beyond infinity: conflict resolution week at NASA!

john casperI had the great honor of spending a few days at NASA’s Johnson Space Center last week, conducting presentations and workshops for staff, directors…and astronauts (!!!).  Above is shuttle veteran and now my hero John Casper, who attended one of my sessions.

Last year, I gave a spiel at the Texas Association of Mediators Conference, where I met folks from NASA’s Equal Employment and Diversity Office.  Turns out, their Director, Deborah Urbanski, founded and ran a community mediation center back in the day, and she and her team have developed a robust internal dispute resolution system in the space agency. NASA’s Human Resources, Employee Assistance Program, Legal Division, Ombuds Office, and employee’s union, work seamlessly to offer a smorgasbord of conflict management services to the agency’s highly diverse workforce.

To raise awareness of NASA’s internal conflict management systems, observe Conflict Resolution Week, and build communications skills at all levels of the agency, they asked me to come on in and do some trainings — encouraging me to be as creative and offbeat as possible.

marqueeKinda hard to read, but the marquee upon entering NASA reads “Conflict Resolution Workshop today!” That was a cool thing to see upon going through security clearance.

posterHere’s the poster for the work I did — two spiels for Johnson Space Center staff on creative conflict management skills —  and two workshops on making meetings fun, effective, and productive. Like every organization on earth, NASA folks spend a lot of time in meetings, and they were eager to learn new ways to keep people engaged and creative.

FYI, this happened:  

In the midst of giving a filmed presentation to an auditorium of NASA-ites, I tripped over the cameraman’s light fixture (and broke it). Flashing through my mind was a horrifying cascade of events in which my clumsiness led to an electrical outage which in turn shut down Mission Control, leaving us vulnerable to the aliens who lay in wait just beyond our orbit. Luckily that didn’t happen but it totally could have. 

selfie badgeYeah, I’m not going to be taking off this badge anytime soon, y’all.  Speaking of “y’all,” one of my new NASA friends helped me understand the difference between “y’all” and “all y’all”. (They’re both plural!)  So. If you’re in a car full of people and get pulled over by the police, and the officer says “y’all get out of the car,” only the driver gets out.  If he/she says “all y’all get out of the car,” everyone gets out.

astronaut brad This gig has been 44 years in the making, as evidenced by my NASA-themed 3rd birthday in 1970, at the height of the Apollo Missions.

mediating astronauts So I thought I’d try my hand at mediating between an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut.

Seriously —  I did learn about how the Americans and Russians — despite tensions here on earth — manage to get along all cooped up in the International Space Station. While the different nationalities have their own spaces (which are really tiny — I saw a full-scale mock-up; see below) — they share meals and social time together, and don’t let our earthly politics get in the way of their shared mission. Different cultures and languages cooped up in small spaces, striving to get along — it reminded me of New York City. We could probably learn a thing or two about conflict resolution from our space space stationBy the way, spacesuits are made of thick, burlap-like canvas.  I was expecting more of a plasticized space-aged polymer.  And the helmet visors are super thin (but strong)…only a few millimeters separate astronauts’ faces from the eyeball-sucking vacuüm of infinity.

brainstormingHere are a few high-level Directors (including astronaut/hero John Casper!) doing a brainstorming exercise. They let me hang my silly drawings amidst their auspicious and historical photos.

Something that surprised me: there’s a crazy amount of wildlife on the Johnson Space Center campus. There are deer, ducks, and coyotes a go-go. There’s also a herd of Texas longhorn cattle. I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.

So, in one of the exercises I did with the NASA folks, I proposed the idea of establishing a petting zoo at NASA.  We did some brainstorming and consensus building activities around this — with lively discussions about the pros (stress relief for staff, honoring the fallen animals used in NASA missions, a nice companion piece to their childcare center) and cons (not the best use of taxpayer money, mission drift, allergies).  One thing I love about my work is bringing the spirit of playful creativity to high level, “serious” groups. Laughing brains, it is said, are more absorbent.

gremlinI got a private tour of Mission Control!  Look in the lower right corner: there’s a gremlin. Someone should look into that. I asked if there are any super secret buildings where they keep aliens and reverse engineer UFOs and such, and was told that they really value transparency — very few areas are off-limits to the public, after you go through security.  (One exception: a building where quantum physicists are allegedly experimenting with warp speed.)

flight directorThey also let me play with the Flight Director controls in the Mission Control room (a national landmark) from the Apollo missions.  The moon landing was navigated from this very chair.

red phoneThis is the big red phone that used to be connected to the White House.  I pretended to talk on it for an awkwardly long time, and my tour guide/handler was most gracious about letting me finish my one-sided conversation with Lyndon B. Johnson.  Who was a surprisingly good listener.

I got chills being in there — it filled me something like a spiritual awe. There’s more computing power in a smart phone that in all of Mission Control at that time…and somehow they sent people to the moon from the place. I can barely use my iPhone to send a text without an embarrassing autocorrect fail.

shuttle drawingParticipants seemed to enjoy my drawings — and were quick to point out that my Space Shuttle depiction inaccurately has passenger windows. So I pretty much designed a prototype for civilian space travel.

NASA folks were sad to see the space shuttle era end, but excited for all kinds of new ventures, Including — get this: capturing an asteroid with an enormous bag, dragging it into our orbit, and landing a manned spacecraft on it. And going to Mars. And cooperating with the private sector such things as an inflatable space hotel. (I saw a prototype of this!).

Getting engineers, designers, project managers, astronauts, technicians, private sector representatives, accountants, artists, and professions I can’t even begin to understand, on the same page is not easy — one of the reasons the agency strives to strengthen its creative consensus-building muscles.

shuttle on planeThey let me behind the cockpit of a Space Shuttle simulator. I met an engineer who made the spacemen respond to all manner of diabolical simulated scenarios (from solar flares, to computer breakdowns, to space madness), so they’d be as ready as possible for the deep blue yonder.

The value of safety underscores everything at NASA. Following the Challenger disaster, the agency rightfully became super vigilant about reducing risks — and it’s a central theme in all meetings and discussions. Safety is also a core value of mediation — we provide a physically and emotionally safe space for difficult conversations. The NASA participants in my workshops really appreciated how safe conversations across hierarchies, divisions, professions, and personalities — where the stakes are super high — fit within their guiding principle of safety first.

robotsboba fettCheck out these cool and creepy robots. Star Wars fans — Boba Fett, am I right?

peace placque Seeing this plaque from the original moonmen on Conflict Resolution Day felt more than a bit poignant.

followedI was kind of sad to leave Houston. And I had the nagging feeling that I was being followed.

swagI came some with super cool tchachkis and am now the proud owner of  bookmark that has been in space! And an amazing piece of art, below, with cattle and astronauts!nasa art

More importantly, I came back with all kinds of inspiration, incredible memories, and gratitude for being able to, in a small way, help foster NASA’s creativity and coöperation.


Don’t forget to get your tix to our superfun PeaceRaiser on November 5th!




6 thoughts on “beyond infinity: conflict resolution week at NASA!

  1. Sounds like an interesting adventure. Does NASA need any experienced EEO mediators? I have mediated EEO cases for USPS for 16 years.

    Jan Stohlman

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