We are in it together: An Interview with Jack Himmelstein

Professor Jack Himmelstein is co-founder and co-director, with his colleague Gary Friedman, of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, which they established in 1981 as the Center for Mediation in Law and which is based in New York and California. Since founding the Center, they have worked to develop their Understanding-based approach to conflict resolution. They have been teaching mediation and conflict resolution training programs in the United States for thirty years and in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, Israel and Russia for more than twenty years.

The following interview was conducted on February 18, 2012 in Heidelberg, Germany, with Katie Deuschl, lawyer and mediator.

Jack, You are an expert in the field of conflict resolution and mediation and you have been coming to Germany for mediation trainings for over two decades. What do you like about teaching in Germany especially?

I like the connection with the people that I know. I like the continuity because I have been coming every year, I think, since 1990. I like, and deeply care about, the journey we share together. I originally came to Germany years before I came for teaching mediation. It came in strong part, from the fact that I am Jewish and was interested, more than interested, deeply cared about understanding and finding the connection with the German people because of the history of Germany and the Jewish people. And I have been able to feel, build and maintain deep connections with people here and to make dear friends, many in the field of mediation.

So it has been a journey and a search for me and for the people I connect with in a field that we share built on the very real need for developing greater human understanding. I have been very impressed with the depth of the commitment to mediation of the people that I have met. And I have been and am grateful to share that journey. Gary Friedman and I, I believe, were the first to come to Germany with the spirit and practice of mediation, as we know it. And we quickly experienced the desire, even the longing, of people here to search for understanding, to build an approach based on what they learned and discovered was deeply of value to them and to make it their own in this culture in a way that promotes understanding, mutuality, and ways of going through conflict together. That has been meaningful for them and those they touch and meaningful for me to join in that journey together.

In a nutshell: what motivates you to work as a mediator and what is important to you?

To search for understanding between people in the face of differences and in the face of conflict, which means both to search for understanding within one’s self and between one’s self and another. So it is an individual searching and a mutual searching that touches me.

Jack, you first practiced law as a civil rights lawyer and then moved to teaching at Columbia Law School where you focused on training students in the human dimensions of law practice. How did you get in touch with mediation and how did you end up devoting your full time to resolving conflict and practicing mediation?

Well, it goes back long before I studied law. Throughout my life I was always interested in the relationship between what goes on inside of us and what goes on outside of us. In fact I considered studying either Law or Psychiatry and – laughs – ended up in college studying Philosophy which helped me try to understand whether to study law or psychiatry and why I was trying to figure out about the inside and the outside that was and continues to be my search. I decided to become a lawyer and while in Law School at Harvard, I approached the Harvard Medical School asking to study some psychiatry as well. I was met with much skepticism until I fortunately found my way to the office of the head of the second year psychiatry program for medical students, Dr. Leston Havens. He listened, and then said, “when I was your age, I intended to become a lawyer but was drafted into the army and served in Europe during the Second World War. As a result of my experience then, I decided to become a Psychiatrist. So I believe I understand some of what you are seeking.” So when I was in my second year of law school, he allowed me to join the study of some part of the psychiatry residency as psychiatry training for medical students. So those two worlds were always together.

When I finished Law School I received a fellowship to study abroad. I studied with Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, in London for a year, who at the time had a child therapy clinic. So that journey of understanding, the relationship between the outside and the inside, was always going on. When I practiced law I was a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund against the death penalty, and that work was also all about searching for greater human understanding between the races in the United States – which was part of my
background growing up at thetime of the civil rights movement. The impulse towards justice is in us and expressed outside of us; so that inner-outer connection has always been there. When I went into teaching law at Columbia Law School, I taught a clinic in which the law students were placed on wards of mental hospitals and they also worked with medical students and they helped talk to the inpatients and outpatients about their legal problems while they learned themselves as students about the challenges facing people who were suffering from psychiatric illnesses. The impulse towards mediation was then just starting to be felt in the United States, and I applied to the National Institute of Mental Health for a grant to train law teachers from around the country, in ways of teaching law which include what was going on and what is going on inside of us. At that time, I met Gary Friedman who was looking for a different way to practice law that brought people in conflict together. Gary started to practice what came to be called mediation. He was on the West Coast, and I was on the East Coast; and we became colleagues and eventually partners in establishing a mediation institute in 1980: The Center for Mediation in Law. I applied and received a grant to do the first training in the United States for law teachers in the teaching of mediation, which I did with Gary and others. So that is both about the history and the impulse of how we can, when we face problems seemingly on the outside of us, contact the desire to search for connection between us – where we respect and honor ourselves and also seek to respect and honor the others with whom we are in contact even when we are in conflict.

You then became the co-founder of the City University of New York School of Law, where for ten years you helped develop and guide that school’s innovative experiential approach to training lawyers in the public interest…

It was through my work with law teachers from across the country while I was at Columbia that I came to work closely with Howard Lesnick and Charles Halpern, both of whom were then teaching law atother national law schools. They asked me to join them in founding the CUNY Law School with a mission of training law students in the service of human needs. I brought spirit of the search for ways to honor human connection with me to my years at CUNY where we sought to develop a people centered law curriculum that included mediation. And Gary and I continued to develop trainings in the Understanding-based approach to mediation for lawyers and other professionals through the Center that we had founded, which in time led to the trainings in Germany. Then later Gary and I thought about what was really central for mediation, it was understanding – promoting human understanding, building understanding, the longing for understanding, understanding in ourselves and for others, understanding between people – which goes back to the original question you asked me about wanting to come to Germany. I think it is that longing, that desire for understanding, that commitment to understand,that fuels our work. So in time we changed our name to The Center for Understanding in Conflict.

We called our book Challenging Conflict because we wanted to challenge the hold that conflict has over us to challenge ways that conflict can trap us. So it is the desire for understanding, experiencing and promoting understanding, longing for understanding, reaching for understanding is what I think has motivated me and continues to motivate me.

So it was the same impulse and motivation that drove you to become a lawyer that continued to be the focus for your work as a mediator.

…For me, in different forms, it is the desire for justice – which I see as an expression in the world that comes from an impulse from within that hopefully we share and can seek together to express. That can be in the Civil Rights Movement, as it was for me, but that could also be in a conflict that I am having with my neighbor or my business associate, which people have all the time.

Jack, what do you find most challenging when working with people in conflict?

It is always a question of the willingness to go past holding on to the conflict, holding on to the anger, frustration and pain. So it can be very challenging to find a way to touch that part of people that do not simply want to find solutions based on anger, frustration or even stronger feelings, but rather to look for a way to honor their connection with the other while they honor themselves – without giving in but seeking together to find a way that honors them both.

It is often challenging to tap that impulse. And my experience is that there is a willingness of people to do that although it is often buried beneath the tension of being in conflict. And in my work here in Germany, I find there is a real palpable commitment, a desire to give that expression which I continually experience with the people that I have the privilege and pleasure of interacting with as we learn together.

When you are in a mediation training, it seems that you soak up the emotions thatare expressed by the people, and you work with these emotions quite intensively. This can be quite exhausting…

You are assuming that this is exhausting– laughs – I actually find it fulfilling and relieving. I think resisting the emotions, not recognizing the emotional level, I find much more straining and exhausting particularly when there are people that are willing to tap the deeper impulses within themselves – the longing, the sense of caring, the wish. And I just feel “how nice, we are doing this together.” That is true in mediations also. The teaching part can usually flow for me when the people want it, they long for finding a way through conflict, to find a way to help others in conflict. I find that very nourishing.

I could be exhausted in a mediation where people are stuck and do not want to move forward in a way that honors them both or I cannot find a way to do that. Tapping the emotional level in a constructive, mutual way does not feel exhausting to me; it wakes me up and it brings me nourishment, even joy.

So is tapping the emotional level the main shift that takes place in a mediation?

No, it is tapping the aspiration to join together to – and this certainly has emotional parts, it is not just any emotion – but tapping what people really care about, tapping the impulse to honor both themselves and the other. It is that deeper impulse of honoring oneself in a way that does not deny possibly but even includes honoring the other. If there is only anger, which is an emotion, to tap that again and again, and only that, does not bring me great relief and satisfaction which is exactly what conflict stirs up in people and in society.

As you know from the training program, I try for learning purposes, to personify conflict running around the room (or running around the world), trying to convince everyone they should be angry. If that were the only emotion that people feel, it is not enough, and it is certainly not satisfying for me. If it is part of a larger picture that they realize that they want to go beyond adherence only to anger while honoring as well what they care about that connects them with others, then it is much more fulfilling and meaningful for me and hopefully for them. As I know you know, Katie, there is a famous Jewish expression: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

Many German mediators were strongly influenced by your teaching and the Understanding-based approach to conflict resolution that you developed together with Gary. Who inspired you in your work?

There have been many over the years whom I have learned from and with. And certainly my work with Gary and other colleagues in the United States continues to be a source of nourishment and learning as has my work and friendship with others here including with Lis Ripke with whom I am happily teaching here also Hans-Georg and Gisela Mähler who first invited us, and others I could name. And I am always happy to continue to learn with people like you and many others here in Germany who when they have had a taste, a feel for this possibility, for this learning, for this approach have held on and with great caring, great love, insight and the strong desire, willingness and ability to apply it in this culture in ways that for me have been extraordinarily impressive.

In some ways, I feel when I am among my colleagues here that I can happily join with others in honoring the integrity of the movement towards mediation as much if not more than in almost any other place, including the United States. I am not trying to say that it is all wonderful, perfect – considering many of the problems that I see in the United States also exist here – but it is a great journey.

Looking back at the past 30 years, what has changed, what are the lessons learned, and what are the challenges for the future?

Well, there is a continual understandable tension between mediation as a way of just getting beyond the surface of the conflict and reaching a conclusion. So for me, the caucus method of mediation or the pressure method of mediation where the mediator does not have the power as a judge would have to formally make a decision but pressures the people to make a decision is an ongoing challenge, a natural one. So many things that go on in the name of mediation now are not for me what I really feel the deeper promise and potential and hope for mediation hold. It feels more like authoritative power decision-making. And some people in conflict long for that, they long for a third party to tell him or at least to tell the other person what he or she is supposed to do. That is totally to be expected, and Gary, I and others have asked – can we continue to call what we do mediation when there are so many things going on that are called mediation that do not really have the spirit of mediation as we understand it.

I think what changed is mostly the depth of the journey, the willingness to continuously discover new ways of appreciating how we can work together to build understanding in ourselves and between people, between us and others; so I am continually fascinated by ways of looking at how we can within ourselves approach conflict, understand what is going on in us as we are in the presence of conflict and do that in ways that with great sensitivity and caring can deepen and develop understanding within us and between people in a way that seeks fully to honor them. Even the work that we did in the seminar, at the very end of the seminar we said, “uh, we have to change one of the words in the chart as it does not quite capture something that we learned together or observed here.” So it is a continual path of discovery. I think that is great and I am grateful to be a part of that – to whatever in the world or in the universe there is that made it possible for me to join with many others that I have worked with over the years and other new ones – including you and all participating these days in this seminar.

I also, and this is not so tangible as we all know, I would like to think that mediation touches on the possibility of bringing understanding to a very, very challenged and troubled world and helps deepen what I really believe is that natural ability within all of us and that desire within all of us to reach greater understanding in ways that, without giving up ourselves, we seek also to honor that impulse in ourselves to honor and reach out to others.

We are in it together. Jack, thank you very much for this interview. I appreciate very much that you shared this.

Thank you, Katie, thank you for being with me in the interview and in the seminar.