Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Dear Mediator"

I’ve decided to try something I’m calling “Dear Mediator” where readers write to me about a conflict and I present a possible approach for how they might go about resolving it. Since I will obviously only be learning one side of the conflict, and since I am a mediator, I will refrain from presenting one solution or outcome. Instead I will focus my response on a possible process for obtaining a healthy resolution. 

I like thinking about conflict. To me conflict is a puzzle that if taken apart and put back together in a myriad of ways has the potential to meet multiple needs. I’ve never liked the idea that there is only one truth or that one thing is right and another thing wrong. Certainly this may be the case in some instances, but most human behavior, conflict, etc., is complex and nuanced. 

I’ll respond once to all serious submissions and will choose some to publish anonymously on www.pronaoimediation.blogspot.com 

I don’t have all of the answers but I do like to puzzle over conflict and I have found that most people like to talk about conflicts they are experiencing.  

To participate: 

*Send an email to dearmediator@noahmediation.com with the following. 

1)      In the “subject” line of your email, give yourself an anonymous name that I could use if I decide to publish your email. Also use this name when you sign the letter.

2)      In 100 words or less describe the conflict.

3)      In 100 words or less tell me what, if anything, you have already done to try and resolve it and what worked or didn’t work.

4)      In 100 words or less describe the perfect outcome to the conflict from your perspective. 

Please spread the word.
Current clients may not participate.

*Disclaimer: Email addresses and other personal information will be kept confidential with the following exceptions: in the case of threats of harm to oneself or others or in the event that a child or elder is being neglected or abused, confidentiality may be broken. I am not an attorney and any information provided by me shall not be construed as legal advice. Do not send emails that involve untreated mental illness, untreated substance abuse or other addictions, domestic violence, or the abuse of elders or children. Do not send emails requesting legal advice. I am not a therapist and participation shall not be construed as therapy. Current clients may not participate. I reserve the right to exclude any emails from participation without explanation.

Friday, August 15, 2014

One pathway to a Career in the field of Conflict Resolution

I recently read “Engaging Conflict for Fun and Profit: Current and Emerging Career Trends in Conflict Resolution” by Robert J. Rhudy (2014), none of which surprised me, but all of which I wish I could have told my 30-something self when I was first considering starting my own business. In particular, I wish I had known that: 

Several parties interviewed echoed the point that we have failed to develop clear pathways into conflict resolution careers… With some exceptions, most persons interviewed described a fairly long pathway to full-time career success.  With particular reference to such private practitioner services as mediation and public policy facilitation, the perception is that a small number of practitioners get very good incomes while there are fairly recent estimates that the majority of providers in private practice likely make $50,000 annually or less from such work while perhaps supplementing their conflict resolution income through other activities (Rhudy, 2014, P.3).

With hindsight being 20/20, would I have done things differently?  Yes, probably. But it was still a perfect time in my life to launch a business; and to begin adjunct teaching; and to engage in a fascinating part-time job as a program development consultant with a lovely non-profit. My wife and I lost money—more money than I want to even consider—but we didn’t lose money we had, we lost money I could have otherwise earned if I had stayed at my court mediation job. I knew that I was lucky to have ever landed that job (I get to mediate full time and be paid for it!) when I first did so after moving to Chicago in 2004 and I knew I was giving up a lot when I left the court mediation job in 2007, butwithout going into detailI had no choice at the time, and a mediation business was something I had always imagined starting someday.
Upon re-launching this blog I stumbled upon my draft post: "How do you start a small business? 'Get good and get known'" from June 2009.  I’m not sure why I never published it then so I published it this week, with the original backdate. Similarly, Rhudy (2014) quotes Juliana Birkhoff, Vice President of RESOLVE in Washington, D.C. as saying: “’People who are creative, opportunistic and ambitious need to network, volunteer, get known, and sell, and eventually they will find something to focus on, market, and succeed.’” I believe I did just that when I launched Noah Mediation Services in 2007.
From 2007 through 2012, I juggled mediation, curriculum design, public education, peer mediation training, teaching and the nuts to bolts of running a business with sleepless nights and a breast-feeding baby. I paid off a $15,000 business loan, kept up with business expenses and my partner and I still managed to buy a home, get pregnant, and occasionally dine out. I learned.  Hopefully my clients learned.  And I got to watch—fulltime—my son’s daily learning for the first two years of his life.  Building a business takes time and commitment and an unfailing belief in your ability to be successful which you then must sell to others. As Rhudy (2014) states:  

In various ways, several described the kind of entrepreneurial drive required for success. Susan Butterwick said that her professional experiences indicate the need to hustle for grants and other funding, to sell yourself, to be adaptive and flexible, and to exercise self-promotion. Carole Houk said that she “had to create the need and the recognition for the need” in many of her earlier working experiences. Juliana Birkhoff similarly stated that conflict specialists will often have to make their own paths, and will have to convince their client or employer that what they have and do are what the consumer needs. (P.22) 

I knew what I needed to do to succeed and I had been doing it, but I also knew that most businesses took a minimum of five years to become truly profitable. As it turns out, we just didn’t have that kind of time. After losing my part-time job at the end of 2009, I closed the office early in 2010 and kept the business limping along from home until ultimately in May 2013 I returned to my full-time mediation job at the courts, no less grateful to have it, once again thrilled to get paid to mediate full-time. I loved everything I had been doing privately, but once expenses were deducted, at most, between 2007-2011, I contributed $15,000 a year to the household; at worst, in 2012, the final year before I returned to full-time employment, I contributed $0 to the household income. Fortunately, I always broke even. As a contingency to my 2007 business loan the bank put a lien on my car: my wife and I named it our Toyota Collateral until it officially returned to my possession in 2010. As much as you can love something and believe in its value, lack of financial resources always takes its toll. 

Would I say that I have been successful in the unique path I have taken toward a career in conflict resolution? Let me reflect on how I initially entered the field and where I am currently and then I’ll come back to that question. 

In 1997, shortly after graduating from college, I landed a job as an administrative assistant in a high tech human resources department in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  From the director down, the department was an employment utopia with wonderful management and a supportive team environment and opportunities to grow and learn. The technology excited me; my colleagues and the supervisors were motivating and driven and kind; I’ve been chasing such a wonderful workplace ever since and I don’t believe it exists.  We were in a bubble until it burst a year later when our small company was bought by one much larger.  By the time of the acquisition, I had been accepted into and begun my graduate program studies in dispute resolution.  A colleague had been taking a course in negotiation at Harvard University and it sounded interesting to me; she reminded me of our company’s generous education assistance program.  I told my mom about the course, but being practically minded I felt that if I were to take a class, I wanted it to be toward a degree; Harvard didn’t offer a degree in this particular field.  My mom, ever the librarian, researched graduate programs in negotiation—and more specifically, conflict resolution—and found the one at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.  She even accompanied me to the open house at which point I was hooked. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but the program only accepted students who were interested in applying their studies to an existing field; mine was corporate human resources.  Our program was careful not to do what concerned many of the interviewees with whom Rhudy (2014) spoke, such as John Bickerman who believes “’we are training people for jobs that don't exist’ (p.6).” Coming from an existing field—human resources—I had an advantage over other young applicants in getting accepted into the graduate program in Dispute Resolution.  Ironically, I left the field of human resources immediately upon graduating. Like many before and after me, I learned to mediate and immediately fell in love.
Rhudy (2014) writes: “Adler believes it is good to get an advanced conflict resolution degree if you want to be an academic” but according to Adler:  “’If you want to work in the field rather than teach or do research get a degree in something else like law, social work, psychology, business—courses that prepare you for a primary field—with a certificate or course work in conflict resolution (p.6).” In hindsight, I agree pretty strongly with this advice.  My stubborn 20-something-self believed otherwise, however, as I set out to make my career in mediation.  I applied and was rejected to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which conducted multi-party mediations typically involving racial disputes in Boston Public Schools.  I was too white and too female—and in retrospect I understand why I was rejected from the program—most applicants, myself included, fitting this particular demographic.  Despite having participated in City Year between 1993 and 1994, I was virtually indistinctive from my liberal, white, female peers who had applied to be mediators with CIT.  However, given my drive to work with youth and/or families, I kept my head down and kept knocking on doors.  I took the course being offered by the very director of the CIT program to which I had been rejected, and I worked my butt off in her course to distinguish myself and prove my commitment to mediating in schools.  A semester later, I reapplied to the CIT program and was accepted.  From there, I applied and was accepted into a Child In Need Of Services (CHINS) mediation program, and began mediating on a voluntary basis for them as well.  In total, I spent about 3 years doing voluntary mediation before landing a full-time job in the field (peer mediation coordinator in fall 2001) , a relatively short time volunteering in comparison to people entering the field these days.  As Rhudy (2014) explains: “several of the leaders that I interviewed stated their overall view of the current situation in essentially the same terms: ’The field continues to have a high supply of providers, low market demand, and high social need’ (P.3).” I think this is truer now even than when I entered graduate school in 1998.  Breaking into family mediation proved to be an even greater challenge.
At some point while I was in graduate school I attended a conference of the best known family mediation professional organization at the time.  I was young and green but highly driven.  Whether warranted or not, I ultimately felt shunned by veterans I sought out at the conference from whom I hoped to learn the profession.  I found family mediators at that time to be a small, powerful (mostly attorneys, mostly white, mostly male, mostly older) and exclusive club to which I had not yet paid dues.
I graduated with my degree, began running a peer mediation program in Boston, but sustained an interest in family mediation.  I soon learned that one of the veteran divorce mediators by whom I felt snubbed at the conference was teaching for a semester in my former graduate program so I audited the class. Over time, this person softened toward me. I got to know this mediator and ultimately, over dinner, I learned about the field of family mediation, in which I would enter full-time less than two years later.
When I moved to Chicago in early 2004 I knew no one other than my partner.  I found a family mediator in the gay yellow pages and cold-called her.  We hit it off.  I asked her if she knew of any job opportunities.  She said she rarely responded so extensively to calls like mine—people paid her to intern with her through her private mediation practice—but she thought there might be an opening with the courts.  The timing was perfect.  There happened to be an opening and after a grueling but exciting interview of spontaneous role-plays and heated debate, I started mediating full-time for the courts a few months later.  This same mediator mentored me as I left the courts and broke out on my own, to which I will be forever grateful.  Because of her, I have mentored others when my personal and professional obligations allow; there are no secrets to becoming successful in this field because so many of us are still defining what that even means, individually and as a profession, but we can pass along what we have learned.
I appear to be in the relatively unique position of having worked in the conflict resolution field as a mediator, program developer, educator and trainer in a variety of settings including private mediation, community mediation, schools, non-profits, and mandatory court-related mediation. I did all of these things because they interested me, but I also did all of these things because they were ways in which to “get good and get known.”  To me success is in getting paid to do something I love each day; being invited into people’s lives at their most vulnerable and possibly effecting change for the better; teaching them skills to hopefully prevent future damage to themselves and one another; creating space for children to be heard; and helping to heal emotional damage and wounds, or at the very least, to create potential for such healing to occur. If I do these more times than not, than I feel like I am successful in my conflict resolution career.
Other important, related questions include how do you evaluate whether someone is a “capable mediator” or a “good mediator?”  What types of settings make for a good mediator or make for a good mediation? I think mediators would disagree about the answer to this and dialogue is necessary. As written by Rhudy (2014), “Bickerman believes, however, that growth in court-ordered mediation is marginalizing mediation—stating many less capable mediators are now doing court-ordered cases and “It's become an event in the litigation process. Check off the mediation box before continuing with litigation to mediation.” I will weigh in on it this and I couldn’t disagree more with Bickerman.  Some of the best mediators I have met do court-ordered cases.  The program for which I now work helps families daily in minimizing conflict escalation and in developing tools and skills for better approaches to conflict and communication; we even help them develop workable parenting plans. I have mediated for the courts and I have mediated independently, and while there are numerous differences relative to context and clients, the quality of the mediators is not one of those differences.  The problem isn’t with who is doing mediation but with who isn’t doing mediation, as in the Cook County rule approved by the Illinois Supreme Court only allowing attorneys on the court referral list for family mediation cases involving financial matters. 
There are many pathways to a conflict resolution career, and I, among many of my peers believe that some sort of regulation or certification is essential as our field expands and as more people enter it.  Yet as a profession, we must also be honest about who has power to decide such things and who has a stake in what happens. We must invite everyone with related experience and an invested interest to the table; and until we do develop a clear path to becoming “successful” or “good” in the field of conflict resolutionand can reasonably and objectively evaluate this accordinglywe must be open to the myriad of respectable ways individuals come to be experts in doing this important work, without elevating one path over another.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Negotiating: preschool years

My wife (Yay, gay marriage was legalized in Illinois during my four-year hiatus from blogging!) often tells me that I am raising a little negotiator.   He and I discuss “terms” and “make proposals” and “offers” and “counter offers.”  We also identify the “problem” and “develop solutions” and, after running through the pluses and minuses of each option, we choose the best one together.  There is no right or wrong, no power struggle.  It’s a collaborative negotiation, where we try to meet the needs and interests of all parties.
He’s a preschooler and he’s an excellent negotiator; in fact, I would suggest that all kids are excellent negotiators but often parents don’t have the time or energy to nurture that in them. Most of us in our forties (Something else that happened to me these past four years: I aged out of my thirties.) had at least one parent, if not both, who asserted power and authority over us—certainly we experienced the power and authority of teachers and school administrators— so it comes more naturally.  It takes a great deal of conscious thought to negotiate with someone, particularly a preschooler who thinks he knows everything already (or is preschooler and “thinks he knows everything” redundant?), but it’s always worth it. 

For example, one day when I picked him up from school after work we needed to get dinner started soon and disagreed on how to spend the little time we had left.  We identified the problem: we had limited time and he wanted to go to the park whereas I wanted to go to the library.  Then we asked questions.  I asked him why he wanted to go to the park.  They hadn’t gone to the park at school that day he explained (unusual for a school day).  I told him I had a book waiting for me to pick up at the library.  There were two obvious solutions: go to the park or go to the library.  I asked him what we should do.  Instead of whining or yelling or insisting we go to the park “NOW!,” my son offered a third solution:  we could go to the park that day and the library the next day.  I talked it through for a minute while he listened: the book would still be waiting for me the following day; I had another book I was still reading (I am lost without a good book on hand at all times); and the weather was gorgeous while (quickly pulling over and checking my weather app) it was purported to rain the following day.  Okay, I said, he had a good idea: park today, library tomorrow.  We had a lovely time at the park that afternoon and the following day, as the rain came down, we skipped into the library, hand in hand.

Blog Again

Last weekend I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a house she rented and at dinner we took turns sharing something we loved about her.  I talked about how this friend, no matter how busy or stressed, always took time to connect so that the people around her could actually feel that they mattered.  It reminded me of a piece I wrote when I was blogging years ago (MediationSmall Talk: Continuing the Conversation) because she was in fact the same friend I referenced then, with the same positive qualities I was hoping to emulate.  Four years later, she is still excellent at connecting with people in the moment–no matter the particulars surrounding that moment–and communicating to them that they matter.  I, on the other hand, am still working on getting better at this in more varied settings.  I am good at it in my role as a professional mediator but given my introverted and efficiency-driven nature it’s not a strength I find myself possessing in hallways, on the playground, at the neighborhood block party, or during other unplanned encounters. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Transitioning from Blog Posts to Articles

Three years ago I started this blog with the intention of meaningfully considering important issues in mediation, particularly those affecting the professional mediator. While posts became fewer in number as each year passed, I believe the words that were written here contributed new thoughts and critiques to the field of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution).