Confessions of a mediator

By Doug Nathan

I have a confession and I hope you won’t think less of me for it.  I’ve never been much of a football fan. But living in Seattle it’s hard not to get pulled into the excitement surrounding the Seahawks.

A friend, who felt sorry about my abject ignorance of the game and the team, suggested I read Pete Carrol’s book Win Forever. Turns out, football can be really interesting.

Not so much the game itself. I still don’t really care about it and will remain hopelessly stupid about players and teams and their stats. But I am inspired by Carrol’s philosophy of winning—do things better than they’ve ever been done before.

After getting fired for the second time from a NFL coaching position, Carrol realized he needed to understand more clearly what was important to him, why he operated the way he did, and what he believed about the game, the players, and his work. After months of wrestling with his questions, he crafted what is now known as Pete’s Philosophy Pyramid.

His new found clarity inspired his approach as head coach of the USC Trojans, 9 seasons of successes, and drives the Seahawks’ successes today.

The heart of his philosophy is winning and competition. But winning doesn’t mean at the expense of others. It’s great when his team scores more points than their opponent, but real winning starts during practice. It’s about each player’s attitude (always protect the team, no whining, no excuses, be early) and that each player does his personal best (you’re either competing or you are not).

Gather a group of talented people doing their personal bests with good attitude and you’re going to achieve amazing results.

Carrol ends his book with an invitation to the reader to write his/her own philosophy of success in 25 words or less. I wanted to have the same clarity about my work as a mediator, so I accepted his challenge. But I realized that to get to my 25 words I’d have to think through my own pyramid of success.

So first, I had to identify my belief system about my work and about conflict. Over several weeks of reflection and writing and revising, I crafted my philosophy and the beliefs, style and operating instructions that ground and support why I do what I do: Conflict helps us learn, connect and achieve.

Conflict helps us learn, connect and achieve.

I realized that at my core I believe people are basically good. So when people do unkind, unhelpful things like withhold information from colleagues or lie or gossip or hate, it’s a time to get curious about why. What causes good people to do bad things to each other?Are they truly evil (usually our first, default belief) or is something else going on?

What causes good people to do bad things to each other? Are they truly evil (usually our first, default belief) or is something else going on?

The second option is usually the more productive path to take. Questions spark curiosity, which leads to awareness that promotes choices—choices of how I intervene as a mediator, as well as choices people in the conflict develop about each other and their situation.

I uncovered four important aspects about how I do my work:

  • I lead with curiosity and compassion. I notice my own biases, beliefs, and hold them lightly so I can approach the conflict with fresh perspective and caring for each person.
  • I reframe possibilities. I help people notice their conflict stories—and the limited perspectives they are holding about the situation. Through a process of inquiry, asking questions, I help them expand their narratives, see their situation from others’ perspectives, notice new information, and discover new ways forward.
  • Change starts with me. I model a way of being in the conflict that helps others shift away from certainty to curiosity, anger and fear to hope.
  • I hold the hope. By the time I see people, they’ve usually been in conflict for weeks, months, sometimes years. They have little hope, if any, that things could be better. I hold hope for them as we explore their conflict situation and bit by bit hope grows in them as well.

I learned about my Operating Instructions—what motivates and challenges me to be my best conflict engager. Years ago I identified my singular most important value as something I define as the Pursuit of Beauty, which means finding bold goals to pursue; feeling, not just thinking, that I am engaged in meaningful challenges. That meaning helps me feel commitment. That deep commitment helps me operate from an integral, authentic place to meet the needs of others.

My reflections also revealed that the Central Theme of my work is about learning. Power and Love are two values that inform how I help others stay in conflict with each other productively, so they can learn about what’s important to each of them, and how they can move forward together.

Power and Love are two values that inform how I help others stay in conflict with each other productively, so they can learn about what’s important to each of them, and how they can move forward together.

I identified how curiosity and compassion help me navigate the environment of conflict; the volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions from which our conflicts emerge.

And from there, I distilled 20 words that inform me about how I work most effectively as a mediator:

If you want to succeed, engage conflict with curiosity and compassion. Conflict helps us learn, connect and achieve meaningful results.

Here’s my pyramid of success:

my philosophy 2


Doug NathanDoug Nathan provides advanced conflict engagement and leadership development services through the King County Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution. For over 18 years, he has worked with both public and private sector organizations helping leaders, managers, and groups improve their results during times of conflict and change.

He uses systems perspectives to enhance team dynamics and support healthy work environments.  His conflict engagement background includes mediating employment and labor disputes, facilitating large-scale multi-party disputes, and designing collaborative processes to renew productive workplaces. He taps the power of stories to help others influence and sustain intentional change.