How the Sierra Club's conflict mediation program can help.
By John Byrne Barry
You joined the Sierra Club to go on hikes, protect your local wetlands,
and make new friends, but instead you find yourself caught up in
conflict. Maybe your meetings end in shouting matches, or members
are trading angry e-mails. Or maybe you’re civil, but animosity
bubbles beneath the surface. The conflict has started impacting
your daily life. Maybe you’re not sleeping. You find yourself
dreading the next meeting.
Hopefully this scenario sounds far-fetched and over the top. For
some Club members, however, it may be familiar.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Club has developed several
programs for chapters, groups, and other entities to prevent or
ameliorate conflict -- conflict resolution workshops for chapters
and groups that want to manage conflict more effectively and conflict
mediation services for those conflicts that seem beyond repair.
If you’re reading a suspense novel, conflict is desirable;
it’s what keeps you turning the pages. But if you’re
the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental
organization and your goal is to stop the Bush administration’s
assault on the environment, then you don’t want to so embroiled
in internal strife.
It’s no surprise that conflict occurs. Sierra Club activists
are passionate and skilled in fighting polluters and unresponsive
public officials. But sometimes we take that passion and those confrontive,
pugnacious skills and turn them inward, on each other. Reasonable
adults can disagree, of course, and often constructive disagreement
can create positive energy and solutions. But sleepless nights and
personal attacks are another story.
"There’s hope," says Christine Miller, a Club volunteer
from North Carolina, and member of the mediation team. "Conflicts
that have taken years to develop can’t be wrapped up in a
weekend, but after some intense work, the tenor of the discussion
can change. People who were barely talking to each other are willing
to set aside grievances and focus on Club activities. People are
able see things in ways they hadn’t before."
The Club's conflict resolution team was formed in 1999 and now has
20 mediators, all of whom have completed 40 or more hours of training
in mediation. Cal French, longtime volunteer with the Santa Lucia
Chapter in California is the current chair (and one of the founders)
of the team.
Mediators do not solve the problem and do not have the power to
force a settlement. Their role is create a neutral structured process
that enables the parties to identify issues, hear the views and
concerns of others, and craft a new visions for future interactions
or activities. The parties may choose to develop agreements to address
current or future interactions, but agreement is entirely up to
Here's how it works: First off, mediation is only appropriate after
parties have made a genuine effort to talk directly to the people
they're in conflict with and seek resolution within their local
structures. Also, it is important that the local leaders are brought
into the process and given an opportunity to help.
When these steps fail to provide resolution, that’s when to
contact Michael Lynch, the Club’s new chapter leader development
coordinator in the San Francisco office. Lynch gathers enough information
to pass along to the conflict mediation team, which determines the
suitability of the conflict for mediation, and, if appropriate,
assembles a team of mediators. (The mediators are from all over
the country and do not mediate within their geographical area.)
Then comes a series of "pre-mediation" phone calls to
a number of people, not just the requesting party, and scheduling
a time and place to meet. The expenses of the mediators are covered
by the conflict resolution team budget, but the local parties are
responsible for finding a suitable facility for the meeting and
may be asked to help with participants’ expenses like overnight
A mediation will usually involve 2 or 3 mediators, and sometimes
as many as 15 to 20 participants. Participation in a mediation is
always voluntary. It is also confidential: Participants decide what
information, if any, to share and with whom.
"What we try to do," says Miller, "is take the participants
beyond that good guy-bad guy story, and facilitate a conversation
that allows them to recognize the hold the conflict has on them.
From there the participants can start identifying ways to move beyond
their conflict. The potential rewards are valuable. You can feel
a big emotional relief. Things can get better."
Fortunately, most chapters and groups don’t experience enough
conflict to merit mediation, but they may benefit from "Understanding,
Preventing and Coping with Conflict," a new half-day workshop
that focuses on techniques to de-escalate conflict such as active
listening, and expressing anger in a constructive manner. The Club
has 25 volunteers trained to lead the workshop. The training is
free, but groups and chapters are asked to provide lodging for two
To schedule a workshop or find out more about conflict mediation,
e-mail Michael Lynch
or call (415) 977-5577.
[Author’s note: I am a new member of the conflict mediation
team, but I have not served as a mediator in real life yet. Only
in role plays -- which seemed extremely realistic. And thanks to
Christine Miller for her help in developing this story.]
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