Is mediation ready for its close-up?

The community mediation field can feel vaguely Benjamin Button-esque — simultaneously old and young.  While mediation itself has been around in some form since time immemorial, the community mediation movement is only in its 40’s.  Which makes us a kid, as far as movements and professions go.  In that sense, maybe we’re getting in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

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In which I become an astrology columnist for a day.

Well, sort of.  This is my dear friend Kiki T , astrologist (or astrosexologist, as she prefers), who writes relationship-oriented horoscopes for all kinds of publications and was the featured astrologist on the Tyra Banks Show.  With Mercury in Libra, apparently it’s a good time to get down to conflict resolution bidness, so she asked me to lay down some communication basics for her blog…below is a re-print of my spiel.

The idea of conflict has negative connotations for a lot of people, but when managed properly, conflict can be a great opportunity to move forward, heal relationships, come up with new ideas, or just be heard.  Here are some handy steps and (deceptively easy) Jedi-esque tricks that will prevent your conflicts from escalating out of control…and will help you get what you need.

1. Listen without interruptingeven if you’re hearing absolute baloney. This is not easy, and it’s not about giving in either. It’s about setting the stage so that you can figure out how to best respond.  Jumping in and cutting someone off will only jeopardize your ability to make your point.

2. Repeat back what the person just said, and do it without sarcasm, twisting their words, or changing their content.  This is even harder than step one, and it sure feels unnatural.  Seriously, it’s bad enough to have to listen to a bunch of malarkey, but to have to repeat it back calmly and non-judgmentally?  Sheesh. It’s a lot to ask, but it works.  Not because you are capitulating (though it may feel that way), but because you want to prepare yourself for responding in way that will ensure that you will be heard.  A good start to this parroting exercise:  “I just want to make sure I understand…”

3. Let the other person confirm that you understood their issue. Then, remember: understanding their issue doesn’t mean you agree with them.  End your parrot spiel with “Did I get it right?” or some such statement. People love to be heard and understood. Once they are, moving forward is so much easier.

4. Let silence be your friend. Trumpeter Miles Davis taught jazzbos that the space between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves.  Don’t be afraid to pause before you react.  In fact, you may need a few moments to breathe deeply after steps 1-3, which can be exhausting

5. Give assertive and constructive feedback. I’ve never met someone who has responded to, “You, sir, are an ignoramus and a cad,” with a sincere, “My god man, you are so right; through your candor, I have had an epiphany. Hence forth I shall be a mensch – this I vow.”   Here are the steps for giving someone a difficult message in a way that will reduce the probability of a defensive response:

Start with something positive.  Is there anything you like/appreciate/don’t hate about the person?  Point it out.  Reflect that you care about the relationship. Tell them you appreciate their willingness to address a tough issue, and try your very best not to qualify it with a “but” of any kind.

Be specific. “You’ve always been a slob and never clean up after yourself,” will not get you as far as, “I noticed that last night you left empty tequila bottles in the apartment.”  As a rule, try to avoid using the words “always” and “never” in giving feedback, because they’re almost always never true.

Explain the impact of the person’s actions on you. Tell them how it made you feel, “As roommates, we’re a team, so I felt disrespected/dismissed/unimportant/ignored when you didn’t clean up the joint last night.”

Ask the person for ideas on how to move forward. Brainstorm on solutions. Repeat all previous steps as needed.

6. Let your body do the talking. We can say whatever we want, but it’s our non-verbal communication that makes all the difference. Open body language (like uncrossed arms) and a cow-face (a look of nonjudgmental, bovine curiosity) can go a long way.

7. Go easy on the venting. Freud’s followers are into the cathartic value of letting off steam.  Sure, it can feel good to get all up in someone’s face if they’ve done you wrong, but there’s a diminishing return on venting.  It will not only rile up the other person, it’ll escalate your own anger.  So, before you attempt any of the above, make sure you’re not in a high state of emotional arousal.

So, good luck…now go out there and generate some conflicts so you can try this stuff out!

Reminding myself that peace is normal.

New York City subways are a mixed blessing.  I’m thankful that I don’t need to own a car here, and can get pretty much everywhere by train or bus.  But sometimes the rush hour subway platform feels like a microcosm of condensed urban agida, what with the heat, the crowds, the pushing, and the shoving.  Only very rarely are there tragic acts of subway violence, despite the key ingredients being in place.

Today’s the 10th anniversary of September 11th, and we continue to ask why this kind of horrific tragedy can happen — what does it say about us?  A variation of the question that helps me put things in perspective:  Why doesn’t this kind of opprobrious violence happen more often?  There’s certainly more violence — on the international stage and on the streets — than we should have to bear.  But I truly believe our default condition is peaceful, cooperative interaction.

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Launch with us!

On October 6th, we’ll honor our 30-year history as a program of Safe Horizon and embrace our future as the independent New York Peace Institute.

Please join us, as we celebrate building peace in New York City and beyond!  We’re hosting a lovely cocktail reception, 6:30-9:30pm at the Helen Mills Event Space, 137 W.26th Street, New York, NY.

We’ll award the New York Peace Prize to Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and the Get in the Middle Medal to CeaseFire’s Ameena Matthews, featured in the film The Interrupters.  In the courts and on the street, these two amazing individuals have demonstrated a tireless commitment to building peace in their communities.

General admission is $55, and $40 for New York Peace Institute mediators. This includes an open bar, tasty hors d’oeuvres, and fabulous company.  You can buy your tickets by credit card or check here by September 26th.

Cosmic space is infinite, but the event space is limited, so RSVP soon!


Zen and the art of suitcase packing.

When my fraud complex kicks in and I question my competence, as I’ve done in situations like this, I ask myself what I’m really, really good at.

Malcolm Gladwell believes it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, citing, inter alia, the Beatles’ prolonged musical boot camp in Hamburg’s dives.  (I actually think the Beatles reinforced some bad musical habits in that era and only blossomed once they got into the studio with George Martin. More Beatles stuff here).

I feel like I’ve clocked 10,000 hours into suitcase packing over many years of travelling. Packing, for me, is an art, a science, and a kind of zen practice.  It’s my time to shine.

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Cats on Broadway (not the musical).

Where I grew up in the ‘burbs, waitress are preternaturally cheerful. If you’re hungry for a side of “honey,” “sugar” and “darling” with your burger deluxe, just pop into any suburban diner.  A New York stereotype is the mildly contemptuous and ennui-infused actor/model/musician waiting tables till the next gig, serving up your tofu scramble with a side of snark.

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Join us to promote peace on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

On the 10th anniversary of September 11, we at the New York Peace Institute would like to informally gather conflict resolution professionals to stand in solidarity for peace, and pay our respects to the victims and their loved ones.

The Interfaith Center is hosting a beautiful floating Japanese lantern ceremony at Pier 40, which you can read all about here.  It will take place from 6 to 9pm on September 11.  We feel this would be a fitting and respectful event to attend as peacebuilders.

So, if you’re a mediator, arbitrator, facilitator, conciliator, conflict coach, peer mediator, negotiator, trainer, diplomat, appreciative inquirer, non-violent communication practitioner, peace advocate, violence interrupter – or anyone else who promotes or believes in peaceful conflict response – feel free to join us.

We’ll gather at  the entrance of the Pier 40 building (located at 353 West St., intersecting with W. Houston St.) at 5:40pm on Sunday, September 11.

No need to RSVP.  Just come as you are.

Thank you, Interfaith Center friends, for arranging such a meaningful event.