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Communications Tips for Tuesdays


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Juries of Their Peers

reading time: two minutes and forty-five seconds

When I was in fourth grade, a few millennia ago, our teacher established a system so we could settle a lot of our own disputes. General mischief-maker, Walter, was elected judge, a decision that completely confounded our teacher, and the class was the jury. We explained our choice of Walter as judge by saying that judges always behave well, and if Walter were judge, he would have to behave better than usual. It was completely logical to us, but I’ll bet the teacher would never have seen that possibility and would have continued to discipline Walter rather than offer opportunity. (Maybe my interest in conflict resolution was piqued earlier than I thought.)
The concept of a jury of our peers is built into the justice system, and in general, it works, except for children. Children may have input into decisions made about them, but do not have control, and often even input is denied. In my fourth-grade class, we had a jury of our peers, at least on some issues, and Walter was not exempt from our decisions. In a case about name-calling, the class determined the punishment, and he accepted it.
Students are often perceived as not having sufficient insight or nuanced thinking to make good decisions for themselves, but I think our class had more insight than the teacher, at least on that decision. Her insight came much earlier when she provided us the chance to resolve our own disputes.
What would happen if all children learned how to handle their disputes beginning at an early age and rarely got to the point of needing adult help? I am not challenging parents’ rights to protect their children; I am advocating for teaching children how to handle their own issues from an early age so they can protect themselves.
Kids have that opportunity (even if the process is a bit different from my classroom court) in school peer mediation programs, and one of the best demonstrations of those programs is the Peer Mediation Invitational sponsored by the Western Justice Center in Pasadena, CA. Over a two-day program, 124 students, 21 elementary through high schools, 24 coaches, and about 20 student actors participated in mock mediations.
The benefits of peer mediation have been abundantly documented; less violence, more teaching time, fewer suspensions, greater empathy, more sensitive listening skills among students, and the development of leadership skills as well. And students take these skills into their lives outside the classroom. Parents talk about their children taking the initiative to apply mediation skills to family and neighbor disputes, so leadership development should also be listed right at the top of that list of benefits. Then, students take these crucial skills into the workplace. Having been a peer mediator is an impressive credential on a resume and makes for a more peaceful workplace, too.
So, congratulations to the Western Justice Center for another amazingly successful Peer Mediation Invitational and to program director Emily Linnemeier. I was privileged to be part of it again this year, working with high school mediators who came together to learn from each other, get additional practice and feedback from experienced coaches and mediators, and take those skills back to their schools, their homes, and their communities.
Congratulations also to the students in the WJC-Encompass Service-Learning Class from the LA County High School for the Arts, led by Artistic Director Kevin Blake. These students were just astonishing in the reality of their performances, all improv, as the disputants in school conflicts. They were so good, that before debriefing a mock mediation, I had to clarify whether the dispute was real so that I could direct the debriefing appropriately and, perhaps, focus in rebuilding the relationship. The performers had never met before!
Do your school and your children a lasting favor and explore establishing a peer mediation program if none exists in your school. If one exists, encourage your child to participate.
It will not be easy. School personnel are swamped, and finding the time and resources to identify a coordinator, pay for training, work with the faculty to support the program, and getting it off the ground will take work. Ask the administrators if they will talk to you about it. See if you can identify a champion on campus who will support the program. See if the PTA will provide a financial subsidy for mediation training (which should include at least an introduction to the process for faculty so they will support it). And don’t give up.
Mediation training is gift that provides a real return on investment every single day. By providing these skills at an early age, the skills mature just as the students do, and we all benefit. It’s a long-term plan for a more civil society. 

Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.
Reasoning Resolves Conflict

reading time: two minutes and forty seconds

“Critical Thinking” from Warner Results Coaching is one of the best publications available on critical thinking. It’s concise (fewer than 20 pages), completely accessible, inexpensive, very practical, and easy to use. (Go to and search critical thinking. Then check on the publication, not the case study.)
Thanks to other, more inaccessible texts, we have become wary of critical thinking and often consider it some very complex, arcane and negative process to be avoided, but Warner suggests that there are just three steps in critical thinking: discernment, analysis, and evaluation. And they are not that hard to use.
One of the best examples of critical thinking that I have seen in a while comes from a wonderful story by Mark Haddon called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.Haddon writes about Christopher, a 15 year-old boy with autism who decides to become a detective and solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor’s dog. Most people in his small town know about his autism and are patient, but an impatient policeman gets aggressive when Christopher takes too long to explain why he wants to ask some questions of his neighbor, Mr. Shears,who seems to be missing, and Christopher is hauled off to jail.
To ensure that Christopher’s chances of being arrested again are reduced, Christopher’s father sets some very clear ground rules for detecting, which Christopher quotes and then thinks about carefully, as that is part of detecting, and Christopher now considers himself a detective (p. 56):
“And then I did some reasoning. I reasoned that Father had only made me do a promise about five things, which were
1. Not to mention Mr. Shears’s name in our house
2. Not to go asking Mrs. Shears about who killed that bloody dog
3. Not to go asking anyone about who killed that bloody dog
4. Not to go trespassing in other people’s gardens
5. To stop this ridiculous bloody detective game
“And asking about Mr. Shears wasn’t any of these things.”
So Christopher reasons that, if he can’t directly ask Mr. Shears questions, he can ask other people about Mr. Shearsand not break his promise to stick to the rules.
And that is critical thinking.  
Detecting, is in fact, critical thinking, looking at pieces of information, testing their credibility and relevance, and deciding what to do with them. First, Christopher “discerns” or perceives that there are five rules, or promises, that he must adhere to. Then, he “analyses” these rules and “evaluates” them to understand to what specific situations or behaviors they apply. Once having analyzed the rules and discerning that they don’t apply to simply askingabout Mr. Shears, he continues his detecting.
For Christopher, the world is understandable only when the rules or patterns are very clear. Ambiguity, or communication that is unclear or incomplete, is so confusing that it can stop him completely until someone clarifies the rule. For example, it is frustrating to him when he is told in school that he must be quiet but is not told for how long or in what circumstances. Quiet right now in this situation or for a different length of time in another situation? Why don't people just tell him exactly what is expected in the first place? Specificity helps him navigate the world where such ambiguity would not confuse or disturb most other people. But then he is sometimes reprimanded for asking too many questions about what is expected, which confuses him even more. It feels unfair to be reprimanded for trying to clarify information so he can meet other people’s expectations when both the expectations and the information are incomplete. The miscommunications continue and the frustration rises, resulting in angry outbursts, or conflicts.
Unfortunately, it is the degree of specificity and the number of questions that need to be answered that create the conflict between Christopher’s good intentions and other people’s frustration levels. Neither party’s expectations are being met – Christopher’s, that the questions will be answered until he understand the request, and other people’s that it shouldn’t take so many questions to figure out what “be quiet” means.
And that is how critical thinking applies to conflict resolution. 
Under the stress of conflict we lose our capacity to reason carefully, jumping to conclusions, letting emotions get in the way of logic, making assumptions on the basis of too little and/or confusing information combined with fear about the outcome of the disagreement. Christopher would look for the process, the steps that can lead him out of the confusion, and finding three steps to analyze information is an example we can use as well.
Just for the record, I think both the book and the play, which is on Broadway right now, are masterpieces of creativity, of an examination of how determination helps you to take risks and overcome obstacles especially when you are very afraid of them. By defining himself as a detective, Christopher adopted the thought processes of detecting, used them to overcome significant fears and limits, and yes, discovered who killed the dog in the night-time. There’s one more column coming on this story, and then you’ll have to read it for yourself.
Have an absolutely wonderful, peaceful week.


“Leadership is defined as a relationship, not a person.”

Reading time: two minutes and fifteen seconds

I have always maintained that, if people weren’t so afraid of the process of disagreeing, they would have much better outcomes and more creative solutions to problems. Now, Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, provides sound arguments for why leaders need conflict and how to use it to their advantage to build relationships and organizations. This book is well worth your time.

Gerzon identifies three models of leadership: the manger, the dictator, and the mediator. It’s not hard to guess which comes out as most effective. The mediator model provides the most benefits to leaders and their organizations. Mediating a discussion instead of simply managing a process or dictating an outcome allows for full exploration of an idea, debate that results in more informed decisions, and a process that strengthens teams.

Gerzon also provides eight tools or approaches to help leaders “transform intractable differences into progress” including such approaches as systems thinking, presence, inquiry, bridging, and dialogue. The definitions of these approaches are a bit different from what we might expect from our standard definitions of these words, and they combine to form a fully-developed and consistent approach to working through disagreements to find their creative benefits.

Gerzon takes his ideas from his work as a mediator all across the globe and shows how these ideas can be applied to your own organizations and teams. In the chapter on bridging, for example, which he defines as building partnerships across boundaries, he describes how members of groups as divers as Sears and an international group called the Bridging Leadership Task Force used similar approaches to work through conflict.

The old model of “CEO as hero” has run aground. It leads to burnout, empty marriages, and second-rate decisions. The new-model CEO is not a savior on a white horse but a team that knows how to bridge. . . .  Put bluntly, leaders who are Mediators will outperfrom those who aren’t because they know how to build the partnerships and alliances that are the key to enduring success.”  

Mediation has become so closely associated with the legal system recently that its value in all areas of discussion and leadership has been overwhelmed. Gerzon points out the value of the approach in public areas of concern, education, business and international relations. Now, if we could only get people to learn how to use it.

This book, which is well worth your attention, focuses on process and approaches, rather than conflict management techniques, which you can find in other sources. Together, his general approaches and the specific techniques available from other sources can change the dynamic of your organization and vastly improve your success. In times like these, a new approach is most welcome.


Leadership: Visionary. Charismatic. Dull?

Reading time: two minutes and forty-five seconds

Meg Whitman, former CEO of EBay, wants to be the governor of California, what is sometimes referred to as the “state CEO.” (LAT, 2/16/09, p. C1) She and her supporters argue that her corporate experience makes her an ideal candidate for “state CEO.”

The question is not, “Is Whitman qualified to be a CEO?” but “Is she qualified to be successful in a political environment rather than a business environment?” I think her corporate experience makes her an ideal candidate for another business CEO position, but maybe not for governor, a political CEO position. Moving from one management environment to another doesn’t make you automatically successful in the new environment no matter how successful you were in the old one. Your skills have to match those necessary in the new environment.

On the Op-Ed page of today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes interestingly “In Praise of Dullness” as a corporate leadership trait distinguished from leadership traits in other areas. (5/19/09, p. A23) He quotes from a study showing that the traits often praised as necessary for leadership such as being a good listener, team builder or communicator, didn’t really matter all that much for business CEOs. Rather, what mattered “were execution and organizational skills.” Skills like attention to detail, persistence, efficiency and the ability to work long hours were much more important than warmth, flexibility, and empathy. Emotional stability, dependability, and executing plans make successful business CEOs.

A new book on leadership makes these distinctions clear. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Heifetz and Linsky points out some of these different skill sets and how they affect the ability to lead. This book focuses on the difficulty of decision-making and how it can alienate you from those who disagree with your decision. Getting the most from a disagreement is an important part of leading, and exploring how to do that and keep your sanity and commitment are discussed to advantage here.

This book seems to echo a gradual shift in how we discuss leadership that began with general ideas. For a while, books on leadership were titled just that: “on leadership,” or maybe “the leader,” or maybe the plural was used and the book was about “leaders” in general.

Then work on leadership shifted gears. First it focused on metaphors, and we got books that compared leadership with a “challenge,” a “new science,” or an “odyssey.” Another phase included descriptors like visionary, jazz, high velocity, and even “primal.” In general, I find these books very helpful, but when lessons on leadership drew on the writings of leaders like Attila the Hun I began to see a lot of these as brand extensions rather than interesting explorations of an idea.

More recently, the focus has shifted from metaphors and lessons to a more philosophical approach to processes, especially a focus on conflict resolution and the particular skills needed to find the creative opportunities in disagreements. Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Conflict Competent Teams, and Leading Through Conflict are all examples and excellent resources, and Leadership on the Line follows this path.

As Brooks says, “Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington [meaning, in politics], while political leaders possess precisely those talents – charisma, charm, personal skills – that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.” Are you being the outgoing, social animal as leader when your organization needs someone to focus on the work and execute the plan? Are your behaviors consistent with the need? Are Whitman’s?

These new ideas about leadership are wonderful, but my favorite book is still If Aristotle Ran General Motors by Tom Morris. It’s a short, philosophy book about leadership based on beliefs about truth, beauty, goodness, and unity, and how they apply to business. Maybe the former CEO of GM should have read it. Maybe Meg Whitman should read it. Maybe you should, too.

Have a great week! 


Maria Simpson, Ph.D.

© 2012 Maria Simpson

PSM provides communications and conflict resolution training, executive coaching, and team and leadership development. We support executive teams in their efforts to become stronger and more effective, individuals in their efforts to improve their management and communications skills, and organizations in their efforts to effect the changes needed for a healthy and respectful workplace.

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Maria Simpson, Ph.D. * Los Angeles, CA * Phone: 641-715-3900 x 1376932 Fax: 310-826-7440 *

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