You are going to love Elaine Shpungin, a restorative justice and conflict resolution entrepreneur!
In this episode we talk about:
- A summary of restorative justice and conflict resolution is [4:20]
- Leaving academia for full-time entrepreneurship [7:10]
- Why hiring an entrepreneur coach was so important [9:40 & 32:00]
- How to look at challenges as opportunities [13:21]
- Contribution and integrity as a business owner [18:19]
- Successes in restorative communication circles [19:58]
- How to implement constructive criticism [25:45]
Elaine from Conflict 180 shares better ways of listening constructively, a formula for knowing if you’re ready to leap into full-time entrepreneurship, and the benefits of working with a business coach. She also has such a calming demeanor that makes you know you can go out and change the world.
Important Links for Elaine
Complete Transcript Below
Michelle: Hello Wonder Women. I’m so happy you’re joining me today and I’m thrilled to introduce my guest Elaine Shpungin. Elaine is passionate about contributing to a future in which we address conflict more constructively and restoratively. Her journey toward her own restorative shift has led her to be a student and teacher of effective communication, deep listening, and equity for more than two decades. Since 2009, she has been supporting justice systems, schools, university units, organizations, and communities in making their own restorative shifts by incorporating best practices from multiple fields, including restorative practices, justice, leadership, and diversity science. Elaine’s writing has appeared in academic journals, scholarly books, web magazines, popular books on psychology, and her blog. She is also the proud parent of two children who give her lots of opportunity to practice constructive and destructive conflict approaches at home. In 2016 Elaine founded Conflict 180 with the goal of supporting schools families and communities in finding constructive ways to address conflict and restoring dignity and cohesion following acts of harm.
Hello Elaine. Thank you for joining me today.
Elaine: Hi Michelle. It’s my pleasure and my honor to be working with you.
Michelle: So I would definitely call you a Wonder Woman and I have and many times in describing you to other people and it’s why I asked you to be here. Let’s kick it off by sharing what you think is your superpower.
Elaine: Thanks Michelle. I want to also to say that I’m a great fan of your work and I appreciate all the wonders that you are bringing to women and to communities around the Midwest. Yeah, I think my super power might be to synthesize and innovate and communicate. I bring a lot of different research and evidence and experience in many different fields including leadership, diversity, racial justice, restorative justice, and I think one of the things I do well is put that together in a way that makes sense on the ground in real life situations. I innovate a little bit for whatever group I’m working with and then I communicate it pretty clearly.
Michelle: Yes, I would say that’s absolutely the case for you. You see communication challenges in a different light than many people are used to seeing them and used to working through them. I think it’s your educational background and your passion and your fieldwork that really places you above and beyond anybody that I’ve ever known especially when it comes to conflict resolution.
Elaine: I appreciate that and I do try very hard to live everything that I share and everything that I teach – to live that in my own business and to live that in our family, which is one of the things that keeps me humble because I have a 16-year-old and an 11-year-old and a marriage. A twenty-year-old marriage. And if you try to use the practices from the textbooks around conflict and communication and real-life situation with real-life kids. It keeps me humble. And it also keeps me, you know, sharp.
Michelle: Yeah, I’ll get into your business a little bit more but I am interested to elaborate. So how do your kids feel about using this conflict resolution practice in your home? I know your husband works in this as well. So it’s something that I believe they’ve just experienced their entire lives. Would that be true?
Elaine: That’s absolutely true. Since they were two and five years old. We actually just had a family meeting. It’s one of the things I think many families do and many organizations do – kind of a check-in meeting to check-in on how our communication conflict system is working. I know that sounds kind of geeky I hung some paper on one of our windows because we don’t have a whiteboard and we just ask what’s working. What’s not working? You know, how do we improve some things? And we spend a little bit of time looking at some of the things we’ve let slide. Some of the ways in which we’re no longer practicing what we value and came up with some actions to kind of get back in the game.
I think the kids were honest and they were they appreciate their practices and they were honest about which things weren’t working. So one of the things we value in communication with this organizational or family is that there’s a collaboration. It’s a collaboration that considers the developmental level of the humans we’re collaborating with but it’s not something we impose on kids.
So giving them agency and a voice allows for them to buy in and there are times in which they have sort of rebuilt and said, we don’t want to use this particular practice. We’re doing appreciations of dinner for a while and it’s a great but they came up with a different practice because the point isn’t a specific practice the point is how do you keep connecting? And keep using conflict as an opportunity to get stronger to become closer instead of disconnecting and separating.
Michelle: You know that makes so much sense when you talk about it in terms of family, and I know I’ve incorporated some of your practices with our family and any time we have a conversation I’m reminded to go back to it and revisit it and see how we can improve upon it in our own family.
But how did you transition from your academic work at the University of Illinois into Conflict 180? You left your secure position at the U of I to LEAP into entrepreneurship. Describe where you were going with that? And for our listeners, why education? Because primarily you work in the schools. I know we were earlier talking about family life and how you operate it with your children, but why schools? And why leaving the university and how does the Conflict 180 really work in that situation?
Elaine: Yeah, that’s that’s a great question. So I was a director on campus and was getting small requests to help, you know, a business team here and organization there. In our presentation we would do a little workshop or be a keynote speaker for some conference and because of my writing and because people were starting to realize that we had something interesting and innovative to offer organizations and there is that moment I think for all people, all women who are starting a small business or want to expand a small business where they’re kind of doing it, you know a little maybe it’s a little thing they’re doing free. Maybe it’s a little thing that they’re doing in the evenings or weekends. Where the number of requests get to a point where it looked viable as its own business. And I think the question that helped me is sort of trying to balance my passion with practicality. I could see that I was becoming more and more passionate about doing this work and expanding it and that’s when I began, or as a family we began, to ask practical questions.
Is there really a market for this that can sustain me or us or is it a little fad? If there is a market, who is willing to pay and where’s the money or where is the interest and passion that’s returning my interest and passion?
That is one of the reasons school systems became one of my major clients. It’s because the school systems are innovators and have been ready to embrace their staff and their children in a different way. And I know we do a lot of school bashing in the US, or the news likes to, and I really want to sort of give credit to the fact that it’s often school systems that want to be restorative and to serve all of our kids better.
So the school systems first became interested enough, you know. I again, I just did a little brown bag with some school staff and a little keynote at one of their conferences and people said, “Hey, let’s talk about hiring you for a larger piece.”
So that passion is being mirrored in the school world and then it was a matter of sitting down and asking if can we afford to take an income loss? I don’t know about other entrepreneurs Michelle, but I think it’s pretty common that when you first start a small business, there will temporarily be an income loss. And you have to ask yourself, “Do we have our little birds lined up with healthcare and this and that and childcare?” And also one of the most helpful things to me I think has been all along is to ask myself, “What do I not know? What do I not have the skills for?” And my answer was I actually don’t know how to run a business because the university did all that stuff for me. I was a director, but I had a bookkeeper and another who did grants. Oh and marketing was done for me and the web page was done for me. So the very first thing I did – and Michelle did not put me up to this in the interview – before I had a company or a website a name, before I really knew what I was doing – I hired a business consultant. I have to know what my super [00:10:45] powers are not. I didn’t know the first thing about turning a couple of workshops and keynote presentations into a viable company. First thing I did is hired Michelle. She was recommended by three different people who didn’t know each other, which is always a sign to me! They said, “oh you’re thinking about your own small business. Have you talked to Michelle Rice?” Three times in a row! I was like, okay and I really have to say that. I don’t know if my business would have taken off or survived without that piece because Michelle and I met weekly for the coaching and it was so so critical.
Right off the bat, I came to Michelle with like a two-page single-spaced document of possible names. This is what I was focusing on – what my business would be named. Michelle was like, okay. Let’s pick a name and move forward. So it’s a great combination of knowing where to prioritize and then helping with things like, here’s how you get a contract. Here’s how you get clients. Here’s how you think about the legal aspect of the website so that I could [00:12:01] then focus on my superpowers – which was you know, the conflict and communication.
So I think it’s that combination of passion, practicality for your family, and practicality of how are you going to learn the things you don’t know whatever they happen to be for you. [00:12:17]
Michelle: Thank you for all of that! I wasn’t looking for any of any of that about my own business, but that leads us into my next question which was, what has been the most challenging aspect of owning your own business and I think starting up that’s definitely a challenge and it brings a lot of questions about how you’re going to run things and how you fill the void of those missing skills you may not have when it when it comes to entrepreneurship but as you’ve been running Conflict 190 and building connections with the school systems that you work with what have been the biggest challenges for your business today? And how have you and how are you continuing to overcome, because I imagine there are new challenges all the time. If you’re not being challenged you’re not growing and I know that you are growing your business and you look at challenges with a with an eye of finding the right solution.
Elaine: Yes. I think it’s important if you’re going to be a small business to look at challenges as opportunities and it sounds a little cliche – however, that’s a mindset. That’s a growth mindset that will help you survive during a tough times. I actually asked my daughter this question recently. Like what do you think has been the hardest part of me owning a business? She’s 11 and she said in her very nice middle school succinct way. She said, “you work a lot more. And when people don’t listen to you it’s frustrating.” I am a coach, consultant, and trainer – that is the business. I’m hired usually at a one-year contract to provide a certain number of coaching, consulting, and training sessions. So yes, my daughter is correct. And I guess I think it is another cliche in a way, but yes when you say it’s not that I didn’t work hard at the University. I was a director. I certainly did but I have worked harder. And more hours and different hours – a lot more evenings – and in a way I didn’t as a director. So absolutely there is this investment of time and energy which I love and of course we have to balance that in the family.
So finding ways to not overdo it is always going to be challenging for a woman who’s also a mom and a consultant, which you are as well Michelle. Sometimes there is this impression that people are asking for advice and not engaging with the advice given and what I like to think about it is not about the people being resistant or somehow not doing their work. I’d like to turn the question back on myself as a consultant. How do I innovate and engage? And provide information such a way that people do find the value and do want to try it. So it’s always going back to me about how do we push the envelope as a business to better serve our clients. It’s not ours clients job to serve us. This is a collaborative relationship. And if there is something I’m recommending that is not landing – that is mostly on me to figure out how does this collaboration serve the folks? So it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge for me.
Michelle: I think that’s so valuable. I think that’s such a great lesson really in communication with anybody. I immediately think of how I’m mothering or how I’m working in my office too, if if it’s not working well. Everybody has a role in that relationship, but [00:16:47] the only person I can change, the only person that I can make change is myself. And so, how can I do better? How can I communicate better? How can I find a different solution? How can I try something that might work in a more productive way. So I think that’s so valuable for anybody in any kind of relationship that we have, whether it’s business or personal. Those kinds of issues are going to come up. It’s that old saying about looking in the mirror first to see how we go about it a different way?
Elaine: Yes. It’s what’s my piece of responsibility? Whether you are an artist who’s trying to sell a photograph? You have a dog grooming business or you’re working with therapy animals, whatever it is.
There’s often something we can do differently. Maybe we’re not building relationships that are strong enough for people to want to take our advice. I think it’s important not to start giving up or saying, “I guess people don’t want to,” and really just keep innovating.
Michelle: Yeah, I think there’s always something to try. There’s always something new to try. That’s a really great outlook. On the flip side, what’s been the most rewarding what keeps you going?
Elaine: I think two things. One is a sense of contribution and one is a sense of integrity. So in terms of the sense of contribution, I think that’s a fundamental human need for people who start small businesses, or maybe for all of us, and when I see the things that are happening in the news nationwide, local community, or even internationally and if I find myself wanting to become disheartened or lose hope or throw my hands up at the humanity, you know, it’s helpful for me to say, “well actually, I am doing my little tiny piece. I’m touching a few people. Because I really come to believe in the ability to have civil dialogue across differences.
We heatedly disagree – it’s kind of a critical 21st century skill, you know? I have kind of a joke, which isn’t a joke. You know, what if we could have circles in Congress?
I think about the very important decisions we make every day and how we just have lost the art of communicating without hatred, without finger pointing and blaming. So thinking I’m making my little contribution to what I think is right in our world helps me go.
And then the other piece is integrity which you know, is continually coming back and asking, “Am I using these skills? Am I still finding these processes and systems helpful as a businesswoman, as a family person? Because if I’m not, why am I sharing them, which is really different. I think when we sometimes offer a service to other people, but we would never use that service, that’s not right. So those two things I think keep me coming back and keep me passionate.
Michelle: And you mentioned the politics and I think that’s an interesting aspect because I saw on your website the comment about circles in Congress and I think you’ve alluded to how individuals can use these practices. But is there a time that you saw this working best? Having this restorative conversation on an individual basis? Maybe it was in somebody’s business or maybe it was in a home. Maybe it was a politician. I’m not sure, but is there an example that you can give when it works on an individual basis?
Elaine: Sure, and I think the sort of practices and the work of communication conflict actually works best in a system, which it what a family is. – it’s a small system. If you belong to a committee in your place of worship, that’s a small system. A classroom is a small system. So absolutely I have seen systems transform.
For having transformational experiences, I think it works best when I see adults. I am in the school system. So you think oh, this is something we’re doing for our children, which is absolutely true. And what’s most heartening to me is when adults choose to use the practices and processes that we created to have difficult dialogue and they choose to do the work themselves.
I have seen staff teams that were not getting along, where they were ready to separate or we’re asking to be separated into you know, I don’t want to be on this team anymore. I’ve worked with staff who have some serious concerns with the administration and instead of talking about it on Facebook or talking about it in bars, choosing after engagement with our team to actually have a series of six conversations – six small conversations to constructively and productively move through those issues.
I’ve seen business teams where I was called and told this team can problem solve anything. But they dissolve into bickering or one person is always silenced, one person is always over talking and so sometimes when you give people a container, a system like, okay, first of all, we’re only going to answer this question – first what’s working? We’re only going to answer this other question next. What’s not working? [00:23:04] We’re going to go one at a time. It really creates kind of calm container out of the chaos. I’ve seen this work over and over again and systems and People find it very valuable, even though it’s kind of scary and it takes courage
Michelle: Which leads me to one of my favorite newsletters that you have sent out. It was back in the spring but I remembered it because well first it had a picture of an elephant and it was titled restorative is not gentle and I want to read back a brief segment of what you wrote.
You stated, “I believe restorative is fierce, honest, and courageous. It takes fierce courage to face the elephants in our room head-on with deep humility and deeper honesty when we are restorative. We fiercely commit first and foremost to truth with love.” You wrote that for your audience, which is mainly, I believe, teachers, but I thought of it in terms of a female business owner and a wife. For our conversation today, can you frame it for women entrepreneurs? Because I think often we try to do everything ourselves and not admit when we need help to keep pushing through. How do we share truth with love to ourselves and in doing what’s best for our business?
Elaine: Yeah. I love this question because we often, again, try to do the work to others or for others in that for ourselves. I think the way I have applied or I recommend you apply this concept, is that you want to have a combination of humility and courage – courage to reach out the humility. It’s that question over and over again. What do I not know? What’s not working? And like I reached out to you early on and have so many people in my life mentors, friends – women friends, especially, my husband. So knowing when it’s time to reach out and knowing who are the people who are going to recharge your batteries, instead of draining them further. Because not all reaching out is created equal, so humility and courage to reach out. And I think the other thing that’s been really helpful to me and – I would love to give credit to the person who taught me this and it’s not coming to me, but this idea of receiving all feedback as diamonds.
So people will give us coal – like the kind of coal you get in your Christmas stocking if you’re not good. This is feedback of – something is not working. This is not valuable. . . blank faces. . . or your advice is not relevant – all kinds of feedback. All that feedback can be turned into diamonds of – oh fantastic! Thank you so much for this lovely gift. Now I can go back to the drawing board and make my newsletters shorter. Which, in fact, I’m actually experimenting with one page newsletters. Everything fits onto one page because teachers have given me feedback of – it was really great. Especially when I got to the end there was this really beautiful nugget. Instead of being defensive. I took that as feedback that people are exhausted and stretched. They have nuggets they’re looking for and we can make it more succinctly.
So all our coals – turning them into diamonds is easier said then done by the way. Yeah, all of this stuff is easier said then done. You have to come back and remember, what do I not know? Who do I need to reach out to? Oh my gosh. This is very painful feedback. How do I turn it into a diamond?
Michelle: That’s beautiful and the way you described it – who doesn’t want to think about more diamonds. I will remember that. How can I turn everything into a diamond? That’s so beautiful.
Elaine: We even had an administrator I worked with at his school. He was so amazing at this. No matter how difficult staff feedback was, he would just express appreciation.
He would say things like, “Thank you so much! That really gives me food for thought for how we can do, [things like] African-American month better next year.” We gave him an award at the end of the year. It was like a Coal to Diamond award.
Michelle: Nice. That’s great. And it probably helped keep him in a more positive frame of mind as well. You know, when you’re hearing feedback, it’s hard to stay positive all the time, but when you think of it in terms of how can we turn this into a diamond? Yes, it’s just much more pleasant to think about.
I just have a little bit more. I would love to know when you were younger and you thought of somebody like a Wonder Woman, you may not have framed it in that phrase, but somebody who was exceptional and doing great things and you looked up to, who was she and why did you think of her in that way?
Elaine: Yeah, I would say my maternal grandmother, who actually as a young woman, as a high school student, participated in basically a version of the Underground Railroad in her country. She lived in Eastern Europe. So she basically put her life at risk to fight for other people’s rights for social justice in that context. She was also a beloved school teacher and when she was an older, older lady, these 40-year-old and 45-year-old people would come to her house. Her former students were still visiting her. She was absolutely beloved. She was a lovely human being who also fought for justice and that’s a pretty incredible combination.
Michelle: That is a really incredible story. Do you feel like you live up to that kind of thought for yourself as a Wonder Woman?
Elaine: I think it’s more of an aspirational or inspirational goal. I don’t know that we ever get to where we want to be. It’s a journey. So when I fall short, I can ask, am I fighting for the rights of those who are structurally disenfranchised? Am I still focused on integrity? Am I forming the kind of relationships that somebody would want to come back to me when I’m 83? So I definitely don’t think I’m there. It’s just really great to have those goals.
Michelle: Yeah, that’s great to think of. That’s wonderful to think of forming relationships where somebody will come back to me when I’m 83. That’s something to strive for and continue striving for.
How do you feel like we can help other women rise to that aspiration?
Elaine: I like the formula of asking, “Where does passion and practicality intersect?” Because women are doing so much and yet traditionally women are still sort of being asked to do so much more. I run a company and I run a family, you know? It’s about asking, “Can you create a collaborative conversation about what’s realistic so that you don’t allow the practicality to hold back your passion?” And also you need to make wise choices about where there is a need. Where is there a market where I can sustain this work? Because I want my fellow ladies to succeed and to sustain and six years later to have even more. That’s been a helpful formula for me.
Michelle: The ability to sustain requires practicality and passion. Absolutely. Well Elaine, I think there should be more people like you and think you’re doing wonderful work out there. You give us all greater hope for the future. So thank you so very much.
Elaine: Thank you and I cannot recommend your services enough. It was truly a very complimentary collaboration where I had my little super powers and Michelle definitely had hers and – boom, like together, that was a powerful formula. So remember not to do this alone and whether it’s Michelle or somebody like Michelle, find consultants or friends or supporters and don’t be afraid to pay for it because that success is invaluable that you get from somebody who is the puzzle piece that you’re missing.
Michelle: Well, I am blushing! But also, I do that with others too. I have reached out and found complementary skill sets in different coaches and consultants as well. And it really does it allows you to keep that balance of passion, production, and productivity while being realistic so you can go out and change the world.
So I would say in closing: answer the call Wonder Women! Embrace your powers, step up, and change the world. Until next time. Thank you so much.