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The Planet
When Conflict Creates Chaos

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 them.

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 housing.

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 trainers.

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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