The Talking Stick
Rich Meyer served on Maple City Health Care Center’s Board of directors. On the day Rich’s cell phone rang, however, he was plowing snow from his farm’s lane.
The young man on the phone spoke with a Spanish accent and wanted Rich to repair the brakes on a Chevy. When the driver brought the car to Rich, the driver complained about other problems with the car. The headlights didn’t match and the hood didn’t fit. As Rich pointed out even more problems, the Latino grew angry. He had loaned the car to a friend, a fellow student from Africa.
“I don’t own the car,” the Latino explained. “It’s my mother’s car and she is going to be furious.”
Before working on the car, Rich wanted to make sure that he was really doing the job that the mother wanted done. When Rich spoke with the mother, he discovered that her son’s predictions proved accurate. She wanted to take the African to court.
Rich could see that the car wasn’t the main thing that needed fixed. “Because this was a cross-cultural conflict,” Rich reported, “I called my fellow Board member from Maple City Health Care Center, Miguel Millán. From our work on the Board, we both know how hard it is for people from different cultures and languages to communicate clearly.”
Luckily, the mother knew and respected Miguel. She agreed to meet with Rich and Miguel plus her son and his African friend.
“The conflict was a tangled mess,” Rich said. “We spent two meetings listening to each person tell their story. Miguel and I used techniques that we learned from participating on Maple City Health Care Center’s Board. We used a talking stick. The person holding the talking stick gets to speak and everyone else listens.”
“The mother was angry because she wanted to sell the car.” Rich continued. “When the African student first borrowed the car, he had talked about wanting to buy it, so the mother thought the car was sold. She asked the African student to insure the car, but he couldn’t because he didn’t own it.”
The African student told how he had used the car to travel to another state. He was involved in an accident that was not his fault. The African student felt he had taken responsibility by paying a mechanic to fix the car.
“And then there was the son of the owner,” Rich added. “He was caught between his friend and his mother.”
By the third meeting, the people trusted each other enough to begin talking about a path out of the conflict. They talked about how much the car was worth and how much it had lost in value. They decided on an exchange of money, but Rich and Miguel counseled the group to let the proposed agreement settle and then, if the agreement still felt good, to meet one more time to share a meal together to seal the deal.
“We were lucky in many ways,” Rich said. “The mother knew and trusted Miguel. All of the people cared about the relationships and were willing to stick with the process. But the biggest help was that both Miguel and I had experience using strategies to understand each other through Maple City’s Board.”
“Later,” Rich concluded, “I smiled to realize that with the big problem solved, no one cared any more about the brakes.”