system can be on hyperdrive. Studies have shown that a person’s powerful emotions can create a physical reaction in the other through our mirror neurons. When parties get caught up in their reactions to a strong negative emotion, the entire process can escalate. Since conflict resolution professionals may not be as caught up in the emotional state, maintaining a certain level of groundedness or calmness—or just feeling centered—can bring equilibrium in the moment. . Moreover,sometimes acknowledging the overwhelm and allowing a moment of respite is helpful: “What would be helpful for you right now when you are feeling so overwhelmed?”

Looping emotions, rather than trying to change them, is often the best move. The looping may be expressed directly by naming an emotion but sometimes it’s more effective for looping an emotion to be nonverbal through the tone of voice, body posture, energy, and other physical manifestations of the emotion. If someone feels understood, including their emotional state, they can let go of the strong grip an emotion holds over them. In order to loop well, the conflict professional should pay attention to their own inner experience in the moment and use that to understand and connect to the person they are looping. In our trainings, we often ask participants in a role play to switch chairs with a party they are working with in order to viscerally feel what it is like to be them.  While you wouldn’t ask someone you are working with to change chairs, you could imagine doing that to increase your understanding of them.

When conflict professionals have clarity about how their own emotions and experiences are impacting the process, it strengthens the connection of understanding for all involved. Opening the door to emotions of the parties provides the opportunity to develop a resolution with a deeper foundation built upon the motivations and needs of the parties which may otherwise stay hidden if emotions are suppressed. Valuing emotions and rationality as vital aspects of decision-making allows the “wise mind” to emerge.

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Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict

Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict

Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks

Book Review by Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton

Dignity will be a welcome addition to the Center for Understanding in Conflict professionals’ library. 

Author Donna Hicks explores what dignity is, how we assimilate dignity both personally and with our clients, while bringing dignity practices into our meetings.  This book memorializes her experiences facilitating discussions between IRA prisoners and British law enforcement and their families in the documentary, Facing the Truth. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Leslie Bilinda and Ms. Hicks were facilitators in this groundbreaking discussion.

Hicks created three models for understanding and applying dignity to the practice of conflict resolution. She lists 10 Essential Elements of Dignity, 10 Temptations to Violate Dignity and finally How to Heal Relationships with Dignity.

10 Essential Elements of Dignity are briefly as follows:

Assuming others have integrity

this helps us express our authentic self without the fear of negative judgements by or about others.


making sure you feel and others feel that they really belong.


participants are in a place where they feel physically and psychologically safe; no fear of bodily harm or humiliation.


giving others your full attention, “by listening, hearing validating and responding to their concerns, feelings and experiences.” Recognition- validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness and help. Generously praise, show appreciation and gratitude for contributions and ideas.


treat people justly, in an even handed way according to agree upon laws and rules.

Benefit of the doubt

treat people as trustworthy. Start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.


believe that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain and express their point of view while actively listen with no judgement.


encourage people to act on their own behalf so they feel in control of their lives and experiences, fostering a sense of hope and possibility.


Take responsibility for your actions. If you have violated the dignity of another person, apologize and make a commitment to change your hurtful behaviors.

10 Temptations to Violate Dignity:

Taking the bait.

Don’t let the bad behavior of others determine your own.  Restraint is the better part of dignity, just don’t take the bait.

Save face-.

Don’t lie, cover up or deceive yourself. Tell the truth about what you’ve done,

Shirking responsibility

When you have violated the dignity of another, acknowledge it, admit you make a mistake and apologize.

Seeking false dignity

If we depend on others for validation of our worth, we are seeking false dignity. Authentic dignity resides within us.

Seeking false security

If we remain in a relationship in which our dignity is routinely violated, our desire for connection has outweighed our need to maintain our own dignity.

Avoiding conflict

when your dignity is violated take action. A violation is a signal that something in a relationship needs to change, stand up for yourself and don’t avoid confrontation.

Being a victim

don’t assume you are the innocent victim in a troubled relationship. Open yourself up to the idea that you might be contributing the problem.

Resisting feedback

We often don’t know what we don’t know. We all have blind spots. We need to overcome our self-protective instincts and accept constructive criticism. Feedback gives us an important opportunity to grow.

Blaming and shaming others to deflect your own guilt

Control the urge to defend yourself by making others look bad.

Engaging in false intimacy and demeaning gossip

beware of the tendency to connect by gossip about others in a demeaning way. Being critical and judgmental about others when they are not present is harmful and undignified. If you want to create intimacy with another speak the truth about yourself, about what is happening in your inner world and invite the other person to do the same.


How to Heal Relationships with Dignity

Listen without interrupting or challenging.

Listen to seek understanding. We more commonly listen to our adversaries to one up them and attack.

Acknowledge and recognize what the other has been through.

As I say in my lectures, this does not mean you agree with their point of view.  It simply reflects your belief that their point of view is worthy of acknowledgement and recognition. Hicks believes, “Sharing our experiences with expression may help the person we’ve injured in the heat of a conflict feel less defensive or justified.”

Honor and acknowledge each other’s integrity,

thereby creating a mutual bond.

All participants must honor each other’s dignity and agree that sitting down together is worthy of your time and attention. Hick’s believes this is the step that makes all the difference.  She notes, “It is much more common to withdraw from those whom we have been in conflict with and refuse to talk to them.”

The process explained in this book reflects conditions that appear to contribute to positive outcomes when facing the truth is enabled and on point with the Center for Understandings teachings. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Purchase the book >>

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