Remember those Charles Atlas ads about the muscular bully who kicked sand in the skinny guy's face? And how the skinny guy got all buffed out and turned the tide, or sand?
I was the skinny guy. While I was a fantastic swimmer and a lifeguard (a hometown hero for saving a little boy's life), my nickname was "Pencil Body" to some, "Bones" to others. Charles Atlas' body-building program failed me miserably, so I learned to deal with the bullies by negotiating my way out of trouble. Most of the time it worked and the bullies found someone else to work over.
My conflict-resolution skills were limited, though, as I wasn't able to get these brutes to renounce violence a la Gandhi or to start doing Yoga instead of bodybuilding.
My dad planted the mediation idea in me, too, by telling me about his good friend, who was a mediator. This mediator guy was involved in some high-profile conflicts. I remember reading in the newspaper about major labor disputes, often involving strikes by workers over labor conditions and wages. Invariably, the mediator involved in resolving the disputes was my dad's friend.
Being a typical teenager, I was more impressed with the guy's huge estate (a family inheritance) on the tip of Long Island than I was with his career.
My parents together also taught me the benefits of mediation, although not in the way you might expect. They had a long and solid marriage but they had their share of fights, mainly about money. I agonized when these disputes occurred. The fear of my parents divorcing motivated me to act as a child-prodigy mediator.
I remember wracking my brains for creative things to say to get them to stop their arguments. One time my mother got so mad at my father while we were driving somewhere that she got out of the car at a red light and walked away. My mind raced with thoughts about how to get her back in the car.
This is where I first learned the benefit of using humor as part of mediation. At the next light, I got out and began walking in cadence with my mom. My lighthearted comments to her about the weather, the scenery, and what a perfectly appropriate idea it was for her to choose that moment to go for a walk, broke the ice.
These youthful experiences with conflict resolution were a means of survival of my bodily unit and the family unit. However, as I began having successes in my mediation practice in divorce cases — helping people get through an extremely difficult period in their lives — it became a tremendous source of personal satisfaction. It made me want to do more. Think of the busman's holiday, one of my supervisors at the Palo Alto Mediation Program observed. I can't get enough of it.
Raising two children also helped me hone my conflict-resolution skills. If you are new to the two-kid life I recommend reading Siblings Without Rivalry and Getting To Yes. Teach your children the mediation skills they need to resolve disputes — don't do it for them.
An ability to mediate is perhaps the most important gift you could give your children. It is something we need to spread more widely among all youth and adults as the key to a gentler family, community, nation and world — with the possible exception of Congress, still locked in the kicking-sand mode.
With my background in conflict resolution it is easy to see why I am so excited about volunteering with the mediation program. But as a veteran volunteer I will not allow my excitement cause me to do something rash.
I have given great thought and consideration to my first suggestion. I am sure you will agree this is solid. Since among its services the Palo Alto Mediation Program handles neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, perhaps we should get involved in the dispute in Arizona over its new anti-immigration law. After all, Arizona is our neighbor.
Ever mindful of the need for a back-up plan, if the Arizona idea falls flat I have another one.
You may recall that our governor was a body builder early in his career. It would be great if he and I could do Charles Atlas-skinny-guy-at-the-beach type skits together at schools, promoting the benefits of mediation to our youth. Of course, now that I am a super-powered mediator I would be the one kicking the sand.
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