Mensch of the month! Dr. Tammy Lenski

For more than two decades Dr. Tammy Lenski has built consensus, created alignment in organizational teams, and inspired individuals to find and fine-tune their persuasive voice. A former college VP, she founded Tammy Lenski LLC, a conflict resolution and negotiation consulting firm serving organizations and executives worldwide, in 1997. In addition to her full-time private practice, Tammy is a guest lecturer at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Conflict Management in Nashville and a faculty member in Marlboro College Graduate School’s Health Care Administration program, where she teaches organizational communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. She earned her B.A. from Middlebury College and her master’s and doctoral degrees from The University of Vermont. Tammy blogs about conflict resolution, negotiation, and the psychology of influence at Lenski.com and her award-winning book, Making Mediation Your Day Job, is available in print and digital editions worldwide.

You just won the prestigious Mary Parker Follet Award, which makes you a big deal around here.  Congrats!  And you told a delightfully unorthodox story in your acceptance speech. Care to share a snippet?

Thank you!  You know, when I first started to think about what I was going to say in my speech, I wanted to tell that story. But “proper Tammy” kept chiming in and quietly suggesting I keep it on the straight and narrow. Fortunately, risk-taking Tammy won! The story is about being the new kid in school when I was 10 and being asked by a very hip chick whether or not I was a virgin. The whole question threw me because I was clueless about the term! I reasoned it out very carefully and very logically…and came up with the wrong answer. I was mortified for months afterward. For folks who want to read the full story, they can find it here.  I told the story in my acceptance speech because I wanted to say, in a fun way, that the “safe” approach isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and that taking a risk is worth it.

Your family is chock-a-block with creative types. How has this influenced your work?

My earliest memories are of my mother encouraging my creativity (she helped me write my first novel, 39 Fleas, when I was 4 — all 9 pages of it, including illustrations). My father was a very poor immigrant with a musical and math talent that he never had the chance to cultivate because he had to work very hard instead of go to school. Their talents and encouragement, as well as that of my talented older siblings, ensured I’d always nurture my creative soul and be a strong-willed independent spirit. Generally, that’s stood me in good stead. Occasionally, I’m too independent for my own good.

I love the whole conflict zen idea — which you embody in your exceedingly cool business cards. Tell me more about this concept.

I think of conflict zen is a non-prescriptive, simplified approach to conflict and problem solving. When I coined the phrase I was trying to juxtapose two ideas that initially don’t seem connected, but then inspire deeper consideration. I’m drawn to the Zen ideas of simplicity, beginner’s mind, and staying present as paths to changing one’s reaction in conflict situations. I’m turned off by the prescriptive, “fix the other person” nature of too many conflict resolution approaches.

I use an origami crane as my logo because it is a symbol of peace, long life, patience, and commitment. The crane devotes itself to one partner for life and both cranes build the nest and care for their young. In Japan, tradition holds that anyone with the commitment and patience to fold 1,000 paper cranes will be granted their most desired wish. In the 1950s the idea gained worldwide fame from the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was two when the atomic bomb exploded one mile from her home in Hiroshima. Sadako later developed leukemia from exposure to radiation and was inspired by the legend to fold 1,000 cranes and see her wish for world peace granted. When Sadako died at age 12, she was buried with 1,000 cranes and, to this day, folded white origami cranes are placed at memorials as symbols of peace. A statue of Sadako holding a golden crane now stands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, crafted with funds gathered by Sadako’s friends and classmates in memory of all the children who died because of the bomb. The plaque reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”

In your speech at ACR, you gave a shoutout to the “misfits” in our field?  Who are these people?

They’re my brethren, my mentors, my friends, the ones who happily work on the edges of the field, leading the way to new ways of thinking and doing by taking risks, trying out new things, not worrying a whole lot about whether or not they’re doing things the “right” (acceptable) way. They’re people like you, Brad — someone I instantly loved the moment I started reading your blog. They’re fellow innovators, many of whom never met a new idea they didn’t want to try on for size. They’re big thinkers who make things happen.

What does our field need to really, really take off — beyond the “we need our very own Got Milk campaign” and “we need one big high profile mediation case?”?

Our field needs many, many people who are willing to invest more than a single work week’s training to prepare themselves to help others in conflict. That 40-hour basic training is a good start, but there are precious few who can mediate their way out of a cardboard box with only that level of commitment to their craft. I certainly couldn’t have. We’ll become legitimate in other people’s minds when we decide to become legitimate — not an addendum to another career — in our own.

Say, how’d you get into this field in the first place?

I was a college VP and kept finding myself in the mediator role. Then my president asked me to mediate and facilitate some challenging conversations on campus, which led to presidents at other universities contacting me, and so on. I finally had the good sense to take a mediation course. I felt like I’d come home to what I was really called to do. I said to my husband, “You know how hard I’ve worked to become a VP? Well, I’d like to walk away from it all, learn to be a really good mediator, and start a conflict resolution business even though I have no clue how to run a business.” He only blinked twice, bless him (did I pick the right guy or what?). I left my job, studied conflict resolution for a year with some incredible teachers and mentors, and used that time to ramp up my business. I’m lucky it’s worked out, because I’m kind of ruined for ever being someone else’s employee again.

If you could have dinner with anyone — living or dead — who would it be, and why, and who would pay the check?

I want to have dinner with Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Many moons ago I wrote my college honors thesis on his book One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I re-read every couple of years. The brilliance of his writing never ceases to amaze me. I want to meet the man whose brain works in the wondrous ways his does and I’d be so pleased if he could miraculously grant me just a pinch of his magic realism creativity. I’d happily pick up the check.

Thanks so much for sharing, Tammy.  Readers, learn more about Tammy at www.lenski.com, and you can follow her on Twitter at @tammylenski.

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