Leadership Resolution – Interview with Stewart Levine author of “Getting to Resolution”

January 16, 2010

Getting to ResolutionI would like to welcome Stewart Levine to our Just Ask Leadership Blog. Stewart Levine is founder of Resolution Works and author of “Getting To Resolution.” Stewart is a creative problem solver. He is widely recognized for creating agreement and empowerment in the most challenging circumstances. He improves productivity while saving the enormous cost of conflict. His innovative work with “Agreements for Results” and his “Resolutionary” conversational models are unique.

Gary Cohen: How did you decide to make conflict resolution your area of expertise?

Stewart Levine: It was what I naturally did in situations. Here’s the opening story from my book:

During my second year of law school I had my first “real” lawyer’s job. I was an intern at a local legal services clinic. On my first day I was handed 25 cases “to work on.” This would be my job for the semester. Three weeks later I asked the managing attorney for more cases. When he asked about the 25 he had given me, I told him that I had resolved them. He was very surprised—and very curious. He asked how I had done it. I told him that I had reviewed the files, spoken to the clients, thought about a fair outcome and what needed to be done, called the attorney or agency on the other side, and reached a satisfactory resolution. I knew nothing about being a lawyer. I had no inclination that the cases were difficult, needed to take a long time, or had to be handled in any particular way. With common sense and a “beginner’s mind,” I found the solution that worked best for all concerned. Simple? It was for me! I spent the next 12 years becoming a “successful” lawyer—and becoming less effective at resolving matters. Then, feeling frustrated, anxious, and fearful, I stopped practicing law. I have been in “recovery” ever since, recovering what I knew about resolution when I started, discovering its component parts and learning how to teach and model it for others. As a young attorney, although I listened politely to more senior lawyers, I was surprised at the coaching I received. Standard practice discouraged communication among the parties in conflict, communication that I had used in my legal services cases, communication essential for efficient resolution. Many lawyers were playing a very different game from the one my natural instincts chose.

Since you have spent much of your career helping others resolve or embracing conflict, how has it informed the way you behave in your personal relationships (You know the shoe makers dilemma)?

I live my life very congruent with my work…I do walk the talk…and I sleep very well at night!

There are many books on the subject of dealing with conflict resolution what was it that you thought was not being offered in those that you have address with your most recent book, Getting to Resolution?

I provide a step by step road map…a conversational process people can follow by the numbers.

Some businesses today are deciding to merge companies together to survive this economic downturn. In merging companies together there are usually conflicts between cultures. Sometimes as dramatic as when one side of the business is unionized while the other side is not unionized. What would you recommend to resolve such possible cultural and economic conflicts?

Dialogue, conversation, giving people on the front line the tools, capacity and responsibility for creating their own solutions. Business Partners rarely value each other until it is too late. What advise do you have for partnerships to increase their performance and enhance their appreciation of differing perspectives? Make sure they have clear agreements on the front end, and I do not mean legal agreements. The best way to prevent conflict is to have a covenantal relationship – meeting of mind and heart. My agreement model provides the conversational template to do that.

What resolution have you been involved in that had the biggest impact for you or your client? And what did you do to accomplish this outcome?

Gail Johnson is the executive director of Sierra Adoption, a nonprofit transforming lives of foster children through finding permanent adoptive families. Thousands of children are trapped in the California foster care system, out of reach of adoptive families. More than half of foster youth who come of age without a permanent family are homeless, in prison, or dead within two years. Gail’s success recruiting and preparing families to adopt children with disabilities often ended in the frustration of being told such children were “unadoptable.” Because of Gail’s work, California no longer considers any child unadoptable! In 1999, Sierra was engaged in a federally funded partnership with the Sacramento County agency that was referring children to Sierra. The working relationship had fallen apart. Gail wanted to resolve long- and short-term conflict, get beyond mistrust, and forge a high-performance team. Few believed the partnership could be salvaged, let alone become a high-performance team. Sixteen people were gathered and over twelve hours in two days using the Cycle of Resolution, the conflicts were resolved and a working agreement was structured. That agreement was the foundation for a healthy, productive partnership with a new vision of collaboration. In the first year following the intervention, 109 “unadoptable” children were placed in permanent families.

Stuart, you work with a great number of leaders in your work under high stress circumstances. How do you find leaders use questions to demonstrate their leadership? And what kind of questions do they ask?

Good leaders take responsibility FIRST…they always ask what they did or did not do to create the particular challenge they face What implications are there for leaders who over use telling verses asking? …they are not leaders… They may get compliance, never inspiration People do not learn to think People resent not having control They do not develop successors, leaders

Is there any other insight you would like to share with us?

It’s critical to engage and realize it is a learning process – teaching and learning about each others’ perspective. Show up and be present to deal with the situation. Listen to them. Tell YOUR truth but know there are other truths. Allow yourself to be influenced by what you hear.

What are your Top 10 Questions that you ask or suggest to your clients to ask when needing to find resolution to conflict? (Tomorrow’s Blog Post)

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