Our guest this week is Doug Noll, of Fresno County, CA, who worked for 20 years as a corporate lawyer, is a professional mediator, recognized expert in the area of peacemaking and conflict resolution, co-founder of Prison of Peace, and author of four books, including the Best-Seller – De-Escalate: How to Calm An Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less.
Most remarkably, growing up in San Marino, CA, Doug was the oldest of five, was blind, partially deaf and club footed. At three he had corrective surgery. In 4th grade his sight was 20/400. While Doug knew he was loved, he describes his childhood as ‘quite miserable.’
With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project has been the most profound peace training Doug has conducted thus far in his career. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace as much as possible so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so.
Doug is an accomplished alpine skier, whitewater rafter, fly fisherman, jazz violinist, and pilot (airplanes and helicopters).
He’s an amazing human being and he’s our guest on this week’s Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
Website – https://dougnoll.com/
Email – email@example.com
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/dougnoll/
De-Escalate – https://www.amazon.com/De-Escalate-Douglas-E-Noll-audiobook/dp/B0744P9LV2/ref=sr_1_3?crid=2M2B2NZ2XAA1B&keywords=De-Escalate%3A+How+to+Calm+an+Angry+Person+in+90+Seconds+or+Less&qid=1642607370&sprefix=de-escalate+how+to+calm+an+angry+person+in+90+seconds+or+less+%2Caps%2C224&sr=8-3
Prison of Peace – https://www.prisonofpeace.org/
Prison of Peace YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qttBkDyPGWw&t=27s
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Doug Noll: Neuroscientists now understand that every single thing we do is emotion. You can’t even be rational or engage in critical thinking unless you’re emotional first. So that’s the big insight.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest. This week, Doug Noll, a professional mediator, a recognized expert in peacemaking and conflict resolution, co-founder of Prison of Peace, promoting peace between prison inmates, and author of four books, including Amazon’s bestselling De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less. He’s an amazing fellow, and he’s our guest on this week’s Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Say hello now to our host, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad.
Tom Couch: So now let’s hear this fascinating conversation between Doug Noll and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with Doug Noll of Fresno County, California, who worked for 20 years as a trial lawyer, a professional mediator, a recognized expert in the area of peacemaking and conflict resolution, co-founder of Prison of Peace, and author of four books. Doug, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Doug Noll: Hey, David, it’s great to be here. This will be a great conversation, hopefully useful to all the dads that are listening in.
David Hirsch: I hope so. You and your wife, Alaya Dow, have been married for 14 years. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Doug Noll: So I grew up in San Marino, California, which is an affluent suburb of Los Angeles to the east, in the Pasadena area. I was born blind, crippled, partially deaf, bad teeth and left-handed. I kind of got in the wrong lines for everything except intelligence.
So even though I grew up in affluence, I had a real rough childhood. Emotionally really tough, because I was born in 1950, and in those days, Benjamin Spock was the famous pediatrician who had written a lot of books, and he was just absolutely adamant that you should not coddle your children.
But I needed coddling, because I was special needs, and I didn’t get it. So as a result of that, I was emotionally damaged, not to the point of being dysfunctional, but kind of emotionally damaged the way that many people are: that you go into adulthood emotionally immature and carrying a lot of emotional baggage.
And that was just how my life was. I was very smart. I graduated from San Marino High School, was admitted to and attended Dartmouth College, graduated with a degree in English literature, came back to California, and in 1977, entered law school at McGeorge School of Law. I graduated with honors, and on the law review, and all that stuff.
And then I had job offers to work for judges in San Francisco and Los Angeles and also in Fresno. And I decided to move to Fresno to work for an appellate judge, because I love the mountains, and Fresno was right next to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. So I moved here, clerked for a year, and then went into private practice as a young associate in a middle-sized commercial litigation bankruptcy firm.
And my senior partners wanted me to be a trial lawyer, so much so that I joined the firm in September of 1978 and tried my first jury trial six weeks later in November of 1978. My second jury trial was the defense of a $36 million securities fraud case in the southern district of California, which is the federal court in San Diego, California. I spent seven months with one of my partners. We would commute every week by airplane from Fresno down to San Diego.
And that’s how my trial career started. And for the next 22 years, that’s what I did. I was involved in large complex disputes, usually commercial disputes in both state and federal courts, lots of arbitrations, some administrative hearings, usually cases that nobody else wanted to handle because they were too complex or too difficult. And I did well.
Along the way, I took up the martial arts. And I achieved my second degree black belt when I was 41, 42 years old. And my teacher basically fired me. He said, “You’re too arrogant. You’re dangerous. Go learn Tai Chi.”
So I started studying Tai Chi. And Tai Chi has two really interesting paradoxes. The first is the softer you are, the stronger you are. And the second is the more vulnerable you are, the more powerful you are. And I did not understand those paradoxes. They made no sense to me as a hardcore trial lawyer and a second degree black belt. But eventually it seeped into my soul, until one day in the mid-nineties, I was trying a case, and the thought came to me out of the blue, “What the heck am I doing in here?”
And after that trial, I had a vacation planned to run a whitewater trip up in Idaho with a bunch of friends. Because amongst many other things that I’d done in my life, I was a professional river guide, so I had my own raft. So we went up and ran the main Salmon for 10 days, and I spent the week thinking about how many people I’d really served as a trial lawyer, and concluded that I really had not served that many people, and decided, “This is no longer for me.” But I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Well, I came back, and the Monday after that trip, I was coming down out of the mountains to my office, and I heard the one and only public service announcement on our local public radio station for a new master’s degree in peacemaking and conflict studies being offered at Fresno Pacific University, which is the West Coast Mennonite University.
And it intrigued me. I’m not a Mennonite and not a church goer, but somehow it caught me. And so I made inquiry and learned about it, and ultimately we decided…we being the faculty and me, they weren’t sure about bringing in a 44, 45, 46 year old hardcore trial lawyer under their master’s degree program. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be trained in that.
But we had a lot of talks, and ultimately we both decided to do the dance. And it was the best thing I ever did. These people who were my mentors were just geniuses, and they completely changed my view of the world. So while I was studying, I was also a three quarters time law professor at our local law school, and also of course had my full trial practice. So I was a pretty busy guy.
And I was having conversations with my partners about what to do. I thought, “I don’t want to try cases anymore. I’d like to open up a problem solving practice where we’re really helping solve problems, not create problems.” And ultimately my peer in the firm—who the managing partner at one point—he came in one Friday and said, “You’re not getting any more paychecks until you stop this peacemaking stuff.” And it was a little more colorful than that, but that’s the idea.
And I came in Monday, and I said, “I quit.” And I walked out that Friday, left $10 million on the table, and just walked away. And on November 1st, 2000, I opened up my peacemaking and mediation practice. And that’s how it all started. And it was not a smart financial decision, because I have never made as much money as I made as a trial lawyer. But I don’t care. I learned that money’s just not that important. And I serve more people in a week than I served in 22 years as a trial lawyer. And that’s what my life is.
And along the way, we got the Prison of Peace project started. I discovered this skill that we want to talk about, about how to calm angry people in less than 90 seconds. I wrote four books, numerous articles, both scholarly and lay articles in various publications, and today, I’m 71 years old, I’m in the prime of my life, and I’m teaching people these skills because I believe they are the foundational skills of life. And they’re counterintuitive and counter normative and fly against everything we think we know about who we are as humans. But it’s all based on neuroscience.
David Hirsch: Wow. That’s a mouthful. Thank you for the quick fly by at 30,000 feet. And if you’ll allow me, I’d like to go back a little bit to make sure we get your origin story. You had mentioned that you were blind, partially deaf, club footed, and you had a miserable childhood. And that’s not lost on me.
You came from some very humble beginnings, and if I recall, you were the oldest of four brothers. And did your brothers have some more challenges or were you the special one?
Doug Noll: My youngest brother had a few problems with his eyes, but they got that straightened out pretty early. So I was the only one that really had the serious, serious problems. I had four surgeries before I was three on my legs, and the rest of them were all great athletes and very popular in school. And we were an old established family in the region, so people knew my mother. I had teachers that my mother had. I mean, it’s that kind of place. So we were very well known as a family. I was the one that really suffered from difficulty.
In the fourth grade, they couldn’t understand why I was lagging so far behind in school. And in the fourth grade a school nurse finally had the common sense to check my eyes and turned out I had 20/400 vision. I could barely see. They put glasses on me, and by that summer I was two grade levels ahead. That would never happen today. It would never happen today, but that’s the way things were back then in the fifties and sixties.
David Hirsch: Well, thank you for the insight. I’m sort of curious to know, what did your dad do for a living?
Doug Noll: He grew up in deep poverty in Ohio and lived in town as a boy, and then he went into the Navy during the war, world War II. He went in under-age, but served for two years in the Navy. He then came out and on the GI Bill went to Purdue and studied metallurgical engineering and graduated. He had met my mom, I think in his last year of college, through a Navy friend of his, and ended up marrying her here in California and moved to California.
And he went to work for my grandfather, my mother’s father, in the furniture business. And did he that for, oh, I’m going to say 15 years. And then my parents bought the business from my grandfather, and from then on the business did very well because of the post World War II boom growth in Southern California. And then a recession hit, and the business went upside down. They lost everything.
And my dad went into the stock brokerage business, and became a stockbroker. Then when the laws changed that allowed independent brokers to work with larger firms that had people on the floor, he was one of the first people in the nation to form his own firm with a friend of his. And for the next 30 years, he was a stockbroker, and then eventually an investment advisor, and he developed a really remarkable way of managing money for people. A lot like what you do.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, very interesting. Thank you for sharing. And I sort of wonder, how would you characterize your relationship with your dad?
Doug Noll: Well, that’s a great question. I loved him. He passed away five or six years ago. I loved him, and I know that he loved me. And our relationship later in life became much closer than it was when I was a child.
But he was emotionally distant. Both my parents were emotionally distant, as were my grandparents. My grandparents were post Victorians, and very, very traditional. Children were to be seen, not heard. There was no open display of affection. My dad was a survivor, and wanted all of us boys to be survivors. They gave us lots of really amazing experiences as children, but emotionally, there was no support at all. Very little. That was tough.
On the physical side, I mean, I started backpacking when I was five years old. Mountaineering. That’s what how I got my love of the mountains. I got into scouting and became an Eagle scout. And my dad taught me how to fly fish, and we started skiing when I was eight years old. Even though I had problems with my leg, I managed to learn how to ski. And so we did a lot of really fun stuff.
So most of our connection was that kind of activity, not as much emotional connection. So as I reflect today, I would say that I think our relationship was very typical of many father-son relationships in those days, and maybe even today, where connection was shown through the stuff you do together, not how you talk and be with each other.
David Hirsch: Well, I think that that’s probably the historical relationship that men have had with their children. They’re the providers. They have more of a physical relationship, and the emotional aspect of child rearing is the mom’s domain. That’s a little bit provincial. But, I think that’s been the tradition. Maybe not just in our country as well.
Doug Noll: I think that’s true. No, I think it’s pancultural, and in fact, I’m dealing with a family conflict right now where that’s a dominant theme in the conflict. The dad was the provider and not available, and to this day is having a difficult time with being emotionally expressive in his seventies.
David Hirsch: So when you think back on your relationship with your dad, is there an important lesson or takeaway, maybe two, that come to mind when you reflect on your relationship? It looks different today now that your dad has passed. And like you said, it was different when you were a young boy or young man, versus as your relationship evolved. But when you look back, is there a lesson or two that you can take away?
Doug Noll: I think he really gave us, myself and my younger brothers, a gift of discipline and persistence and never give up. And he also introduced us to a lot of really fun stuff, that to this day I still enjoy. Like I said, that’s why I live where I live, and those were great gifts.
And for me, it was normal, but for a lot of kids, the kinds of stuff we did, no one did anything about that. I mean, we were backpacking in the Sierra Nevada before there were things like wilderness permits. You could go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, because nobody was back there in the mountains. So this was all long before anybody started talking about or thinking about outdoor activities.
So that was a great gift. We had great years, and our scouting experience was amazing. And this family stuff we did was really, really good. And so I feel really blessed about that. And when he turned to getting into the financial markets and that sort of thing, was when I learned a lot about investing and money management and stuff. As he learned it, in later years, I started learning it too.
And of course my youngest brother took over his business. And so we just learned a lot. That was a real blessing. Our relationship changed as I grew. As I slowly got rid of all of my inner hurt that I had to deal with myself, I was able to have a much closer relationship with him in later years than before. And my second marriage really helped a lot too with that.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for your authenticity and transparency, talking about things like you have, making reference to the fact that you were divorced and remarried. They are not things that most guys are going to wear on their sleeve. There’s some humility that you deal with, going through those experiences. I think it has something to do with what you’re referring to.
I’m not familiar with it firsthand, but you made reference to Tai Chi, and the concept of your vulnerability is really your superpower. I don’t know how we each get that, if you can bottle that or if it can be taught. But I know that that’s part of why you are where you are today, and the effervescence that I see and feel in our conversations.
Doug Noll: Of course, everything’s a learning experience, but I think where I really learned humility was in the prison project. That’s when I really started to shift. I mean, I was shifting, I was growing and becoming more emotionally self-aware since I left the practice of law. That was deadly to me, being in the practice of law, but it was the prison project where I really started to gain humility. I had to.
David Hirsch: Let’s talk about that. So it’s referred to as Prison of Peace. My understanding is that you’re the co-founder, along with Laurel Kaufer, and it started in 2009. What was the impetus for that, and how has that evolved?
Doug Noll: Laurel and I have been professional friends for many years. She was a mediator in Los Angeles, and we were both adjunct faculty at the Strauss Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law. And one day in August of 2009, she called me. She was standing by her mailbox, and she said, “I got this letter to read.” And so she read me the letter. It was written from a woman who was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
And she was serving that sentence in the largest, most violent women’s prison in the world, which was Valley State Prison for women in Chowchilla, California—which happens to be about an hour and 15 minutes from where I live. They had a cohort of about a hundred women serving these life sentences. And this woman was asking Laurel if she would be interested in coming into the prison and teaching the lifers how to become mediators and peacemakers so they could stop the prison violence, because they were tired of it.
This is their community. They’re there for the rest of their lives. These young women who were coming into prison from the gangs were just stirring up all kinds of trouble. In those days, the prison guards instigated a lot of violence, the lifers were just tired of it, and they wanted to change.
So Laurel read the letter to me and said, “What do you think?” I thought about it, and I took a deep breath, and I said, “Yeah, I think we should do this.” I had no idea what we were going to get into. So it took six months of dealing with the prison bureaucracy—our first experience in dealing with prison bureaucracy—but we finally got permission to start. So we started our first cohort of 15 women in April of 2010.
Because we both were mediation trainers and professors, graduate professors, and were well known as trainers and teachers, we knew that this population probably was not going to be like our normal student population, and we assumed that they had no skill whatsoever. We decided that before we could teach them how to mediate and how to be peacemakers, they had to have two or three dozen other skills that we just assume our students have when they come to our classes. And we just assumed these people did not. And that was really a smart move on our part.
So by then I had well developed my affect labeling system, listening to emotions. It was well developed, and we had the curriculum well developed. So we decided to use deep, reflective listening as the foundational skill of the entire curriculum. So that was the very first thing we taught our inmates.
And then we built out the curriculum from there. We basically gave our incarcerated students 60 hours of classroom training before we introduced them to how to become mediators. And in that 60 hours, we gave them all the separate skills they would need as mediators. And then in the mediation class, they saw how the whole thing came together. “Oh, remember when we taught you this? Now this is why we taught you this, and this is how you’re going to use it.”
And it was an amazing experience. First of all, working in prison is very difficult. I’d never been in prisons before. I will say that although I’m not easily intimidated, it was pretty spooky walking through those gates with the doors clanging behind you and the bars clanging. It was unnerving until you get used to it. And then once you get used to it, it’s no big deal. But prisons are not pleasant places, of course.
But we saw some radical transformations in this first cohort of women. Ages 65 to 28, every ethnicity imaginable, education from PhD to no education in this first 15 women. And that turned out to be typical of our training cohorts. We saw amazing transformations occur, and we thought it was flukey. “Wow, this is weird,” or “Wow, how wonderful.” And then we taught the next cohort and saw the same transformations. And every single time we trained a group, we saw the same transformations occur, and we realized what we were teaching was very powerful.
So we did that for three years. We designed the program to be self-sustaining, and just as we got it self-sustaining at Valley State Prison for Women, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided to repurpose the prison to a men’s prison. So they sent the women out and opened it up as a men’s prison. And we got kept getting calls from the warden saying, “Well, you guys were really successful. The women come in and teach the men.” And we said, “No, no, no, no.”
It was all pro bono. We weren’t getting paid a dime for this. We were paying it out of our own pockets. We had basically given up our professional practices to do this work. It was tough, a post financial collapse. So work for both of us in dispute resolution was scanty at best.
David Hirsch: So what was your motivation then, if you were putting your….
Doug Noll: Yeah. Well here’s the thing. Once you start doing this work, you can’t not do it. It is so satisfying to work with people who are extraordinarily violent in their lives—they’ve killed people—and teach them life skills and how to be peacemakers. Those are practical skills. It’s no tree hugging crap at all. I mean, we teach them how to do it, and watch the transformations as they come in touch with their humanity for the first time. It completely transforms them as human beings. To listen to the stories of how it’s transformed their relationships with their families and everything else, I mean, it’s so powerful that you just cannot not do it. You know? It’s that kind of thing.
David Hirsch: I’m going to have to take your word for it then, because it just seems inconceivable.
Doug Noll: It’s amazing, yeah. And eventually we said yes. So we went in, and we didn’t know what it was going to be like training men. Men are actually easier to train than women for a whole bunch of different reasons. It’s not necessarily because of gender, but because of the way the prisons are structured. That’s a long story. But we became extremely successful teaching men. Ultimately, the state started giving us grants to expand into other prisons.
And so before the pandemic, we were in 15 California prisons, and then we got a grant from a family foundation in Connecticut to open up Prison of Peace in Connecticut. We had a program going there. A colleague of ours got a JAMS fellowship to come. She was a Greek lawyer living in Athens, and she came to the United States and studied with us for six months. She’s running Prison of Peace in 12 prisons in Greece, and now she’s supervising four people in northern Italy. They’re starting Prison of Peace in Northern Italy. I have a colleague in Kenya who is starting Prison of Peace in Nairobi.
What’s even more amazing is that as a result of the pandemic, of course we can’t do any in-person programming, but we took the money that we had, a half a million dollars, and we spent this last year, 2021, filming our entire curriculum. And we’re now in post-production, and we’re in the process of writing the manuals.
And probably by mid-year we will be able to offer Prison of Peace to anybody in the world who wants to go into their local institutions and train incarcerated people how to be peacemakers, and also reentry programs. So we hope to see a global expansion of Prison of Peace in 2022 and beyond. Amazing. Just amazing.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, that is an amazing story from some very humble beginnings about getting something in the mail, standing there at the mailbox, and the conversation that you related from about a dozen years ago. So from your lips to God’s ears, I’m hoping that things will transpire in a way that most people, myself included, could not even imagine.
Doug Noll: You talk about humility, it was working with the women where I really accelerated in my humility. Because here I was, I’m six one, two hundred and fifteen pounds, second degree black belt, trial lawyer, white, gray hair, pretty intense person.
And I was the antithesis to everything that these women knew. Every bad thing that had happened to them happened because of a white male. So learning how to relate to them and building trust was a huge growth process for me. And that’s when I started really understanding the meaning of humility.
David Hirsch: Is there a story, maybe an anecdotal story, that would emphasize the transformation that you were making reference to?
Doug Noll: Yeah. I’ll never forget this. Laurel and I still laugh about it today. It was the second cohort I think we were training at Valley State Prison for Women. And we had a pretty big group of women, 30 women we were training. And one afternoon the women were doing practice rounds of something we were training. And all of a sudden this very well-dressed woman, obviously not an inmate, came up to me and she started cussing me out. I mean, she’s just very obscene, very rude.
It turns out she was the chief psychologist for the prison. And I sat there. I went beet red, and I just took a deep breath, and I just started affect labeling her, and calmed her down. And that’s when I realized that I had crossed a river, because I did not get reactive. I did not lash out. In my previous incarnation, I would’ve just ripped her a new one. I was able to take that extremely abusive language, and not get triggered by it, and calmed her down to a place where we could explain to her who we were and what we were doing.
And she, of course, was horribly embarrassed when she figured out what we were doing. That was a real eye-opening moment for me. There are many other moments that were eye-opening for me. The early stories that the women were reporting were…I’ll just tell one real quick one, because this one was really a transformative moment too.
We were in our fifth week of training with this first cohort of women, and we walked into the training space. We were there a little early, and one of our students was sitting in chair off in the corner, and she was quietly sobbing. And so we walked up, and Laurel knelt next to her and said, “What’s going on, Sarah?”
She looked up and said, “I’ve been in prison for 18 years. I’m in prison because I was an alcoholic and I killed a family of four as a drunk driver. And in that accident I came away completely unscathed. And I’m serving a 25-to-life sentence.
I had to give up my three-year-old son to my sister to raise, and I’ve written to him every single week for the whole time I’ve been in prison. I’ve never heard from him. He’s 21 years old. I’ve never heard from him. He’s never called me, never writes me. Anything I learn about him comes through my sister.
Earlier this week, I decided to write a letter based on what you have been teaching us about how to listen to emotions, and basically I just imagined how he must feel having a mother who’s in prison, who’s completely abandoned him. I wrote it just talking about how he must feel.
And today I got a letter back from him for the very first time, and the letter was extremely angry. But at the end he wrote, “Mom, I love you.” And he wrote, “PS, my girlfriend and I will come visit you in two weeks.” I was stunned. And then she started sobbing again. And Laurel and I looked at each other, and I thought to myself, “My God, what do we have? This is amazing. What are we doing? How are we doing this?”
And then the stories started coming in that were just like that. And basically what her son, who was 21 and estranged from her, all he needed to do was be listened to by her, even in a letter. He needed to be validated. And when she did that, he no longer felt the need to be estranged from her and wanted to reconnect. And I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands of stories like that. But that was the first one.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s very profound. Thank you for sharing. Well, I’m anxiously awaiting the production of this film that you made reference to. Is it a documentary, or what is it?
Doug Noll: Well, we’re going to make a documentary out of it. First of all, the people in the film are of course myself and Laurel, but we also have a lot of staff trainers that we trained when they were incarcerated. And they’ve all been released, and we’ve hired them to be Prison of Peace trainers since they’ve been released from prison. And they are amazing human beings. So we have a lot of them on film too. And each one of them was interviewed, and we’re going to take those interviews and turn it into a documentary. And then the rest of it is just curriculum, training modules, starting at the very beginning.
David Hirsch: So would it be fair to say, Doug, that it’s a “train the trainer” type program?
Doug Noll: No, it’s really a “train the inmate” program. We will have a facilitation training. So let’s just suppose you’re in a state where there’s no Prison of Peace, but you want to do this. Then what we will do is train you via Zoom how to be a facilitator, how to use the materials in order to teach or to facilitate the training of inmates. We did “train the trainer” training in prison with our incarcerated students, and our whole model was to eventually build up a cadre of trainers within a prison community that could teach without us being there.
We can’t do that model anymore because of the pandemic. So we’re hopeful that the video curriculum takes the place of being a trained trainer. And it’ll be a lot easier and faster to train facilitators how to use this material than the three-year process it takes to train somebody from zero to becoming an effective trainer of the curriculum.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. But first, this quick message. Please help 21st Century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey will receive a Great Dad coin. Thank you. Now, back to the conversation.
David Hirsch: So let’s switch gears and talk about something called Legal Pro Negotiator, which you founded in 2012. What does that group or organization do?
Doug Noll: Yeah, we can just briefly touch on that. My experience as a professional mediator is that most lawyers are lousy negotiators. I can count on one hand, out of thousands of mediations, the number of lawyers that I’ve worked with who I felt really knew what they were doing in mediation, and the rest of them, not a clue. They do the same old thing, very predictable, make the same mistakes every single time. No, you don’t see any improvement. You don’t see any thoughtfulness. Part of it’s the informality of mediation. I mean, there are a lot of reasons.
So I thought, you know what could really be useful out there is an advanced legal negotiation course. So I put together “Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Professional,” which is a nine and a half hour, MCLE approved, online legal negotiation course that goes deep into behavioral economics, neuroeconomics decision making, and looking at how to set up concession plans. I mean, all these things that good negotiators should know how to do that lawyers have never heard of.
And so that’s what that is. And it’s just available for any lawyer who wants to learn how to be a better negotiator. And those that learn become really good negotiators, and so it gives them a really strong competitive advantage over lawyers that never took a negotiation course in law school. And most negotiation courses in law school are offered by professors who have never negotiated. So it’s all intellectual, cerebral stuff, with no multidisciplinary studies at all, because negotiation’s a highly multidisciplinary endeavor. So that’s what that’s about.
David Hirsch: How does that contrast or compare to being an arbitrator and a mediator, then?
Doug Noll: Well, being an arbitrator, you’re basically a private judge. So as an arbitrator, I’m asked to step into a case and basically listen to the evidence and render an award. Who’s right, who’s wrong, and how much, if any. And so that’s basically decision making.
Being a mediator, it’s completely opposite. I have no power as a mediator to help people make decisions. I’m a decision architect. I help people make a decision, and I craft the process as a mediator that allows people to make the best decision they can under what are usually very bad circumstances. Most of the time in mediation, people have to choose between a bad choice and a horrible choice. And so my job is to help them decide what the best alternative is for them to get a case resolved.
And there are other kinds of conflicts I get involved in where it’s not about the money, there’s no lawsuit involved. They’re non-litigated cases, where there’s just a lot of emotion involved. And I worked with some of the largest family businesses in California where these kinds of conflicts have threatened to destroy the wealth of the family and destroy the business.
So in those kinds of situations, the process is very, very different than mediating a litigated dispute. So that’s the basic difference. As a mediator, I have no power, and as an arbitrator, I have all the power. Very different process.
David Hirsch: Okay. Well thanks for the clarification, because for the layperson, they wouldn’t understand that or appreciate it. And maybe that’s good, because they haven’t had these disputes or legal entanglements that would require expertise in that area.
So, let’s talk about Mobius Executive Leadership. What is that, and what’s your role there?
Doug Noll: Well, I’m not as active with Mobius as I used to be, although I’m solicited as a senior consultant with the firm. Mobius was founded by Amy Fox and her sister in Massachusetts—and this was way back in the 2000s.
They were really looking to bring in people to offer very different perspectives on transformative leadership. And so Erica, her sister, had attended a couple of my workshops. In those days I was teaching some pretty esoteric stuff. I was taking some mastery that I developed as a martial artist, including moving subtle energy. I was teaching people how to blow out candles with energy. I mean, pretty cool stuff, very radical.
And she attended a couple of these workshops, and her eyes got as big as saucers. She was a lawyer working as a lecturer at Harvard, in the Harvard Negotiation project, and brought me in. And for three or four years I was very active. They sent me all over the world training people in what I was then teaching in these reflective listening skills as I had developed them. I was in Amsterdam and Dubai and went all over the place teaching people how to listen.
And that was my most active involvement with Mobius. These days, I’m still listed, but I don’t have a lot of work with them, and that’s fine. I mean, I love that both Erica and Amy like sisters. They’re just amazing human beings, and I feel very blessed to be associated with them. And they have an amazing firm that they work with.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for making reference to that. So in our brief remaining time, I’d like to reflect on the work you’ve done as an author. You’ve written four books. I’ll just rattle through the titles. Peacemaking: Practicing at the Intersection of Law and Human Conflict, which was 2003. You’re also the co-author of Sex, Politics and Religion at the Office: The New Competitive Advantage in 2006. The third book is Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts in 2011. And then the most recent book that you wrote is entitled, De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less, which came out in 2017.
And that’s how you and I came in contact with one another. I thought it was a fascinating read/listen, because I listened to the audible version, and then I started to re-listen to the audible version. I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much here.”
And it seems like this is sort of the essence of the work that you do. Your life’s work is captured in this book, De-Escalate. So I’m wondering, how did you get to this point, and what are the main takeaways that we can share in a brief conversation like the one we’re having?
Doug Noll: Well, De-Escalate came about from working in prison. I had a number of students who knew I was an author, and they implored me to write a book about what we were teaching that they could share with their families.
And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t have time.” Finally I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And so I wrote the book in six weeks. And it’s a funny story. I mean, I have a literary agent, and so she shopped the book to one company, and they came back four weeks later and said, “He’s too smart for our audience.”
So then she pitched it to Beyond Words, which was part of Atria and Simon & Schuster, and they picked it up right away. So they got my final manuscript right after Thanksgiving in 2016. We didn’t think the book would be published until 2018, or maybe even 2019.
Well, in February of 2017, my agent called me and said, “I just got a call from Beyond Words. And they said that the president of Atria read your manuscript. Typically, she only reads the first 25 pages of each manuscript to see what’s coming down the pike. But when she read your manuscript, she cleared her calendar for the rest of the day, read the whole thing, picked up the phone and said, ‘What’s the earliest we can get this book published?’” And they did it in less than six months. One of the fastest books ever published in the history of the company, which was pretty cool.
David Hirsch: That’s very big compliment.
Doug Noll: The other funny thing is that they assigned me an editor who didn’t know how to write, and she would keep inserting grammatical errors into my writing, and I said, “No, that’s wrong.” And I would have to send her a Google link, “Here’s the grammatical rule and you’re violating it. I’m not going to do that.” So at the end of the day, they didn’t change a word.
But finally they assigned a senior editor to me who was a little more mature and had some experience and understood good writing. Because I’m a nut about writing. I mean, I’m a nut about clear, concise writing. So anyways, that’s how the book came out. And it ended up being an Amazon bestseller for a while in its categories, and now it’s in four languages and second printing. And of all my books, it’s the only one that’s ever paid me royalties.
David Hirsch: Well, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Doug Noll: I know. That’s what I learned from my dad. Persistence.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, and you are a person who’s very articulate and a wordsmith of sorts, and perhaps Dartmouth gets some credit for that, because you did say that you took a BA in English. And maybe you’ve made better use of your English degree than most.
Doug Noll: Yeah. I would say that was certainly a foundation, but really it was law school that really sharpened my thinking and writing. And that’s why I went to law school. I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a lawyer, but I knew I could go to law school and it would really sharpen my intellect. And it did. And although I think the ABA legal curriculum is deeply flawed, it served its purpose in those days. I think it’s in need of radical revision today.
David Hirsch: That’s for another conversation. So let’s just deescalate a little bit. What is the underlying premise?
Doug Noll: The underlying premise of all of my work is that we are, in the words of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, 98% emotional and 2% rational. We’ve been lied to for 4,000 years by theologians and philosophers who have said that humans are rational, that what separates us from other animals is our rationality. That is a complete lie. It’s wrong, and it’s caused more abuse than we can possibly imagine.
And neuroscientists now understand that every single thing we do is emotional. You can’t even be rational or engage in critical thinking unless you’re emotional first. So that’s the big insight. And once you recognize that our human nature is based on emotion, not on rationality, then you start looking at human behavior through the lens of emotion, and you start seeing what looked like chaos or irrationality now is highly predictable and understandable. That’s the first basic premise.
And then what happened, as I developed that insight through my master’s degree studies, and I was an early student of neuroscience back in the late ‘90s before people knew what neuroscience was, I started studying this stuff. Then in 2005, my back was up against the wall in a very difficult mediation, and the thought came to me, “Listen to the emotions.”
And without going through the whole story, basically I was in this very intense, emotionally heated—I mean, if there had been knives on the table, there would be blood on the floor—kind of conflict. And instead of listening to words, I had them listen to emotions. Two hours later, they settled the case and walked out holding hands. It was a divorce couple. My jaw dropped. I knew what I’d done, but I didn’t know why.
So I started replicating it in other conflicts and got the same basic results. Once people started listening to emotions instead of words, they were calming down and feeling deeply validated and able to solve their problems almost instantly. So then in 2007, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman at UCLA published his scanning studies showing what happens in the brain when this process known as affect labeling takes place.
And without getting into too much of the heavy science, basically when you reflect back somebody else’s emotional experience, the emotional centers of the brain de-escalate, and at the same time the decision making or rational part of the brain, for lack of a better word—it’s the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex—activates. And you literally calm the brain down in 30 to 90 seconds.
So there was neuroscience that supported exactly what I was doing. And then the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist out of Northeastern University, provided me with a theoretical basis of why all this works in her constructive theory of emotions.
And so now I have a theoretical model and empirical science showing why it works that I use in teaching. Because this is so counterintuitive. It’s completely goes against everything we think we know about listening and about human beings.
And the steps are really simple. Three simple steps. Number one, ignore the words. Number two, read the emotional data fields, which your brain can do automatically. This is effortless, because we’re hardwired for that from evolution. And number three. As the emotions of another person’s experience with their anger or whatever is popping into your consciousness, reflect back those emotions with a simple “you” statement.
“Oh, you’re angry.” “You’re frustrated.” “You feel disrespected.” Whatever it might be. And you do that until you get four involuntary responses. You’re going to get a nod of the head up and down. You’re going to get some kind of verbal response, like, “Exactly.” Or, “Yeah.” Or you’re going to get dropping of the shoulders, and you’re going to get a sigh of relief. And those all indicate that you’re complete.
The whole process usually takes 45 to 90 seconds, rarely longer than 90 seconds. And what’s counterintuitive about this is that you’re interrupting. So as soon as you say something, and there’s emotion to it, it’s, “Oh, you were really angry.” “Yeah.” And they stop, and you keep going. I’m calling out your emotions as you’re experiencing them in the moment.
And to the outside observer, it looks like I’m interrupting, but I’m not. I’m simply reflecting back your emotions. And from the speaker’s frame of reference, you feel deeply validated in a very, very deep way. And that’s the secret to all of this. You don’t ask questions, you don’t use “I” statements. That active listing stuff never worked, never has worked, never will work. Non-violent communication, same thing. Never work, never will work. I mean, it’s all garbage.
There are a lot of people who want to kill me because I say that, but I’ll just be very frank, “Where’s your science? Give me the science that shows that this stuff works. Here’s my science. Here are my 15 brain scanning studies that show why my stuff works. Where’s yours?” And of course there is none.
David Hirsch: So the basic human premise is that we want to be heard and understood?
Doug Noll: Yes. We have two foundational needs that are not met in modern culture. Number one is to be heard and validated at a very deep emotional level, and two is the need to be emotionally safe. Neither of those happen in families of origin.
Virginia Satir, who’s a very well known family systems therapist from the 1970s and ‘80s said that 96% of families are emotionally dysfunctional, and that’s why 96% of adults are emotionally dysfunctional. Because we have a cultural assumption that parents are going to teach their children how to be emotionally competent. And that assumption is not true, because when parents themselves are emotionally incompetent, how can they teach their children to be emotionally competent? They don’t know the skills themselves.
It’s the same flaw in the common core curriculum that has been going around for 10 years in education. The teachers are supposed to teach children socio-emotional learning. But how can a teacher teach a child to be socio-emotionally intelligent, when the teacher doesn’t have those skills himself or herself. The educational system is investing no money in training teachers how to be emotionally competent, and yet they want the teachers to teach the kids something the teachers can’t comprehend and can’t do themselves. So of course it’s a failure.
And the same thing in the family. And it turns out that the foundational skill that solves all of these problems is learning how to listen to and reflect back somebody else’s emotions. It changes everything, and it’s such a simple idea. And yet it’s absolutely foundational and transformative in how it affects people.
David Hirsch: In many cases, they’re unfiltered emotionally.
Doug Noll: Well, obviously things are going to vary depending upon what the special needs are, but you can pretty much guarantee that the child with special needs is going to have a lot of negative emotion. These children are probably going to be emotional, maybe even more emotional than others.
Even kids that are on the autistic spectrum, where obviously they’ve got a brain dysfunction of some kind that’s impairing their emotional systems, they still have emotion, or at least they have affect. And when you are able to affect label, reflect back a child’s emotions, all kinds of wonderful things happen in their brain.
And like the three-year-old. Affect labeling that three-year-old is one of the most powerful things you can do for that child’s brain development. So even if kids have Asperger’s or autism, or maybe they have physical disabilities, maybe they have some serious impairments like Downs or something like that, if they’re not vegetables, they still fundamentally have emotions, or they have affect.
And when you reflect back over and over again the emotional or affective experience they’re having, you’re helping them build a database of linking words to experience, that allows their prefrontal cortex to develop impulse control and self-control.
I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from people with children on the autistic spectrum or Asperger’s who have said these skills have saved their lives, saved their families, because they are able to calm down children so quickly. What would take hours and hours and hours beforehand to get a child calmed down, now they can do it literally in a minute.
And it’s just understanding that the child is having an emotional experience and does not have the tools or maybe even the capacity for managing that emotion, cannot self-regulate. And so we as adults, as caregivers, literally have to lend our prefrontal cortex to that child’s brain for the time it takes for that child’s brain to get itself under control.
And that’s what’s really going on, and it’s incredibly powerful. Whether you’ve got a special needs kid or not, the studies show that if you take that little three year old grandchild of yours, and start affect labeling, and his parents start affect labeling, by the time he’s 10, he’ll be two grade levels ahead of his peers academically.
And he’ll be more emotionally mature, more emotionally competent. He’ll be the most popular kid in school. He’ll be socially admired by his peers. His teachers will love him, all because he has developed emotional maturity far beyond what other children are getting because they’re not getting that kind of training and affect labeling at home. So I can’t overstate the power of this. If every parent engaged in affect labeling, we wouldn’t have prisons in 20 years. It’s that powerful.
David Hirsch: Well, it sounds too simple to be true. But if there was one piece of advice, beyond what you’ve just mentioned, that you can share with a dad, or a parent for that matter, what would it be?
Doug Noll: Do not invalidate your children. So you’ve got a little three year old. We’ll just say a little boy, but it could be a little girl too. And he’s outside running around having a great time, and he falls over and he skins his knees and starts to cry. Do not emotionally invalidate that child. Do not say, “Stop crying. Be a big boy. The big boys don’t cry. It doesn’t hurt.”
Those are the most damaging, abusive statements a parent can make to a child. And there are all kinds of studies that show that when you do that, you are damaging that child’s brain. ACES study, in particular, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study out of San Diego, is the big one.
Instead, flow with the child. “Oh, you’re hurt, you’re scared, you’re sad, you don’t know what happened, and you’re anxious.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And if you do that, if you validate their emotions, the crying will stop, and they’ll be fine within 30 seconds. And contrary to popular belief, by validating the child’s emotion, you are not making that child weak. You are making that child strong. Powerful brain.
We have this Western idea of rugged individualism, which is utter BS. We do not make children tough by denying them their emotions. We destroy them. And the way to make somebody strong—the Tai Chi paradox, soft to be strong, vulnerable to be powerful—is to be soft and vulnerable with our children. And reflect back emotions to them and flow with their emotions and keep going with that every single time a child gets upset.
I also say never punish a child when a child’s upset. The child does something wrong and is really angry and acts out, and you immediately want to stop it and you want obedience. Wrong. What you need to do is calm that child down by affect labeling, listening to and reflecting emotions. When the child calms down, now they’re in a mode where they can learn.
And you can have a discussion about what happened and you can apply consequences if it’s appropriate. But never apply punishment to an angry, upset child. All that child is going to learn is hurt. He’s not going to learn the lesson. And that lack of emotional safety is what causes so much adult dysfunction later in life. What we want to do is create emotional safety for the child to grow up in—and most parents don’t know how to do that, because it didn’t happen to them.
David Hirsch: Well, words of wisdom. Thank you for sharing. I’m sort of curious to know if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up.
Doug Noll: I would just say to all the dads out there that are listening, to the grandfathers, and you have children who are challenged, recognize that they are emotional beings. They’re not rational beings. Don’t try to impose some idea of rationality on these children. They have challenges that are almost always emotionally based.
And the moment you can start recognizing them as being 98% emotional and only 2% rational, and then learn how to listen to and reflect back their emotions to help them process their emotional experience, your life will become effortless and easy with them, and they will grow no matter what their needs are. They will grow in ways that you could not even imagine. It’s magical to watch what happens. So that’s the message of hope I have.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing. So let’s give a special shout out to our mutual friend, Shayla James at Man Alive, for making the introduction. She does amazing work.
Doug Noll: Great, right?
David Hirsch: If someone wants to learn more about your work or to contact you, what’s the best way to do that, Doug?
Doug Noll: My website is dougnoll.com, and when you’re on that page, there are four resources that basically go from free to expensive, depending on what you want to do. One is just a free ebook, which I’d be happy to send you, that explains all about this emotional listening stuff. It’s totally free. It basically explains everything. Then you can get a copy of my book De-Escalate. You can also buy an online video course on How to Calm an Angry Person, the De-Escalate video course.
And then if you really want to invest some serious money, I have a course on Building Emotional Competency, much more expensive, although I give a deep discount to your audience. But that one requires an investment. But you will learn to be emotionally competent in about six weeks. Doesn’t take long, but you have to practice.
David Hirsch: Who would be the best candidate for that type of work?
Doug Noll: There is nobody who’s not a good candidate. But if you’re a parent, you’re a dad, and you’ve resonated with what I’ve talked about, maybe growing up in a family where your father was physically present and emotionally absent, and you want to change that trajectory in your family, and you have children where you have a hard time emotionally connecting because you really never learned how to do that, the Emotional Competency course will solve that problem for you.
You will learn how the how and why of emotions, and you will learn very specific actionable skills that will start changing the dynamics in your family immediately. I’m not about teaching you what to do. I’m about teaching how, step by step by step. This is what you do, and this is what you look for, and this is how you practice it, and this is where you practice it, so that anybody can learn this foundational skill of life.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing and for your time and many insights. As a reminder, Doug is just one of the individuals who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501(c)3 not for profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support.
Doug, thanks again.
Doug Noll: Thanks a lot, David. It’s been a great conversation.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad. Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story, or know of a compelling story, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch. Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics, who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at horizontherapeutics.com.