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‘I Got Obama’d’

Gary Friedman is a Jedi Master of conflict management. He has helped more than 2,000 people work through all manner of unpleasantness, from ugly divorces to corporate meltdowns. After the entire San Francisco Symphony Orchestra went on strike, canceling 43 concerts, he and his colleagues helped them come together with management and reach a new contract. He’s trained thousands of lawyers, judges and therapists around the world, and taught negotiation courses at Stanford and Harvard.

So it made a certain kind of sense when his neighbors urged him to run for office in his tiny town of Muir Beach in Northern California. The town meetings had become adversarial and draining. People were calling one another names—just like on cable news, just like on Twitter. There had been a nasty fight with the U.S. Park Service over the aesthetics of a proposed new bus stop, and it had nearly torn apart the community. Couldn’t Gary, the godfather of mediation, help change the tone, and find some peace?

“I thought, ‘Well, you know, that’s worth taking on,’” said Friedman. If anyone could resolve political tensions in a small town, he figured, he could. He had, after all, upended another entrenched American establishment, years before. In the 1970s, as a lawyer, Gary had started to notice that the legal system wasn’t working the way it should. Every case he handled, he said, seemed to leave people more miserable. “I had the gnawing feeling that I was always presenting a distortion of the truth,” he wrote later. “I had to divide the complex world into oversimplified camps labeled ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’” So he started doing something radical: When a couple came to him in search of a divorce, he didn’t represent the husband or the wife; he helped them both, at the same time, in the same room. It went against everything he’d learned in law school.

But it seemed to work. In most cases, he could help people come to a solution—one that left their dignity intact. “I had no trouble getting clients,” he said. “People often came against the advice of lawyers. They wanted somebody who was going to be different.” Eventually, he and other colleagues helped invent the field of conflict mediation—which is now popular worldwide.

That’s how it came to pass that Gary Friedman, at age 71, drove his forest-green Mini Cooper to the county elections office and filed the paperwork. He ran for a five-year term on his local Community Services District Board of Directors, a five-member council in charge of area roads and water management. He promised a new way of doing politics. “I am committed to bringing a tone of respect, enthusiasm and openness,” he wrote in his candidate statement.

Thus began one of the greatest trials of his life. It took “about an eighth of a second” for him to get sucked into the conflict, as he puts it. Despite everything he knew, he ultimately lost two years of his life and peace of mind to petty political feuds—a period he now calls his “personal derangement.”

In the process, one of the nation’s leading gurus of conflict management fell into the same traps he’d taught thousands of people to avoid, the kind that make conflict destructive, instead of useful.

“I became defensive,” he says sadly, as if describing a descent into addiction. “I became aggressive. I became strategic.”

Politics, it turned out, was harder than he’d ever imagined.

“I was never thrilled with the way politicians behave,” Gary said, “but I do have much more of appreciation now of how easy it is to get caught.”


The tiny, fogged-in village of Muir Beach (pop. 250) is only 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, yet it feels like a secret—a velvet slip of sand, nestled up against Muir Woods, surrounded entirely by national park land. Over their 40 years in Muir Beach, Friedman and his wife Trish raised four children in the community.

“Muir Beach is magic,” Gary said, speaking before his neighbors at the candidates’ debate in September 2015. “That was the first thought that my wife, Trish, and I had when we first saw it. And that’s why we moved here.”

Friedman and the other candidates were seated in a row behind a long table. The windows behind them overlooked the town playground and beyond it, the vast ocean.

That night, Friedman seemed like a new model of politician, the kind he’d always wanted to see. His face lit up when he talked about the beach and his grandkids. He was quick to laugh at himself. When other people talked, he listened in ways that made them feel heard. He said he wanted to reinvigorate democracy in the town.

“This is a chance for a real change,” he said, “for everybody to be involved.” When someone asked about his experience managing water, Gary responded honestly. “I don’t know that much about water, but I know I can learn,” he said, his wavy white hair blowing in the sea breeze.

This was not what politicians were supposed to say; that was why he said it. Friedman seemed to take pleasure in breaking the political mold, in proving that there was another way to do politics.

A neighbor named Tanya volunteered to be his political adviser. (At Friedman’s request, I’ve changed the names of the neighbors involved in this story to protect their privacy. The names of Friedman and his family are unchanged.) Born into a family of politicians, she’d spent her career as a labor organizer. So it came naturally to her to draft talking points and a strategic plan for Friedman’s campaign. She upped his game, making it more like a traditional political campaign. “We knocked on all the doors three times,” she told me. “That had never been done before.”

With Tanya’s advice, Friedman adopted the campaign slogan, “Do you want to move forward or backwards?” Tanya talked a lot about winning. Soon Friedman did, too. Privately, he started referring to himself and his allies as the “New Guard.” They were the change agents, the upstarts. And the others, the ones who had been in charge for years? They were the “Old Guard.”

One member of the so-called Old Guard, a man named Hugh, had been Friedman’s neighbor for 23 years by this point. He’d actually hired Friedman to mediate a property dispute with another neighbor, years before. So Hugh had thought, initially, that Friedman would be the ideal person to serve on the board. “There’s nobody I would’ve trusted more with this job,” he told me.

On Election Day, the county posted the results online at 11 p.m. Gary received far more votes than any other candidate. “We killed them,” Tanya said. One member of the Old Guard, who had held office for nearly three decades, got ousted.

“It was all very exciting,” Friedman recalled. “I felt heroic, righteous.”

On February 3, 2016, Friedman presided over his inaugural meeting as president of the board. He introduced a new set of rules, called the “Principles of Unity.” He posted the principles on the wall of the community center, where the board met.

“Be respectful of others.”

“One person speaks at a time.”

“No name calling.”

“No eyeball rolling.”

During the public comment period, each person would be limited to just three minutes of speaking, according to the principles. This way, he reasoned, the gadflies who had rambled on at past board meetings would not be able to hijack the conversation; there would be space for more voices to be heard.

There were other changes, too. Under Friedman’s leadership, there were no more bowls of snacks, no more time set aside for socializing. People could do that on their own time, he figured.

He also established volunteer subcommittees, open to any and all, in hopes of bringing more residents into governing the town—just the way he’d brought the full ensemble of musicians into the room in his work with the San Francisco Symphony. There was a subcommittee for community engagement, for audits, for trails, for roads, for everything that might matter to the residents.

He was doing what he’d promised—infusing local politics with new energy and decency. His allies loved the new rules. But some people made jokes. They called the new rules “Gary’s psycho-babble,” and they rolled their eyes, violating multiple Principles of Unity at once.

The Danger of the Binary

“In conflict, the instinct to defend why we are right and the other is wrong is as old as it is pervasive,” Friedman and his co-author Jack Himmelstein wrote in their 2008 book Challenging Conflict. But this binary mode of thinking, they explained, is a conflict trap. “The right-wrong framework is simply too shallow and confining.”

But American politics, by its very nature, sorts people into binary categories: Right versus wrong. Democrats versus Republicans. And, in Gary’s case: Old Guard versus New. There are, all of a sudden, two sides, and everyone must choose.

“Overcategorization is perhaps the commonest trick of the human mind,” psychologist Gordon Allport wrote in his classic book, The Nature of Prejudice. It takes shockingly little for group biases or favoritism to emerge. It’s not for nothing that the word category comes from the Greek word for “accusation.”

In real life, most people have complex, ambivalent feelings about things like immigration, abortion, racial justice or policing. Their knowledge is uneven, and their opinions are manifold. “In very few conflicts is one side totally right and the other completely wrong,” Friedman and his co-author wrote in Challenging Conflict.

But even as he cruised to victory, heralding the advent of a New Guard, Friedman was falling into the same trap he’d identified.

Dividing his neighbors into an us and a them was motivating for Friedman and his allies, but the usefulness of the categories began to decay the moment the election results come in—when the governing began. At that point, people needed to cooperate to get things done. But as Friedman knew from his years practicing law in courtrooms, the primal feelings generated by such a competition linger, long after the results have been decided.

The feeling of winning can make the victorious side feel more aggressive, not less. Winning at just about anything, even a game of dominoes, tends to boost testosterone, researchers have found. In fact, to expect a politician to truly unite a community after winning a contested election is to utterly misunderstand human psychology.

Once Gary had won, the conflict mindset was almost certain to get worse, not better.

High Conflict

Before Friedman took office, Hugh (of the Old Guard) had spent four years on the board himself and then worked as the district manager, a hired position charged with carrying out the board’s decisions. He admits he didn’t always communicate everything to everyone. There were no subcommittees. But he prided himself on his efficiency. And he did try to create a sense of community. Each month, he brought coffee and snacks for everyone who showed up to the board meetings, and there were no time limits on talking.

Then Friedman took over. Within a year, he had created 23 subcommittees. Hugh still remembers the number. “Nothing got done,” Hugh says. A major roads project that Hugh had helped launched two years earlier ground to a halt. Gary very intentionally undid everything Hugh had done, at least in Hugh’s view.

At first, Hugh tried to go along with the new system. But when he tried to join the personnel subcommittee, he was told that Friedman did not want him on it.

“Gary felt that Muir Beach was too dependent on me.” He hadn’t even known there was a new water subcommittee until after it had been formed. “I felt a little put off,” Hugh said. “I felt like I had useful skills.”

Friedman had intended to make politics more inclusive, but he was excluding the Old Guard.

By summer, the board meetings were getting more tense. Hugh considered moving out of Muir Beach entirely. He told his grown children that he just didn’t like the feeling of the town anymore.

Friedman, meanwhile, spent more and more energy enforcing the Principles of Unity.

“I really hope to hold people to our three-minute limit tonight,” he told the spectators as he opened up the June meeting.

When one person tried to ask a question about a different subject, Friedman cut him off. “Not tonight,” he said.

The man raised his voice. “Well, I’m not going to leave here until I get a chance to publicly comment.”

“Well, you can stay all night,” Friedman said, “but we’re not going to address it.”

Later that night, when Friedman came home, he encountered more pushback—this time from his wife, Trish. He was cutting people off, hurting people’s feelings, she told him. “You are running these meetings so tightly. It’s all about the time limit,” she said.

Friedman defended himself. The Old Guard had been sending their minions to the meetings to obstruct change and criticize every initiative, he told her. He’d intended the subcommittees to represent democracy, inclusion, and fresh ideas. The Old Guard saw bureaucracy: wasteful and unnecessary. Everything he did, it seemed, was met with new aggression and derision. Trish did not seem to appreciate that he was under attack, no matter how many times he tried to explain, using that specific word, “attack.”

It was around this time that Friedman and his allies proposed doubling the water rates in the town. It was, in Friedman’s view, a matter of facing facts. Muir Beach hadn’t raised its water rates in seven years, even though water management costs had increased.

But the Old Guard, already feeling rejected and rebuffed, erupted in outrage. They reminded everyone that Friedman had said he knew nothing about water at the debate. How could they allow him to double the water rate?

“The rates don’t need to be increased by 100 percent,” Hugh said at a public meeting. “That’s like off-the-charts high.”

Friedman was arrogant, power hungry, or inept—or some combination of all three, his critics concluded. What else could explain his tendency to cut people off in meetings and create unnecessary rules? Hugh and other Old Guard members mounted a comeback campaign for the next election, in November 2017, further dividing the town. Friedman was not yet up for reelection, but his New Guard ally was, and the campaign got ugly fast.

“It felt like we were at war,” Friedman said. The community disagreements had morphed into high conflict: an all-consuming, larger-than-life, urgent fight. “I no longer had a sense of proportion about me and I lost myself.”

Friedman was prominent enough that he could have been lecturing around the world, writing more books, and taking on lucrative cases. Instead, he had chosen to devote a good part of his time to work—for free—to help his tiny town. Where was the gratitude?

This feeling of being unappreciated, even rejected, by his neighbors was powerful. It felt like a kind of toxin. Why, he wondered, did it bother him so much?

“I feel like we have lost you.”

In his long career as a conflict mediator, Friedman had gotten comfortable with intense emotions. He’d come to see that blame was almost always a mask, covering up some kind of fear or vulnerability. So he’d learned to get very curious about his clients’ vitriol. What were they protecting, underneath the accusations? “The conflict is almost never about what it seems to be about,” he liked to say.

As Friedman knew, when people feel rejected or excluded, they can become more aggressive in response. Aggression restores a sense of control, if only temporarily. And by demonizing others, people who once felt rejected can feel better about themselves, like they are on the side of “good,” fighting “evil.” But of course, aggression tends to incite more aggression from the other side, like throwing jet fuel on a fire.

In Friedman’s case, he had been recruited to run for election as a savior, and he was received, at least by some, as a nag, buffoon or villain. The only rational way to make sense of it, without gutting his own sense of self, was to blame the Old Guard.

But ostracizing politicians typically backfires. Shame makes the opponent stronger. It cements the division, bringing the other side closer together in fear or anger.

By the summer of 2017, Trish started noticing that certain people would no longer make eye contact with her. “It made me really sad. It was painful,” she told me. “I became ‘Gary’s wife,’ and people didn’t like Gary.”

The conflict stalked her husband, too. He’d wake up at 2 in the morning, scheming up ways to force the Old Guard to finally and publicly admit that he was right and they were wrong. He’d replay meetings in his head, over and over.

Someone told him that Hugh had called Gary “Napoleonic.” It was outrageous, Friedman thought. The man who taught listening to thousands didn’t know how to listen? He confronted Hugh about it, but Hugh denied ever saying such a thing.

Friedman felt trapped. “The feeling of hatred coming at me is a nasty feeling,” he said. “Especially when you’re walking the dog, and you know people have said things about you that are not true, and you can’t counter them, because if you counter them, you’re giving life to them.”

At family gatherings, he couldn’t stop talking about the details of neighborhood disputes.

Friedman’s grown children tried to intervene.

“There is this kind of poison seeping into the house, causing you to lose sleep, and you just can’t see it,” his son told him. “I feel like we have lost you,” his daughter said.

An Attempted Coup

Friedman had barely called the meeting to order when a board member named Joel interrupted him. It was October 17, 2017, the last meeting before the election.

“I’m really disappointed, Gary, that there are three items that I asked you specifically to put on the agenda and that you very carefully decided you were not going to put on the agenda,” Joel said, his voice tight.

Friedman responded with forced collegiality. “I did, and thank you for your comments, and we can’t talk about them because they’re not on the agenda.”

It sounded like a theater of the absurd. Friedman had refused to put the items on the agenda, and so the board couldn’t talk about them— because they weren’t on the agenda.

“If we were going to talk about them, we’d have to give advance notice to the community by putting them on the agenda,” Friedman lectured, “so they’re not going to be on this agenda for tonight, which isn’t to say that they’re not important and legitimate to be discussed, and we’ll have the opportunity to put them on a future agenda.”

Another board member complained about her own issue being left off the agenda. Friedman persisted: “It’s not on the agenda.”

A spectator yelled out, “Make an exception!”

“Yeah!” another man shouted. Friedman was losing control of the meeting, and it had only just begun.

“Wait a minute, hold it! Hold it!” he shouted. “Please. Please. No, no, no, no. Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute. I’m running this meeting, I’m doing the best I can, please hold your comments.”

Then Joel did something Friedman hadn’t expected.

“I have completely lost confidence in your ability to serve as president of this board,” he declared. And he called for Friedman’s immediate removal. “And I am making a motion—”

Friedman interrupted him, sounding desperate: “You can’t make that motion. It’s not on the agenda.”

“It does not have to be on the agenda, Gary.”

Friedman was cornered. Just two years ago, in this very same space, he had talked about bringing the magic back to Muir Beach. His family had beamed back at him from the audience. Yet here he was, presiding over a parody of a town council meeting, on the verge of being thrown out of volunteer office in a tiny town no one had ever heard of.

“When conflict takes over, it creates its own reality,” Friedman and Himmelstein had written in Challenging Conflict. These were very fortunate people living in a literal paradise by the sea, arguing over small matters in the grand scheme of things. But that was irrelevant.

On Election Day, Friedman’s closest New Guard ally was voted out of office. It was Friedman’s worst nightmare. She was replaced by Hugh and another of Friedman’s fiercest Old Guard rivals. Friedman’s term didn’t end until 2021, but he had no clear allies left on the board. He would be removed as president and have no real power.

“I felt a deep sense of humiliation, pain and sadness,” he recalled. He considered resigning.

Disrupting the Conflict

On January 25, 2018, at 7:03 p.m., Friedman called to order the last meeting under his leadership. A fire crackled in the community center fireplace. People greeted one another. If you didn’t know better, it would have sounded almost convivial. One minute later, the board voted to replace Friedman as president with a member of the Old Guard. His marginalization was complete.

Then Friedman did something surprising. He voted with the Old Guard for the new president. Then, two minutes later, Hugh got nominated to be vice president. This time, Friedman seconded the nomination.

Friedman did all of this without much comment. Then he spent the next three hours trying to stay quiet and control the expression on his face. The meeting finally ended just before 10 o’clock, an hour later than Friedman would have ended it.

Electoral losses, like snowstorms or pandemics, can destabilize conflicts. There’s a moment when the system is disrupted, and in that moment, huge opportunity exists. For things to get better. Or much worse.

The election defeat gave Friedman just enough time and space to realize what had happened to him. How far he’d fallen from his own ideals.

Friedman decided to vote for the Old Guard that day, he said, not as an act of surrender but as a very intentional way to disrupt the conflict system. He realized that if he stayed on the board, he had to get out of the trap he was in. By voting for his enemies, he was intentionally changing the one pattern in the conflict system that he could control: his own. “Once I admitted that I was part of the problem, even though it’s really hard to do that, it’s actually liberating,” he said.

The new board got rid of Gary’s subcommittees. “I got Obama’d,” Gary said. The Old Guard was undoing almost everything he’d accomplished, just as Donald Trump was doing at the same time to Barack Obama’s legacy, 3,000 miles away in Washington. “They emasculated or reversed just about everything.”

Still, he had no interest in meekly complying with the new board just to reduce the conflict. He’d seen too many people do that in divorce mediations; it was always a mistake, one they regretted later. He didn’t even use the word “compromise” in his office. Compromise feels like a surrender. And Gary was no pacifist. He believed conflict made us better. Or it could. He’d seen it happen.

So he asked himself the same questions he asks divorcing couples: What’s behind that? Why is that important to me? What would it be like if I got what I wanted here?

There was a lot of noise in his head and plenty of blame to go around. But eventually he realized that what he’d wanted most of all was to help his neighbors understand one another, even when they disagreed, so they could make conflict useful and still solve the problems that could be solved. But pressuring people to adopt his worldview was never going to work. He had to return to what he knew from 40 years of mediating conflicts: “The kinds of changes that are significant don’t really come about by coercion. They come about through understanding, and understanding is hard won, and it requires patience.”

To get there, he had to take a long path. He resolved to blur the lines between the Old and New Guard. Every day, he did things to scramble the tendency of everyone involved (including himself) to see the world in binary terms. Some days he voted with one member of the Old Guard; other days he voted his own way. He tried to genuinely reconnect with people, one on one. “When I pass the people who most hate me, I smile at them,” he said. “I ask about their health. One’s mother just died, and I asked about it.”

The beauty of group identities is that there are so many of them, waiting to be lit up. No one is just a Democrat or a Republican, a white man or a Black man. We are also sports fans, churchgoers, pet owners or parents. So Gary tried to revive the other identities in his own mind—and in everyone else.

One day, after he accidentally left his gate open, one of the Old Guard called him up to let him know that his dog, Artie, had wandered up to their house. That felt promising.

Another change Friedman made was to rely less on Tanya, his political adviser, the one who had used words like “kill” and “beatdown” and “thugs.”

He appreciated Tanya’s help, and he knew she understood politics far better than he did. But he got into politics to do something different. “I don’t want to hold hostility in my heart for people,” he told her. “I don’t like living that way.”

They remained friends, but he turned to his wife for political advice instead. He routinely asked her for feedback: Was he too sharp? Too impatient? And she’d tell him.

This all took longer than he would have liked. To hold on to what mattered most, Friedman had to let go of a lot. But in the end, Friedman did help to heal politics in his town. The road got repaired. The water rate got raised. The tone of the meetings improved. The neighborhood made progress, without coming apart. He created what I’ve come to know as “good conflict,” and in that state, he got much more done. In his own way, he built a microcosm of what politics could look like—if it were designed to incentivize our better instincts in conflict, not our worst.

His five-year term just ended, and he has no plans to run again.

As part of her book research on conflict, the author took paid mediation training from Friedman and colleagues through his Center for Understanding in Conflict (which is how she learned about this story).

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