Mediator Profile: John R. Ehrmann

This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue
of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the
Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.

How did you get into
the field of dispute resolution?

As an undergraduate, I was very interested in
better understanding how groups in society
interact. I paused after graduation to spend time
in the real world and that experience focused me
on the need to integrate issues, rather than
segregate them, which lead me to the School of
natural Resources at the University of Michigan.

It was there I met two faculty members Jim
Crowfoot and Pat Bidol, as well as Michael
Lesnick, who is one of my current partners.
Together, we embarked on a journey to understand
more about societal conflict and discovered the
emerging field of environmental dispute
resolution. We were able to spend time conducting
research, doing facilitation and mediation, and
figuring out how to teach this topic. That
experience made it clear to me that I wanted to
focus my professional energy on further
developing the skills and understanding necessary
to work in this arena. For me, it was the perfect
opportunity to combine my interests in how change
happens in society – how and why people interact
they way they do – and to hopefully make a
difference through working on a wide range of
important and interesting issues.

Do you concentrate on
particular issues or clients?

At Meridian, our mission is to provide
high-quality process assistance in those
situations that involve the intersection of
environmental, economic, and social concerns. We
intentionally work at all levels, from local to
international, so that we can stay in touch with
a wide variety of group and political dynamics. I
like working on a range of situations, in terms
of the substantive focus, the nature of the
process, and the scale of the issue or dispute.

What projects are you
currently working on?

I have been very fortunate over the past
several years to serve as the facilitator for the
President’s Council on Sustainable Development.
This high-level, multi-stakeholder group,
appointed by the President, has been charged with
advising the administration and interest groups
on how to get the country on a path to
sustainability. The Council has issued several
consensus reports, which have impacted US policy
and have been widely circulated internationally.
The Council is in the final stages of negotiating
recommendations addressing climate change,
environmental management, and sustainable
communities.

With my colleagues at Meridian, I am involved
in several activities assisting the US
Environmental Protection Agency. These include
work with an advisory committee that is examining
issues regarding the implementation of the Food
Quality Protection Act; a new effort of focusing
on reducing low-level emissions from jet aircraft
and airports that also involves other agencies,
the airline industry, and the environmental
community; and several processes related to EPA’s
reinvention activities.

We are also helping to establish a
collaborative effort between representatives of
the environmental and business communities
regarding the potential listing of the Chinook
salmon as a threatened species.

Finally, please share
your general views on the state of public dispute
resolution today
.

I believe that it is time to take
“alternative” out of ADR. Those of us
who practice in this arena need to stop de facto
apologizing for what we do by describing theses
processes as an alternative. While that term may
be descriptive given the relative allocation of
resources in society to the
“traditional” processes, I fear it
contributes to putting what we do in a box that
limits our ability to really change the way
society makes decisions.

My sense is that many in society are becoming
increasingly aware that the problems and
challenges we are facing are often not being
constructively addressed through the use of the
traditional approaches to dispute resolution. Our
challenge as professionals in this field is
twofold.

First, we must articulate the values and
practices that we believe have the potential to
improve the way society makes decisions on
complex issues in a manner that is, at a minimum,
consistent with our democratic values and
traditions. We need to go beyond even this
minimum requirement and assist in the design and
implementation of processes that improve one the
ways in which the traditional processes implement
those principles of democracy. If we cannot meet
that test, then we should question whether out
intervention is needed or appropriate.

Second, we must improve the way we communicate
what we are all about. For too long, we have
acted like people with a process looking for a
problem. I realize that some may see a conflict
between my two points – high standards and
integration into societal decision making – but
we have to find creative ways to reconcile the
two if public-sector dispute resolution is
genuinely going to help society grapple with the
challenges facing it.

Finally, how do you feel personally about your
work? Is it as satisfying as you’d hoped? In what
professional directions is your work evolving?

I love my work. I feel blessed to have found a
profession that feels so right to me. I find the
intertwined challenges of serving as a neutral,
understanding substantive complexities from a
range of viewpoints and assisting parties in
finding mutually satisfying outcomes to be
personally and professionally extremely
rewarding.

At Meridian, we are very focused discovering
new opportunities to apply the full range of
collaborative problem-solving approaches. We are
also very interested in finding opportunities to
work with both our traditional colleagues as well
as others who have not traditionally seen
themselves in this field. Such partnerships and
alliances will facilitate our own learning and
ability to assist society in incorporating these
approaches to problem solving into the
mainstream.

                        author

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