Written by The Business Journal Staff
Douglas E. Noll
What we do: Help people solve difficult and intractable problems through mediation, facilitation, arbitration and leadership development.
Education: BA, Dartmouth College; JD McGeorge School of Law; MA peacemaking and conflict studies, Fresno Pacific University
Family: Married, no children
What made you first want to be a lawyer, Douglas?
It was a default choice. What else would an Ivy League English major do in 1977? I decided that law school would help develop my critical thinking skills so I attended. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to practice law.
What is your pro-bono project Prison of Peace all about, Douglas?
Prison of Peace is a project that proves the power of peacemaking. My colleague Laurel Kaufer and I were invited by a group of women serving life sentences without possibility of parole to come into Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla and teach them mediation skills. They had no money to pay us and we decided to do the project anyway. Since 2009, when the project started, we have trained over 87 women as peacemakers, 32 as fully certified mediators, and 15 as trainers. An additional 200 women have been trained by the trainers. The prison administration reports that it is a significantly quieter place because of the work of our peacemakers and mediators. Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are interested in expanding the project to other prisons. Of course, because this is purely pro bono, we cannot afford to do that unless there is further funding.
What are some common issues of conflict in business partnerships and how can they be resolved, Douglas?
The most common issue in business partnership conflicts is a feeling of deep and abiding injustice. This can come about because of compensation issues, lack of recognition, change in life goals, and a variety of other circumstances. When people feel injustice, they become resentful. Behaviors start to change, and a conflict escalation cycle becomes embedded into the relationship. Depending upon how far into the cycle the parties get, they can work it out themselves or may find it necessary to bring in a skilled outsider. The biggest challenge is sitting across the table from your business partner, whom you once loved, and now mistrust. The conversations are always difficult in the beginning. However, in the presence of a good mediator, people are able to talk about their differences safely, solve the problems in a businesslike way and reach new agreements.
How do personal emotions play into business relationships and does that make it even harder to settle conflicts, Douglas?
Personal emotions almost always dominate business relationships. We have cultural display rules in our society that say that only certain emotions are appropriate in business settings. However, we still experience the full range regardless of whether we are able to express them or not. When emotions become sufficiently intense, they literally shut down our prefrontal cortex and make it impossible for us to think logically through problems. The other thing that I’ve learned is that emotions dominate all thinking, including business decisions. As I say in my classes, we are 98 percent emotional and 2 percent rational. As a result, when we see people behaving in ways that are not logical, they are having an emotional experience. Labeling them as irrational is both unproductively judgmental and also incorrect. The trick is to learn how to create a deep empathic connection with a business person experiencing high emotion in a way that penetrates to the midbrain and bypasses the prefrontal cortex. That is the only way the prefrontal cortex can be triggered to come back online. This is what skilled mediators do, and what effective business leaders must learn to do.
Why did you make the decision to go from being a commercial trial lawyer to a peacemaker, Douglas?
It’s a bit of a story. Without going into all of the details, there was a confluence of spiritual growth, martial arts training and desire to serve humanity in a different way than as a trial lawyer that led me to the master’s degree in peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University. I found that graduate course of study to be life changing, and left the practice of law in 2000 to chart out the course as a mediator and peacemaker.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it, Douglas?
My first job was to be self-employed painting street numbers on curbs with a buddy of mine. I learned all the basic business principles at 12 years old, including sales and marketing, labor, procurement, inventory of goods, providing quality services and account collection. We made some pretty good money until we ran out of curbs to paint.
What are your roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Douglas?
I was raised in Southern California, went back east to college, went to law school in Sacramento and decided to move to Fresno after law school to work as a law clerk for the Hon. George A. Hopper, associate justice of the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District. Bert Levy, now an associate justice on that very court, talked me into it. I actually lived at Bert’s parents’ house for six weeks as I got established here in Fresno back in 1977.
What do you do in your spare time, Douglas?
These days, I have taken up jazz violin. I try to spend an hour or two every day practicing. In addition, I’m working on my fourth book. I’m also busy with a number of organizations and projects in addition to my professional practice. In particular, I am on the board of the Fresno Business Council. Along with many other gifted and talented leaders on that board, we are charting through the difficult waters of community transformation on a number of different initiatives. Of course, I received the most joy spending time with my wife. We ski, go into the mountains and go whitewater rafting with friends on rivers around the west.