S1: Hey, how to listeners, I want to share something exciting with you today. I’m going to be turning my attention full time to working on a newsletter of mine called the Range Report that you can find at David Epstein Ekom. And that also means that I’m going to be handing over the hosting duties of this show. It’s been an absolute honor and pleasure to host for the last 30 episodes. I’m really excited to introduce a host who was, you know, what I would call my first draft pick if I could choose anyone to host this show, because she’s had such an incredibly varied career. So I want to actually reintroduce you to Amanda Ripley, who was a guest expert on a previous show about conflict. Amanda has written incredible books about disaster, survival, international education, and her newest one, high conflict about really intractable conflicts and how to get out of them. And so I’m really, really pleased and excited to introduce you today to the new host of How to Amanda Ripley.
S2: Thank you so much, David. It’s great to be here. I’m really excited because, you know, having been a sort of traditional journalist for a long time, writing for Time magazine and other places, I’ve sort of come to think that the best journalism these days is low ego journalism. That actually speaks directly to what people are struggling with. You know, so that’s one of the things I love about this show and what you and Charles have done with it, to kind of bring the audience into the studio with experts who know things and try to triangulate our way to helping each other.
S1: You know, in speaking of solutions and helping people with solutions, first of all, I just want to remind people everything is going to stay just the same. You can still write to us at at how to at Slate dot com if you have a problem that that maybe we can work on and maybe we’ll have you on the show. But I mean, Amanda, really right now, especially with her most recent book, I think is making as big an impact as a solutions journalist as anyone. I mean, in fact, Amanda, I think you’ve actually talked to Congress about conflict resolution recently. Is that right?
S2: Yeah. No. And this is I mean, this is one of the reasons I’m excited about the show and and have listen to it for a long time, even before this, because I always have loved reading advice columns. It’s like a guilty pleasure mine sometimes. I can’t bear to read the news section of the paper first, so I go right to the advice column. But I always felt a little bit like ambivalent that this columnist would have all the answers, right. I mean, that just doesn’t seem. Yeah, I know. I don’t have all the answers.
S1: Hey, speak for yourself.
S2: Exactly right. So in this case, I wrote this book about how people get out of really, really difficult, intense conflicts of all kinds. And then, of course, people start, you know, reaching out to me and saying, okay, I got one for you. And so that’s how we ended up with our next episode.
S1: Fantastic. I’m really excited to listen to it.
S2: Thanks, David. So, John, looking back, what was one of the lowest moments, would you say, as a superintendent during a pandemic for you?
S3: Wow. I’d say seeing that, seeing the first semester grades, see how many how many classes got failed. That was probably the lowest point for me.
S2: Welcome to How To. I’m journalist Amanda Ripley. We all have to make difficult decisions from time to time, where to live, what to study, whether to go on a second date or a lastI. But today, we’re talking about really impossible decisions, ones that could cost you your job or jeopardize the health of others. Decisions that just don’t have an obvious right answer. The kind that somebody will inevitably hate no matter what you do. Our listener this week knows just what that’s like.
S3: I’m John and I am the superintendent of schools for a small to midsize district in California.
S2: Being a school superintendent these days means having to make impossible decisions without enough information. It means endless controversy over things like mask mandates and vaccines. It’s why, as we enter a new school year, the superintendent asked to remain anonymous to have this conversation back in March 2020, when the pandemic first upended all of our lives. John had to make a series of snap judgments like nearly all schools in the country. District moved to online learning.
S3: There was one conversation that I’d had with the small group of teachers, and one of them made a comment to the effect, if you make us come back and someone gets sick and dies, the blood is going to be on your hands.
S2: The district continue remote learning last fall and into the winter. But this spring, as the worst of the pandemic seemed behind us here in the U.S., at least, John faced a much harder decision.
S3: You know, there’s no easy answers, but I saw how many students failed classes that in all likelihood wouldn’t have failed if we were in person.
S2: How do you make this decision knowing you can’t satisfy all the stakeholders? The school board, the teachers, the students. Oh, and by the way, the parents.
S3: In all fairness, there was a group of parents who are angry that I didn’t push harder, faster.
S2: So finally, in April of this year, John recommended reopening schools for in-person learning against the union’s wishes.
S3: So we were able to to reopen. And I’m thankful that at least, you know, knock on wood, to our knowledge, there was no no cases of transmission.
S2: And that was a huge relief. But it doesn’t mean there wasn’t serious damage done, particularly to John’s relationship with the teachers union, which can be fraught during normal times.
S3: It definitely weighs on my mind about starting off the next school year and what can I do to have as positive, productive relationship with the union after the disagreements we had about reopening in the spring.
S2: On today’s episode, how do you make extremely hard decisions that someone somewhere is definitely going to hate? How do you not take the resulting blowback personally, and how do you then repair those relationships going forward?
S4: And the other part, I think, which is a real challenge, is how do you deal with people who don’t necessarily agree with each other? Is that another part of the challenge for you?
S3: Yes, it is.
S4: Well, welcome to the club.
S2: Our expert this week is Gary Friedman, a sort of Jedi master when it comes to conflict management. He’s a world renowned mediator and lawyer who recently found himself in his own Catch 22 situation rather unexpectedly, but found a way out. Can he help John do the same? Stay with us. We’re back with conflict resolution guru Gary Friedman and a California superintendent who we’re calling John this past spring, John made himself enemy number one with a bunch of his teachers when he reopened schools.
S3: It doesn’t feel good because I mean, it doesn’t feel good in large part because I was a teacher at one time. So you feel like. But I was one of you.
S2: John, would I hear you doing is trying really hard not to collapse into us versus them thinking, you know, and not paint all teachers with one brush. And and it’s very hard to do that. And I noticed in myself as a parent during the pandemic that I went through phases struggling with that. Right. And so I started out really grateful for the teachers and administrators. Then I went through a period of frustration and fear and then a kind of apathy, you know, and just, you know, such a long ordeal that we’ve all been through. So, John, I wonder if you could just say a little bit about the student population in your district.
S3: We have a diverse student population. We do have some kids who are coming from poverty, and we have some kids who are on the other hand, our students that tend to struggle tend to be English language learners, tend to be Latinos or students with disabilities. And I’m talking about failure rates more than twice as much.
S4: And what was the impact on you of knowing that?
S3: That’s hard. It’s hard for me to take. I’m a Latino myself, and I really feel a lot for those families. And I think it also kind of hit home for me a little bit like, you know, a lot of the parents of a lot of these kids are probably those same people who are reporting to work. They’re the people that stock the shelves or make the food. It struck me just as not very fair, although life’s not fair.
S4: So that’s really interesting, because I can imagine if I were you, my heart would go out to the people had been most disadvantaged and struggling the most, and it would be very hard not to just feel like they need somebody to be their advocate.
S3: Yeah. I mean, I had those kinds of feelings. And when I sent out information to staff about the disparity and I included a chart that showed the difference in outcomes in terms of the grades. My hope was that a number of teachers would see that as, oh, yeah, maybe we should come back. But I heard from some teachers that they felt it was demoralizing to point that out, and it hadn’t been my intent to demoralize people. So I don’t know me or I could have said it different.
S4: Yeah. You know, when I was training to be a lawyer, one of my mentors used to say the way to make an argument to the jury is you tell them what you’re going to say. Then you say it and then you tell them what you just said. That’s the only way to get through to people.
S2: So here’s our first insight. Despite our best intentions, things get lost in translation. We intend to send one message and people hear another, especially in conflict. So we have to overcommunicate, even at the risk of repeating ourselves. And we have to really listen to people checking in to see what they think and what they heard. Good communication requires way more back and forth than we want it to. And even then, it’s just really hard.
S4: When I put myself in your shoes, what I think of is I have to find some way inside myself. And this is the thing I find the hardest when I am responsible for decision making, to feel empathy for everybody.
S3: I can say that I tried and didn’t always succeed. Yeah. And at a certain point, I think in some ways I came to think, well, if people are going to be disappointed in someone, why not have it be me? If it if it keeps other relationships healthy, really well.
S4: So you’re going to fall on the sword as long as it works for everybody else.
S3: Well, specifically, you know, parents and teachers and as Amanda mentioned earlier, I think a lot of parents were nothing but supportive at the beginning of school not being in person. But there came a point where that started to run out more than a few times. I would say something to the effect. Active parents. Let’s remember that teachers who are concerned about coming back, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about your kids and teachers, parents who are upset that we’re not coming back yet, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. And so there were some places along the way where I thought like, well, if if I can sort of buffer at all between some of these different folks and then that maybe that’s OK.
S4: And and it sounds like you did something really important and very valuable as you were trying to humanize each side to the other end and to be able to show that. But there’s one conspicuous person that you were leaving out of the mix, which is you. And the question is, how do you humanize you? And what’s the cost to you in terms of the relationships when people don’t see you as anything other than the person to rebel against?
S2: Here’s our next tip. To keep conflict healthy and avoid collapsing into us versus them thinking, keep reminding yourself that everyone involved in this debate is human and that includes you, which sometimes means being more transparent about how you’re struggling to make a difficult decision.
S4: And I think it’s just the opposite instinct that we have when we’re making the decision that we want to kind of stay behind. This is the right decision. This is the best decision I could make. I took everything into account that I thought was irrelevant, and I was thinking of what I thought was best for everybody. And I made this decision and I’m suffering. You know, that’s that might be your way through this for everybody to see you struggling with how hard this decision was. Because what I think of the position where and my God, my heart goes out to you.
S3: Yeah. You know, I appreciate that. I have to tell you it it doesn’t quite resonate with me, though, because just the way I am and the way I approach things, I feel like this is what you signed up for. Right. You know, this is this is, you know, OK, you didn’t sign up for a pandemic necessarily, but you signed up to be the superintendent. You are pretty well compensated to do make difficult decisions and do difficult things. It is just hard for me to think, to wrap my mind around the idea of telling people I’m suffering because I just see their sufferings is so much greater. And I would love it Gary for advice about how to do that, because I don’t know if that’s a strong suit for me. I’m you know, how do you do that?
S4: So it starts with your being willing to show them your kind of inner struggle. I think when you can make that visible and show people that you’re doing that in a way that you’re trying to be honest with them and honest with yourself, it’s hard to kind of hold you in that way that people tend to when they see you’re the authority figure and they don’t want to see you as a person.
S3: That does sound scary to me. Yeah.
S2: Yeah. Yeah. Gary, what I hear you saying is in moments of conflict, when someone has a lot of responsibility and probably is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t like this, the instinct is to build a wall, like to be stoic, to be the authority figure. Right. And don’t let them see you sweat. Is that right? Right. Right, OK. And what you’re suggesting and that it sounds like John is uneasy with is is go against that instinct and try revealing just a little bit, not that you’re suffering or that you equate your suffering with theirs, but more that this is a struggle like this is hard. Is that right?
S4: Yeah, exactly. And I’m glad you corrected me. It’s not to say that you’re suffering, but you can show that you’re suffering. And and when people see you, you know, actively working with them and not just a cognitive level, but an emotional level, it’s very hard to kind of push you away and say, you know, this guy doesn’t care.
S3: Yeah. I mean, I think it sounds scary to me because there are some people who said, hey, Suelette, you know, I feel for you, man, but I’m glad I’m not. You kind of come. Right.
S4: I’ve had that feeling, the whole conversation.
S2: Here’s another suggestion. And if it feels uncomfortable, that probably means you’re doing it right. Don’t be afraid to show a little vulnerability. It may feel like you’re opening yourself up to attack, but if you do it carefully, it can have the. Opposite effect, Gary says.
S4: I found in my own life that when I take have taken the risk to be more vulnerable. What’s interesting is I’ve actually felt stronger. I’ve slept better. I’m out there in a way that feels like I’m honest and visible. And and now you don’t have to guess about me. You’ll still guess about me. But at least it’s going to be much harder for you to push me away, and especially if I’m the union or the teachers and all these relationships that need repair. That’s a chance to kind of restart things from a slightly different place than it feels like the pickle you’re in now.
S2: When we come back, Gary will open up about the pickle he got himself into making unpopular decisions in local politics and what the rest of us could learn from his ordeal. Stick around. While most people avoid conflict, our expert Gary Friedman has made a career of wading right into the middle of a scrum. He’s been mediating and teaching conflict resolution for 40 years. He’s trained thousands of lawyers and taught negotiation courses at Stanford and Harvard. After the entire San Francisco Symphony Orchestra went on strike canceling dozens of concerts, he and his colleagues helped them come together with management and reach a new contract. So it made a certain kind of sense back in 2015 when his neighbors urged him to run for office in his tiny town in northern California. The local meetings had become adversarial and draining. People were calling one another names, just like on cable news and Twitter. Shirley Gary, of all people, could help change the tone and find some peace. Right.
S4: Well, I really don’t want to answer that question, but I will.
S2: In 2016, Gary was overwhelmingly elected to his local district water board and immediately became the chairman. But nothing went as planned after that.
S4: I was, you know, in this position of having a really strong agenda, feeling really passionately about what I wanted for the community. I found myself operating in a way that was using more authority than I needed to. Tuning out things that voices that I didn’t want to be listening to and basically getting myself in Pickel after Pickel with people in the community who wanted to demonize me. And and because I wasn’t showing more of me, they were happy to continue to throw the brickbats.
S2: Here’s a clip of one of Gary’s lowest moments. Trying to retain order and a chaotic board meeting and failing.
S4: Three minutes is up. No, stop, stop. The three or three minutes is up. And thank you. Oh, look.
S2: Personal attacks are not par. Gary had let himself become aggressive and defensive when he was criticized, which just made him easier to criticize.
S4: And also, I was getting, thank God, a lot of feedback from the people that I love the most, my kids, my wife, who are saying we don’t recognize you. This is not who you are. And I realized I had kind of lost myself. So I decided the hell with it. I’ve got to find a different way to be. At least I feel like I can be true to myself and show people more of who I was and not be caught in this place of dividing everything into right and wrong and defending everything I was doing is right. And when I did that, it was really interesting because I found myself in a different relationship to the people that I was working with. And and part of what I had to admit first to myself, but also even to other people, is I don’t know what the best answer is. I’m still going to make decisions and they’re still going to be the decisions I think are best for everybody. But can I say I’m sure I’m right? No, I can’t. Can I say what I’m struggling with? And this is how I’m thinking about it and be in dialogue with people where I feel like I’m more open to them and maybe we can form reciprocal relationships? Yes, I think I could do that. And that’s ultimately what I started to do from picking myself up off the ground.
S2: What do you think you’re doing this, John?
S3: I’m thinking about the idea of a more humble relationship. To me, the scary part is that it it just makes more fodder for attack, potentially. Yeah. I think one of the union officers this spring at some point said, you know, was upset with me and made a comment, I think, to the board and a board meeting. Well, we need to see more vulnerability. We should have leadership that’s more vulnerable. Right. And it’s it’s the fear that like, what do you really want with that vulnerability?
S4: Yeah, that would be a great question to ask. I wonder if you did.
S3: I did not.
S4: Yeah, because that. And because for me, it’s also about if somebody wants me to be more vulnerable, I want to know whether that’s going to be mutual. So if I’m talking to the union head and he says, I want you to be more vulnerable, I’m thinking, and how about you? Can we have that kind of relationship where it goes both ways? And I’m like, I don’t want to do it unless you’re going to do it, too.
S3: Yes. That that’s you know what? You just hit a nail on the head. For me, it’s the feeling that it’s not reciprocal or would not be reciprocal.
S4: Yeah, and that’s that’s curable.
S3: OK, tell me how to cure it.
S4: Yeah, I mean, you have that conversation. The conversation is, look, we’ve been at loggerheads. There’s spillover, a bad feeling that you have toward me. And frankly, I feel some of that toward you. And I guess what I want to know is, can we have a conversation about each of us or we’re each willing to be more vulnerable? I’ll show a little if you. And then will you show a little and then I’ll show a little bit more. Then you show a little bit more. So it’s not like you just are all hanging out there, but you really feel like you’re working with each other to develop this more over time.
S2: I see. So it’s like you put down your knife, they put down their knife, you put down your Glock, they put down their gun.
S2: That’s right. Gary Is there a way that you sort of gird yourself to handle? Blowback or attacks after you make yourself vulnerable?
S4: I think it’s really important to have some kind of self reflective practice. And I do. I meditate, I journal. I do a whole number of things. It keeps me from catastrophizing.
S2: I see. So you don’t get stuck because you’re kind of getting some distance. Yeah. John, is there anything that you do to get some distance from these really sometimes painful encounters?
S3: I mean, in addition to eating too much? Well, that’s a good that’s one of my favorites, probably the number one book. But I can’t you know, one of the changes, though, I think that has come from Covid is that I do have a more robust prayer life than I did before. And and I did take a journaling this spring. Oh, that’s great.
S2: Here’s another insight. There’s a ton of research showing how all of these things, prayer, meditation, journaling, help us literally get distance, just enough space from the conflict in order to see it more clearly. I’m curious, John, like how you feel about this. It’s not going to be overnight, right? Like rebuilding these relationships is going to be really hard. And it’s usually in disasters. It’s only after the immediate threat begins to recede that we can kind of lift our heads up and look around. You know, I was I was walking with a friend the other day, and she has three kids. And she was saying how it’s only now that she can start to even think about her relationship with her husband because they’ve just been in survival mode. You know, just trying to get through this thing. And now it’s like, oh, man, that that that relationship took, you know, took some hits. And so it’s like now, like you said, Gary, there’s an opportunity potentially to begin slowly, incrementally trying out different dynamics. Is there anything else, John, that resonates with you in what Gary saying about that kind of incremental approach?
S3: It makes a lot of sense, and I don’t expect that there’s any kind of special silver bullet that makes things happen overnight. But I guess if I could ask the question of Gary, what happens when you feel like in terms of both parties recognizing, hey, this is high conflict and saying we don’t want to be here anymore? Because it does sound, though, that at a certain point, if you have one of the parties who doesn’t mind the way things are, that you’re you’re not going to get too far.
S4: Yeah. I mean, sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. So when they get worse, it’s like, oh, you know, we’re actually all suffering more. And now let’s take a look at this again. Remember that conversation we had or we talked about maybe we could do this differently with each other. Is that more interesting to you now? It’s more interesting to me. And I’ll tell you why.
S2: Hmm. Hmm. Is there a superintendent support group, John, that you’re part of?
S3: There is.
S4: So that would be really interesting to pick somebody out of that. It would be a great way to practice some of the stuff that you’ll try it out with them before you get to the the union person.
S2: Yeah, I know. Gary, you’re a big fan of roleplaying, right? Like actually having these conversations because they’re hard, right? You don’t want to just walk in unprepared.
S4: Oh, yeah. You ask you ask the other person to play the role of the superintendent and then you play you and then you go through and see what’s and then and then you could even switch roles. So what’s it like really to be in the the union person’s shoes and and have that kind of what’s the what’s what’s the inner experience of both? Is that really that’s so hidden, but it’s so critical.
S3: Wow. I had not thought about that.
S2: Can you imagine doing that?
S3: It’s yeah, it’s I’m intrigued by the idea.
S2: Great. Having done this, I will say at first I resist these things because they feel contrived and I don’t know. And then once I get into it, I’m surprised by how many things I, I realize, almost like a light bulb going off. So so it’s not just for me. It’s not just preparing for the real conversation like I’m rehearsing or something. It’s more like you. You come to things like about the conflict or yourself or the other person. That makes sense.
S3: Oh, yeah.
S2: Here’s another thing to try with someone you trust. Role play hard conversations. It might feel really silly at first, but it does help. And don’t put it off because you never know when you’re going to get the chance to have the real conversation. As John recently discovered
S3: last week, the union president invited me to have lunch with them. And we had a very pleasant, pleasant ride two hours together.
S2: That’s terrific. That’s great. Not over. Zoom in person in person. That’s right. With real food. Not like. Yes, space food or OK. What was the outcome of that lunch?
S3: Well, partially, I let her know I was going to be doing this podcast, but I was going to do it anonymously. I think the outcome is it’s just another step. It’s just another step forward in in terms of an outcome. Did we make any deal? No. No deals were made. But but I think what
S4: I think you made I think you made a really big deal. She’s going to listen to this podcast, isn’t she?
S3: I think so. No, I think both of us recognize that we could have a more fruitful relationship than we have now.
S2: So John is already on his way. He’s learning to overcommunicate to be a little bit more vulnerable. He’s going to try to role play hard conversations in advance. And this is a really good use of his summer vacation, such as it is, because there’s always something else. Another tough decision coming down the pike.
S3: That there’s something else is right now because the salary negotiations. Oh, right. So, yeah, there’s there’s not really a break.
S2: Thank you to John for sharing his story with us and to Gary Friedman for all his hard earned wisdom. And by the way, we recently got this update from John.
S3: We are now in the second full week of school, and all of our students and teachers are back on campuses. And so far, everyone’s in really good spirits. You know, I’ve thought a lot about this question of how I can show more vulnerability. That’s a tough one. I’m still grappling with that one. But I think that myself and the president of one of my labor partners, you know, we’re going to try and just redouble the efforts. And I’m hopeful at this time. That’s where we’re at. Thanks.
S2: Thank you, John. Good luck with the rest of the school year. Are you in a sticky situation with no obvious way out? Send us a note at how to at Slate dot com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannas Brown remixed by Merrett Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg, created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. See you next time.