Strategies for conflict resolution in high-stakes scenarios and everyday life, from Grand Coach Dorit Price-Levine

November 17, 2023

"Sometimes when people are polarized, part of the job is first giving them an opportunity to reflect for themselves."

The desire to help others drove Dorit Price-Levine to attend law school. Afterward, however, she had a "bit of an existential crisis" and pivoted to a career in peacemaking. She now brings her passion for facilitation to The Grand, helping members rise to navigate life's challenges.

As told to Claire Zhang

To start, what's your story of coming to the Grand? What were you doing before? What are you doing now? Let’s set the scene.

Before The Grand I was working mostly as a communications coach and facilitator. I still do much of that: helping groups figure out how to navigate through conflict.

I had a circuitous route. I went to law school and then decided I didn't want be a lawyer, and was thinking about mediation. I got certified as a transformative mediator and found an organization that was using transformative mediation techniques to lead community dialogue groups, facilitation trainings, and communications trainings about polarizing topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They hired me and I worked with them for a long time. That was Resetting the Table. Check them out!

Then I found my way to The Grand through a friend who had worked with Mira. They were looking for coaches and she said: “You're a coach, aren't you?” I said: “I do communications coaching and I'd love to like do more other kinds of coaching.

For clarification, is the communications coaching separate or part of the facilitation work you've done before?

I would say it's part of it. Now, I do a broader range of things. At that time, the community would get in touch—let's say a team, and ask me: “We are facing some kind of problem; can you help us solve it?”

My question to them would often be: “Would you prefer for me to come in and facilitate about the problem? Or would you prefer for me to run a workshop where I'm equipping you with the skills to be able to have these conversations with each other without me present?”

That's a much more in depth process that involves essentially communications coaching. I still do that, but I’ve broadened out a bit. I now work with a different organization that does a lot more facilitation on issues ranging from environmental justice to social and economic issues. We have some international work that we do, but the majority of stuff we do is in the U.S. and it's often about climate change.

I'm finishing a project in California on carbon sequestration, as an example.

Can you tell me a little about the carbon sequestration? Are people disagreeing about a policy?

Yes. Basically, a lot of states now are starting to invest heavily in carbon sequestration to meet their various climate goals. The main organization that I work with is the Consensus Building Institute. CBI was hired by the state of California, their Department of Conservation, to interview various stakeholder groups and facilitate public meetings to gather input on how the state should implement carbon sequestration equitably and efficiently.

There are environmental justice groups that are concerned about how it's going to affect communities who already are often disproportionately affected by  other industries.

Then there are environmental groups slightly different from environmental justice. They feel mixed about it, because they're concerned that this is going to be an excuse for the oil and gas industry, for fossil fuel companies to continue to pollute, and they don't want that. They'd rather the state invest in reduction of emissions and movement to renewables.

Obviously, industry and project proponents are very excited about it. Landowners are excited about it, but concerned. They want protections in place for them to be compensated fairly in case something goes wrong. So, different stakeholder groups have different interests and the process needs to be thoughtfully designed and well-facilitated so that things don't get explosive.

What strikes me looking at your bio and your LinkedIn — I noticed that you've also done some facilitation after the 2016 presidential election speaking across red and blue divides. And of course, the Middle East. These are such hot button, as you said, explosive topics. It's very complex and there are a lot of issues and nuance and all of these things. I have so many questions: how do we make sense of it all? How do we chart a path through this? What do you say to people who look at these issues and think: “I don't even know how to start” — how to talk about it, how to have conversations that don't lead to explosions?

I think the answer is connected to what connects me to The Grand. I could see people wondering, why are you coaching teams and coaching groups, if you're also facilitating at a public policy level?

But to me it's all about the people. That's what it comes down to at its core. It's about getting to understand: who are the people involved? Getting to know the individual, helping build relationships. What matters to this person, and how do I make this person feel seen? It’s core interpersonal skills.

In coaching, part of what we're doing is helping people come to expression. Helping them be themselves and getting a sense of what they want. A lot of the work that I do at the policy level involves a lot of that too.

Sometimes when people are polarized and opinionated about a certain topic, that could be because that's how they were brought up. Or it could be because they feel social pressure to feel a certain way. But I think that part of the job for helping people come together and understand each other is first giving people an opportunity to reflect for themselves.

A lot of times, I'll create processes that involve one-on-one conversations in advance with stakeholders, where I get a sense of who they are, what makes them tick, why they care about this issue, what brings them into it. It's like coaching, because I'm helping them uncover why they care. Sometimes people don't even know.

When I bring people together with others, it's about supporting them to understand each other and that involves helping people see the other person's lens, step into the shoes of someone else for good.

That's the best kind of approach and one that can lead to a lasting resolution for a conflict: if people walk away, maybe they don't agree, but they at least walk away understanding why the people they disagree with think and feel the way they do. That's the goal for me.

So, I think this happens a lot on social media, and has been a common part of the political discourse recently. There’s this sense of: “I don't want to understand this other person's point of view because they're wrong.” What happens when stakeholders don’t want to come together?

First of all, if people are actually interested in advancing their agenda, what I remind them is that the way the way politics works is: you usually need a coalition to move anything forward.

You need to be able to work together with people who you don't see eye to eye with fully on every single issue.

I think that is something that unfortunately has gotten lost in our current political climate and especially with social media culture or a certain kind of virtue signaling culture where it's almost like you're supposed to line up—put a checkbox by all of these different ideas, and you're supposed to know exactly the right language and how to say it, and if you're not in lockstep with each thing, then you're considered irrelevant or someone who can't be part of the conversation.

The reality is, that's not how we make progress societally. That's why our political system is so stuck. We need to be able to work together across our differences. So I guess I'll remind people: we can't move forward without having more people in the room. That's a way to sometimes get people to stick it out, even when it feels hard.

Has that come up in your work? What’s the relationship between the people who hire you and the stakeholders you work with?

It depends on the setting. So for the carbon sequestration project, all of those people have a vested interest in showing up because they want to make sure that their opinions make it into the legislation and that the state is going to hear their perspectives. In that case, it's totally voluntary. Everyone is there because they want to be there.

But, in a couple weeks, I'm getting sent to this college on the east coast to run a workshop for faculty and students about the crisis that's going on in the Middle East right now—there was a conversation with them about whether this should be mandatory or optional. This is a small grad school program, and the dean wanted it to be mandatory. She thinks it's important, because they're struggling with talking to each other and there are a couple students who are saying that they want to transfer out, because the climate has become so hostile. So she thinks it's important for everybody to go.

My preference usually with those kinds of situations is that it be voluntary, because I find that—and this comes from my training as a transformative mediator—participants should always have autonomy and choice. I think that usually makes the conversation go better. That said, sometimes I allow clients to override me in process design decisions. That’s a conversation for another day! If people don't want to be there, usually my strategy is to give them the opportunity to meet with me in advance. That's enough to assuage whatever fears they have about the conversation, because they understand that they're not going to be forced to talk. They can choose to participate as much as they want.

I’m curious about your deciding you didn't want to be a lawyer — you wanted to become a lawyer in the Middle East and you decided not to keep doing that. Why?

Well, just like our conversation about the conflict in the Middle East, this is one of those examples where I could choose so many ways of telling that story. Which partial truths can I tell? There's no way I can tell all of them… what I'll say is: there was an aspect that was connected in my personal life— I was in a relationship with somebody there and it wasn't working out and I thought: “I think I don't want be in this country.” Just to be real.

Another part of the story is that I was understanding what it would mean to live as an expat, to make my life in a foreign country. It's funny, people use the term expat if you're coming from the West. But people use the term immigrant going in the other direction. But it's semantic—what does it mean to be an expat / immigrant?

I think I realized it's hard! I have so much respect for anyone who has had to made that very hard decision. I don't know that I was was cut out for that. Honestly, what it comes down to was making the choice to be so far away from my parents, from my friends, from my family, and the combination of all of those things.

When I came back to the US, I thought: “Well, that was the main reason I had wanted to be a lawyer.” Then I was thinking: what do I really care about here? I care about this issue and I care about dialogue and I care about conflict resolution. So I just started moving towards mediation.

Love that story. I'm curious if you have practical strategies for people for conflict resolution on these more hot button, very emotional topics that we can use in our daily life. You know, we're all going home for Thanksgiving…

The first thing is: check in with yourself. This is like The Grand’s thing, right?

Are you above the line? Check in with yourself and decide: do I have the emotional bandwidth? Do I want to be in this conversation? Sometimes it's Thanksgiving and you have to be there whether you want to or not. Sometimes you don't have that choice, but still — do you want to enter into it? Do you have it in you?

Then I think step two, once you've decided: “Yeah, I feel like doing this. I have it in me.”

Then it becomes about changing your posture from “I need to get my point across to this other person. I need to make them understand me.” This is hard because that's usually our normal posture when we're with someone we disagree with.

But you need to shift to: “I need to make sure that I can demonstrate to this person that I get them. I see them as they wish to be seen.”

That is the best way to ensure that a conversation across differences goes well. Do the work of getting curious—even if you're hearing things that are just horrible to you and not what you want to hear. Ask open-ended questions without an agenda. Don’t just ask questions, but offer good reflections, if you can.

It can be hard to reflect somebody who you disagree with, but see if you can, and be correctable: “Oh, okay, so you think that…”, like this is important to you. “Am I getting that right?”

Let them correct you, and then try again and wait till they say: “Yeah, exactly.”

Once you've gotten that and you know that you got them, then you have an opening to be say, “Okay, can I share with you how I see it? I think I might see it a little bit differently.”

Then you've built in so much space for them to be able to take in what you have to say, because they see that you took the time to listen to them and get them. That's the way to maximize the likelihood that these conversations can go well.

And… I'm curious if you have any strategies for when you thought you were above the line and you're getting into it and you feel yourself slipping below…
That's classic. I will also say: doing this with your family—that is an advanced skill! I think having these conversations with family is hard for expert mediators.

I would rather do this in a high stakes situation with public officials than do it with own my mom and dad! It's so much harder with people who just trigger you. That's our stuff.

So, I would say take some deep breaths, give yourself permission to pause. You can say, “I gotta run to the bathroom.” Exit for a moment. I'm a huge fan of taking breaks and pausing and coming back and collecting yourself. I think that's the best. You can also always cut it off in the middle— you can stop yourself from continuing to share, and remind yourself this is a long relationship. I'm going to see this person again. I don't need to share everything I think about this thing right now.  There can be a part two and you can just end it and say, “Thank you so much. I learned a lot on this and I hope we can do this again.” And then changing the topic to green beans.