Lessons Learned from the Probletunity of Madame C: Outer and Inner Work

Sep 14, 2020 | EDR Blog

By Danya Rumore for EDRBlog.org

As EDR Program Associate Director Nedra Chandler and I wrote in our “What Lessons are You Learning from Madame C?” blog earlier this summer, the coronavirus pandemic has presented all sorts of challenges and related opportunities (or what we call “probletunities”). One of the probletunities we have found amid the coronavirus is the need and opportunity to ramp up our skills for online facilitation and teaching. The EDR Program is now offering online tailored trainings on collaboration, facilitation, conflict resolution, and related topics for teams and organizations around the country. We are also offering trainings on how to use Zoom and other online platforms for effective and interactive online group work, meetings, and teaching. If you are interested in learning more, contact me (danya.rumore@law.utah.edu) for more information.

Another probletunity we have found in Madame C is the forced reminder to slow down, notice, reflect, and intentionally choose our ways of being. Reflecting on what I have learned from the last seven months, I find that my observations fit into the two categories we use when training individuals and teams: outer work (i.e., insights about the world and interacting with others) and inner work (i.e., insights about myself and how I interact with myself).

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Outer Work
Watching society struggle to respond to coronavirus and address related impacts, I have found myself constantly struck by the relevance and importance of the things we at the EDR Program preach about collaboration. More specifically:

Importance of clarifying and focusing on the issue of mutual concern: Collaboration is fundamentally about people working together to address a shared problem or opportunity—what we call the “issue of mutual concern.” People are in conversation or conflict with each other because some challenge or opportunity brings them together, even if (and perhaps especially if) they don’t see eye to eye about it; if there was no issue of mutual concern, people would not be engaging with each other. As with so many public issues, conversations and efforts around the coronavirus have often failed to help people clarify and focus on the issue of mutual concern. Whether people should have to wear masks or not is not the issue of mutual concern. The issue of mutual concern is fundamentally that the virus is a risk to us all; it affects us all, albeit if in different ways; and we’re all going to have to work together to address and recover from it. Part of all of our outer work is keeping our conversations and efforts focused on that issue of mutual concern so we don’t (as discussed below) get lost in positional lose-lose conflict when instead we all need to work together to protect and achieve our individual interests.

Importance of focusing on interests rather than positions: Building on the above point, the last few months have been a perfect example of how focusing on positions (i.e., solutions or approaches for addressing a particular problem or opportunity) tends to lead to intractable, lose-lose conflict. Public conversation and efforts related to coronavirus response and recovery have typically taken on the flavor of “should people have to wear masks or not” and “should we have forced shutdowns or not.” As is predictable, people then take sides behind the “for” and “against” sides of those positional debates, leading to an impasse. What if instead we framed coronavirus efforts around the issue of mutual concern (“the virus is a risk to us all; it affects us all, albeit if in different ways; and we all have to work together to address it”) and then helped people focus on the underlying concerns or needs that really matter to them (i.e., their “interests”)? If we could do that, I think we would find that pretty much everyone wants to stay employed and see others continue to stay employed; no one wants to get sick or have their loved ones get sick; no one wants to see the economy shut down or go into a recession; and pretty much everyone would like to have schools and businesses be safe and open. In other words, I think we would find that we have many interests in common—and that our interests, no matter how different, aren’t as mutually exclusive as we tend to assume they are. For example, many communities I work with have found that the best way to “stay open” is to “stay safe.” Hence, they are encouraging people to take public health precautions to help keep the economy open, with some using the motto “Stay safe, stay open.” If we operate from an understanding that the virus is a risk to us all and affects us all, and most if not all of us would like our communities to stay safe and stay open, then the question becomes not whether to shut down, but how to protect individual and public health in a way that works with keeping the economy as open and thriving as possible.

Importance of “yes, and” thinking: All of that drives home another thing we preach when teaching about collaboration: the importance of “yes, and” thinking as a way to move toward mutual gains solutions to complex problems. Instead of focusing the conversation along the lines of “yes we want to get the virus under control, but that’s going to kill the economy,” what if we instead framed our efforts around “yes we want to get the virus under control, and we want to find a way to do so that doesn’t take too large of a toll on the economy. Let’s explore how to do that.” How different would our conversation and efforts be?

I encourage readers to clarify and focus on the issue of mutual concern, center conversations on interests rather than positions, and practice “yes, and” in your conversations and efforts—whether around the coronavirus or anything else.

Inner work:
In the process of accepting, coping with, and seeking to intentionally respond to the coronavirus and everything else 2020 has brought (pandemics and protests and natural disasters, oh my!), I have found myself really having to work on all sorts of personal awareness and development, particularly around:

Adaptability: The pandemic and 2020 in general has been a constant lesson in adaptability (I suspect everyone can relate to that). Although I preach and teach that adaptability is a key skill for effective collaboration and problem-solving, it doesn’t come easy to me. Every day for the last seven or so months, a core part of my inner work has been accepting that the future is highly uncertain (even in what people are calling “precedented times”) and working on going with the flow and trusting that I can and will effectively respond to whatever the universe brings my way. This will be a lifelong practice for me, as well as I imagine for many of our readers, and I hope you will be patient with yourselves, as I try to be with myself.

Focusing on my circle of influence: Another thing the coronavirus has forced me to work on is accepting what I do and do not have control or direct influence over—and to focus my energy on those things that are in my circle of influence. I first came across the idea of the circle of influence in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habit of Highly Effective People. Covey distinguishes our circle of influence from our circle of concern. Our circle of concern is basically all of the things we care about. Covey reminds us that there are some things in our circle of concern over which we have no real control—and there are many things in our circle of concern that we can directly affect or take action on: those are the things in our circle of influence. Over the last seven months, I have often found myself starting to spiral into a vortex of concern about the pandemic, about race and justice tensions in our country, about record setting heat and natural disasters around the world—the list goes on and on. A core part of how I stay sane and keep moving forward is by reminding myself I can and will continue to care about those things—and I can only directly affect the things that are in my circle of influence. I cannot stop the virus in its tracks, but I can do my part to slow its spread and help us “stay safe and stay open.” I cannot solve the racial tensions and justice issues that are playing out across our country, but I can help people develop tools and resources to productively heal society and work through hard issues—and I can model good behavior and do what I can to create a just and equitable society. I cannot stop another earthquake or hurricane force wind event from happening in the Salt Lake Valley, nor can I singlehandedly stop climate change, but I can make sure I’m prepared for a natural disaster, I can reduce my greenhouse gas emissions, and I can advocate for local, national, and global changes to make progress on climate change. By focusing my energy on my sphere of influence rather than worrying about things that I cannot directly affect, I stop wasting my energy in the anxiety vortex and instead use it to make positive change.

Gratitude and self-compassion: Perhaps the biggest and most overarching lessons the coronavirus has brought to the fore for me is that of gratitude and self-compassion—and holding space for the two together. I am reminded daily of how much I have to be grateful for, from being employed and healthy and having a roof over my head (even if a tree just landed on my house during the recent windstorm. Sigh.) to having the opportunity to work with so many amazing people to having so many wonderful friends and family members as part of my life. And I am reminded of how challenging life can be for all of us, no matter how privileged we are and how much we have to be grateful for. I believe we can and should be compassionate with ourselves for our struggles while also holding gratitude for all of the good things in our lives.  There is room—and a need—for both.

We at the EDR Program appreciate all of the lessons learned from Madame C that partners and readers shared with us over the last few months and hope that you all, like us, are making space to reflect on the challenges and opportunities presented by these wild times and on your outer and inner work. This too shall pass. Our sincere hope is that we take to heart the lessons Madame C has to teach us and find ourselves and our society in a better place as a result of it.


Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a Research Associate Professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a Research Assistant Professor in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department at the University of Utah’s. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving.