Wednesday, October 14, 2009

California Constitutional Convention - No Politicians Please

Gavin Newsom, among others and including California Forward, are calling for a constitutional convention to rewrite, simplify, and change the way California government operates. In principle, this is a good idea and long overdue. The devil is in the details. For the past 20 years, California governors have been unable to govern and the legislature has been in effective deadlock. As a result of term limits, special interests dominate decision making. Gerrymandering legislative districts has insured highly partisan ideologies to dominate in public debate. State and local employees (prison guards and teachers in particular) diligently and rabidly protect their own at the expense of everyone else. Fiat by initiative funded by special interests or narrow political groups is the order of the day. In the face of this mess, all of it protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and the freedom to petition government, one wonders how a constitutional convention could possibly succeed.

Although the convention process is far from being decided or even outlined, it seems to me a few fundamental ground rules ought to be in place. First, no elected officials past or present should be part of the constitutional convention. There are plenty of really intelligent people in California not in politics who could be drafted as delegates. Politics should be as absent from the convention as possible. Second, every delegate should be trained in collaborative decision making, interest-based negotiation, conflict resolution, and fundamental principles of emotional intelligence. These classes should be mandatory to teach people the social and negotiation skills necessary to deal with sharply devisive issues. Third, the regions of the state should be represented by more than population size. Two thirds of California is rural and looks more like the midwest and, of course, is under represented in the political structure. The interior portions of California hold all of the natural resources, especially water, and therefore should have a pretty hefty say in the process. Fourth, there should be some advisory process in place to legally test constitutional provisions provisionally. Even if a constitutional convention creates a new document that is approved by the people and the legislature, it faces decades of challenges by interest groups unhappy with the inevitable loss of power, protection, and privilege.

I am sure that there are other fundamental procedures and ground rules that will be thought about and debated. I would like politicians like Mayor Newsom to elaborate on how they see the process developing and unfolding so we can judge whether their ideas of a convention make sense. The cry for a California constitutional convention will be come louder in the next year. Let's ask for details early and not let the process be decided in a cloakroom out of the public eye.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tips for Peaceful Holidays

I want to pass on some tips about maintaining peace and tranquility in your families during this holiday season. Call this a quick guide to everyday peacemaking. These tips are really way to replace your habits of conflict with habits of peacemaking. The reason we tolerate so much conflict around us is because we have allowed conflict to be habitual. Consequently, its just easier to let the conflict escalate than to engage people as a peacemaker. If you want to try the new habits of peace, check out these tips.

The most glorious gift you can give your family is your ability to listen without judgment to what is said around you. This gift costs nothing, but confers wonderful feelings on all those who receive it. When a family member is speaking to you, stop what you are doing and listen. What is this person feeling right now? What is this person hoping for? You can even ask, “Oh, so you were feeling frustrated and hoping that the store clerk would spend some time with you?” Even if you don’t guess at feelings and hopes, you can simply summarize, in a short-hand sort of way, what you heard. “Sounds like you ran into a store clerk who wasn’t paying attention to you.” The gift of listening others into existence is a powerful and wonderful way of creating connections to those you care for.

Take responsibility for your own behavior. If you make a mistake, apologize and make amends. If someone around you makes a mistake, be quick to forgive and forget. We let a lot of little things unnecessarily annoy us. Although we react preconsciously to most of what goes on around us, we can choose not to be reactive to what we are feeling. Be aware of how you are feeling moment to moment. Know when you are tired or anxious or under pressure to get something done right away because these are times you are likely to snap back at someone. Be vigilant about your own feelings so that you can respect the feelings of others. Conflict often arises because we are not paying attention to how we are reacting and why. We lash out without thought, which only escalates the dispute. Be self-aware.

If you feel angry or upset, leave the situation for a few moments. Remember that anger is generally triggered by a cascade of events, not just one event. You must break the chain of events to stop your emotional reactions. That’s why stepping out on the balcony and counting to 20 is so often recommended.

In the presence of angry or upset people, acknowledge their anger. “Gee, Aunt Martha. I can see that you are really upset. Boy, I’d be upset too if that happened to me. What can we do to make things right?” People usually become angry and upset because they feel disrespected or unacknowledged. Simply acknowledging the angry feelings of a family member will work miracles in restoring peace.

If Uncle Charlie and Cousin Sam are fighting or arguing, intervene quickly. Take one of them away and “caucus” with them. “Hey, Uncle Charlie, come outside for a minute. I’d like a word with you.” Once outside, listen to Charlie, acknowledge his feelings, and find out what’s upsetting him. Offer to talk to Cousin Sam on behalf of Charlie. Then have a quick talk with Sam. You will see the problem. Bring them together for a quick peacemaking session. Have them exchange stories one at a time without interruption. Have them explain what injustices they feel. Then ask them both for ideas on how to make things right. In five minutes, you can completely reverse the situation.

Now maybe this argument has disrupted a really fun get together and you are pretty angry yourself. You can express yourself, but do so by telling Charlie how you experienced the situation. “Charlie, I am really upset that this happened. Listening to you and Sam shout at each other frustrated me because I was hoping for a really fun family dinner. And I guess I felt mad because all of my plans for a wonderful time seemed to go down the drain.” The important point here is not to accuse Charlie of mucking things up. You are much better off explaining how you feel than blaming Charlie for his behavior.

All of this sounds so common-sensical. Yet we fail to act this way year after year. The reason, I think, is that we have become habituated to reactive behavior patterns. We have habits of conflict that we carry with us. What we really need are some habits of peace. These quick tips are some of the habits of an everyday peacemaker. Like any other skill, they will be awkward at first. With a little practice, you will gain confidence that these tips work. Even more importantly, as you experience the amazing results of watching peace unfold from conflict, you will rewarded with an inner serenity that cannot be described. Then you will have your habits of peace.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

It's Not About "Show Me the Money!"

So many disputes and conflicts, especially in the business world, seem to be about money. If a debt is owed, then it probably is about the money. In just about every other dispute, money may be important, but it is not driving the conflict.

Last week, I mediated a case that demonstrated this in a classic way. John (not his real name) claimed he was owed $48,000 on a contract. Bill (not his real name either), said , "No way!" They had a written contract with an attorney's fee clause. In California, that means that if you win, you have the right to ask a judge to award you your attorney's fees. By the time the case came to me for mediation, John had spent $38,000 in attorney's fees and Bill had spent $55,000 in attorney's fees. The combined fees nearly doubled the amount they were fighting over!

John demanded his full contract amount plus his attorney's fees. He was not going to "rollover" for Bill. He was owed the money fair and square, and by God, he was going to fight for every last dime. Bill, of course, believed that he didn't owe John anything and had many technical defenses to John's lawsuit. Bill wanted to be paid his attorney's fees to settle the case.

This one didn't settle. Both men were more interested in protecting their own sense of self-esteem than about the money. On a cognitive rational level, they each knew they would spend far more money with their lawyers than they would ever recover. On an emotional level, however, conceding to the other guy's demand would be an unacceptable blow to ego. Since emotions are far more powerful than cognitive rational processing, the fight was not about the money. It was about the need to be right and prove the other guy wrong.

This is a classic conflict pattern found in family disputes as well as in international conflicts. The need to protect face and boost self-esteem is fundamental in all of us. I have observed that people with a strong sense of identity and self-esteem tend not to be enmeshed in conflicts as much as others. On the other hand, those with a lesser sense of identity and lower self-esteem fight when they feel their identities are being threated.

What's really interesting is that giving someone respect costs nothing financially. Yet that can be the hardest thing to do when you feel like you are being disrespected.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

First post

Welcome to my blog, Arataxix: Solutions for Peace in Your Life. I stumble across the word "arataxix" when looking for something other than peacemaking. Although I am a peacemaker professionally, I have encountered resistance to the word. People either confuse it with the old Colt .45 hand gun or get off on a religious track. Anyways, arataxis is what occurs when peace is found and means stress-free or no stress. Its a Greek-derived word and is unususal enough that I thought I could adopt it for my purposes here.

This blog is about helping you find peace in everyday situations. As an experienced trial lawyer and 2nd degree black belt, I have seen conflict from just about every perspective. I left the practice of law (although I am still an active member of the bar), to devote my time to turning conflict into peace. It wasn't some great religious conversion, but a sense that I could serve people better in peace rather than in conflict. I'll share more of my journey in later posts.

I won't give specific advice to those of you who comment, but I will give general observations about conflicts you write about. I have learned that conflict is all about people, so even the most intractable international conflicts still can be understood, if not solved, by analytic peacemaking tools. In the same way, your conflicts with your spouse, your neighbors, your boss, or even the guy that just swerved in front of you can be understood and transformed by you simply, gracefully, and beautifully into peaceful moments.

Enough for now. If you are intrigued, posts are always welcome.

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