Mutual Understanding and Servant Leadership. Member Spotlight: Bill Dunwoody

“The leader needs to understand the needs of people that they hope to lead, and then address those needs in a relationship that is beneficial to both. Mediation to me is all about effective listening. Make sure that you are listening to someone with the intention of understanding. That is my philosophy.”


Bill Dunwoody is a mediator and scholar-practitioner, based in Benton City, Washington, US. He started his career in healthcare, and it was then, in emergency medical services, an environment full of crises and conflicts, when he learned about the need for mediation. Working as a paramedic in the field, allowed him to learn how to get people to work together and develop relationships in a very critical and urgent situation. Later, he decided to shift into mental health services, and as Director of Integrated Quality and Informatics at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, his responsibility was maintaining safety. “I was working for two state psychiatric hospitals in the state of Maine, and at that time my role was to make sure that the services were performed to a certain standard. We had State and Federal regulatory standards that we had to comply with, so working between the regulators and the people doing the work in the hospital, learning to mediate relationships between them, and ensuring that patients receive proper care, was a big part of my role.”

In 2014 he moved to the state of Washington and started a job as a Lean Facilitator for Kadlec Regional Medical Center. In that new role, Bill worked with various groups at all levels, including culinary workers, housekeepers, nurses, physicians, and senior leadership; developing relationships between the various stakeholders. He was involved in facilitation and mediation between those groups, putting a lot of effort into team building, attempting to develop systems that work for everyone. He continued his work for the same institution as a Practice Development Manager, involved in improving the relationships between physicians and the practices in which they worked. He worked to develop relationships between physicians, between physicians and management, and to ease the way for physicians to perform their work to the greatest benefit of the patients they served.

From Peacebuilding, through Restorative Practices, to MBBI

Bill had his first exposure to peacebuilding in February 2018 when he attended the Rotary Peace and Environmental Sustainability Conference in Vancouver. As he says, he became very much interested in the concept of formalized peacebuilding and mediation, how to develop relationships, and how do we communicate effectively.” Since then, he began working on, gaining knowledge, on being a peacebuilder and how to develop leaders more effectively. As a strong believer in the concept of Servant Leadership, Bill has worked extensively on developing organizations with that philosophy. As his career progressed, Bill completed several pieces of training in Restorative Practices with the International Institute for Restorative Practices, Human Trafficking Prevention with the US Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights, and became an Ambassador for the Institute of Economics & Peace. He is currently enrolled in an Executive Diploma in Global Leadership from the UN-mandated University of Peace in Costa Rica. He also has been doing a significant amount of work with Rotary International, and now, partially retired, is developing Amity World Group – a consulting and organizational improvement organization primarily focused on improving humanitarian relationships and understanding among individuals and organizations that operate globally.

According to Bill, the obstacle that was the most difficult to overcome is working for organizations that have a great philosophy, great missions, great visions, but with a tendency to not follow through with what they stated as their objective. ‘Part of my goal has always been to make sure that the organizations “walk the talk”, they do what they say they are trying to do. That is my biggest struggle. And it starts from the leadership, the leaders need to make sure if they state a certain philosophy, they consistently demonstrate it through their actions. I think struggling with that is the biggest issue that I have had throughout my work history, and I think many people have,” he says.

While being involved with Rotary, Bill learned about Mediators Beyond Borders International, which is a Rotary partner. For him, it was a kind of normal progression and evolution to go from understanding the peace, and the impact of actions on peace to getting involved with the organization. Looking at the total picture of what happens in the world, the best way of developing a peaceful environment, and communicating it is through mediation, and according to Bill, MBBI has the reputation and provides resources to support this goal. “That was a normal progression for me. From peacebuilding, moving on to what makes up peacebuilding, how do I facilitate peacebuilding and mediation is one of the tools to do it.”

Two sides of the pandemi

Asked about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill says that in some ways it opened opportunities. I like to look at things in ways that focus on opportunities. COVID has opened opportunities technologically, and I think that is something that people do not necessarily recognize. I have had meetings and lectures with people from all over the world. This interview would not happen without the technological push that we experienced with COVID. However, in his opinion there is a downside, that face-to-face interpersonal interaction is not happening right now. That often causes issues or concerns of not truly understanding what someone’s intentions are. What Bill found out is that body language has a lot to do with the communication process, true understanding comes from the total communication process, the way people present themselves and interact. Zoom and other resources have allowed us to see each other, people’s expressions, body movements, but it cannot fully replace a face-to-face meeting.

Another downside of the pandemic that Bill mentions, is the heightened polarization that has been created. Due to stress caused by the pandemic, and other issues happening in the world, the polarization is turning very toxic, causing a difficult time for many people to effectively communicate with others, because of their beliefs, wherever those beliefs come from. He thinks that COVID and everything else, all the things that are going on in the world, all the conflicts, are causing the toxicity of normal polarization, or differences in opinion, to increase significantly. It is difficult to have a conversation with people if you enter the conversation with a high degree of polarization to the point of toxicity. For a conversation to happen, there must be a certain willingness to understand differing viewpoints, and in his opinion, the circumstances have diminished the ability to understand other people. My goal is to improve our ability to effectively communicate and to have a desire to understand and develop those conversations

Traveling and understanding

By the end of the interview, Bill also shared his view on the role of culture in mediation. Culture is huge he says. It is part of everybody’s life, what they grew up with, what their parents taught them, their values are based upon cultural indoctrination. I think that part of mediation is understanding that everyone has their own culture. I grew up, in very much a middle-class European background, white culture, environment. My values of course evolved over time, but understanding other people, the willingness to understand different cultures, is critical. Bill encourages people to travel because when you travel you can gain an understanding other cultures. Recalling his recent visit to Costa Rica and previous trips to England and Germany, he admits it is interesting to see how other cultures operate, function, and traveling with an open mind is a critical aspect of understanding cultures. It might not be my culture, my beliefs, my values, but who am I to impose what I believe on anybody else? And I hope that other people would have the same feelings. It is all about understanding, and one of the best ways to understand is to experience other cultures first-hand. It is really all about understanding and accepting that other people are different.

Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer