Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Mar 29, 2011

On the long drive home from an evening community meeting, after a busy (good but tiring) week I was reflecting on the fact that our work as collaborative leaders and problem solvers can be rewarding as well as stressful, tiring, and emotional.

I reminded myself that to help people solve contentious problems, we need to take care of ourselves first. It can be hard to step back from a drama or a puzzle.

So here’s my own list of how to sustain yourself first, so you can help and nurture others second. This list works for me, if you have other suggestions to add please let us know as comments on this entry:

1) Go outside—being outside can be profoundly spiritual or just a good way to get some Vitamin D– -too much florescent lighting does me in.

2) Keep learning—invest in professional development, learn new skills, read. Take on new challenges—new places, new techniques, or new issues.

3) Eat real food, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly—hotel Danish, late nights, and airplanes cause conflict resolution decay.

4) Let’s sustain our spirits—be in nature, go to religious services, yoga, or meditate regularly. Touching in with what gives us meaning nourishes our practice.

5) Reflect on practice and work regularly— meet with a group of colleagues, write in a journal or build new relationships. We can get stale if we don’t reflect on why we do and say the things we do when we are working.

6) Spend time with people who like and love you (or even a dog). We spend a lot of time attending to others; let’s make sure others are attending to us as well.

7) Play—go to the movies, read a book, go on vacation, do something that is fun. All work and no play makes for dull and burnt out facilitators and mediators

8) Last but not least—lighten up….look for humor in unexpected places, enjoy the moment, the world is going to keep spinning if you take a nap or go bird watching.

- Juliana Birkhoff

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From Sackville to Sumbawa

Mar 16, 2011

One of the best things about being an environmental and public policy mediator is the wide range of topics I have to learn about, the great people I meet and get to work with, and the diverse places I get to work. I am constantly challenged by the scientific, economic, and social information and am stretched to figure out how to apply my experience to new policy contexts. My work also pushes my introverted self out of my comfort, to constantly meet and interact intensely with new people. We work on problems with partners everywhere. Sometimes the everywhere is all in one week….

RESOLVE works with an amazing travel agent—which is good. A year ago, a mediator friend in Europe asked me if I could take over her project because she hurt her back and could not travel. I talked to the sponsor—a UN program. They told me the date and location of the in-person meeting. I replied, dubiously, that I would call our travel agent.

“Jerry, this is Juliana, can I get from Winnipeg, Canada on Wednesday night if the meeting ends at 6:00pm to Bangkok, Thailand for a meeting on Saturday morning?”


“Are you sure?”


“Can you try?”

….through the miracle of flight and benefit of time changes, Jerry Feldman flew me from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Toronto, to Dubai, to Bangkok. I made it to the hotel in time to nap, shower, eat breakfast, and go to a planning meeting with the chairs, country sponsors, and UN staff.

Thanks to Jerry, I have also flown from Vieques, Puerto Rico to Pretoria, South Africa…

The travel, of course, is one challenge. The bigger and more stimulating intellectual challenge is to go from regional infrastructure planning in Canada to financing for chemicals and hazardous materials in the UN system. But through experience, I find that I learn the issues, history, policy and decision-making context, negotiation and collaboration culture, leaders and stakeholders faster now than I did early in my career. I am also much more comfortable beginning projects asking everyone to tell me what I need to know and learning quickly from my key informants. I used to be afraid to let on that I did not know it already. Good mediators do not know everything but they are flexible and can learn in the moment. After many years of experience we also reach a point where we have a deep, rich set of experiences to draw on, allowing us to see patterns that can help our partners find solutions and reach agreements. There is also sometimes a benefit to a fresh perspective. In some circumstances stakeholders need help from a collaborative leader who is also an expert on their issues. In other circumstances, an experienced mediator, with a fresh eye on issues and relationships can see new things and unlock new potential.


On March 24, I will be facilitating a meeting in Sackville, New Brunswick Canada to develop the beginnings of recommendations on the process to revise the Maritime Forest Stewardship Certification standard. Then I fly from Moncton, to Toronto, to Hong Kong, to Bali, to Sumbawa, Indonesia to train community and gold mine staff to improve their conflict management skills.

I will once again suspend my attachment to time zones, let the rich set of experiences, relationships, and interests take hold, and fully expect that what I help stakeholders achieve in Canada will bring value to my partners in Hong Kong, Bali, and Sumbawa.

The really good news here is that our field continues to expand its horizons and will strengthen as its adapts to the needs, interests, cultures, histories, and new approaches of our global partners.

- Juliana Birkhoff

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Update from South Africa [travel]

Jan 13, 2011

Hello RESOLVE and RESOLVE-y people:

Finished yesterday at noon facilitating the United Nations Environment Program meeting. The meeting was to develop options to finance international chemical and hazardous waste conventions. The delegates worked hard to understand and improve all the options and came up with a good approach to collect more information that can inform a future approach.

Really interesting to transition between local-to-national-to-international organizations and problem solving. I’m used as a facilitator with a chair, but very few people had worked with a chair managing content and a facilitator managing process so I could not do as much as I can in North America. It was interesting to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the chair/facilitator model. (more…)

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Another Picture From China

Sep 30, 2009

Juliana explains the RESOLVE approach to public participation in China.

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A picture from China

Sep 14, 2009

A Chinese land use legal scholar and public interest lawyer,
Lisa Bova-Hiatt (New York City Law Department) and me

Juliana Birkhoff

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Juliana’s China Trip – Update 2

Sep 11, 2009

An anthropology professor of mine once explained that culture shock proceeds through several phases:

  1. Oh, My! What’s This?
    In the first phase you experience surprise, physical disorientation, and a strong emotional sense of how different are people’s behaviour, language, appearance, and the surroundings.
  2. We’re Just the Same!
    The second phase is characterized by recognition that we are all exactly the same. The differences that in phase one jumped out at you now seem trivial as our common experiences and goals come to the foreground.
  3. They Are Totally Different!
    In the third phase you begin to understand the beliefs, perceptions, and world views of the other culture. You realize that they are seeing and experiencing the world differently.
  4. Integration
    Finally culture shock subsides as you synthesize your reactions into some kind of understanding.

By the end of the delegation’s visit to Shanghai, I realized that I have entered into stage two of culture shock. My struggles with chopsticks, food, language, and rituals are fading. I’m recognizing similar challenges and approaches for North Americans and Chinese.

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Juliana’s China Trip – Update 1

Sep 6, 2009

Land use and Public Participation in China

I landed in Shanghai on Saturday after a long flight. I am one of four prople in a land use and public participation delegation in China. We are here to present workshops, meet and discuss issues, and visit important land use sites.

The public participation project was organized by The National Committe on U.S. China relations. The National Committee is a private, non partisan, non profit organization dedicated to exchange, education, and shared learning. Our delegation includes a law expert in condemnation, an expert in public participation fr a public agency, and an expert in land use law. I’ll talk more about them later.

Our route to China took us over Maine, Qurbec, Northern Canada, Northern Russia, Mongolia, and down to Shanghai. My last night in Washington was a blur of approving invoices and monthly reports, sending off meeting summaries for finished projects, draft agendas for meetings in September, and proposals to support a climate change project and a forestry collaborative. So it is not surprising that as I looked out my plane window I tried to imagine what the land look like, what the demographic changes would be, and what people below would be doing in a future shaped by different climate. Flying up the rocky Eastern North American coast I tried to see the storms, rising sea levels, and warmer weather. How would people in the resource dependent economies below respond? As we crossed over snow and ice I pictured inland seas, lakes, rock. And little towns in warmer inland areas.

Then my imagination failed me as we flew over Irkutz and Ulan Batar. I realized that I couldn’t fantasize their new globally changed life without some vague idea of their lives now.

We flew for hours then over Mongolia without seeing any sign of villages, fields, or roads. My eyes closed and I fell asleep wondering how global climate change would affect the dry rocky terrain below me. I woke up over China seeing dams, towns, fields, and factories. My global change visions faded as my excitement grew. Global climate change is just the latest challenge. Human beings create a wide variety of economic, natural resource management, and social systems. I hope to hear some new ways to think about our challenges and my work. I also hope that my knowledge, skills, and experiences are helpful to my Chinese hosts as they address social, enonomic, and ecological challenges.

Juliana Birkhoff

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Juliana’s Going to China!

Sep 1, 2009

Juliana Birkhoff, RESOLVE’s Vice President of Programs and Practice, will be visiting China as part of a delegation to discuss land use and public participation. She’ll be leaving September 4 and will be returning September 16.

While in China, Juliana will be blogging about her experiences.

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