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When Robin Funsten decided to start her own business, she treated it like a second child. "I literally decided it was my next pregnancy," says the graceful, dark-haired 33-year-old founder of Community Conflict Solutions. We're sharing tea at Dobra downtown, and even on this busy day, Funsten's naturally soothing presence is taking the hustle and bustle down a couple of notches. "I decided on a conception date," she continues, "and I took nine months to see what the birth of a business would look like for me. I gave birth in April 2016, and here I am, a year into a fully birthed baby business."
While it may seem unusual to treat a business like a child, in fact it makes a lot of sense. For Funsten, it was the way she could most organically approach her goals of creating a niche for herself in conflict resolution. And it's served her so well that others thinking of starting their own businesses might do well to take her advice: "It's been really helpful in keeping me patient," she says when I ask how the metaphor has been helpful. "I think a lot of people go into their business expecting to make a certain amount of money, and if they haven't by X amount of time they're a failure.
"With this metaphor, I know that it's a growing baby, and then I treat it like a mother treats a baby. I'm patient with it, foster its health, pay attention to it. I do things I don't always want to do to take care of it—but I do them anyway. And it's challenging; it's really exciting. It grows and changes all the time."
When Funsten decided to have her (human) baby two years ago, she knew that her job at that time—as the Youth Mediation Director at the regional Mediation Center—wouldn't afford her the space and time she was searching for. She took the next step in her career path, moving into a role where she can train others in business to handle conflict in their work spaces and far beyond. As a conflict consultant, Funsten comes into a business and works with groups to instill core values of communication and productive conflict resolution that lead to growth. It's a topic she knows a lot about: last year, she gave a TEDx talk on the subject.
Funsten's interest in and appreciation for conflict resolution has made her particularly attuned to relationships in business settings, but her work with conflict began with a much younger population: children. When she first came to the area to study at Brevard College, Funsten was a bit older than her classmates. She quickly sought out opportunities that would give her some time away from stereotypical college life and began volunteering at the Mediation Center (then the Center for Dialogue) as a mediator. The fact that, according to Funsten, she was "30 to 40 years younger than most of their volunteers," along with her previous experiences working with kids (as a caving instructor at a boys' summer camp, at a team-building ropes course, and at several other summer camps) made her uniquely suited to work with youth populations, which is where she wanted to be. "I told the Youth Director at the time that I wanted her job someday," she laughs.
After graduating, Funsten worked in a wilderness therapy program in Utah as a field instructor. She met her husband, Scott, and the two moved back to Asheville, where Funsten felt called. "The wilderness therapy schedule burns you out," she notes, "so after a year and a half I wanted to come back to Asheville. That's where I needed to be."
Soon after landing back in town, Funsten contacted the Mediation Center. "I said, 'Hey, I'm back, I'd love to volunteer more, especially with kids, and I just got out of working as a field instructor in in wilderness therapy.' Within two months the Youth Director called and said, 'Hey, remember when you said you wanted my job? I'm leaving.'"
For four and a half years, it was Funsten's dream job. Eventually, Brevard's Center for Dialogue, Hendersonville's Dispute Settlement Center, and Asheville's Mediation Center combined due to cuts in funding, and Funsten soon became the Youth Mediation Director overseeing the youth programs in all 4 counties served by the Mediation Center. Funsten looks back on the position as a period of challenge and intense growth and insight.
What I loved about doing it was that I got to work really closely with public schools, the juvenile court, and juvenile mental health programs, but I was a standalone entity and didn't have to deal as much with their red tape. But I got to see the issues they have. All three of those systems are very broken. I'd say the biggest issue is that reactivity is built into the systems—versus prevention and early intervention—and I don't think that's any one specific person's or institution's fault. I think it's just the way systems are set up and the way evaluation for the programs is organized. Programs get funding because they are able to show evidence, and the evidence they're able to show and track is dictated by the systems.
"I have a long-term vision of changing that," she continues. "I want to help change the evaluation systems for programs that receive funding to help at-risk kids stay out of violence, trouble, drugs...My biggest hope obviously surrounds violence prevention because that's my niche as a mediator."
Although Funsten isn't as embedded in this world as she used to be, her current business gives her access in a new way: to the teachers who work one-on-one with these populations. She's created a CEU course for teachers at A-B Tech, in which she and her students will talk about dealing with conflict in the classroom. "It's open to any teacher that works with 6th grade and up and needs help managing conflict in their classrooms," she notes. The 10-hour course, Managing Conflict in the Classroom, is now open for registration and will be held over the summer (see the end of the post for details on signing up).
Funsten is also still contracting with the Mediation Center. She facilitates a weekly juvenile justice boys' group in Hendersonville. "Things like that really fuel my passions for working with kids and teachers," she says, "but those types of things aren't well-funded." Luckily, Funsten is equally passionate about working with professionals in the business world. "I can't sustain my own business without also working with businesses and doing professional development, but I love working with people who want to find opportunities for growth in conflict."
Everybody deals with conflict, but Funsten is a firm believer that addressing it in compassionate, structured ways is key to growth and success. She's currently designing several consulting courses for businesses around the subject of effective feedback, an issue she consistently sees.
"The biggest thing I find in workplaces is that there isn't an effective feedback structure," she says.
Often there is a mutual resentment between levels within hierarchy systems. So the average Joe resents the management for not listening to A, B, and C, and the management resents average Joe because he's not living up to A, B, and C, and there's no effective communication there. There's just this chain of command, or there's something like comment cards that are never actually responded to, things like that. So I feel like one of the really valuable things I've taken away from working in the wilderness therapy environment is the amazing feedback model they use. And the feedback model in the wilderness obviously does not apply to a business in exactly the same way, but certain things I've been analyzing about it are very key pieces as to why a feedback structure could work very effectively. So it's really about just opening honest and easier lines of communication, addressing the fact that defensiveness always arises, and reducing opportunities to create defensiveness in others.
Funsten's trainings are flexible, and might range from a single workshop, which lasts from two to eight hours and focuses on topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, and strategic listening, to lengthier, multi-week consulting sessions on designing, or redesigning, business structures around conflict. The workshops are actually "really fun," she says. "Because of my experiential education background, I am not a lecturer, so all of my training are very active. I have bags of toys that do not belong to my two-year-old son. They're for my trainings," she laughs.
Besides her (business and actual) children, Funsten keeps busy. She is a facilitator for the Women's Business Empowerment Group, which is based in Asheville and open to any female-identifying person who is also involved in business. The group's structure "came from this process called Bridging," Funstein explains. "It's a very simple format where you come to the group with three things: what you offer in the community/who you are, something to solve in your own business, and something to rejoice in and celebrate." The Red Tent-style meetings can be led by anyone familiar with the structure. "It's really awesome because it's much more a community thing now than when it started," she says. "It's a community-run group, which I love."
Funsten is also an avid caver, a passion since the age of eight. "I guess I like challenging things," she laughs. "Conflict resolution and caving!" On every double birthday, she takes a trip to Hamilton Cave in West Virginia, where she navigates through a passage known as the Airblower. "I decided at 22 that I was going to do it once during every double digit of my life," she says. Her first trip was at age 11. "I'm about to turn 34, so I have to do it. I'm doing it at end of March and then don't have to again for 11 years. I'll still fit, so it's always a good health goal, but it's also like a head game.
I've been a caver my whole life, so claustrophobia isn't a thing," she continues, "but if you'd ever have it, it's in there, because the tightest spot is in the middle and it's uphill the whole way out. If you can remember how to get there it's 15-20 minutes out and back, and it's mazy. It's a pretty big climb. It gets really advanced and hard, and my friends cheer me on as I go into the Airblower and come back out. I have a good cry on the other side because it's a headgame; it's really hard. And then I'll come back out and we'll go have a beer or something."
Caving is something she hopes to turn her son onto as well. At a mere two years of age, he's now been twice. "We're trying to get him in there early," laughs Funsten. "I didn't start until eight!"
I don't know about you guys, but I definitely want the support and expertise of this remarkable woman when the going gets tough.
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Find out more about Robin Funsten and Community Conflict Solutions here.
Request to join the Women's Business Empowerment Circle here.
See below for the full course information for Managing Conflict in the Classroom:
Managing Conflict in the Classroom- 10 hours, 1 CEU
For teachers of grades 6 and up, this course will provide simple and effective tools for de-escalating classroom conflicts, preventing future disruptive situations and creating classroom environments that promote healthy resolution. Excellent for returning teachers or instructors who seek tangible tools for managing conflict in the classroom. Instructor is a Certified Community Mediator with specialization in conflict resolution for youth and at-risk population.
Thursdays 7/20 and 7/27 from 12 noon – 5:00 p.m. Room to be determined.
To find out more, go to this link and search Continuing Ed Classes for the Spr/Sum semester. Enter the keyword "conflict" to find the course.