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Lorraine Segal [Podcast] - BCB #27
"I was using all my skills to simply keep people from flying out of their chairs and choking each other."
The fourth episode of the of the Better Conflict Bulletin podcast, The Transformers, is a conversation with former tenured professor Lorraine Segal, who left a “toxic” academic environment to study and practice conflict transformation. Lorraine shares what she’s seeing in workplaces and corporate classrooms as she encourages the people she meets to “separate the person from the problem.”
Following is a partial transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. To hear the entire discussion, listen below or on your preferred podcast distributor.
BCB: Today we're speaking with Lorraine Segal of Conflict Remedy. Lorraine, welcome, and please tell us a little bit about your background.
Lorraine Segal: I'm really glad to be here with you and your listeners. I was a tenured professor at a community college for many years. And it was a wonderful experience in many ways. And I was in a very toxic environment where I was bullied and mobbed.
I really wanted to escape from this toxic academia. And so I started exploring and found a program in conflict management— as it was called then— and took one class and fell in love with the field and pretty much transformed myself.
BCB: It sounds like this had a huge effect on you, not just directing the way of your career, but it impacted you a lot emotionally. Would you mind telling us a little bit about that?
Lorraine Segal: I can't even regret that because I love the field of conflict transformation so much, and I don't think I would've explored it if I hadn't had such high motivation to make a change.
I was so naïve when I got the full-time job. I had been a freeway flyer, piecing a schedule together from all these different colleges in the San Francisco Bay area, where I was living. And then I got this full-time tenure job and I was ecstatic. I expected a group of likeminded, open-minded individuals searching for intellectual truth and to serve our students, and instead checked every single box for why people get mobbed. I was different. I was a Jewish lesbian. My students were lovely, but it was an extremely toxic, closed-minded environment.
I think I was the only one there. I actually believed that the college should live up to their principles and their mission statement and their vision and really serve the English as a second language students and be a model of egalitarianism and diversity, equity and inclusion. And none of that was true.
Part of the reason I was such a target was that I was extremely competent and good at good at what I did. And that made me a threat to people who wanted to stay in their little mediocre place.
It was quite a large group of people administrators and faculty who were trying to destroy me basically, personally and professionally. It was very hard to walk away from tenure. Many people who were different, who were people of color, had similar experiences. There is toxic racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, you name it.
BCB: Do you find that DEI issues are a flashpoint? Do some people find them divisive rather than something that is bringing people together?
Lorraine Segal: Oh, absolutely. This college in particular paid lip service to those principles because they were supposed to, but they did not want anything to change. [This] group of older white men— I call them the dinosaurs— on some level knew they had unearned privilege and they did not want to lose it. And anyone who was in the wrong package and extremely competent or innovative or creative was a threat.
There are some people who are never going to change. And that's just a fact. That college was so persistently toxic. I'm not sure if anything we could have done would've actually made it shift. A lot of colleges are like this, but it was unusually bad.
I've taught at universities and gone into workplaces and I teach conflict transformation skills and different topics, and I always include intercultural communication and DEI. I'm actually teaching at the Sonoma State HR certificate program, being a guest lecturer next week. The way I do it, I think it’s helpful… I'm very gentle about it.
People get are scared. They're scared of losing privilege. They're scared of being called racist. They're scared of being labeled “bad,” and they're afraid that something terrible is going to happen. And I'm talking about white people. People of color know… they're looking for a better change in equal opportunities and respect. And approaching it that way seems to create more openness for people to be able to listen and understand.
For example, one of the things I did when I taught a 12 week class and had a whole evening just on implicit bias and racism, I brought in a panel of black women. I had them talk about their experiences in the workplace with racism, with discrimination. And it blew my students’ minds, because it wasn't real to them. They didn't understand before that. So I think making those kinds of experiences human and real helps a lot.
There was this powerful exercise that I've used with classes I've taught as well, where all the white women sat in a circle— it's called a fishbowl— and women of color, who were courageous, sat in the middle and talked about their daily lives and their experiences, and it was so powerful.
This woman who read my memoir, who was white, said, “I have a bone to pick with you about this. White women are oppressed and they shouldn't have to stay silent outside.” And I thought, “Whoa!” It's, comparing discriminations, which is not what you want to do. I have a lot of privilege as a middle class white woman, and I've also experienced a lot of discrimination as a Jewish lesbian and a woman where only men were supposed to be leaders.
BCB: It seems that a lot of the divisive environments that spring up—especially in workplaces that are toxic—comes from fear. How do you think fear feeds into a divisive environment?
Lorraine Segal: I think it's the root of it, fear and hatred of what's different, fear that you might have to change. A determination to have things stay the way they are and deny that there's institutionalized racism and sexism and homophobia. I did a lot of forgiveness work with these people because I did not want to have a bitter heart and be consumed with hatred.
And I prayed for them every day, for their transformation, for their wellbeing. And that was for me to have a peaceful heart. But a side effect of it was that I did find some compassion. And realized that for them, change felt like annihilation, and so they felt justified in lying and being hateful and cruel because they felt like their total destruction was the alternative, which of course isn't true, but that's how they felt.
BCB: Let's pivot and speak about how to conduct a disagreement. How can people disagree more constructively?
Lorraine Segal: That's a great question and it's one of the foundational ones… There are several components.
One is that conflict is directly related to misunderstanding each other and making assumptions about each other, which is directly related to the story we are telling about ourselves, about the other people, and about the situation. And another element of it is how we see mistakes, our mistakes, other people's mistakes.
I was originally trained as a mediator and I actually don't do a lot of formal mediation anymore because when I discovered conflict coaching, I realized that I didn't like (some aspects) of mediation. I was using all my skills to simply keep people from flying out of their chairs and choking each other.
What I discovered is if I could talk to them separately, I could listen to their stories, validate what was difficult and hard and hurtful and angering about that, and then ever so gently start redirecting them to, “But how do you think the other person might be seeing it? What's their story? What's their perception?”
So many times people are simply missing each other. There are malicious people. I would never say there aren't, but a lot of times people really have a story about the other person's motivations. They don't realize that the other person has a completely different set of stories and issues.
When I can bring them together, which I've actually been very successful at doing, sometimes they don't even need me to talk to each other because they've opened up their stories and their thinking. And other times with me they're able to resolve things that felt absolutely unresolvable, where they saw the other person as the enemy.
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BCB: How do you create a safe environment for people so they can listen to each other’s stories?
Lorraine Segal: I create the safety first individually with them, so they feel like I'm on their side, because I'm on both their sides. I want to help them understand and communicate together. So when I build that rapport and empathy with each person, they both feel like they have an ally in the room— because I am. A lot of times they find out they're not on the opposite side of an issue.
Now of course I don't do political mediations. But I'll give you an example. A credit union hired me to deal with a big conflict between one of the vice presidents and a manager. The manager was black; the vice president was white. I worked with him separately and we talked about what she was thinking, and why things had happened from her perspective.
I talked to the African-American woman about what was happening from her perspective, and did she think there was racism in it? Very open with asking her if she thought that, and she wasn't sure. And it turned out that they each had really big misunderstandings about the other person.
The VP thought she was protecting and being kind to the manager by trying not to give her too much work. The manager felt disrespected because of that, but also the manager had these judgements that the VP would be exactly the same kind of manager that she was. And so when we talked about those kinds of things, and with the VP, I said, “Well, did you ask her if she wants to do that? Did you ask her if it's too much?”
And for the African-American, the black woman, there's more than one good way to be a manager. You can't expect her to read your mind. Can you ask for what you need and want from her?
And they never even needed me to talk to them together because it opened up their thinking that they were missing each other, not that they were enemies. They started out really feeling like enemies, but they weren't. Then they resolved it and had a good working relationship.
BCB: You mentioned that you prayed a lot for the people who were involved in your toxic workplace situation. If someone is perhaps an atheist or agnostic, what do you think is the best way to let go of grudges and resentments?
Lorraine Segal: My only criteria really for clients is that they're willing to look at their part and willing, just even a tiny bit, to change. And if they can do that, if they're willing to go there with me, then I can generally help them. If they're not, if they're stuck in their little space, there's not much I can do.
I work with lots of people who are atheists or agnostics. I call them prayers or affirmations that I give them and tell them to do every day, and it doesn't matter to me at all if they're atheists or they're Buddhist or Christian or whatever, it makes no difference. The idea is that they're willing to send good thoughts or blessings to that person, that they're willing to acknowledge their own part. And it works just as well.
One of my prayers starts out—and when I give it to people I will fill in the blank for them—but it's “God or universe, light or nothing, please grant me…” and you don't even have to know who you're doing it with.
And it works.
BCB: If you find you're an adult in the workplace, or if you are, for example, in a teacher-parent relationship, what advice do you have to deal with bullying?
Lorraine Segal: Well, I also teach some about bullying, and primarily, the first thing I say about it is it isn't the same as conflict. People get confused about that.
Interpersonal conflict tends to be equal opportunity if it's all one way. If it's an assault, an attack by one person on another, it's bullying. And I think the only one that overlaps is the affirmation one, because affirmations are helpful for us to know that we are okay even if people outside are not telling us that.
I've worked with people who are doing the bullying behaviors and people who are being bullied, and sometimes the same person can be both in slightly different settings. Some of it is setting boundaries, getting support. In horrifically bullying situations, the best thing, in my personal opinion, is to get out because it's so destructive. I've worked with a couple people like this who so deeply wounded that they never worked again, as far as I know.
BCB: It's more traumatic than a lot of people realize.
Lorraine Segal: Yes, and especially from my observation, if people have unresolved trauma from their childhood or earlier in life, if they were somehow abused or traumatized and it wasn't healed, they're at greater risk of bullying.
Better Conflict: Then (trauma) is something that people bring forward no matter how old they are, and that affects how they deal with other human beings. It’s something that can multiply and apply to people who are in an out group very easily.
Lorraine Segal: Yep. People want like to have in groups and out groups, and I think a lot of my work is that. We're all humans on the planet together.
Better Conflict: Is (outgrouping) getting better or worse? Or is it just different?
Lorraine Segal: I don't know if I can characterize it so simply, because there have been some leaders recently in the US who model hate, bullying, rejection of difference. It has emboldened and encouraged that in many people, which I find so sad and wrong. I also think that simultaneously , that more people from different groups are speaking up about their experiences.
In HR, for example, there's more about understanding that a robust, creative, productive workplace has differences. You end up with better products, better environment, better everything if you manage that skillfully. I think both things are happening simultaneously.
BCB: The goal is not to avoid conflict. Conflict is good. It's just how you manage it.
Lorraine Segal: There's quite a bit of writing about good conflict, bad conflict. The worst conflict is the pointing finger.
You're impossible. You're the enemy. You are different. I can't talk to you, I hate you.
That kind of conflict is dangerous and definitely gets out of hand and lessens the humanity of the people who are doing the hating, in my opinion.
There's a quote I love: “If everybody's thinking exactly the same, nobody's thinking very much.” So when you think of the whole idea of creative problem solving, how can we make this better? How can we do things differently that invites more people, that solves the problem, that creates more wealth?
When people have very different perspectives, they bring a richness to it. Any discussion of outcomes or solutions, that is simply not possible if everybody's thinking the same way.
I have this wheel that I use (as a tool.) It's called the Wheel of Power, I think, and it's got about 25 little wedges for the circle. And three circles within that are all about, “What's your privilege? What's your power?”
So, for example, if a black middle class college-educated women has some privilege, but she also has discrimination. It can be about religion. Are you disabled or able-bodied? What's your educational background? What's your native language? There are a million different aspects of it that make up the whole of who each of us are and how we navigate through the world with privilege and what challenges.
BCB: Do you think it's more healthy for people to view themselves as more holistic people who are made of all kinds of different parts rather than, for example, “I am this race, I am this religion, I am this gender.”
Lorraine Segal: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
BCB: And how do you leverage that when there's a disagreement or you see a workplace becoming toxic?
Lorraine Segal: I meet people where they are and see them as whole people with challenges and mistakes, et cetera, and then I help them do that with each other. That's one reason I mentioned that I did a panel that was all black women. I could have included Latinx people. I could have included men.
But the reason I picked black women was because… I wanted my students to see (that) these women, who would be labeled black women, were so diverse and so different from each other. This was another level of people not being able to dismiss someone as just one thing.
BCB: if you could give people advice about changing one way about how they argue or how they approach conflict, what would you tell them? This is a complicated subject.
Lorraine Segal: It depends which expert you talk to, but there's quite a bit of writing that between 60 and 90% of conflict is internal. It's all about how you feel about yourself and other people.
The sum total of your experience the story you're telling yourself, about that situation and that person and yourself— how much you see yourself as a victim or an actor, all those kinds of things. The first thing that I want people to do in a conflict is take a deep breath and start asking themselves questions.
I have different lists of questions: What other stories are possible? What would happen if you didn't pick this story? And it's amazingly powerful. That's just one simple technique, but it's very powerful.
BCB: Asking questions, bringing more into the narrative.
Lorraine Segal: Yes!
The home of Lorraine’s publishing and practice, Conflict Remedy spells out her approach to “creating a positive work environment” through “a mission of compassion and understanding.”
This 2020 interview with Lorraine focuses on the sometimes combative process of giving feedback. She suggests writing several separate drafts of the review, providing specific language, offering paths to improvement, and maintaining honesty with respect.
Lorraine posts essays on a wide variety of subjects relating to the workplace and healthy communication practices. Her recent definition essay about conflict transformation is here.
In the episode, Lorraine mentioned her recently published memoir. Here is where to find it on Kindle.
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