Category Archives: Resources

Community and Conflict: Prevention and Healing – An Interview with Bill Johnson for ABA Mediation Week

It’s ABA Mediation Week 2014, and the theme for this year is “Stories Mediators Tell:  From Rookie to Veteran – Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation”.  We are excited to be able as part of Mediation Week to share this interview with Bill Johnson who is a veteran at helping communities through conflict.  Bill was first trained as a mediator in 1985, and he incorporated that training into his work as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester New York (1972-1993), and as the 64th Mayor of Rochester (1994-2005).  After several additional years (2006-2013) as the Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, he is heading a consulting firm focused on “bridging differences to build strong communities” — Strategic Community Intervention LLC.  If you are concerned about distrust and divides within our communities, listen to the following interview and find out what can be done to heal those divides, even after events like those that recently occurred in Ferguson, MO.  You can also download a summary of Bill’s thoughts and experiences here: SCI –Police and Communities Collaboration, 10-14.

Interview With Bill Johnson of SCI

Note: This video was filmed using VTC Stream.

Building A New Dialogue: Reflecting On Ferguson, MO

Listen!

Listening is at the heart of any productive effort to resolve conflict. At times, it’s the only action that can help people move forward. Real listening is hard work. It requires adequate time and space.  It’s not the kind of “listening” that we often observe in public disputes. It’s not the kind of “listening” that takes words out of context and fits them into an alternative narrative of who is right and who is wrong. Nor is it “listening” in order to pull out components of a possible “solution” that can then be offered to “stop” or “settle” the conflict. It’s not the “listening” that takes place in scheduled forums where people are allowed to “have their say” within time limits and with no assurance – or even real expectation – that what they say will be taken into account as future decisions are made. All of these alternative forms of “listening” — which are frequently evident in public disputes — breed cynicism rather than hope.

Genuine listening requires an active willingness to put aside our own thoughts and opinions as we listen, so that we can hear and consider experiences and perspectives different from our own.  It requires some sense of humility, interdependence, and a desire to think through what the next step might be, together. It’s the kind of listening that President Obama was inviting when he stated that building trust between communities and citizens and police would “require Americans to listen and not just shout. . . That’s how we are going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other not simply divide ourselves from one another”. Taking the time to listen this way is worth the effort. Through listening we learn more about ourselves and each other, and that learning feeds real change.

Others involved or observing the recent unrest in Ferguson also emphasized this kind of listening. The St. Louis Post Dispatch called for dialogue involving “some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide. . .” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson recognized both the despair that lay behind signs reading “I am a man” and “Black lives matter,” and that these signs represented an invitation to connect, to acknowledge the people behind them, and to genuinely listen to what they had to say.

As columnist E J Dionne  stated,  “. . . how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson really matters.”  This is because we need to “step outside the usual boundaries of our discord” if we are going to rebuild trust within our communities. The very act of genuine listening stretches those boundaries and changes how we think.  How we define “community” is determined in part by who we are willing to invite into our conversation – – who we are willing to offer a listening ear to, and thus recognize as inextricably related to us. Genuine listening is the hard work of democracy, and it is the responsibility of both citizens and those in appointed or elected positions.

Before we can find “solutions” or “move on” from a deeply rooted conflict that erupts in our community, we need to create safe spaces for listening and sharing.  This includes a mix of informal processes like listening circles or conversation cafes hosted by individuals, churches, or civic groups, and formal processes that are supported with a commitment from those in power to act, and act collaboratively, on what is heard. And then we need to actually listen to each other, share, and build on what we have learned. Like tributaries to the Mississippi, it takes many listening conversations, small and large, and flowing together, to build the trust that sustains community.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Closing Thoughts

Over this last week we have looked at  how a commitment to civility and more widespread use of the communication tools that mediators use can make a difference in our national politics.  During the US government shut-down, it was reported (NYT 10/101/13)  that Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce, was making the rounds advising Democrats and Republicans alike that

The name calling, blame gaming – using slurs like jihadists, terrorist, cowards, that kind of language – it does not get you to a deal . . .

As ABA Resolution 108 warned, that kind of language appeals to and inflames personal hates and resentments, promotes division, and leads to stalemates.  We can change. By using stories of wisdom that emphasize our interdependence and other mediation techniques in our personal and public conversations we can begin to heal some of the partisan divides and work through the complex issues that affect our future together.  In his remarks to the nation, the president quoted our pledge of allegiance “One nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”.  Is it possible? We can certainly do better.

Ongoing progress requires not just vigilance in changing destructive patterns of communication, it will require ongoing commitment to the rule of law.  Writing in his recent book “American Lawyers“, Paul D. Carrington observed

The law is really the main thread in the fabric of organized society.  It is the compulsory part of the rules men have arrived at for living together.  There is dignity and pride in dealing with the law.  Our great public buildings, capitols, and courts, are designed to express that dignity.  They are the homes of government and law. And government itself is law.

This country’s lawyers and dispute resolution professionals are uniquely equipped to help us find a way forward – resolving problems rather than simply quarreling with periodic respites over the same issues.

Commit to leading wherever you can, with civility, and with the rule of law as your foundation.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Event Today

Sarah, who is an active member of the ABA, is pleased to again co-sponsor a mediation week event with the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri’s School of Law, and the Association of Missouri Mediators.  Both of these organizations have long been involved in “bridging differences in positions, perspectives and people through mediation”, which is the focus of this year’s mediation week.  This event will also be streamed on-line.

We also welcome the end of the government shut-down.  With that experience behind us we can always hope that we will move towards a political culture with less brinksmanship, name-calling, misinformation, and shortsightedness.  In addition to reviewing ABA Resolution 108, we would recommend two of William Ury’s books – Getting Past No, and The Power of A Positive No -  to all who would like to improve the ways we work through difficult issues.  All of us, citizens and elected leaders alike, can work to make our politics more effective.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Additional Resources

The ABA has a number of resources to help families, businesses and other organizations think about how to effectively resolve disputes through mediation.  Many of these are available through the Mediation Week Toolkit.   If you are a party thinking about mediation or a mediator working with parties, you will find the downloadable mediation guides  useful.  In addition to the general guide there are guides for family mediation, and complex mediation.  The ABA has also prepared a resource to help businesses plan for early dispute resolution.   Another great resource for parties to a dispute – including parents battling over custody, feuding partners, and disputing neighbors –  is the “difficult conversation preparation worksheet” and instructions created and shared by Triad Consulting on their website.  We urge you to review, use, and share these resources!

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Civility Is Not Enough

Yesterday we wrote about how a commitment to civility and more widespread use of the communication tools that mediators use can make a difference in our national politics.  Today we look at the importance of critical thinking.  Critical thinking requires ongoing and systematic analysis of how we are thinking so we can improve how we evaluate, use, and integrate different kinds of information.   This extends also to thinking about how we communicate our thoughts, and how we receive and process what we hear.  In a world of sound bites, competing and biased narratives, and positional maneuvering, critical thinking is “critical” to finding our way.

One resource I really like and have used in several dialogue contexts to help participants think about how and what they are communicating is the “Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools” booklet from The Foundation for Critical Thinking Thinker’s Guide Library.  As is noted in the very beginning of that booklet, without the effort to think critically, much of our thinking is “biased, distorted, uninformed, or downright prejudiced”.  As the authors go on to note, this is dangerous because “the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.  Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.”

The stages of critical thinking outlined in the booklet align well with the “data to wisdom continuum.”  Both tools can be used to help participants generate questions about where they are, what they know, and what they don’t know and would like to explore further.  Developing these types of questions helps people move from simply trading talking points, to more productive dialogue.  Another great resource to check out is  FlackCheck.org. Here you can review some of the common ways information is manipulated or distorted when reported through the media, illustrated with real life video examples.  Our post series on cognitive errors  also works well with this resource.

The educator John Dewey observed that “Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.”  As Dan Yankelovich has pointed out, our national problem solving capacity has eroded as our collective ability to think critically together has declined.  By integrating educational tools like those above into our dialogues we can help to restore that capacity.

Working Through Cognitive Errors – A Review

In this final post in our series on cognitive errors , we provide a general summary of some of the key approaches that facilitators or others might use to keep dialogues on difficult issues going even when cognitive errors threaten to shut down those dialogues.

What facilitators should not do is point out that something is a cognitive error!  We already had one reader express concern at the use of the phrase “cognitive error”, reacting to the phrase as if we were judging right or wrong on a particular argument. The phrase “cognitive error” is a term from the field of psychology, although “cognitive distortion” is also used.  As we explained at the outset of this series, a “cognitive error” is a thinking pattern that distorts the processing of facts, emotion, and other information.  In this sense “error” is similar to the term as it is used in baseball:  A defensive misplay.  When cognitive errors appear in dialogue, they are often defensive in nature.  They also make the discussion more difficult and frustrating for others.   Whatever the term, this series has looked at approaches facilitators or others can take to avoid an impasse and keep the discussion moving when it threatens to stall.  Here are some of the key points:

In order to feel safe enough to participate effectively, process new information, and consider new ideas, people need acknowledgement of their thoughts and acceptance of their fears, concerns, and efforts.  In difficult conversations then it is important for facilitators to be gentle with the individual speakers, avoid direct confrontation, invite participation, and reflect, reframe, or shift perspective in the ways we have discussed.  As Fisher and Ury urged in their groundbreaking book “Getting to Yes”, we need to “separate the person from the problem.”

A facilitator can also ask about data and information relevant to the conversation, share new data, summarize the information received, and invite reflection.  Before summarizing and inviting reflection, it is useful to have a list of five or more points.  Having a longer list helps to avoid participants falling into a debate over one or two points.  With a sufficient number of points to reflect upon, a facilitator can use open ended questions aligned the “data to wisdom continuum” to encourage evaluation, and the consideration of new perspectives.  Another way to encourage dialogue when participants are losing hope is to shift from the present and ask questions like “If it were . . .”, or “What if . . ./would that make a difference?”  As those questions are explored people are often willing to start looking at the issue of what might move us closer to an acceptable next step.

We have also found that both providing “choice points” for the group (example: “we can stop now or pick up another topic or continue/what would you prefer?”) and breaks combined with “h0mework” (reflections to write, process questions to think about, information to reflect on or obtain) is very helpful for moving through difficult issues.  This means that you must plan for multiple sessions from the outset.

The above also means that for the most part you assume the goodwill of every participant.  We are not naive, and know that there are those who deliberately disrupt dialogues.  In our experience though, the intentionally disruptive are in the minority.  How to handle those is a subject for another post.  Many more show up because they are genuinely concerned and want to be heard.  If you assume goodwill, acknowledge and accept all contributions, and help the group navigate through cognitive errors and other sticking points, they will start to hear each other and consider new approaches.  When that occurs, dialogue serves to rebuild the sense of community among the participants and effective and sustainable solutions to difficult issues can emerge with surprising speed.