Nancy Ferrell

Private Mediator and Trainer

Topics: empowerment, relationship between power and agreement-based resolution, training the trainers, ground rules, conflict analysis

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: Currently I'm a private consultant. I have a private practice as a mediator and as a trainer. I do trainings with families in conflict and with families getting divorced. I train people who want to be mediators and I also train people who want to use the skills of conflict resolution in their job categories, like police officers, teachers, managers, anybody really. I got into this after doing my civil rights work and doing mediation with the justice department.

When I retired from that, I left that agency with the commitment and the belief system that the skills of conflict resolution are basic life skills that aren't being taught. In a culture and a society like our world is now, our country in particular, if we're going to survive, we've got to learn a different way of dealing with conflict than shooting each other, either physically/literally shooting each other or emotionally shooting each other; knocking each other out.

My commitment in terms of the training aspect has been to provide the training at a cost that's accessible to as many people as possible. And I do it at least once a year through a community college construct so that it can be more accessible and more cost effective. It's open to people as a life skill development, and I've seen it happen in terms of people going through the class. The hope is that they'll then apply it to their life, not just by being a mediator, but also at home. I also do a good portion of my work, I would say maybe a third of it, in the area of church conflict resolution.

Q: Between churches or within one church?

A: Within churches. In my experience it's mostly within churches. The impetus there is also the same focus as that of people in churches in conflict represent families who need to know how to resolve differences or work through differences without annihilating each other, without X-ing each other out. My feeling is that the standard psychology is, if you differ with me, one of us is wrong, and it's not me, so I've got to either dismiss you, convince you of my perspective, or move away from you. As a general culture we haven't taught people to say, "Help me understand who you are. Let me help you understand who I am and let's see if we can value that, rather than devalue it." So differences have been devalued. If I differ with you then in order for me to feel okay still about myself I've got to devalue you or convince you I'm right, one or the other.

So my approach or my commitment is really interpersonal when you get right down to it, much more so than systemic. The work I did with the justice department was systemic in that we would go into communities and try to create new systems that would address the inequalities in race relations. But the actual experience was I worked with individuals and those individuals' lives became changed because they learned a different way, whether they were a minority person or a power broker. They learned a different way to engage each other than to say, you don't have value, and I don't have to engage you.

So that's kind of what got me into it as a private consultant is that I really want as many people as possible to have these skills and to be able to use them in their everyday life. When it comes to families, I really think that families are desperate to know how to reconnect. I think most of our families have lost intimacy and a lot of that is based on the fact that they don't know how to engage each other with their differences. And so for fear that you're going to leave me or fear that you're going to reject me, I don't really honestly tell you what I need from you. And I shut down on that and I think it's just a little thing and ten years later all of those little things that I haven't even dealt with says, "You don't even know me. You haven't met my needs or you haven't let me meet yours because we've been afraid to talk about it."

Q: And so the worst fear comes to bear, which is the greatest irony. You don't want to tell that person for fear of driving them away, but by not telling them in the end you've been driven farther away.

A: Exactly. The very thing you fear most is what happens.

Q: Can you tell me about an inspiring moment in your work?

A: It's hard to pick a moment. I think in this phase of my life, one of the most satisfying things I hear is when I've done a training conference in conflict resolution and one of the responses I get from participants that has been encouraging and affirming to me is that you model what you teach, and I've never seen that so clearly. And that's a real affirmation of my commitment to, this is a life skill, is that as I teach the skills the participants are able to experience that from me and experience what it feels like to be honored, even in a state of difference, what it feels like to be honored for what you have to say regardless of whether I agree with you or not. And for me to be the one that manages the participants, in a way, that they can differ with each other and still feel whole. I guess in my current life that's the most satisfying awareness, that at least they can recognize that I have embodied that as I present the material to them.

Q: Talk a little more about that situation that you referred to about when a family is afraid to share their needs with each other, which ultimately ends up driving them apart, which was the thing they set out to avoid in the first place. How do you work with that and what sort of advice or conversations do you have with people in that situation?

A: One of the benchmark or key points in what I try to do is help people learn how to clearly describe what they expect from each other. And then to understand that you saying you can't meet an expectation doesn't mean you don't accept me. And not anybody can meet all of my expectations, not any one individual. That's another fantasy of our family structure, is that I'm going to be married and whole and this family's going to provide all of my needs and expectations. Nobody can live up to that. So we've set ourselves up for failure to begin with. So what do you clearly need and expect from me, and then I have to be honest to say I can clearly make this need, or I would love to be able to meet this one, but I can't. This one I don't know that I can now, but I think I can learn that. Being honest about what we need and what our expectations are, and the other side of that, being honest about what we can and can't do.

I come from a background of religious education ministry and then got into conflict resolution and mediation; it's very helper oriented, a nurturing kind of orientation, and it's hard for people like me to say no I can't do that for you. We're always wanting to help and so to me, it is as powerful and as necessary for me to be able to say with integrity, "no, I can't do that for you," and that it's irresponsible of me to say yes when I either don't have the time, I don't have the energy, I don't have the skill, but I want to and so I say yes. We do it all the time. So in families, having a place where the trust level is there, where you can ask for what you need and if I can't provide that for you, I will help you find the resource for it. And the other thing is simply creating a place that is safe and that involves being clear about your expectations and also setting boundaries and understanding what the boundaries are.

Q: Are there non-negotiables in terms of those needs? Are there needs in families where one member of the family says I really need this and the other member of the family says I absolutely can't provide you with that. And then family member A says, well, then what are we doing here?

A: The thing that comes to mind is the ethical dilemma or moral dilemma about what's acceptable or non-acceptable as far as a need is concerned. And it always goes to sexual things. What if I need more than one partner. Is that okay? Well, no, I don't think so. So, where's the boundary? That's where the ground rules have to be built with the expectations and the need statements. What are our ground rules for a relationship? And is monogamy one of our ground rules? For some people it's not. But for me it is, so in our relationship that would have to be one of our ground rules.

Q: So, explain to me the difference between a ground rule and a need.

A: The ground rules set the parameters.

Q: In this setting, we're talking specifically about a family mediation setting. So in a family mediation setting, what's the difference for a family between a ground rule and a need?

A: The ground rules would tell me where the boundary is in terms of resources. How will we manage our money, sexual and emotional satisfaction is it bound by certain things? And then within that, I need more experience or more diversity in our sexual relationship or our emotional relationship or whatever. That's fine within the bounds of the ground rule, which is that it's a monogamous relationship. But we can still meet some needs other than that, as far as diversity and having some different kind of experiences. There is a shared responsibility as far as money. I need to have some control over the money or some cooperative relationship about how we spend money. That's great. We need to work this out together. But what if on a particular situation I really need X number of dollars to do a certain thing? How do we negotiate that? We're still going to negotiate it together, but I need this and we need to talk about it. So the framework is the ground rules and then the need statements are the things that we have to deal with within those ground rules.

Q: So the degree of the ground rule is like the need. The ground rule is almost like the bounds, the limit.

A: The outside limit.

Q: And what can we achieve within those limits.

A: Yes, within those limits.

Q: What other techniques, frameworks, ideas, concepts, images, or pictures do you use in your work with families that helps move people beyond being threatened and wanting to walk out?

A: Cost-benefit talk. What's it going to cost you to take a certain action, to leave? Is there a common value for you? If they have children, is there some benefit to trying to work through this for the family unit's sake? Trying to get them to visualize and talk about benefits as far as the history. You've been together 15 years, 20 years, that's an investment; it's like creating a bank account. You've invested in this relationship for 20 years, is there anything back there that you can think of, can you pull anything forward to help you recapture why that has value for you. And if it does, how do you then look at the future and see that together? If it doesn't, then how can you at least preserve what was good about it and move on without destroying each other? That's the greatest challenge. Usually by the time they get to a mediator, they're ready to go, and our challenge would be to help them...

Q: By ready to go, you mean ready to...?

A: Separate. If they're not ready to separate, they're still in a counselor's office, and mediation is not counseling. So one of the benefits of the mediation process can be to help them recapture, refocus on why there was benefit there, why there was a relationship, and let go of the bad and move forward, move to the future. Otherwise they carry that for years and years. That's how people end up killing each other, is they can't let go of the past and the pain that you cost me, and I want you to hurt as much as I hurt.

That's how children get killed. This person has hurt me so deeply that I know if these children are the most important things in the world to them, then I'm going to take them. And sometimes that ends up in taking them physically. It's tragic, but that's how desperate people get when they've been emotionally killed. That's what I mean by we've got to find a better way to deal with each other than to emotionally or physically kill each other, or just X each other out.

Q: You said that when people get to mediation, generally they're about ready to go, about ready to split. What's your goal, then? Is it to make the split as easy as possible or to avoid the split? What are you attempting to do by the time they get to your stage?

A: I don't think a mediator has a right to try to get people to stay together. If you are neutral, you're commitment is to help them process whatever they want to do, whatever their next step is. Like I said, once they get to a mediator, they've probably already filed in court for divorce and they've come to settle up the issues, like child custody and property stuff. The benefit of mediation is that they can do that in a way that can restore some definition of relationship that they can live with and move to the future. They can then stop the hateful, mean-spirited stuff that got them to the point of divorce. And I think a mediator can help with that. But they're not generally there to rethink whether they're going to get a divorce or not. That's not part of the process.

Q: What are the lessons you've learned over the years doing the family cases?

A: What are the lessons?

Q: Or if you want to flip that around, what advice would you give to someone who's going into this work?

A: One of the lessons I've learned is that people get on a track and they don't know how to get off of it. I have people in mediation that if I were a counselor I would be telling them you need to get back together, I mean, what are you doing here? But they've gotten themselves on a track and they don't know how to get off. They don't know how to stop the bus. And to save face, they keep going and neither one of them really wants that, but they don't know how to say to the other one, let's rethink this.

The other thing is that people generally will take two or three times of marriages before they will finally recognize that it's work. That it's not fantasy and it's not romance, it's work to keep a relationship together. So after the third time, they finally go, you know, I'm going to have to work at this if I'm going to keep a relationship. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say about a third marriage, if I had even worked half as hard on the first one, I would have never gotten a divorce.

Q: My mother has told me that about my father. My father's never said that, but my mother did.

A: Yeah, because there's a fantasy that it just happens. It's magic. And it's not magic. And again, I think that's one of the fantasies that we've sold ourselves, all of us. It takes a lot of work and effort to maintain a relationship with anybody, and in a marriage relationship it takes a lot of work for that to be real. It has to be a place where you're safe and where you can be yourself because that's what happens ten years down the road, you don't even know who you are because you've tired to be what you expect me to be, and I haven't been able to say to you, but that's not me.

I was talking to a couple that had been married for a long time and the husband had had a stroke and sometimes strokes will cause people to be less filtering of what they say, they're just more direct about what they say. The wife was buying cereal and she was buying corn flakes and he said, "I hate corn flakes." And she says, "what do you mean you hate corn flakes, you've been eating corn flakes for ten years." "I hate corn flakes, and I've hated them for ten years." I mean, that's a simple thing, but it happens at every level. You sit at the table and eat corn flakes for ten years and don't ever say anything. At the first event, it would have been, you know, I really don't care for corn flakes. Okay, what kind of cereal do you want me to buy? But ten years later I'm so angry because I've been eating corn flakes for ten years and didn't want to. But whom do I blame for it? I blame you for feeding me cornflakes.

Q: Because I was too afraid to say, you know what honey; these corn flakes are not really what I'm looking for. And I was afraid that you were going to say, well then go buy your own damn cereal, because I do all the shopping and cooking and whatever.

A: That's right. And it's really a very simplistic example of how we interact with people in a relationship and it's based on a fear of being rejected.

Q: So those are observations. People get on a track that they can't get off of, and they're not willing to communicate their needs for fear of rejection. As a mediator what do you do to assuage that?

A: Well, you create an environment where it's safe for somebody to say those things because you're there. And you can manage any kind of difficulty. Sometimes you say it separately; sometimes you meet with them separately and let them tell you what their fears and frustrations are first. Then give them an opportunity to share that with the other person, and once they've heard it out loud, then they've got a little more confidence in sharing that with the other person. When you're doing mediation, it's especially important to recognize the element that there's going to be an ongoing relationship after the mediation. It's not as important in contract negotiation or personal injury kind of mediation.

But where the families are involved or where it's an employee-supervisor, where we're going to meet as you're my supervisor, I'm the employee, we're still going to be working together tomorrow. So it is important for the mediator to work through the relationship issues, of how do you set clear boundaries? How do you clearly define you expectations as a supervisor? And how do I as an employee clearly express to you what I can and can't do in an environment that's not going to be hostile. So in that context, it is an opportunity to build communication links based on expectations and boundaries. And those are two building blocks.

Q: Let me go backwards a little bit and ask Heidi's initial question, which is what other elements... you mentioned the elements of not communicating fears... but are there elements that lead to intractability in family conflicts?

A: It usually is based in some sort of power struggle where one party or the other has had the power and the other one decides they don't want to be subservient to that anymore. And it could be violence power, where there's abuse involved, and the power's been imposed through the abuse and at some point the abused person says I can't live in this anymore. But even at that, when did it start? When did the first bowl of corn flakes get put on the table and you didn't say I don't like corn flakes. When was the first, "you're stupid, sad", and you didn't say, "I'm not willing for you to call me that."

And so ten years later you're not just saying, "you're stupid", you're knocking me to the floor, and I don't want in any way to say that the victim in any way causes this, but certainly there is some mutual energy around people who get into situations where they are being taken advantage of, whether it's in an employee situation or a family situation. What was the first instance? How did this begin and how did it escalate?

Q: That reminds me of an old saying in Mexico, which is that it takes two hands to clap. Which is not to say, as you said, that the victim is to blame, but that everybody has choices and they could have done things differently at some point.

A: And I think holding people accountable and being willing to take responsibility for yourself is important. If I challenge you and you don't want to be with me, then I've got to go on my own and take care of myself. Sometimes the payoff of staying together is greater than the risk of being alone.

Q: Are there similarities between the work that you've done with families and the work that you've done in civil rights?

A: In the fact that I have seen minority communities sometimes still pressed, even though the power brokers have stopped pressing. Legally the organization or the power broker or the establishment has done legally what they're required to do, but the minority hasn't recognized that the door is open. So they stay in the room, and they stay bound by the past. Even though we've taken the lock off the outside of the door, we're certainly not going to open it for you. Do you see what I'm saying?

Q: Yeah. Elaborate for me, the restraints have come off, but the door is still closed, we're not going to open it for you, so what does that mean?

A: That means I'm still oppressed by the past, even though the oppressor has walked away. And in families, in these abuse situations, sometimes I don't even have to abuse you anymore. Just the potential of that keeps me in line, or in the relationship for fear of leaving him.

Q: That's a fairly provocative idea. Are you saying that the minority or the low-power party in that situation needs to take responsibility for getting themselves out of the room, or are you saying that the overall structure is still such that it's very difficult for them to get out of the room?

A: It could be either. It could be both. That's what affirmative action was about, is opening the door. The power structure or the establishment's first response was, abide by the letter of the law. We took the lock off. We're not opening the door. But then the society said that's not enough. We've got to open the door. The establishment's not necessarily going to, but the society will. The society will open the door with these affirmative action kind of efforts. And people began to see the path out and move out. So it's both. You're still going to have to have some impetus on the ones who've been oppressed to walk through the door. Now it's open, now there's some assistance and there's some path finding efforts for you, but you still have to open that door. ...Somebody opened the door (in the interview room)... Oh my goodness, time flies.

Q: I'm going to wait until the door closes to ask my next question... The next question is what role does the mediator play, either in the civil rights scenario or in the family mediation scenario, to either provide that impetus for the low-power party to step out of the room or to convince the high-power party to go further and open the door?

A: I think that the mediator's role is to say to the high power person, what's it costing you to hold on to this position, and what are some benefits of you doing differently, of you assisting or providing assistance or facilitating a change? And they have to see some benefit and it could be economic benefit, it could be emotional benefit. In a family it could be the benefit of not having the struggle, making sure your children are taking care of. In society it could be the economic cost of maintaining a system or society where some people are not producing at optimal benefit. The cost of how you're community is perceived.

On the other side of the low power, at least in this context the low power person, what can you do to take on some personal responsibility? Even if the path is shown to you, you've still got to be willing to take a step, and are you ready, are you prepared, are you willing to do that? One of the things we asked in the civil rights mediation was always, are you ready to accept your responsibility? If we set up a system of redress for you, you have to be willing to sit on the board for redress. You've got to be willing to show up to the meetings. You've got to be willing to participate in the process. A frustrating situation I dealt with in Oklahoma was where Native Americans in a small community believed that the police department was especially abusive with Native Americans. In that particular community that police chief was an elected official and Native Americans were predominate in that community.

Q: So you said...?

A: Vote him out. Take responsibility. And what would that look like? How do you organize yourself to the point where you say we have the power here. We do have the power. We just haven't been exercising it.

Q: Thank you very much, Nancy, for taking the time.