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Nobody Does It Better: An Interview with Diane Levin

A Personal Career Path

Gini: Good morning, Diane. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

Diane: As an attorney, I was fortunate enough to have an inspiring mentor who understood how important negotiation is to the representation of a client, and how long and costly a process litigation can be–not simply in terms of its financial costs but the emotional ones that flow from issues unresolved. She understood that skillfully conducted negotiation could produce for clients a remedy that met their needs, and along with it closure and the ability to move forward with their lives without the need to go to trial. When I was introduced to conflict resolution–mediation in particular–I immediately saw its potential and the role it could play in facilitating negotiations between disputants. Ironically, I took my first mediation training together with this remarkable mentor.

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

D: That’s so hard to say. It’s the circumstances in our lives, the people we meet along the way, and the lessons that both of those hold for us that ultimately shape us or push us in new directions. Without the impetus that results from that, who knows whether any of us would choose the same path or a different one? But certainly there are things I would have done much differently. But would I have still gone to law school? Definitely. I’m proud to be a lawyer.

G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

D: The best advice I ever got was, connect, connect, connect. I joined professional associations, attended events, took trainings and seminars, and did everything I could to take part in the life of the conflict resolution community–and elsewhere. The connections that those activities produced introduced me to people and opportunities that I would not have encountered otherwise. They also taught me much, expanding my understanding of the field and challenging constantly my assumptions. It’s exactly the advice I would pass on to someone entering the field: “Only connect”.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

G: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

D: I actually have a bunch of heroes. They’re not the big iconic names in the field–not Jimmy Carter or Roger Fisher, or proponents of nonviolence for social change like Gandhi and King. Their work is important and influential, and I’m by no means discounting their tremendous achievements. Instead my heroes are the people in the trenches–the individuals I know who are using cyberspace to talk to the world about the conflict resolution field–who not only are thinking out loud about what our field has to offer but also examining critically in an outspoken and public way the limitations of our profession and the potholes in the road that lie ahead. People who aren’t afraid to be controversial. My heroes are bloggers–people like Vickie Pynchon, Stephanie West Allen, Geoff Sharp, Tammy Lenski, Colin Rule, Sanjana Hattotuwo, Dina Lynch, and Gini Nelson–just to name a few. That’s where the revolution is happening.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

D: There’s a big burning question that isn’t going to go away until we face it and find an answer. Why do so many people–Americans in particular–think it’s a sign of weakness to negotiate? I can think of nothing that takes more guts, more discipline, and more hard work than to sit down with your opponent and hash it out. Yet many people insist that “you don’t negotiate with terrorists” and plenty more think conflict resolution is for sissies. Until our field can face up to that misperception and counter it and reshape it, we’re not going to get the world to yes. We’re supposed to be skilled communicators and negotiators–so how come we’re not more influential?

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

D: I don’t know about the field on an international level, but I do think that right now the one ethical issue the mediation field here in the U.S. is ducking is mediator credentialing. Our largest professional organization, ACR, recently dropped the ball on the whole certification question without even consulting its membership. That leaves others to define it for us–which will probably be the bar. To build public confidence in the field, we are going to have to face up to the issue of credentialing. It’s not going to be easy, but the field is only going to get bigger and the problem won’t go away.

On a related note, what’s facing the legal field though is a different kind of ethical issue. Clients are going to increasingly demand a new way to practice law–the kind of practice of law that legal futurism anticipates. The bar though in many ways is reactionary and slow to change. Witness the decision of the Colorado Bar Association which declared the practice of collaborative law unethical. The field of law must find ways that encourage not stifle innovation and promote client choice.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

D: I’m not sure that “thrill” is the right word, although sometimes you definitely strap on your seatbelt and brace yourself for a wild ride. But there’s certainly quiet satisfaction in seeing people wrestle with problems and work them out. People enter with uncertainty, and it feels good when they triumph over that uncertainty and create some hope and some closure for themselves.

G: What has been your biggest mistake?

D: Every time I’ve kicked myself for something I didn’t do right, it’s because I didn’t listen to my gut. Sometimes you’ve just got to play your hunches.

G: Any regrets?

D: See #8 above.

However, no real regrets. I do though have unrealized dreams. Part of me would love to have the time to go back to university. When I was in law school, there were only a handful of courses on topics like negotiation. And plenty of law offices were still using electric typewriters, although some had what were progenitors of today’s PCs with clunky word processing programs that only a few people were trained to use. The digital revolution was still some years away. I don’t think anyone could have imagined the transformation that law, business, society and culture would undergo. Today, digital technology has radically transformed everything–our commercial, civic, and social interactions. I’m fascinated by that and would like to explore in a rigorous academic environment the intersection between law and technology and find a way to import that into a hybrid law and mediation practice. I’m just a geek at heart.

G: Thank you, Diane.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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