‘Understanding’ Mediator Gary Friedman on His Adventure in Politics

By Mylene Chan

Earlier this month, Gary Friedman, co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, of Santa Rosa, Calif., conducted a video breakfast roundtable titled “Inside Out: Confessions of a Mediator in Politics,” hosted by the Association for Conflict Resolution-Greater New York Chapter and the City University of New York Dispute Resolution Center at John Jay College.

Friedman’s talk focused on events described in a Politico article, “‘I Got Obama’d’: A California conflict-resolution guru entered politics thinking he could fix it. Instead, it brought a punishing counterattack.” The May 1 article, an excerpt from “High Conflict,” a book by Amanda Ripley published in June by Simon & Schuster (see https://bit.ly/3yT3ee0), can be found at https://politi.co/3iOX9tf.

The excerpt and book recount Friedman’s political term “on his local Community Services District Board of Directors, a five-member council in charge of area roads and water management,” in Muir Beach, Calif., from 2016 to 2021.

Friedman’s brief political life exemplifies that even experienced mediators can be easily pulled into an adversarial mode, away from peace-making. But, according to Friedman, if one refocuses, the Understanding Model of mediation, which Friedman developed with his Center for Understanding in Conflict partner Jack Himmelstein, can help resolve conflicts.

For more than 40 years, Friedman has lived in Muir Beach, which is governed by the five-member board.  Hoping to bring “reinvigorate democracy” in his hometown, according to the book excerpt, Friedman ran for office in 2015 and was elected. 

Unfortunately, during Friedman’s governance as board president, he violated principles of his Understanding Model. Friedman explained in his talk that he was blinded by power and the conflicts that were directly targeted him. As a result, he said his litigator inner-self emerged–he was a trial lawyer before turning to mediation–and he became defensive, combative, and aggressive.

Friedman said he ended up creating more polarization and alienated his community in what he coined his “period of derangement.”

Understanding, according to Friedman, is an underused power that has the potential to help people make better solutions. The loop of understanding, however, does not work if it is disingenuous. Friedman intimated that while governing in his village, he used understanding as lip service so that he could soften others in attempts to convince them that they were wrong. 

Friedman said that his Understanding Model is based on putting the responsibility on the disputants–not the professional–to solve the problem. This means believing in people and giving them power because ultimately it is the disputants who know best about what solutions will work.

But when Friedman acted as the board president, he said he took power from his constituents instead of giving power. Friedman did not believe in the people’s ability to solve problems themselves; Friedman said he felt he knew best.

Mediators practicing the Understanding Model are expected to proceed with the disputants by agreement on how to work together. By contrast, when Friedman was in charge, he explained that he made numerous unilateral decisions that angered his constituents or fellow board members.

For example, he eliminated the tradition of having snacks and socializing time at board meetings.  Even when constituents vehemently objected, he limited each person to three minutes of speaking time and prohibited anyone from raising issues not on the agenda.

Furthermore, in a town of just 250 people, Friedman established 23 subcommittees that were poorly attended. Friedman’s critics complained that he was arrogant, power hungry, and Napoleon-like.

Two years into a five-year term, Friedman was removed as board president. He said about himself, “I felt actually humiliated by my behavior . . . and how I became untethered.”  When Friedman saw how far he had fallen from his own ideals, he said he started to probe internally what was truly important to him and why.  He said his mediator “inner-self”–which depends on self-awareness–re-emerged.

Realizing that what he wanted was to help his neighbors understand each other and to make conflicts useful, Friedman began voting for his opposition intentionally to undo the conflicts he created.  He also blurred the lines between the old board members and his allies on the new board through voting on both sides. Most important, he said, he made efforts to genuinely connect and understand his constituents, one by one.

Before Friedman stepped down from the board, he reconciled with his community and accomplished some political agendas he set out to do initially.  Roads were repaired, the water rate was raised, and the tone of the meetings improved.

At the roundtable, Friedman noted that the Politico book excerpt has gotten a lot of attention. “I’ve been hearing from thousands of people that came out of the woodwork all over the world . . . and I think that my failure as a politician is really meant to encourage all of us, because I not only failed but I survived the failure.”

In the end, Friedman said he repaired the conflicts he created using the Understanding Model.

The Aug. 5 ACR/John Jay breakfast roundtable is available on video at https://bit.ly/3sku9Na. For another view of the event, see John Lande, “More on Gary Friedman’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure in Politics,” Indisputably.org (Aug. 8) (available at https://bit.ly/3k1EsSC).  

For more on the Understanding Model, see Mylene Chan, “Highlights from the June Session of the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation ‘Mediating Disputes’ Training,” CPR Speaks (June 24) (available at https://bit.ly/37SaTx2).

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The author, an LLM candidate at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, in Malibu, Calif., is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

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