Mindfulness and Understanding. Member Spotlight: Mitch Gordon

“We invent a situation, the story. It is almost never as bad as we invented if we actually sit down and talk with someone. I think so much of that has to do with the fact that people want to be seen, want to belong, and be respected, so often in a transactional world, they feel dismissed. Color of their skin, feel not smart enough, or too smart. We alienate people all the time and I think the investment in loving each other and caring for each other, in just being a person and being pro-people, is so important. I do not think it is expensive, or hard to do. It is not complicated, it is just putting it out there. Give it a few years and maybe we can find a little bit more peace around the world.”

From Musician to Mediator

Mitch Gordon is a mediator, conflict resolution specialist, and trainer based in Westborough, Massachusetts, US. His work in mediation started when he was really young, as he says, he was always that person who tries to help people get along. Even as a kid he would try to get people who are being bullied and the bullies to work it out. As a drummer, he has always seen the role of mediator as a person who holds space and holds the container for the band. “There is always that sense of being an important leader, but holding the container is equally important,” he says. That sense of a safe space is like a thread throughout all his work in meditation, music, teaching, martial arts, and meditation.

Mitch recalls his first professional experience when worked as a manager for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. At the time he worked with people like Raymond Leppard and John Nelson, for orchestras in New York, and all over the US. One of the big components of this work was collective bargaining negotiation with unions. After several years of being at the table, he enrolled in Cornell University Labor Relations Institute. “I became certified in Collective Bargaining and Arbitration. Never really did any arbitration, but the whole idea of evidence collecting and research helped the negotiation part” Mitch says. Fast forward many years, he started working as a head of fundraising, for NGOs, mediating between the group that needs the money and the people that have the money. Later he was appointed a director of advancement of the Conflict Management Group run by Roger Fisher, where he had an opportunity to work and learn from professional mediators. He also met Erica Fox, founder of what is formerly known as Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative (now the Global Negotiation Insight Initiative) where he also served on the board of advisors (and was also an resource advisor to the Abraham Path Initiative at the Harvard Global Negotiation Initiative). Mitch really wanted to study and improve his skills in mediation, and in 2009 he continued studying Mediation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

About 20 years ago he started volunteering, studying, and working with the Worcester Community Mediation Program, he became a volunteer mediator in court primarily working on small district and civil claims. He grew that practice to reviewing more than 7,000 cases annually to determine if they were suitable for community mediation and would mediate or co-mediate more than 300 cases. Mitch has always been a teacher who combined mediation, mindfulness, and meditation – he was practicing his whole life thus stepping into mediation as a profession was only natural. On top of his general Mediation Resources practice, he was mentored by the president of a synagogue where he teaches – renowned mediator and author, David Hoffman – Mitch decided to combine mediation skills and interests with his Jewish background, and start Gesher: Building Bridges – a practice consulting with Jewish organizations, synagogues, federations, youth groups and providing training, facilitation, workshops, and tools to deal with the leadership transition, develop processes for resolution and conflict prevention. Since then he is involved in a lot of work with negotiation training, including with the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiators, and also online mediation with Jewish communities and synagogues. As he says, it just seems like a natural combination. Speaking about involvement with the Jewish community, Mitch is also the producer and host of Shirim – a Jewish music radio show aired weekly on WCUW Radio.

Founding Member of MBBI

Mitch’s initiation to Mediators Beyond Borders International was through Kenneth Cloke himself. “Ken came to Harvard to do a couple of sessions with the Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, we got to know each other a little bit and his suggestion was to join this organization” he recalls. At the time Mitch was involved in community mediation, and small cases, and was a vice president of the National Association for Community Mediation. Membership in MBBI provides him with access to resources to use in his research. Since Mitch shifted a lot of his work to domestic work, when he saw how many issues arise in his country, he wishes that MBBI could be more involved in local communities of mediators. As he says, it is one thing to help each other, and other mediators, but it is also important to help in their backyards. He thinks the idea of training youth, teenagers, and young adults, to have a mediator in every community is crucial.

Mindfulness in Mediation

“There is a saying that the cobbler’s kids have no shoes,” Mitch says speaking about challenges in his life and career. “I often felt like a mediator I do this work, but at the same time I could not figure out how to be peaceable at home and in my private life. The biggest obstacle was looking at how you bring this work back home?” Mitch says that when you conduct mediation professionally, you can be neutral, but at home and in private life, you are no longer neutral, you are a party. With all the knowledge and experience he should figure this out – and is still a work in progress. Professionally, one of the biggest challenges was involvement as a negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, knowing that the parties wanted to move closer and closer, observing what was happening in the Middle East and among other players. “That this conflict has been lasting 5000 years, it is going to last beyond me,” Mitch says, “sometimes something that big feels absolutely hopeless and that is when you really take a step back and look at it as a piece of an enormous apple that you took.”

On the other side, one of the joys that Mitch experienced during the span of his career was watching estranged families reconcile. This is a very personal achievement for him, understanding that everybody’s conflict is the most important conflict on the planet to them. “It is really important for me not to judge the importance or lack of importance of something. It is easy when you think about work you did in the Middle East, people are getting killed there and that may seem more important than brother and sister not getting along, but it is not more important. To each party, their conflict is most important to them.” Mindfulness is a huge part of Mitch’s practice and bringing it entirely into mediation was important. He thinks it added a lot to local mediation practices in Westborough, doing programs on mindfulness and mediation.

That kind of insight for mediators allows them to step back, especially when they were somehow pulled into conflict and personally involved. Mitch recalls one particular case involving an estranged brother and, they loved each other but did not speak for 2 years. It turned out that their significant others were keeping them apart, they were the instigators of the conflict. It all came down to what might look very silly: one had the other one’s stereo system and the other one wanted it back. The role of a mediator is to help to start the dialogue and allow understanding to happen. they needed Mitch to step out of the room, let them cry, and be together for a while in a safe space. They walked away happy and connected. Mitch says that every conversation is a relationship. As we step out of the COVID pandemic, the idea of finding a way to connect with each other, to not be transactional, and to be more than just this is crucial. “In a lot of work that I do I came up with my phrase about that: I acknowledge that we are all human beings. What is even more important is to recognize that we are all human’s being. I think if my work can add anything to making the world a more peaceable community, if I can make just a little difference, that is enough and that is important.”

Lost in Cultural Translation

Speaking about culture in mediation, Mitch brings up the problem of bias. A lot of it has to do with the culture, in the company, of a person. He brings up a time when he was volunteering for a local NGO in Westborough, supporting mostly African youth refugees who left Burundi and Rwanda, countries with extreme violence. They have been taught English and math to catch up because many of them have never been to school before. What was ridiculously powerful to him, was that they would show up at school and they would misbehave. A teacher would say that they would be punished and have to stay in detention after classes, but none of these had any difference to these kids. Then one of them, a 13 years old boy talked about his life when he lived in Burundi. The rebels who were the terrorists in the community, would come to town with machetes and kill people. He said they came to his village, his house, and they told him they were going to kill both of his parents in front of him unless he chooses which one they should kill. And then they would only kill one. “To grow like that is a whole different kind of trauma. When you have that level of trauma a teacher telling you that you might be kept in school because you are misbehaving is not terribly meaningful” Mitch says.

What he discovered after some time of mediating at the local court, is that in Westborough there is the largest immigrant population coming to America from Africa. Over 2000 coming every year from Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, and South Africa, started setting up small villages with churches, and it almost became as divisive as it is in Africa. One of the things he discovered was when members of those communities had a conflict, they preferred mediation over going to court, but they could not find mediation. When they came to court, he would ask if they are interested in mediation, and they would engage because it looks like how they solved their conflicts in their home country. They had a particular language, the things that would come up in mediation all the time. “Someone said to the other “I have looked in your eyes and I understood you are honest etc, I see that you are honorable. Honor, tradition, and respecting elders all became their language” Mitch says. One day a clerk who was hearing all those cases, asked him to teach some of this language, some of this culture that Mitch was discovering because he thought it would be so important for his work as a judge. Where we come from, our culture, and the culture of the parties are so relevant. At the same time, we have to be careful as mediators, when to allow that to sip into the process and when to make sure it does not, in the efforts of neutrality. Mitch admits he is cautious about being a mediator when it does not lead to a solution. “If I can tap into the culture, and the parties happen to be of a similar culture, then the solution often presents itself naturally from the two of them because we peeled away some of the onion of the unfamiliarity, and changed it in perhaps something familiar,” he says. “The solutions though are up to the parties, not to me.”

Mitch is now adding to his practice a recent skill set in facilitating a program called Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out. Certainly, more facilitation than mediation it combines his skills in teaching anti-racism with his knowledge of Mussar, a Jewish practice in self care and understanding of personality characteristics. This is a practice that really works in groups but is designed to help each individual mediate in a way with themselves and their long standing belief systems deeply rooted in self-care.

Mitch also spent some time in Japan, and he is often mediating between Japanese parties. He also discovered a bit of this in his many years a Japanese martial arts student and black belt.  Sometimes he wants to keep to himself that he can understand and speak some Japanese and sometimes wants to put it on the table, understanding the culture can make the process easier.

Speaking more about cultural differences, Mitch also brings up potential obstacles resulting from language differences and miscommunication. In the US parents punish their kids by sending them to their room, in Japan parents tell kids to go out. In the US they want kids to be independent, but in Japan families want them to come home, and be together. If you do not understand the other culture, some actions might look even like abuse. Language is also important. For example among exchange students, when American students are asking a negative question in Japanese would be answered the reverse way than in English. Won’t you go to the movies? Yes in this case means “Yes, I won’t go”. Japanese students do not understand and American students do not understand either. Very simple things yet very complex. Mitch was also involved in a program in arts and culture to raise money for a hospital in Tula, Russia. He did not speak Russian, but for him trying to learn at least the Russian syntax was very important so he could better understand his co-workers. The mistakes he made were always a result of how he speaks English, based on his native syntax. That is equally important as understanding culture.

In a diverse community, we are working with people from different cultures, speaking all different languages and accents, with all different kinds of hearing. “I think it is almost like the story of the tower of Babel revisited, we are trying to get everyone to talk to each other instead of with each other – and we do not have that translating device that works, not just for the words but for the intention of the word.” We can see it in conflict resolution. What creates conflict is the difference between impact and intent. When we are speaking, the culture and syntax of a language interfere with impact and intent, it is an extra overlay. If we do not understand that and we come to form an arrogant place, for example assuming that everyone needs to speak English, then the conflict can arise.  More deeply, giving ourselves permission to not understand also gives us permission to be curious, to inquire, to ask questions.  Mitch says, “When we ask clarifying questions, ask questions that help parties dig deeper, we give them opportunities to discover. We don’t put our words in their mouths by jumping to our conclusions, using our definitions – we empower them. That is crucial to the success of mediation.”  

Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer