Tom Rothschild has worked at the intersection of facilitation, mediation, and conflict resolution for over two decades. His work to help organizations grow into a common unity - a community - of wholeness, purpose, and direction is informed by his outlook and experience as a Quaker and fifty years as a lawyer in public service for the poor and in private practice. In this time of divisiveness throughout society, Tom can guide your organization to move past labels such as “conflict,” which often oversimplify and inflame the situation, to create space to plumb the depth and scope of all that confronts you, creating unity for finding the way forward.
The community formed through the way decisions are made is as important as the decisions themselves.
Why did you name your business "Mediation Transforms"?
Mediation has the potential to be truly transforming in situations of conflict, where organizations need an approach based on real understanding and in-depth listening, on helping everybody reach for what is best rather than just settling for something less just to avoid the conflict. With this approach, I create with the group an attitude of respect. welcoming what everyone brings. This can truly transform a situation from one of conflict to one of cooperation and a successful outcome for everybody.
"Conflict" is a very loaded word, isn't it?
Yes. In our culture, conflict is thought of in a very negative way. But, you know, there's a Chinese character, which can be read simultaneously as “conflict” and “opportunity.” And it's important to see this positive side, this potential contained in conflict. Disagreements, conflicts, are an inevitable part of life, and an inevitable part of learning. What is key, is that in recognizing the conflict, we must always continue to respect, to listen to those with whom we are in conflict. Because if we don't have disagreements. we will never learn anything. We will never go on to something newer and better.
You describe your approach as a “Quaker-inspired approach” to conflict and mediation. I take it that you're not speaking for Quakers (the common term for the Religious Society of Friends). Can you say something about your own background: were you brought up a Quaker? How long have you been a member?
I wasn’t brought up Quaker, but I've been a member for about 20 years. One facet of my own Quaker faith that appeals to me, and fits in well with my work, is that it is not exclusive. Rather, it is open to the truths and values of other faith traditions. So I’m not asking anybody to ascribe to Quaker religious beliefs or practices; rather, I try to speak in the language and honor the Truth of whatever group I’m working with. At the same time, there is something that is special and unique in the way that Quakers go about making their decisions. And that's what I'm looking to when I say my approach is "Quaker-inspired."
There's a lot of emphasis on the process in your approach.
There's a lot of emphasis on the process but in a particular way. Mediation after all is a process and approach, or a collection of processes and approaches, that people use to help parties in conflict, or in my case to help organizations, come together to resolve their problems. But in my particular approach we're actually looking for something much more than just satisfaction, an outcome we end up with simply by deeming it acceptable. Rather, my approach helps people find something that's affirmative, that's positive, that listens for the place where everybody comes together and says Yes!-- instead of just sitting there and saying, No, no, no, until they get tired of saying no, and are satisfied with whatever is left. That is what is important and unique in my approach, and that's what underlies it. And of course, I will be saying more about how we get to that kind of affirming approach.
It is clear that this approach would work well for Quakers and other faith communities. But how do you bring people on board, so to speak, who don't have that kind of background?
Well, this is an approach that requires trust. Trust is the first element, and Respect, which are kind of almost two sides of the same coin, of the balance that goes together. You can’t trust somebody whom you don't respect. And it's hard to develop respect without some trust to begin with. And so typically I will begin with trust-building exercises, which are not necessarily particularly Quaker –although organizations like the Alternatives to Violence Project, an approach founded by people in prison together with Quakers also begin the same way. You begin by building the trust of all of the people involved and that's trust in one another, as humans, as people, separating that from agreement and understanding that one can have respect for somebody with whom one disagrees.
What kinds of groups do you work with?
I work with all kinds of groups, I have worked with faith-based groups, with Quaker groups, but I've also worked with housing groups and with other kinds of business organizations. Primarily I work with organizations, although I've done some, so to speak, ordinary mediations of disputes between individuals or between an organization and an individual. And it's simply a question of seeing the situation and understanding what's needed, and more importantly, helping the people involved to find that understanding of what's needed.
How long does this process typically take? Do people typically get together over a long period of time, like a retreat?
Well, really, there is no “typical” situation. It may be long or it may be short, depending on the organization, the depth of the difficulties, and how long they have been going on. There's no way to generalize, because, you know, if people are having a dispute over, say, a broken business agreement where the question is about money, that might be resolved in a few hours or in a day. But if it's about, “What should our organization be doing now? Or, “How can we restore the trust in this broken organization?” that could take many sessions over a period of time to resolve. Sometimes organizations spend years denying they even have conflict. In one organization I worked with, the Board of Directors was unable even to meet for years. So the length, as well as the nature of the process, depends on many factors. Ultimately, therefore, each organization and each situation is unique; one cannot generalize about the time needed first to face and then address the issues. So, it depends on what is at issue, what is needed. It depends on people's availability. It depends on the culture of the organization or the place. As with all my work, there’s no fixed solution, no “One size fits all.”
Is it possible that your positive approach sweeps things that need to be addressed under the rug"?
Actually, it's quite the reverse. By creating this situation of trust, we sweep things out from under the rug, so that they can be examined, addressed, and resolved. And what I encourage them to be awake and sensitive to is the fact that when all those things that had been swept under the rug are swept back out into the open, they become less scary and less threatening. It becomes possible to find solutions that work.
Can you give an example of a group that was not Faith-Based where you have used your Quaker-inspired approach?
I worked with a group that was trying to build some affordable housing for themselves as a group of co-owners (“Co-Housing”). And they had a project manager whom they had hired, and they were looking for property. And then they began to have some disagreements with that manager, very serious ones. And so I spent a long weekend working with the group, working with the manager, and actually end at the end of the session. a long weekend of sessions—because that's what worked for this volunteer group—they were able to come back together. First of all within themselves because they had internal disagreements and ultimately with the manager whom they were working with.
One last question: What if trust is the problem?
Trust is always the problem. Because as soon as people start having disagreements, they begin to mistrust one another. To doubt, to feel unhappy. And then that lack of trust. if it's not addressed, tends to grow, and often that's the first seed of the real conflict.
Going back to the beginning, this approach begins with, depends on Trust and Respect, the two key elements that go together, that make it possible to move to the place where everybody comes together and says, Yes!
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