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We give you actionable advice so you can elevate your influence through purposeful negotiation—helping you overcome the hurdles you face in business and life to become even more successful.
Welcome back to the NEGOTIATEx podcast! Aram and Nolan’s guest today is Joe Bubman, founder and Executive Director of Urban Rural Action. He has extensive negotiating experience in the corporate, governmental, and nonprofit arenas.
Joe Bubman’s work through Urban Rural Action (UR Action) includes building relationships across areas of societal division. In an age when nonphysical, verbal expression might be violent, this can be challenging work.
Joe’s prior work with Mercy Corps instilled a profound appreciation for the need to empathize with all sides of a dispute — not just seeking to sympathize or finding any solution.
He seeks bridge-building and understanding as gateways to potential cooperation. UR Action’s statewide programs deliberately bring together people of varying backgrounds and viewpoints.
Dialogue is encouraged within UR Action’s framework, The ABC’s for Constructive Dialogue.
These ABCs are “Ask questions (to learn about others’ views),” “Break down our views (to be clear)” and “Check our understanding (of others’ point of view).”
In-person activities are also planned for both fun and relationship-building. For example, they have held blindfolded truffle tastings.
When it’s time to get serious, smaller groups devote themselves to topics like workplace mental health, homelessness, and so on. Participants apply a systematic framework for working through these issues called Problem Tree Analysis.
Problems are approached using its 3-step procedure: the situation is defined, the effects are mapped, and the causes are considered. Collaboration is both encouraged and considered a positive byproduct of this process.
The final phase of UR Action’s programs is to encourage the design and implementation of possible solutions. Work plans, measures of success, and contacts for affiliated community groups are developed.
UR Action doesn’t utilize a classic negotiating framework in its programs because reaching an agreement isn’t the end goal. Productive collaboration is often more feasible than reaching total consensus. Therefore, simply working together is considered a more realistic route.
Establishing a healthy environment for dialogue is helpful, too. As a result, Bubman doesn’t ask people to roleplay. Instead, he encourages them to honestly, sincerely, and concisely share their personal perspective.
The academic equivalent to UR Action’s statewide program brings together students from differing institutions. They, too, are tasked with building understanding in pursuit of societal solutions.
In 2021, student groups from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and Wilson College in Franklin, Pennsylvania worked together on food security issues. This was the third iteration of UR Action’s academic program.
Afterward, 79% of participants said they found the program valuable. Most said they were better capable of respecting those with whom they disagreed, as well.
In 2022, UR Action will be hosting similar programs on a national basis. In at least 9 different states, they have local events planned. However, they hope to make their influence national.
FYI, Nolan and Aram have a webinar coming up on February 22nd at noon EST. You can reserve your seat by signing up here. There will be a topic or two, but most of the time is reserved for your questions.
Nolan, Aram, and guest Joe Bubman have a lot more to say on UR Action’s pursuit of societal dialogue in this edition of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Questions and episode suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org are always welcome.
Your time’s important to us. Thanks for listening!
Nolan Martin : Welcome to the negotiated podcast. I am your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin with me today is Aram, but Aram, we aren't alone today. Super excited to finally bring on another guest to the podcast. So I'm sure everyone's kind of, , tired of just listening to you and I talk back and forth. , so I'm, I'm really excited for today's discussion.
Aram Donigian : Yeah, I am too. And it is my pleasure to welcome, a good friend and colleague and someone I've gotten to do quite a bit of training with over the year: Joe Bubman. So welcome, Joe. Good to have you.
Joe Bubman : Thanks for having me.
AD : Joe is the founder of an executive director of Urban Rural Action. He just has a wealth of background experience in both profit and nonprofit work, working with a lot of different organizations in influence and negotiation over the years. And Joe, we're excited to have you and kind of hear a little bit more, more about both your story and the work you're doing through our action.
JB : Thanks. When I heard from Nolan that this was show 29, I was wondering what you were doing the previous 28 episodes, but better or late than never.
NM : Well, we are excited to have you Joe, and first kind of to kick things off, let's just talk about how you got into to the field of negotiation.
JB : Sure. When I graduated from college back in 2003 (ancient history), I participated in a symposium in the Hague on international negotiation and conflict resolution. So it was a four week symposium and we learned about the genocide in Rwanda, and we learned about various other international conflicts and efforts to resolve them. And that had a really profound impact on me and I returned to the states and then worked for that organization for some time. The next sort of milestone for me in this journey was going to graduate school, focusing on conflict resolution at the school of advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins and taking a course on dispute settlement methods. And in that course, we read two books that really impacted me. One was Difficult Conversations co-authored by Bruce Patton, who Aram and I have come to know quite well over many years. And the second book, which was my favorite of all the books I've read in this field was called Beyond Machiavelli, which was a book written by Roger Fisher.
And the main ideas of the book is, as I recall them were the importance of putting yourself in the shoes of someone you're trying to influence and trying to understand the choice that they're being asked to make. And this book did an incredible job of applying that simple, but not simplistic idea to conflicts like the Iranian hostage crisis and the first Gulf war. And it was just a very interesting book. And after I finished my graduate school program, I found, , work at vantage partners, which is how Aram and I first met. And as Aram said, this is for profit consulting work, but it's really about helping companies negotiate more effectively with suppliers, with customers, with key Alliance partners, but I was restless to do more international negotiation, conflict resolution work. And so I was able to finagle a succumbment to Mercy Corps, in 2011 and spent three months in Kenya working on post-election violence or, or post-election conflict resolution work. And three months in Guatemala working on land dispute resolution. So maybe I'll pause there, but that was how I, I kind of first got into the, the broad field.
AD : Yeah, that's fantastic Joe, it's just, just a, a great path. So you mentioned, you mentioned two books, what concepts and in getting into the other party's shoes. I love that in terms of a simple, but not simplistic sort of framework. Are there other, other key points there in your journey that you found kind of stick with you, particularly in the work you're doing now, but anything else that's kinda led into your growth and development of your mindset?
JB : I think the biggest insight that sticks with me, and that is really important in the work that I'm doing today is intellectual humility. And I'm not sure if that idea was explicitly talked about in, in those two books, but I think it is a part of all of the ideas. And, and just before coming on, coming into this conversation, we talked about mindset, action results. And so this is a mindset piece. You know, Bruce would always talk about this. He would stand up on a chair in the workshop room and he would talk about the possibility, the 1% possibility that if we can just maintain a 1% chance that we might be wrong or might be missing something. And for me, and if we think about the, the exercises and the workshops that we run; the F exercise, which is, is for those listening, who, who might not be familiar with this, this is an exercise where people are asked to read some texts on a screen, and they're asked to count the number of times they see the letter F as in Frank, but before they do that, I ask them to raise their hand and not to put it down until they're a hundred percent sure that they've counted the correct number of Fs.
And what we see invariably, is that the vast majority of people undercount Fs because they're, they're reading, they're reading the text as opposed to, um, counting the number of times they see the letter F and so they might let miss the F and of, they might miss, um, an F when they're two together in an italicized word. And to me, it just is a great illustration of how we are over confident that we see everything there is to see. And when I think about the conversations that we're facilitating now over climate, over economic hardship, over democracy, over political violence; if we are able to bring some humility into those conversations, if we're able to bring some curiosity, because we recognize that we might not know everything there is to know, then we're more likely to take the actions that are really effective: asking good questions, trying to listen and check our understanding of views that we might disagree with, but we're not gonna do those things effectively if we assume that we have the answer and whoever has a different answer is just wrong. And they would be, you know, better off just agreeing with our point of view.
AD : Yeah. It's so it's so difficult, right? To really take a posture of curiosity. I, I, I think that's a challenge for, for all of us. You, you started to kind of allude to some of the things that you are discussing through our action. So can you tell us a little bit about urban rural action? What it is, why you started it?
JB : Sure. I'll start with what it is, and then I'll go to why I started it. So Urban Rural Action is a national nonprofit, and our vision is a more peaceful just and democratic United States. And our mission is to bring Americans together across geographic political, racial, and generational divides to build relationships, strengthen collaboration, skills, explore different perspectives on issues and work together to address challenges that impact all communities. Those challenges can be economic challenges, environmental challenges, political challenges, social challenges. We believe that if you can build relationships across divides, you can work together more effectively. We also believe that if you can work together to address challenges, you can build relationships and trust across divides. We see those two things as, as mutually reinforcing. In terms of why I started it, there are a few things that I, I think back to one is that in my work at mercy Corps, 10 years ago, 11 years ago when I was in Guatemala, there was a program to help resolve land disputes.
Land disputes in Guatemala are quite common because the owners of land that the property rights, the title to those land, it's just not always clear. There aren't good records. There are competing historical records. There are also disputes between large landowners and, and the people living on those land, living on those pieces of land. And I had a really interesting experience where we, we went and met with a, a family, or a community that had participated in a mediation process. And the dispute had been, one dispute had been re resolved with a neighboring community, but now they were in a dispute with a different neighbor over a different piece of the land border. And the sort of, you know, question that came to my mind was, “well, why, you know, what are you gonna do about it? Are, are you gonna talk to this other party and try to resolve it?” And, and the answer was “No, we're, we're waiting for, you know, an engineer to come and, and do the GPS measurements and figure out exactly where the border ought to be.” And what, what struck me was that this, this program focused on resolving land disputes did not include an element of building skill, building the skill to resolve disputes on your own, building the skill to talk about, well, why are, do we want the land? Do we plan to use it to grow hard of mom or grow coffee or grow corn? Or do we plan to use it to build the soccer field or a church or a hospital? How can we engage in conversation with this other party as opposed to waiting indefinitely for some third party to show up and hopefully save the day?
And that always struck me as a major shortcoming. And so when I thought about work, we might do with parties in disputes or with people in a context of conflict, I always felt like equipping people with some skills they can use on their own. It is really important. And maybe just a second thing I'll share Aram and Nolan; because I think that was a bit kind of narrow, but bigger picture: The work that I have done over the years for Mercy Corps, which is an international NGO (non-governmental organization) that merged with a conflict management group back in 2004, has been to prevent organized violence in East Africa, West Africa, Southeast Asia. So America, the types of places where I know you've served in your career. And what struck me over the past several years is that the conflict dynamics that exist in those countries exist in the United States as well.
And what I mean by conflict dynamics is political polarization, a divisive rhetoric from elected officials, winding economic inequality, misinformation, and disinformation, loneliness, and isolation, easy access to firearms, right? All of these dynamics that can contribute to violent conflict exist in the United States. And so I was motivated to apply some of the approaches that I've seen work overseas, bringing people together across divides, to carry out projects together, bringing people together to engage in constructive dialogue, apply those in the United States to see if we can overcome some of the challenges that we face and advance a more peaceful society.
AD : Yeah. I was going to follow up and you really hit it, which was, you know, I think that many people would say, “well, we don't, we don't have those issues.” Right? Do you find in the work as you start to engage with groups, just even just a recognition of what you, what you just discussed, all these sort of dynamics occurring, just that being even a good first step, an effective first step is, “Oh, wow. We really, we really are very polarized. We're, we're incredibly tribal.”
JB : I think an increasing percentage of the American public recognizes the dangers that we're talking about. I think if they didn't prior to January 6th, 2021, they did that day and afterwards. We are and I know this is like a call to action for the end of our conversation, but it's, but it's relevant. We, we are this week facilitating conversations on political violence, and we're gonna be talking about causes and effects of political violence and then possible solutions. And when people register for these events on the fifth and the sixth, tomorrow and Thursday, we ask people why you're interested in participating. Cause we want to make sure that people are bringing a spirit of trying to contribute to better outcomes in our society, to the conversation. And one person said, “I want to prevent civil war in our country. I'm worried that we're on that path.” And, and that really speaks to the, the concern, the recognition of the challenges that we face in our country, not just political polarization left, right? Blue, red, Republican Democrat, but also the declining trust of institutions, the widespread misinformation, the divisive rhetoric, the lack of trust of our neighbors, the mass shootings, the hate, those are all manifestations of organized violence or risks of violence that we face as a country.
AD : So how do you do it? How I, you, you talked about this nationwide program that you, our action is, and you also work very kind of closely at the, the local state level. Tell us a little bit about the programs you run. You talked about two programs coming up this week, but how do you, how do you get people from these diverse perspectives and backgrounds to rooms or virtual rooms to talk?
JB : Yeah, so we, we run different types of programs as you're suggesting. And I'll talk first about what I see as like our flag ship program. And that model is a statewide program. I'll describe one, which is Uniting for Action on the Maryland Economy. And it's a program over nine months where people come together in person and on zoom and community on slack. And they come together repeatedly. They're, they're a cohort of 25 people across the state, white people, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic, older folks, younger folks, middle aged folks, people who live in big cities like Baltimore, people who live in more sparsely, populated counties like Allegheny and Washington, people who are conservative, people who are liberal, moderate, and, and so on. And what do we do when we come together? Well, essentially four things. One thing we do is we try to facilitate constructive dialogue to explore different perspectives and to build skill in the process.
JB : And so we introduce a framework called the ABCs for constructive dialogue, where the, A stands for Ask questions to better understand their perspective B is Breakdown our view so they can understand our reasoning. And C is Check our understanding of their point of view. And we do these exercises and small groups so that people can practice, particularly those skills of A and C to better understand someone else's perspective on economic related issues. Second thing we do is we try to build relationships through fun activities like truffle tasting, which is, which is one of my favorite sometimes blindfolded, sometimes not. Harder to do during times of COVID, but we try to do it outside when possible. We did resume indoor activity in September, , in, in Hagerstown, Maryland, and then in October in Baltimore and Corvallis in November. But we, we believe that having fun together is a way to build relationships. And if we can have fun together with people who are different from us, we can connect with them and it it's supports more constructive dialogue if we are able to connect with someone as a fellow human and a fellow American.
JB : The third thing we do in our meetings is we analyze complex problems, and we do this in subgroups. So we, I described a, maybe a 25 person cohort across the state. We break that down into teams of say five people or so, and there might be a team of five working on mental health in the workplace. There might be another team of five working on immigrant entrepreneurship. There might be another team of five working on homeless workforce development. And we introduce a framework called the problem tree analysis, and it's a three-step process to help people analyze complex societal issues.
Step one, define the problem. Step two, map out the effects of that problem across economic, social political, and environmental systems. Step three, map out the causes of that problem across social, economic, environmental, and political systems. And we find that this is a collaborative approach where people expand their understanding of these complex issues and the interconnections among different causes and effects. And the fourth and final thing we do during our program is we provide a process for people to design an intervention. So they use that analysis to say, “okay, this is a cause of lack of immigrant entrepreneurial opportunities that we think we can do something about.” Or “this is a cause of ineffective, homeless workforce development that we think we can tackle with a local organization that we are paired up with.” And so we introduce the idea of a theory of change. We help the team develop a work plan and we help them come up with measures of success. And then they go on and implement that project with a community organization that they are paired up with.
AD : Joe, you've done this a number of times, where do you see most odd audiences struggling the most with regards to those four steps? Is it with the problem tree analysis, or is it in another aspect of that where, where they, they struggle to kind of work through the problem just maybe because of their mindset or how they tend to show up is, is there maybe there's not a place that they, they struggle more than others, maybe it's at the beginning? I don't know.
JB : You know, the chocolate truffle tasting in Corvallis, Oregon was quite hard. I, I was sure cause there were some extras and I wasn't gonna let them go to waste. Of tasting mint chocolate and it was like peanut butter or something. So I was just completely off [laugh]. Um, but again, that's about being overconfident in one of the challenges. No, you know, I think that there are different challenges in different steps of the process. As you know, from some of the work we've done in workshops, you know, whether it's in Afghanistan in your case, or whether it's in the corporate context in both of our cases, it's easy for people to break down their view, right? That this is the B in our ABC to break down your view and share why you think the criminal justice system is unjust or why you think small businesses should be supported more, to recover from the pandemic.
It's much harder to withhold your perspective and really embrace curiosity to listen to perspectives that you might disagree with. Ask those open ended questions, check your understanding, particularly that skill of seed, um, because people often resort to, to, oh yeah. I, I know what you're saying or I, I hear you as opposed to, so it sounds like Aram, what you are saying is that you think, political violence is caused by a range of factors, including the toxic environment on social media and, the rhetoric from our elected officials. Is that right? Am I, am I getting you or point of view? And, and so people struggled there. I think that people also, and, and it, it does depend on the audience. We work with college students, we work with, people from different communities, I think on the problem tree analysis, sometimes working out what is a cause and what is an effect is really hard.
So, for example, just to pull something out of thin air, you know, does the lack of skill that we often bring to difficult conversations feed into the toxic environment on social media, or does the toxic environment on social media contribute to our lack of skill in engaging with different perspectives? That's just an example. And, you know, the purpose isn't to complete some master analysis where every cause and effect is perfectly depicted. But I do think the practice of thinking expansively about really complex challenges as opposed to resorting to “Oh, that complex problem has one simple cause and therefore one simple solution.” I think that's an important takeaway. And the last thing I'll say is that it's really hard to design interventions, and it's hard to agree, like you're working with these people from different backgrounds, different identity groups, different perspectives. And you're trying to agree on a set of actions to take that's hard. It's just working collaboratively with people you're building relationships with, is a challenge. And now more than ever, when we're overwhelmed with family responsibilities and community responsibilities and work responsibilities, it's hard to sustain engagement over the course of a program and implement fully what you say you're going to do. You also asked Aram about how do we get people from different backgrounds to participate?
AD : Yeah.
JB : So I'd love to just answer that.
AD : Please do
JB : The challenge with the type of work that we're describing is that it tends to attract a subset of the general population. And if I were to describe that, I would say, it tends to attract people with more disposable time, tends to attract people who have higher levels of formal education. It tends to attract people who are a little bit older in age. It tends to attract people who lean left politically. And so if you're going to bring together a, a cohort that reflects the rich diversity of our country, geographically, racially, politically ideologically, then I think you need to be really intentional about how you recruit. And we try to do that through different types of groups, whether that's a chamber of commerce in a sparsely populated county, whether that is a group like women of color advancing peace and security, whether that is through young people who are part of our organization, who can connect with people their age. So, we're thoughtful about who the messengers are about our programs. And then the other pieces, we have an application process. And when people apply, we ask them to apply with someone who is different from them in a meaningful way, keeping in mind that we're trying to recruit a cohort that is diverse generationally, politically, geographically, and, and racially. And, and that does help, because we can then sift through a collection of applications and invite people who contribute to diversity along the lines that we're trying to achieve with our programs. Yeah. That
AD : Would be a tough, tough challenge for many, um, potentially I think to find somebody to co-apply with who has a very different worldview than, than the one we share, cuz we tend to, we tend to isolate.
NM : Hey guys, it's Nolan. Let me go ahead and jump in right here. We're gonna continue this discussion with Joe in next week's episode, that's gonna be NX episode 29 part B. So be sure to tune in next week. Until then we'll see you in that next episode.
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