All you need to know about resolving conflicts in eight minutes or less

Gene Roberts, Larry Crippen, and Lee Jay Berman

October is Conflict Resolution Month at Sam Houston State University. This is a time we set aside for us to think about conflicts and how to resolve them peacefully and responsibly. Our theme was Leadership in the Eye of Conflict.

Lee Jay Berman from the American Institute of Mediation delivered an amazing keynote address and provided coaching to members of the SHSU Leadership Academy.

He was highly received. One person commented:

Lee Jay, truly an incredible leadership experience. I admire your ability influence others. Our leadership academy participants were able to immediately put your insights into action.

As part of the month’s festivities, Larry Crippen, the news director at KSAM 101.7 interviewed Lee Jay and me about mediation and conflict resolution. You can listen to the interview here:

Collaboration is a needed, but untaught, workplace skill

As part of my employment with a university, I receive a daily briefing from EAB. EAB, according to its website, helps education leaders solve problems.

Today’s daily briefing included an article about a “skill employers are desperate for–but that’s rarely taught in school.”

That skill? Collaboration.

According to a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, over 80% of midsize or larger employers search for collaboration skills, but only 40% of the employers said new graduates actually had these skills.

A report by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Pearson found that collaboration has three components: managing tasks, communication with others, and conflict resolution.

This need is consistent with some great research authored by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, published in the Harvard Business Review, where 98% of workers have reported experiencing “uncivil behavior,” about half deliberately decrease their effort or quality of work, and not only are internal relations damaged, but customer relations are damaged, as well.

Now that we know what’s happening–that we aren’t teaching these skills and the lack of education is hurting the workplace–what do we do about it?


3D Quality

Every day, Seth Godin, the author, entrepreneur, and marketer, sends out a blog. He makes me think.

Today’s blog is a reflection on “quality.” Our office’s mission statement promises “high-quality” services. But Mr. Godin expands my thinking on the three dimensions of quality.

Here is today’s challenge from Mr. Godin:

Thinking clearly about quality

There are at least three ways we use the word ‘quality’ at work:

Quality as defined by Deming and Crosby: Meeting spec.

If you can reliably, and without drama, deliver precisely what you have promised, this is quality. This is what happens when a car, regardless of price, has doors that don’t squeak. Or when a website doesn’t go down. Or when your dry cleaning is ready on the day it’s promised, and your clothes are clean.

When six sigma professionals talk about quality, this is what they mean. Meeting spec.

Quality as defined by Ralph Lauren or Tiffany: The quality of deluxeness.

This is when the clarity of the diamond or the nap of the leather or the speed of the jet is something that most others can’t match. This is not just, “you get what you pay for,” but also, “you paid a lot.”

And finally, there’s the quality of right effort, of “I did my best,” of the sweat and vulnerability that happens when a human has given it her all.

That TV show or that software that you love: what do you love about it? What about the calculus you put into shopping for a car or a school for your kids?

A $100 million-dollar movie might have more spectacular special effects or be more carefully edited, but it might not have the quality that you find in an indie film.

When you’re doing your work, when you’re creating an offering, there’s no more important question to answer then, “what sort of quality are we seeking here?”

Reflections on the 2016 election

I rarely write about politics because I don’t like the potential of alienating half of my friends.

During the presidential campaign and yesterday’s results, my anecdotal evidence is that about half of my social media friends wanted Mrs. Clinton to win and about half wanted Mr. Trump to win. Another way of viewing the results is that about half of my friends were voting against the other candidate. Just like the country.

I’ve seen some of my friends call each other names and impute extraordinarily negative motivations to their (and my) friends—the “other half” of the voting public. Today, I’m seeing posts about “gloating” and “not gloating.”  Today, I’m reading posts with the hashtag “not my president.” Today, I’m reading posts about how some of my friends are happy and some of my friends are terrified.

I’m writing today to try to think about, and in humility, provide an answer to the question that many are asking, “How do we unite and move forward?”

In some respects, mediators see this type of thing all of the time. In the litigated case, parties to a lawsuit describe each other in less than flattering terms: the other breached a contract, the other is a slanderer, the other was deceptive in the goods and services that were (or were not) provided, the other violated my trust. And the list goes on, and all of these statements are made in public filings. Yet, over 90 percent of the time, the people and organizations in litigated cases come together, reach an agreement, and settle the dispute. Despite the public name calling and the differences, they reach an agreement. It is possible.

A friend and one of my professional role models has a mantra that goes something like this: at first, assume good intentions. While political disagreement can be (but should it be?) heated, can we look past the labels and assume good intentions?

The Clinton campaign’s slogan was “Stronger Together.” This has echoes of our nation’s traditional motto, e pluribus unum—one from many. E pluribus unum is part of the Great Seal of the United States. The thought was that out of many states, one nation emerges. Is it possible that it can also mean that out of many people, no matter their circumstances, one nation is created?

The Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” This has echoes of what political scientists describe as retrospective voting, where voters take into consideration what has happened and how political parties, or an officeholder, performed in the past. Is it possible that the slogan’s focus is on greatness, expanding the pie, and making things better for people?

Who would run on or support a slogan of “Weaker Individually” or “Turn this country into a heaping pile of rubble”? No one. Both candidates, if we assume good intentions, want something better for this country. And if they are true to their slogans, shouldn’t the followers of the respective candidates continue with the thought that we are better when we come together, and together, we can do good and even great things?

If we assume good intentions, we can choose to view each other’s passion as a common good, in mediation terms, a shared interest. We are passionate because we care about things. Perhaps we care about a particular party or candidate, but I choose to decide that we can go deeper, and perhaps, just perhaps, we are passionate about something higher, our country. Perhaps we all love our country, all 59,465,161 who voted for Mrs. Clinton and all 59,276,320 who voted for Mr. Trump (at the time of this writing). Maybe what is driving the passion and the heat is a shared interest by all 118,741,481 Americans who took time out of their too-busy schedule to stand in line and vote.

Some of my social media friends—whom I truly view as friends—are saying things about 59 million people that are, to me, shocking. I know that some of my friends are hurt and disappointed, while some other friends are ecstatic. So how do we bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap?

In the religion that I believe in, my God manifested himself on this planet for a short period of time. During that manifestation, Jesus provided examples of dealing with people who were different, or who weren’t good enough according to some. Negative labels were present then.  What did he do? He ate with those people. He talked with them. Sometimes, he remained silent when they were saying terrible things about Him. He told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I know some of you aren’t religious, or may not share my view of religion. That’s okay. I still like you and I hope you like me. My point is that the Christ that I try to study can give us guidance in times like this. If we’re going to move on, come together, and unify, it has to start with small steps, like sitting down with someone who doesn’t share your point of view. Listening to them to understand them, not to debate them. Seeing them as a human being—and not a stereotypical label—who has a different movie playing in their mind, all the while assuming that your friend is someone of good intentions. Treating them as you’d like to be treated.

What’s the saying, We want justice for others, but mercy for ourselves?

In my experience, it is difficult to persuade someone to change their point of view by name calling. Who wants to break bread with someone when the other is calling you a terrible name? “Suzy, I’d love to have a coffee with you, but are you sure you want to be seen in public with an ignorant, xenophobic, homophobic, lazy, country-hater, cattle thief, slanderer, corrupt criminal? I mean, if you’re up for that, I’ll gladly see you at Starbucks on Thursday!” Said no one ever.

To move forward and unite, I respectfully suggest that we ditch the negative labels, assume good intentions, and invite someone who views the world in a politically different way to coffee (or lunch or dinner). You’ll get a good jolt of caffeine (or decaf if that’s your preference), perhaps a good meal, and you might see the “other” as a person instead of a label. These are our friends, after all, whom we have decided are worthy of sharing our work accomplishments, our family memories, and photos of our pets and meals.

Many pundits are telling us that yesterday’s result was historic and suggestive of a movement. Let’s create our own movement and a history that will lead to encouragement. Let’s engage with others, one coffee or meal at a time, with an open mind to understand our shared interests and our good intentions, all the while viewing each other as humans—God’s unique and wonderful creations—instead of as unhelpful, inhuman labels.

Reflections on Orlando

One hundred of our fellow citizens were killed or injured last weekend because of one deranged person. Comments from all parts of the political spectrum seek answers and suggest reasons. This heartbreak incorporates almost all of today’s political agenda: religion, identity, guns, freedom, security, and mental health.

As a practicing (note: practicing, not perfect) Christian in these times I ask “Why?” like so many others. Why would someone choose to intentionally harm strangers? Why does someone wipe out life, instead of providing life more abundantly? Why does someone select violence instead of peace?

Jesus himself asked “Why?” At the time of His crucifixion, He cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Being perfect and being God, Jesus knew exactly why he would suffer on the cross, yet he still asked. His example gives us the similar freedom to ask our heavenly father the similar question, “Why?”

Job asked “Why?” He asked that question five times in Chapter 3. Why was he born? Why is light given to those in misery and life to the bitter of soul? Why?

As part of my routine as a practicing—not perfect—Christian, I read devotionals in the morning. Today’s devotionals were Greg Laurie’s “Asking Why” and Charles Stanley’s “A Balanced Prayer.” Neither one of them mentioned our nation’s most recent tragedy, but the substance of both was about Orlando and our broken world.

Laurie suggests that it is okay to ask “Why?”, but we shouldn’t expect an answer. Even if God gave us an answer, we wouldn’t understand it anyway (consider all the miracles He’s performed, and still so many doubt). We are people of promises, not explanations, according to Laurie.

Stanley reminds us of Jehoshaphat’s Prayer in Second Chronicles. Jehoshaphat prayed in front of the assembly and after proclaiming the Lord’s sovereignty and strength, he said “Should evil come upon us, the sword, or judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before You and cry to You in our distress, and You will hear and deliver us…. For we are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are on You.”

Job, Jehoshaphat, and Jesus all cried to God in their distress, asking “Why?” Why do we exist? Why are people intent on hurting us? Why do we feel abandoned? During the time of questioning, they looked towards God.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he encouraged that church to make their requests known to God by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. The promise made to that church was that God will guard their hearts and minds with the peace that is found in Jesus, a peace that surpasses all understanding.

The message to the Philippians was to pray with a combination of humility, earnestness, and gratitude. By example, that’s how we should pray as well. But how do we pray–in good faith–like that when something like this horrific episode happens?  As a Christian during these moments, I only know that I can pray that I am thankful that there is a God who created us, who loves us, and who promises us His peace. The promise for peace may not be this day or the next, but we will receive it. And that peace will guard our hearts and minds—to me, meaning both the emotional and intellectual parts of ourselves. The peace will be complete within us.

As we continue to reflect on this tragedy, it is my prayer that those families, friends, and first responders in this horrific attack will somehow find peace and that God will provide for them. I also pray that God will protect us from future attacks. Most importantly, I am thankful knowing that one day, God will provide us with the answer to our question of “Why?” and at that time, we will experience the complete peace with Him and with each other.

Life Skills for the 18 Year Old

Photo Credit: Sam Houston State University Marketing & Communications
Photo Credit: Sam Houston State University Marketing & Communications

In some of my presentations to student groups, I mention that once you turn 18 you are an adult for almost all legal purposes, except the possession and consumption of alcohol (at least in Texas). Eighteen year olds can vote, enter into contracts, marry, and serve in the military.

One of the things that I have to keep in mind for my job–serving students primarily in the 18-21 year-old age range–is that I am ultimately helping to educate them on how to be professional.

This means not only educating them on the law or conflict resolution skills, but also on how to act professionally and responsibly in a sometimes out-of-control, hostile environment. They may not remember a particular point of the law that I share with them, but they will remember how to write a professional letter or how to responsibly resolve a conflict.

In other words, life skills.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford recently wrote on eight adult skills every 18-year-old should have for Quartz. She also writes of the crutches that we, as parents and educators, provide to 18-year-olds that prevent them from fully developing these skills.

These skills involve being able to speak to strangers, managing assignments, handling interpersonal problems, and coping with ups and downs.

It seems to me that these are skills that even adults have difficulty mastering. That’s why life is a constant learning process and why it’s important to get help from professionals in these areas. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from the person who has used a wheel and then try to improve upon it.

When dealing with students–and even older adults–I find that stereotyping is dangerous and it is better to meet people where they are. Some are more mature than others. Some are worldly and have profoundly emotional experiences at early ages in life. It seems like some of our children start out with little chance.

Regardless of background, we have to learn to talk to each other, find our way around, take risks, and get along with each other. I recognize, and am sometimes saddened, by the abrupt, immediate, and public harshness of discourse by so many–young and old alike–these days. In the “old days”, there were rough political ads that accused candidates of all sorts of terrible things, so it isn’t necessarily new. But why does it still exist?

Ultimately, our role as educators is to help train others in the way that they should go so that they will not depart from it later, to paraphrase Proverbs 22:6.

I’d like to know your thoughts on Dean Lythcott-Haims’ article.


Mediation Training @ SHSU


Continuing-Education-Mediation-TrainingI’m pleased to announce that SHSU will offer a 40 Hour Mediation training this summer. This training’s schedule is geared for the professional who works during the day. Our training sessions are in the evenings and on the weekends.

This is a unique training, with time spent not only with me (!) but with a licensed psychologist.

For more information and to register, click here.

Casselman: Stop Focusing on Harvard

Ben Casselman writes at that the national media needs to quit focusing on Harvard and other nationally elite schools when writing about admissions processes and financial aid. The reason: those institutions don’t reflect the reality of higher education for most students.

According to Casselman, the reality is that 75% of U.S. undergraduates attend colleges that accept at least half of their applicants.  Only one percent of students attend colleges that accept less than 10 percent of their applicants. Casselman writes that we “tend to view higher education through the eyes of private higher education” although “two-thirds of U.S. undergraduates attend public institutions.”

This is a fascinating article, because it is data-driven and paints a counter-picture to the view of higher education in many stories. Quoting Sara Goldrick-Rab from the University of Wisconsin, “The biggest issue is that people can’t afford to spend enough time in college to actually finish their darn degrees.”

For many students, getting into college isn’t the issue, it’s getting out. Students work while in school, sometimes in multiple jobs that don’t “readily align with class schedules.” Some are raising children. And, they are concerned about debt, even relatively small amounts of debt, at least compared to national private schools. Goldrick-Rab says that, because of the combination of working while going to school, raising families and supporting parents, “one little thing goes awry and it just falls apart…the consequences of it falling apart when they’re taking on all this debt are just so severe.”

This is one of the reasons why services like our office provides is important. The university–through funds students voted on by students–provides legal and conflict resolution services to students. These services aren’t just an extra for students. They are a necessity. In our latest report, 19% of students who see us said that they were thinking about leaving school because of their issue. After seeing us, that goes down to 5%. 54% of the students who see us say that their issue was affecting their academic focus. After seeing us, that goes down to 11%.

I often say that legal issues and conflicts don’t stop at the ivy walls or the ivory towers. Our office helps students focus on their academics and to stay in school.  It’s a necessary resource to help students focus while attending institutions like the one I serve.

H/T to EAB


The Law and Emotions
A Country Lawyer by Edward Lamson Henry

Within the past six months, a large volume of articles, stories, and conferences have captured my attention. They all have a common theme: the role of emotions in our lives. Most of the material examines the influence of emotions in managing and resolving conflicts. At the recent annual continuing education conference by the State Bar of Texas’ ADR Section (disclaimer: I was the course director) Doug Noll spent a considerable amount of time suggesting—more than suggesting—that conflict resolution professionals need to deal with the emotions of the parties at mediations. Dealing with emotions can help to build trust, de-escalate conflict, restore cognitive functioning, and provide compassion to the parties and their counsel. Doug writes in the course materials that “Missing the moment often is a precursor to impasse.”

Similarly, Randy Kiser, a professional idol of mine and thought leader because of his work in Beyond Right and Wrong and How Leading Lawyers Think (plus he is engaging, funny, and kind), was generous enough to send a copy of his newest work to me titled “The Emotionally Attentive Lawyer: Balancing the Rule of Law with the Realities of Human Behavior,” published in the Nevada Law Journal.

Randy is known for his work quantifying how attorneys think and the outcomes of that thinking. When comparing proposals made to settle a litigated case to the actual award, Randy and his colleagues found that there is a high incidence of decision-making error (interestingly, the rate of error is smaller for those who are trained as mediators).

I was initially surprised to read Randy’s work on “emotionally attentive lawyers” because I’ve always read Randy as being a numbers-type scholar. Data-driven. He continues that in this scholarship. Randy’s data shows that the great lawyers have a high level of emotional intelligence.

Legal training typically divorces the law from the client’s emotions, however. I’ve seen that so many times in client interviews and in mediations. Counsel will often encourage their clients to “just give the facts” and not allow time for venting or other emotional releases. A movement afoot in the mediation world is to do away with the joint session because it can be too emotional, the fear being that the emotions will entrench the parties in their positions instead of leading them to a place of settlement.

In his materials to the State Bar of Texas ADR Course, Doug Noll wrote that we are “98% emotional and 2% rational.” Noll’s numbers may be accurate, or maybe not, but increasingly neuroscience, and frankly, our own experiences, should lead us to know that we are more emotional creatures than we let on.

Emotions play a big part in the disputes I’ve handled. Business partners break up. There’s a lack of trust. An employee is terminated from her job. There’s a lack of security. Students are upset because of a living arrangement. There’s a lack of thoughtfulness. In all of these situations, there is anger, sadness, disappointment, and a host of other emotions involved. How many times has a client said “I want to pursue this because of the principle!” or “I want to send a message!” The principle or the message aren’t legal theories or causes of action. They are emotional ends that the client wants to pursue: fairness, justice, security, trust, revenge, humiliation, control, and you could go on. I’ve seen instances where litigation is pursued and a client is financially upside down. A rational actor would quit. What drives that client? Emotions.

Randy suggests that legal education should learn from innovations in medical school admissions and education. Medical schools are using tools in the admission process to assess emotional intelligence and problem-solving and then teaching their students how to incorporate those concepts into their practice. Health care providers deal as much with persons as the disease. Similarly, attorneys deal with human beings and attorneys need to develop their interpersonal and communication skills to benefit their clients. Even if an attorney doesn’t want to do this for the benefit of the client, Randy cites studies that suggest these aspects of legal counsel help with malpractice claims.

In his conclusion, Randy notes that in the legal profession’s effort to be dispassionate, it has lost an important component that allows our humanity to peek through. We know that despite their best efforts and the rules designed to get to a right outcome, judges, juries, attorneys, and clients are motivated by a myriad of emotions and sometimes get things wrong. The emotions can act as blinders to the actors in the land of the law.

The land of mediation, to borrow a cliché, can be a “safe space” to deal with the emotions that our court system isn’t designed to handle, yet. Randy’s work and thinking on training attorneys to be more emotionally attentive is important and necessary to improving legal services. By being emotionally attentive, there’s a better chance that clients will feel satisfied with the outcome because a significant need that influences them will be met. In the mediation world, we talk about this as the difference between positions (what the client wants) and interests (why the client wants). An emotionally inattentive lawyer does the client, and ultimately, the lawyer, a disservice because the question of “why do you want this” may not be asked. In the end, the result may not meet the client’s true need because the client’s emotional motivations haven’t been met. Randy provides a 1955 quote from Erwin Griswold, the Dean of the Harvard Law School, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with impersonal law.” I think Randy is right. We need to be more emotionally attentive to better serve our clients and the system.


The Great Tragedy of St. Elmo’s Fire Pictures Pictures

I knew Ralph Strangis in only the loosest since of the word. Perhaps it’s better to say that I knew of him through his work as the very good play-by-play voice of the Dallas Stars. As someone who didn’t grow up with hockey, I always enjoyed listening to Strangis and his broadcast partner, Daryl “Razor” Reaugh. They made hockey accessible to me, and I’m sure hundreds of thousands of others.

But who knew that Strangis was a terrific social commentator? Not me, for sure. But he is.

Strangis recently published “The Great Tragedy of St. Elmo’s Fire” in the Dallas Morning News. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece.

St. Elmo’s Fire, for you young people, is a coming-of-age movie for those of us who grew up in the 1980s. While it doesn’t seem that long ago, it was, and Strangis clearly and poignantly communicates that. Strangis writes:

I notice things that just wouldn’t happen today. Jules sits in a bar stirring her drink with a plastic straw, thinking about her life. Kevin and Kirby have a long exchange in their apartment about life and love. Billy is uninterrupted when he swoops in with the makeshift blowtorch to rescue Jules from her self-imposed drama.

I am reminded of a time where the daily human experience was not hijacked by a handheld device.

There was a time when we sat, talked, and thought. Now, we are “handcuffed” to our handheld digital devices. I’ve read articles about how to unplug from work during your summer vacation, forced by the expectation–implicit or explicit–that we’re all on call, 24/7. Couldn’t we all use a digital detox?

Strangis suggests that the technology controls us; we don’t control it. When it bings, whistles, or beeps, we grab it and respond. We line up for the newest and shiniest new iteration of a device. Strangis suggests that by doing so, we’re treating ourselves poorly. We line our minds with trivia and status updates and arrogance instead of sitting down, listening, and reflecting.

This is a must read for many of us. Maybe after reading it, we can talk with someone about it? Or do what I’m doing, blogging about it and then posting a status update.