Conflict Resolution Professionals as Politicians – Gary Friedman’s Experience

Have you ever thought about how different things would be if high level conflict resolution professionals were more involved in politics?  Have you ever thought about what you would do if you were in the political world?  If so, you’ll be interested in this piece in Politico that chronicles Gary Friedman’s dip into the waters in his small town of Muir Beach in Northern California.

Who is Gary Friedman you ask?  He is one of first lawyer-mediators in the modern mediation movement (started mediating in 1976) and trained and mentored who’s who of the field’s founders.  His importance to the field is evidenced by the fact that he is mentioned throughout Evolution of a Field: Personal Histories in Conflict Resolution, a most excellent book co-edited by Howard Gadlin and Nancy Welsh.

6 thoughts on “Conflict Resolution Professionals as Politicians – Gary Friedman’s Experience”

  1. This is an interesting exchange — I very much appreciate your perspective, John (as we’ve discussed already on zoom). I can see why you’d feel that way reading only the Politico piece. However, I’ve read Amanda’s full book and I think the presentation of Gary’s story is more nuanced in longer form. My feeling is that it’s not that Gary forgot everything he knew about conflict management — it’s more that the political/democratic process forced him into an us vs. them frame almost by necessity once he decided to get involved with democratic politics, and even with his lifetime of experience he still got pulled in. I did not come away from the book thinking Gary just made a bunch of stupid errors that any facilitation trainee would identify as obvious errors (I did kind of get that sense from the Politico piece, though — maybe the short form forced some simplification). Amanda is making a bigger, and I think more profound, point in her book about what she calls “high conflict” and how people can get sucked into it unawares (as Bobbi mentions about being on her condo board). The “Obama’d” thing is indeed a clickbait title, but the specter of the Obama/Trump conflict in DC definitely influenced the way the Muir Beach opponents understood and reacted to their own conflict (even though it was fundamentally different and very far away). Yes, the thesis of the book is a simplification of complex subjects we in the field have been discussing for decades, but there weren’t any passages in the book where I winced because I felt she mischaracterized our work — she did a solid job packaging our field for mass market consumption, imho. We are having Amanda do our first Book Club talk on June 25th, talking about her book (hosted by Peter Adler) so we can all discuss this with her directly then!

  2. As Bobbi and Art say, we all make mistakes and we should try to learn from them and forgive ourselves. Failures can provide very valuable lessons.

    I was particularly troubled about this story because it went beyond just making mistakes – even a series of mistakes that continued for more than a year. To me, it was about going against one’s important values and identity.

    My puzzlement is due to the stark contrast between the Gary I knew and the one in the story. Although it’s been almost 40 years since I trained with Gary, I still have a vivid sense of who he is and his approach to conflict. It’s been quite a while since we have been in touch, but I would be amazed if his values and identity related to conflict have changed significantly since then.

    In the article, he described the two years as board president as a period of personal derangement. I imagined that there were times when he saw flashing red lights and said to himself, “Stop! Don’t keep doing this. It goes against your fundamental values and beliefs.” Apparently, this didn’t happen or he ignored these warnings for quite a while.

    So for me, the lesson is to take it seriously when we see warning signs like these. When we even see hints of such warnings, we should ask for candid feedback and advice from trusted friends, colleagues, and/or relatives.

    The placement and framing of the article still feel weird to me. For example, it would have felt better if it was placed in an another venue such as the New Yorker and had a different headline.

    That said, I just saw a presentation by Amanda Ripley, the author of the article, and I was very impressed. I think we can learn valuable things from her work.

  3. Glad to see these comments – thank you all. I agree w/ Tim’s statement: “I think I’m right when I say this piece doesn’t reflect contemporary, ethical, or inclusive practice.” I also agree w/ John that the “I was Obama’d” doesn’t reflect the article at all – likely just a means to get clicks.

    Bobbi’s comment captures the essence of my response to Tim and John. If the Gary Friedman’s of the world can make these basic mistakes, so can you and I. And so for students one lesson is that you won’t always be perfect – forgive yourself when you make mistakes, even basic ones. And do your best (a) to rectify the harm, if possible, and (b) learn from your mistakes. In other words, this shows the need for reflective practices. And, I firmly believe we learn from both good and bad examples – what to do and what not to do. So let’s show what happens when things are handled poorly.

    Finally, here are are some discussion questions I would ask students after reading the piece:

    What role did Gary see himself as having? Is that role consistent w/ that of a conflict resolver in this role or something else? Do you think others saw him as he saw himself?

    What problems did Gary identify that needed to be corrected? We’re those actually problems? Did others think those things were problematic? Are there any other ways he could have addressed them?

    Did his reputation/profession make him an “easy mark” for someone with a specific agenda?

    What do you think of fact that Gary appears to have cooperated with the article’s author knowing that people in his field would likely find it?

  4. I too am puzzled, Tim.

    I took several mediation trainings from Gary in the early 1980s. He was my first trainer and I think that his trainings were the best I have ever seen. He is very thoughtful, perceptive, and sensitive. Although I don’t agree with him about everything, some of his insights remain relevant to me today. For example, he taught the importance of self-awareness by using one’s own reactions as a source of information in dealing with others in conflict. He also taught about negotiating ground rules with clients, not simply imposing them on clients.

    All of this makes me especially puzzled. Why would a pioneer in our field – who the article referred to a “Jedi Master” and “godfather of mediation” – seem to do everything on the “don’t” list of “do’s and don’ts” in a Group Facilitation 101 course? One needn’t be an expert to figure out that his techniques would backfire. Although he eventually recognized his mistakes, it seemed to take a long time for him to get to that point.

    Presumably he wouldn’t dispute the account in the article, which seems to have been written with his cooperation.

    Like you, I don’t see the benefit of this article. The negative mischaracterizations of good practice aren’t helpful, and it’s unclear what valuable insight can we take away from this episode. Unfortunately, many politicians have entered into office with grand, unrealistic plans – and fallen flat on their faces when their initiatives are shot down. So is the takeaway that conflict resolution experts can be foolish about political conflict too? Does this merit a long magazine article full of feature photos by an “investigative journalist”?

    The headline, “I Got Obama’d,” based on Gary’s statement, is very misleading. There is very little similarity between the behavior and achievements of Gary Friedman and Barack Obama – or between Gary’s opponents (who he called the “Old Guard”) and Donald Trump.

    What do you all make of this?

    1. I guess I take from this that we all human! With lots of blind spots and imperfections. Even Gary. I see what Tim and John are saying, but they’re a bit too academic for me. I found myself laughing at the similarities to my stint as condominium president, a truly thankless job.

  5. I don’t know what to make of this piece, Art. Let me note that I appreciate all Gary’s done, as well as his willingness to share this uncomfortable experience.

    I have to worry that Politico readers might associate our field with some of the highly ill-advised actions described in the article. Imposing ground rules, cutting off speakers, abandoning customary food before meetings, adhering rigidly to agendas, forming unwieldy or unstructured committees–these seem far afield from recommended practices.

    I shared the link with a colleague, who was similarly befuddled. Did Gary intentionally set aside many of our established practices or accepted principles, she wondered? Did he expect anything other than pushback when he disregarded community cultural norms, procedural justice, the dignity model, collaborative governance, and the like?

    I wonder if I should share this with public administration students, inviting them to identify the many departures from our academic concepts and practical insights? They might recognize the need of grounded facilitation skills and responsive leadership, just as they can’t miss the cautionary lessons about resisting us/them group identification.

    I mean no disrespect to Gary or Art when I ask, what are we to take away from this piece? Perhaps I’ve overlooked or misconstrued something, but I think I’m right when I say this piece doesn’t reflect contemporary, ethical, or inclusive practice.

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