As a mediator, you’ve worked on some of the most challenging disagreements in Oregon. What does finding common ground look like to you?
Finding common ground is a never-ending process. We're diverse human beings with different experiences, and there will always be opportunities to go further on the journey of finding common ground. When tackling a seemingly intractable dispute between two parties, I try to figure out: What is the narrative one party has about why they stand where they stand? And what's their narrative about the other side? As a mediator, at least 80 percent of my job is listening. Then, we can work together on visualizing a future that is disconnected from the narratives that keep both sides stuck in place. When we construct a new narrative, that allows possibilities to emerge. That's my framework: I listen, understand the narrative, help them visualize the future, change the narrative, and move forward.
The mediation between the timber industry and conservationists has been the largest and in some ways the most public work that I’ve done. That agreement didn’t solve every issue between each side. What we accomplished is the beginning of a change in the relationship, and a commitment by both sides to continue to work together. Just like any personal relationship, it’s a never-ending process to deepen understanding.
Would you say this framework for finding common ground can apply outside of a formal mediation process?
Definitely, and it resonates with FBO’s work. If we’re going to change how we think about education as a state, we have to recognize that we hold certain narratives about education. Many of those narratives are mythological. How do we bring together disparate communities to visualize the future, change the narrative, and understand each other more deeply? It's all part and parcel of the same critical work.
Over your career and lifetime, what have you learned about how people build trust with each other?
My two most closely held values are deep listening and kindness. I aspire to that, and I’m sure I fail as often as I succeed. If you listen to people without judgment and treat them with kindness and empathy, then they feel heard. It becomes a very short leap to earn their trust.
The great Irish poet John O'Donohue wrote a beautiful collection called To Bless the Space Between Us. In his blessing for a leader, he offers a roadmap for what transformational leadership looks like, and it's very much grounded in those two values. I revisit this poem from time to time in my work because it says so much in so little.
What are the roots of those values for you?
I was raised in a large Catholic family—six boys in seven years. I was a middle child, and the way I survived as a middle child was to be flexible. (I think it would be interesting to see how many mediators were middle children!) My mother was also a socially active Catholic and an activist, so I learned the value of active kindness through that culture.
Over time, I've gravitated toward people who embody these values. Early on in my legal career, I had one mentor whose real impact on me was not about how to practice law, but how to use one’s privilege as a lawyer to be a citizen of the community and the world. He taught me that how you show up has much more impact than the technical skill you might have as a lawyer. That was eye-opening.
I’m guessing they don’t teach that in law school?
They don’t! [Laughs.]