“I started my career wanting to take the dispute resolution tools that worked well in Niger and export them around the world. Today, I’m the CEO of an organization which has done exactly that, and it’s pretty amazing. NCRC has been on the ground in a dozen countries on four continents, and our mediation and training services have had demonstrable global impact. For example, our conflict resolution trainers have literally worked around the planet in such places as remote Nicaraguan villages riddled by drug trade violence, U.S. military bases in Germany and Japan, and corporate offices throughout Latin America.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven P. Dinkin, President of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), a global leader in mediation instruction and dispute resolution. Steve came to NCRC from the Center for Dispute Resolution in Washington DC, where, as Program Director, he provided mediation services to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Reserve. He has taught mediation at his alma mater, The George Washington Law School, and he is a co-author of two books on conflict resolution.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Before entering law school, I spent two years with the Peace Corps in Niger, Africa. That experience affected me so profoundly that after I earned my JD and I began promoting judicial reform overseas in international development. That work introduced me to the field of alternative dispute resolution, which has universal value across nations and cultures, and I got totally hooked. After heading up a series of conflict resolution law projects in Washington DC, I followed this passion across the country to the CEO position at the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) in San Diego.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I joined NCRC in 2003, I relocated to San Diego with my wife and our three children. Just as we were moving into our new home, the “Cedar Fire” wildfire began sweeping through our area, and we had to evacuate. My brand-new colleagues immediately rallied around us — the chair of our Board of Directors welcomed our family into her home for a long stay — and we felt an instant bond that has grown stronger over the years. NCRC is literally in the business of fostering civility and empathy, and we walk our talk. So people who become involved with us tend to develop lasting personal ties.
What do you think makes your organization stand out? Can you share a story?
NCRC began in 1983 as a neighborhood mediation center. Everything we do is based on mediation principles that start with listening carefully and showing respect. Our conflict resolution strategies are applicable across the human spectrum, which is why NCRC programs attract remarkably diverse participants. For example, in our Community Building Circle Dialogues, law enforcement officers sit down with leaders of underserved communities, business executives counsel at-risk youth, and conservatives and progressives get to know one another. When people learn to exchange views calmly and constructively, they are empowered to set aside differences and find common ground.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Our new pilot project, “A Dialogue for Civility,” harnesses two NCRC signature programs, our Art of Inclusive Communication training and our Community Building Circle Dialogues. Students from the University of California San Diego are being trained as Dialogue Ambassadors to promote civil discourse around controversial subjects. The Ambassadors receive training first in communication and conflict resolution and inclusivity skills, and second in facilitating circle dialogues. They begin by guiding circles with their peers on campus, then they take this model out into the community. At a moment in time when polarization and incivility are rampant, we believe “A Dialogue for Civility” could change the way Americans talk to one another across sociopolitical barriers.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Funny you should ask! A core plank of our business model is providing leaders with tools to help companies and employees flourish. Unresolved conflicts are enormously costly. Productivity slumps, staff head for the exits (or to court), and revenues fall off. We’ve developed a portfolio of interactive workshops for creating workplace environments where people collaborate effectively because they communicate respectfully. I know these tools work because I’ve used them myself when tensions have surfaced in our own team. NCRC’s two newest workshops are “Empowering Bystander Communication,” tailored for this #MeToo era to prevent sexual harassment, and “The Art and Science of High-Performance Teams,” which is based on compelling new research on team dynamics.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Malin Burnham is San Diego’s most influential and beloved civic leader. He has been a mentor to me for more than a decade, and his motto of “Community Before Self” has served as a guiding principle for me as NCRC president. Malin’s book, titled Community Before Self is an extraordinary primer on leadership. I keep a copy in my office, and I regularly consult it, especially the chapter on “Charities Are Businesses Too!” where he emphasizes that discipline and continuity are indispensable to non-profit success. I’ve taken that lesson to heart, and it has served our organization very well.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I started my career wanting to take the dispute resolution tools that worked well in Niger and export them around the world. Today, I’m the CEO of an organization which has done exactly that, and it’s pretty amazing. NCRC has been on the ground in a dozen countries on four continents, and our mediation and training services have had demonstrable global impact. For example, our conflict resolution trainers have literally worked around the planet in such places as remote Nicaraguan villages riddled by drug trade violence, U.S. military bases in Germany and Japan, and corporate offices throughout Latin America.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
As part of our conflict resolution training, NCRC distributes a handy list of “10 Tips for Managing Conflict” that are equally valuable for leading organizations. Here are five of them:
1. “Work on trying to be thoughtful instead of trying to prove you are right.” Leaders shouldn’t need to dominate. We “win” when we gain knowledge.
2. “When you acknowledge that you have a right to your feelings, you will be able to move through your own emotions better and accept others’ reactions.” The first step toward real empathy is embracing your own humanity.
3. “Do what you can to really listen to other people, and show genuine curiosity about what led them to their opinions.” Listening carefully to your colleagues is the single most important thing a leader can do. And the single best question you can ask is: “Tell me more.”
4. “Almost all conflicts are based on an underlying need not being met.” Working as a mediator has taught me that very often, when people say they want restitution, what they really need is a genuine show of respect.
5. “Don’t be afraid to acknowledge responsibility for mistakes you have made.” Mistakes are inevitable. If you own your mistakes, you gain respect and credibility. But if you double-down on your mistakes, you lose trust.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
There’s a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that I’ve used in speeches, and it keeps gaining in wisdom and relevance: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate…”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I am deeply inspired by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani. He is the best exemplar we have of Benjamin Franklin’s profound advice, “Do well by doing good.” NCRC strives to persuade people that your success in life is contingent upon your ability to show respect and empathy to everyone you encounter. Mr. Ulukaya has delivered that message in the most powerful way to all corners of the world. And his personal commitment to refugees, which are an NCRC client population, especially resonates with me and all my colleagues.
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