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darlene weide

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Darlene Weide, Executive Director, Community Boards

Communication—or to be more precise, miscommunication—is at the heart of almost any dispute.  When there’s an issue at hand, something that troubles or annoys one person, getting it to stop requires some type of communication with the other person (or persons).  I think we’ve all been here.  You can try talking to him, or maybe leaving a “nice” note on her windshield, or possibly even involving the authorities like calling the police.

At Community Boards we always encourage people to talk with each other.  Yet where there’s a conflict, there are lots of strong emotions that’ll make talking and hearing a real challenge.  This is where “miscommunication” rears its somewhat ugly head.

Communication has multiple levels.  First you’ve WORDS.  Words are slippery things; the same word usually has multiple meanings to different folks.  If you’re arguing with someone, it’s hard to ask questions to clarify meaning.  And it’s not uncommon for an upset person to pepper an angry exchange with profanities and expletives.  And let’s face it, some people are more articulate than others.  They stay focused and articulate no matter what, while other people become tongue-tied stutterers.

Next there’s TONE OF VOICE.  Angry voices get louder, fearful voices can drop in volume so as become almost inaudible.  Tones, too, are open to interpretation.  A “raised voice” to one person is “yelling” to another.  This raised voice can indicate anger to one, assertiveness to another, and sincere engagement with the issue by a third.  Tone of voice can be inflected with sarcasm, doubt, dismissal or disdain.  Tone definitely colors meaning.

And then there’s BODY LANGUAGE:  facial expressions, gestures, stance, proximity, the movement of arms and legs.  Body language is heavily influenced by culture and ethnicity.  Stepping forward can be interpreted as a threat, a response to a perceived challenge or simply a way to close space.  Extreme arm and hand gestures (even “extreme” is open to interpretation) can merely indicate emphasis, act as a stress release or be the precursor to possible fist in the nose.

Image by greekadman, Flickr.

Factor in the above when conflicts arise between folks raised in different cultures, speaking different languages (with varying levels of fluency in a shared language), and you’ve got  the potential for a real mess.  Miscommunication is all too sadly the norm here.  At Community Boards, we’re both well prepared and well versed in multi/cross-cultural disputes.  We provide intake and mediation in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.   Below are some examples of our expertise in action.

A Cantonese-speaking Chinese family was the first to move into an almost entirely African American neighborhood in Visitacion Valley.  The man operated his own small plumbing business, and parked his panel van on street directly in front of his home.  He’d purchased it used, and it was usually dirty because he worked construction sites.  Directly across the street, an elderly Black woman thought it was an ugly eyesore that detracted from the neighborhood she’d worked hard to keep nice.  She tried talking to him once and got no where.  She called the police, DPT, her district supervisor multiple times to complain.  Her supervisor sent her to us.  Our Cantonese-speaking intake person contacted him; he agreed to meet with her.

Their mediation included Cantonese-speaking and African American mediators.  During the mediation she explained that she couldn’t understand him because of his accent, and he had “snapped” at her and wouldn’t look her in the eyes. He responded that she had kept wagging her finger at him, which was disrespectful.  He went on to explain that the van was basically his place of business; he parked it in front of his home for security since it had been broken into before.  As a result of their discussion, she introduced him to a mutual neighbor with an empty garage, which he then rented for secure, overnight parking.  He would keep wash the van regularly for the times it would be parked on the street.

A lesbian couple purchased a tenancy-in-common that shared a common wall with an apartment building.  A Latino couple with three sons (all under five) lived in the adjacent apartment.  On their side, the common wall was a long hallway with hardwood floors; for the couple, the wall included their bedroom and a home office.  Noise became a serious concern.  The children used the hallway as a place to play and run, making all the loud noises young siblings make: laughing, yelling, arguing, crying, playing with toys on the hardwood floor.  The TIC owners tried talking to them, but they found the English/Spanish divide was too challenging.  Plus they sensed some possible homophobia—the husband always frowned or scowled at them.

They came to Community Boards at the recommendation of a friend.  During their mediation (which included a Spanish-speaking mediator), they explained that they ran a business out their home, which meant they were almost always there, working.  The mother understood her boys made a lot of noise, but that meant they were happy and healthy, which is what every parent wants.  As to homophobia, she and her husband admitted it made them uncomfortable, but it really wasn’t any of their business.  As part of their shared agreement, the couple helped pay for a runner for the hallway while the family agreed to “quiet time” for their sons during part of the day.

At Community Boards we encourage people not to jump to assumptions about what another is saying.  In a city as diverse as ours, it’s all too easy for miscommunication to exacerbate any problem into something more.

Darlene Weide is Executive Director of Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.


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Darlene Weide, Executive Director, Community Boards

My two earlier NEN blogs discussed how Community Boards has helped individuals with personal conflicts and how we’ve aided neighbors address disputes. Now I’d like to discuss a third area where Community Boards has great expertise: Assisting organizations with issues that involve multiple groups with competing interests and goals.

As the executive director of a nonprofit that provides its services in English, Spanish, and Chinese with the help of 200+ trained volunteers, I’ve seen the challenges of maintaining the quality of programs with so many moving parts. With increasingly reduced resources, nonprofit and community leaders have to deal with the demands of staff, clients, volunteers, board members, and funders. Even the strong at heart can be daunted when faced with such an array.

When people work and collaborate in groups they share ideas, energy, and responsibilities. From the get-go, though, groups too often face internal challenges. Group members bring significant differences to the table: language, race, ethnicity, culture, age, gender, political affiliation, and so on. Such rich diversity can too easily become divisive, disruptive, or counterproductive. When a group needs to address a contentious issue, such as the allocation of limited finances or determining program priorities, any possible dysfunctions too readily manifest themselves.

So you can well imagine (if you haven’t already experienced it first hand) what frequently happens: the issue gets lost as group members, or cliques, jostle with each other. Good leadership strives for consensus. Most final decisions, however, can leave a frustrated minority with ill-feelings and resentment.

Image by Mick Wright, Flickr

Conflict resolution, especially facilitation, can greatly assist. For disputes within an organization, when decision makers are perceived as biased for one side or the other, having a neutral party participate can make a critical difference. Providing neutrality is Community Boards’ forte!

With facilitation, a neutral third-party leads the process (usually a meeting) that helps group members define their shared goals, while also identifying the issues hindering fulfillment of these goals. Facilitators develop comprehensive and inclusive agendas that balance individual and group needs. They set and enforce meeting ground rules, and they identify and manage problem issues as they arise. The ultimate goal is to increase the likelihood for consensus while minimizing future discord.

Below are examples of the issues nonprofit organizations have brought to Community Boards. Confidentiality prohibits me from going into details about how each dispute was ultimately resolved. How we proceeded in each instance—and how we can help your organization—followed our standard procedures.

1.    A citywide social service agency operated several neighborhood sites. The agency held monthly meetings at its central office attended by program staff from these sites. One specific site felt that the downtown office was purposely underfunding and underserving it and its clients. The monthly meetings became increasing contentious, culminating at one where the disgruntled staff walked out.

2.    A youth-serving nonprofit had a large volunteer base that was essential to its evening and weekend programming. Tensions arose and increased between staff and a large contingent of the volunteers when new program goals were introduced. The executive director and program manager needed to intervene on an almost daily basis.

3.    A nonprofit had doubled its board of directors, with the goal of bringing in “new blood.” While things initially ran smoothly, older (both in age and in their length of service) board members were perceived as thwarting the innovations being introduced by the newer board members. Board meetings were openly hostile and fundraising came to a standstill when it was discovered that the newer members had been communicating privately with each other.

In the above instances, to begin, our staff met separately with each self-recognized group so people could speak openly about their individual and shared concerns without fear of any possible disciplinary repercussions. A large meeting was then convened with all parties (or selected group representatives) present. It was here that the issues were hashed out with our facilitators overseeing the discussion. This discussion segued into one that focused on options for addressing and resolving the issues.

In all three cases, action plans were eventually formed upon which all parties agreed. It may not always be possible to get everyone to agree on everything 100% of the time, but it’s certainly often possible to mend deep divisions and find enough common ground on which to move forward. Watching opposing parties work hard to reach agreement and then move forward is one of the many pleasures of working at Community Boards.

Darlene Weide is Executive Director of Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.


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Darlene Weide, Executive Director, Community Boards

“Neighbors helping neighbors” was one of Community Boards’s early taglines.  Neighbors, however, can be of several types.  Some neighbors you know and chat with in passing.  In metro areas like San Francisco, however, most neighbors are simply those who are in close proximity to where you live or work.  You see them regularly, sometimes greeting them with a nod.  If they’re “bad” neighbors you might ignore them, wishing they’d move.  Or if they’re “really bad,” tempers can flare and you may find yourself using harsh words laced with profanity.

Most folks in SF live in what are called “mixed use” neighborhoods.  These are a blend of small businesses, restaurants and cafes, bars, shops and residential housing.  Lots of times this makes life easier.  Need more ice for your party at midnight?  Run to the convenience store down the block.  Need wine for a dinner party?  Pop into the liquor store on the corner.  Dinner?  Pick a restaurant from the eight all within walking distance.  Meeting friends for drinks?  There’s the pub, the lounge, and the neighborhood watering hole all on the same block.  Dirty clothes piling up? Drop them off at the laundry that’s open until 10 PM.

Ah, but this convenience and variety frequently come at price! Street congestion, double parked cars, and the eternal quest for an open parking space.  Loiterers in front of the liquor store.  Loud customers leaving the bar at closing time.  The corner store that’s a magnet for graffiti and litter.  That harsh, chemical smell coming from the dry cleaner.  The perpetually-filled, smelly and unwashed restaurant trash dumpsters.  Sticky sidewalks that need steam cleaning.

In disputes between residents and commercial enterprises, most people first turn to the public agency responsible for monitoring the business.  Yet identifying the appropriate agency can be confusing and time consuming.  For instance, if you’ve got issues with how a restaurant handles its trash, you can turn to the Department of Public Works (they handle garbage) or the Department of Public Health (they handle sanitation issues AND restaurant business permits).

And if you do file a complaint against the business, then the waiting begins for action and results.  Did the agency follow up with your complaint?  Was an inspector sent out?  Is your complaint, while legitimate, an infraction of the law?  You can literally wait weeks to see the problem actually taken care, if ever.

Image by SiD, Flickr

To repeat myself from my first NEN blog, we at Community Boards want to help San Francisco residents resolve these “quality of life” disputes with their business neighbors.  One of the best parts about mediation is that you play active part in the process.   You don’t need to call the public agency back three times to see results.  Your input becomes part of agreement that addresses and solves the issue.

Our Neighborhood Mediation Program has multiple success stories.  Here are two I’d like to share.

1)  A bar owner became involved in a dispute with residents of a small apartment building over noise.  After SF’s nonsmoking ordinance came into effect, bar patrons smoked on the sidewalk.  The neighbors complained to her that the smokers were loud and boisterous, talking and laughing and singing.  In addition, patrons with motorcycles would rev their engines or leave at full throttle.  When she seemed unresponsive, the neighbors complained to the police.  Ultimately, her liquor license was in danger of being revoked.  She consented to mediate with two of the residents, who represented the other tenants.  As part of their agreement, she posted signs asking her patrons to “respect the neighbors” and had an employee posted near the door to verbally remind the patrons to keep noise to a minimum.

2) The owner of a new, small family-run convenience store ran into trouble with residents of a neighborhood association around loitering and graffiti.  Unfortunately his market had youth loitering outside, few of whom were actually his customers.  The market was being continually tagged over night and he struggled to remove it on a regular basis. When members of the association first approached him, he felt intimidated and threatened.  After their mediation, he added brighter exterior lighting that discouraged the loiterers.  Members of the neighborhood association agreed to monitor the market after it closed, which combined with the new lighting, radically reduced the graffiti.

Think about your neighbors for a sec. Any problem or concern you could use help with? Before tempers flare, contact us. Community Boards is ready to help.

Darlene Weide is Executive Director of Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.

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Darlene Weide, Executive Director, Community Boards

Reflecting on the recent Mother’s Day, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that moms are “natural” mediators.  You hear escalating voices in the next room, ones that eventually lead to a shouted “Mom!”  You then step in with “What happened? Tell me both sides, you first…” We help our kids resolve their conflicts every day.

Knowing where to go for help to resolve conflicts comes in handy, not just for kids, but for grownups too. I run Community Boards where our trained Community Mediators help people reach mutually satisfying solutions to their disputes every day.

When it comes to our own problems with family members or neighbors, we can feel frazzled, frustrated, and helpless. Calling the police is stressful and litigation is expensive, and neither guarantees resolution.  Mediation is a practical, low-cost (only $10 bucks!) solution for any number of disputes.  Community Boards has been around for 34 years and we want to help San Francisco residents feel safe and respected in their homes and neighborhoods.

I plan on using the NEN blog to inform and encourage City residents to bring their conflicts to Community Boards.  I’ll share ideas on practical peacemaking and give examples of “real life” disputes we’ve helped people work out.  In sharing others’ stories, I’ll change some of the facts since confidentiality is the most important thing Community Boards guarantees and protects.

First, let me explain mediation:  Mediation is an opportunity to have a safe, structured meeting to discuss a shared problem.  Mediators guide this meeting, asking questions and keeping the discussion focused.  They remain neutral throughout the whole process.  They don’t judge, weigh evidence or deliver a verdict.  Mediators acknowledge and validate—but remain outside—the strong emotions (anger, frustration, fear, disdain, sadness, contempt, dread) that legitimately arise when people talk about their perceptions of the conflict.  The ultimate goal of any mediation is for the parties, themselves, to create a workable agreement.  The agreement resolves the current conflict and minimizes any future conflicts.  Confidentiality, fairness and respect are three core tenets of mediation.

Photo by Elvis John Ferrao, Flickr

In keeping with my Mother’s Day theme, here are two family disputes I’d like to share.

1)  A young Chinese-American woman (born in the US) had not spoken with her parents (born in China) for several years.  When her grandmother died, the parents wanted to reconnect with their only child.  She agreed to mediate.  There were two core issues behind their falling out.  The parents believed she had become too American, learning values that were disrespectful to their traditional ways of life.  They continually disciplined her.  She thought they were too “old fashioned” and her friends always made fun of her.  They did finally reconcile, but it took two mediations.  She agreed to talk and visit regularly and the parents agreed not to critical of her “new” life.  [For this mediation, one of our mediators spoke Mandarin.]

2) A father and son had a falling out over the operations of their family business, a small print shop.  The father had inherited the business from his own father.  Initially the son had wanted to start his own print shop, but eventually agreed to join his dad.  Conflicts arose when the son started to “modernize” their operations, which led to continual arguments.  During their mediation, a critical distinction arose:  the father thought his son was working FOR him; the son thought he was working WITH his dad.  Both were proud to have a successful business that was 40+ years old.  With the assistance of the mediators, they developed a work plan that clarified their roles and responsibilities, and set a decision making process that hadn’t existed before.

If you have a dispute, any kind, contact Community Boards.  We’d love to help.

Darlene Weide is Executive Director of Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.

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