Interview of Pam Struss, PhD, President VMN and MC3 Board Member

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Pam Struss, PhD, President of Virginia Mediation Network, MC3-Certified Mediator and MC3 Board Member

MC3: So happy to speak with you Pam. Maybe a good place to start would be for you to share a bit about your professional background, some of the work you’ve done over your career and how you came to a professional focus on ADR,
Pam Struss, PhD
Pam Struss: Well, my present work is basically divided between my work as an academic – I’m on the faculty at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia – and my work as a mediator.  However, the path I took to get here is a bit circuitous.

In the 1980’s, I was living in Dallas, Texas. I was a young mom, going to college, raising my children and, because of where I lived and what was happening in my community found myself engaging with some community issues.

Dallas was growing and it turned out that a road in front of my house had traffic congestion that was untenable.  I became involved in this issue and, without going into detail, I managed to help widen the road and resolve the issue.

Solving that problem led me to additional community involvement.  I started to serve on various local boards and commissions.  I engaged local, neighboring municipalities, encouraging them to work together on various projects – an animal control facility, a fire training center, a local water tower.  I got involved.

When I graduated college, I briefly worked for my local member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  I later worked with our local probation department which was experience where I worked with people who were in high conflict situations, and I would try to help them remove some of the conflict from their lives.  That work taught be a whole lot about how I might help all sorts of people from differing backgrounds and circumstances.

MC3: Interesting.  And where did you go from there?

Pam Struss: I worked briefly with American Airlines but, before too long, my husband found out that his job was going to take us to the DC area where I began selling real estate in Northern Virginia, which was something I did for about 16 years.  However, throughout all of that time, the idea of being involved with local government was always kind of tugging at me.  So, I wound up developing a program to help teachers, nurses, firefighters and law enforcement officers buy their first home.  And that was pretty successful, and it led me to taking my next step which was to return to school.

I received a Master’s Degree from George Mason University and received my PhD from Nova Southeastern University, both with a focus on Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  And, once I was finished, that led to one of my professors at George Mason asking me to teach a class which I did without any certainty that I could do it or do it well.  Happily, once I took this step, I found that I absolutely loved it.

MC3: I’m wondering if the various things you’d been working at for the prior 20 years – the community work, your work with the Department of Probation, even the real estate sales – were all, in some way, encouraging people to compromise, to change their behavior, to be brought, in some sense, closer to an agreement; That there had been a through-line in your professional past that found its home in the world of Conflict Resolution.

Pam Struss: It’s really kind of bizarre. I was encouraged to take a single class in Conflict Resolution, and I almost immediately realized that this brings all the areas of work I’ve done together in one place.  I realized that the skills that are used in ADR are skills I’ve used for a very, very long time and it felt very natural, and very appropriate to me.

I had some extraordinary experiences as a graduate student.  The most memorable took place when I was interning for the World Religion Center.  The Rabbi who was the Chair of the Center was approached by King Abdullah of Jordan who wanted to meet and speak with some of the more influential Rabbis on the east coast.  The King, who is brilliant man with a big heart would speak of the Rabbis as ‘cousins’.  He would say, “We’re from the same tribe.  We have a lot of the same culinary concerns, and we are more alike than we are different”.  So, I helped organize this meeting which was absolutely amazing.

This initial meeting led to a trip to Israel where we met and worked with the Israeli leadership, the Palestinian leadership, the US State Department Consulate and other stakeholders in this conflict-laden part of the world.

I was the first student who was allowed to participate on this type of trip. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to experience conflict resolution on an international stage, in a foreign setting and, without question, on a higher level than I had ever experienced it before.

MC3: Let’s switch to the present.  It seems to me that you wear a bunch of different hats.  You are an academic, you are the current President of the Virginia Mediation Network where you act as a policymaker/advocate for the mediation field and you’re a practicing mediator yourself.  How do you describe yourself professionally?

Pam Struss:  I’d say it’s probably about 50/50 academic, and then also practitioner.  And there’s more to my practice than strict mediation; Analysis of specific conflicts in terms of what’s going on, helping to identify the underlying causes of particular disputes.

MC3: This additional work is being done on behalf of whom?

Pam Struss: Several different people.  I guess the latest one that comes to mind is the Board of Supervisors for Fairfax County, Virginia called me to discuss a nonprofit that was gifted some land, acreage that had national historic significance.  And some of the board members of the nonprofit began to see dollar signs. Some wanted to tear down some of the historic buildings, let a developer come in a build big home sites and sell them off.

I was called and asked to see if I could help.  I talked to a few of the Board members, I did some research and, pretty quickly, I was able to see that some of the parties had significant conflicts of interest and might have something personally to gain in the development and sale of this land.

Right now, there are parties in Washington DC, Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia who are all stepping in, so it is probably beyond my ability to do anything at present, but I was going to try.  They may pull me back in afterwards once it all explodes.

MC3: And, in your current division of labor, are you satisfied with the way things are?  If you could change the mix, do more of one thing, less of another, are there changes you’d like to make?

Pam Struss: Probably not, although I might like to teach another class or two each semester because I really enjoy that.

And I can do that along with practicing. You know, right now I’m the president of the statewide professional organization, the Virginia Mediation Network (VMN), which has been interesting and rewarding.  Because I am president, I think that may be why the guy from the Fairfax Board of Supervisors came to me. So, VMN has opened some doors and some possibilities that I didn’t know were there.  And it’s helped develop my reputation which has been nice.

MC3: Could you speak about your role as an educator?  What classes do you typically teach?

Pam Struss: Well, at George Mason, I’m on the faculty of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.  Right now, I teach the Mediation Theory and Practice course to undergrads. I’m interested in teaching a class in non-violent communication and I’d also be interested in developing a lab on the campus, something along the lines of a mediation lab or conflict resolution lab, so the students would have an opportunity to practice.

MC3: Please tell me a little bit more about VMN. Tell me about the organization, how long it’s been around and the role your organization plays in the Virginia mediation landscape.

Pam Struss: The Virginia Mediation Network has existed for 32 years.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, there began to be a real push in the court system for an alternative to litigation, something that could occur in a venue other than the typical trial.

So, Virginia was one of the leaders in this effort and, after two or three years of study, they decided to set up a more formalized mediation program in the court system. Our membership has gone up and down over the years.  We currently have approximately 150 members.  We have an annual conference; we do webinars and advocate on behalf of the mediators with the legislative bodies and that kind of thing.

MC3: Are there any particular accomplishments of VMN that have best defined the organization?

Pam Struss: Well, prior to my time on the Board of VMN, I do not believe that the compensation that the courts were paying mediators had changed in something like the past 20 years.  We have managed to get a raise for mediator compensation for cases associated with domestic juvenile custody visitation.

Several years ago, the Chief Justice of the State Court of the Commonwealth of Virginia got a little bit fed up because he was hearing from too many different entities regarding mediation.  He was hearing from community mediation centers, he was hearing from us, from VMN, and we represent the actual practitioners. He was hearing from attorneys, and he finally said this is too confusing, you need to speak with one voice.

So, as a result, a month ago, I and one other gal, we formed a working group and had gotten other people involved in that.  We had a goal of speaking with one voice when we’re dealing with the legislature, the court system and, specifically, with the Chief Justice, because he told us that’s what he wanted us to do.

MC3: And you hope that VMN will be that primary voice?

Pam Struss: Yes.

MC3:  That’s seems like a fairly big accomplishment.

Pam Struss: Yes.

MC3:  Am I correct in saying that you are not an attorney?

Pam Struss: I am not.

MC3:  And, with regard to VMN, I presume that your membership includes both attorney and non-attorney mediators?

Pam Struss: Yes, it does. And we have terrific attorney mediators in our membership.  However, in general, one thing I’ve noticed as a difference between the two camps is the way that each type of mediator is trained to listen.

Attorneys are trained very differently.  They’re taught how to efficiently assemble information.  I often think that they just want to get to the punchline, they’re anxious to learn just enough about a dispute to identify the determinative case law that will be applicable and aren’t as interested in the bigger story.

It is drilled into non-attorney mediators that the most important thing they can do is to listen. We try to train the attorneys like this too, but it doesn’t work too well. Attorneys have a long history of being capable and efficient in their abilities to assemble relevant information.

And I believe that it’s incumbent upon the mediator to listen to the whole story and figure out patterns, where they exist.  So frequently, mediations turn and find themselves resolvable by a mediator successfully listening to those stories.

MC3: My understanding is that, at some point and as a part of your role at VMN, you were looking for some sort of certification program and in your search of seeing what that might be, you became aware of MC3.

Pam Struss: Exactly. I was the president-elect at VMN, and I was charged with figuring out how to make our membership stand out above other mediators in Virginia where, like most places, you can just simply raise your hand and say, “I’m a mediator.” You don’t have to have any training, any background, any anything.  And the average person does not understand it. And so, I was charged with seeing if maybe we could come up with some kind of designation and make our mediators, our VMN members, stand out from, and above, others.

And I came up with a program. And it was summarily shot down.

So, I just kept looking and I came across MC3, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is it exactly.” So, I contacted and had a long conversation with Jack (Goetz, MC3 President). And the more we spoke, the more I felt that this is exactly what we were talking about and looking for. After lots of internal discussion, I was able to sell our Board that this is what we needed.

We’ve had a few of our members apply and receive their MC3 Certification but we’re going to have another presentation at our annual conference this year that will hopefully encourage some more applicants. It’s just taken us a while to get people to understand, but I am absolutely a firm believer that MC3 will be huge and that it’s very needed for our field. There needs to be a standard that is set for the industry.

The certification that MC3 represents is definitely needed. I think at some point we need to get in front of the state bar associations. I feel strongly about that. We need to collectively try to get all the different mediation entities, state entities and we need to encourage them to look at our standards and say this is what needs to happen.

MC3:  Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that is a significant part of your life and work that you’d like to share?

Pam Struss: Actually, there is.  It is a concept that I began developing several years ago called the Life Lens.

The idea behind it is that our Life Lens is made up of our genetics, our personality, our experience and our value systems. Each one of us possesses our own Life Lens and we both speak and listen through our individual Life Lens. There is so much miscommunication that takes place because we assume that people understand how we’re interpreting our world, how we’re saying things, how we’re hearing things.

Unfortunately, that is just not the case and I think it’s important that we encourage people to stop and do a little bit of self-evaluation, to not be so quick to take offense and to realize that the way that I might be able to hear, understand, process is a result of my Lens.  And it’s important for us all to appreciate that the Life Lens through which others see things might be a little different or, perhaps, vastly different from our own and that we are all better off with this awareness.  We are all benefitted by slowing down, asking more questions and doing our best to try and see a world through the eyes of others.

MC3:  I think that’s a great place to end, Pam.  It was great talking with you.  Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts today.

**This interview was edited for length and clarity.**