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Mi CASA es su casa: Negotiating With Yourself

If I were to tell (not write) you that for the past three months I'd been on a journey toward becoming a CASA, would you know what I was talking about? I bet not. First of all, if I were speaking Japanese, when you heard me say, "kasa," you might think I was headed toward becoming an umbrella. Or if you know Spanish, you might ask, "How does a man become a house?" Read on to find out how this man almost did become a CASA, and how I negotiated with myself to find a better way to contribute to an amazing organization. You'll also learn three reminders that you can apply to any negotiation.

The CASA I'm referring to is neither a house nor an umbrella. A CASA is a Court Appointed Special Advocate. A few months ago I read a Carmel Valley News article about Voices for Children, a non-profit seeking volunteers. Voices for Children trains and manages CASAs who advocate for children in foster care. The article said they're specifically looking for males and for Spanish speakers. I check both of those boxes, and while completely unfamiliar with what a CASA does other than "advocate," I signed up for an information session.

The two CASAS who spoke at the session started us off by asking what words come to mind when we think of kids in foster care. I remember thinking, and then voicing along with others words you too might think of, among them: "traumatized," "scared," "sad," "isolated." Then the volunteers shared that in addition to familiar reactions, experienced CASAs use different words to describe the foster kids they work with. Words like, "resilient," "energetic," "determined" and other positive adjectives flashed onto the screen. "Wow!" I thought. "I've got a lot to learn." (Foreshadowing.)

When another of the CASAs shared how he coached his "kiddo" (their common word to refer to the foster children they serve) to present his own case at a court hearing, I thought, "Helping people present themselves. That's right up my professional alley."

I further learned that the main role of a CASA is to "be present," to "listen," and above all, to be the one adult in their life who is constant. One who, unlike the social workers, attorneys, and just about every other adult in their life, is there because they want to be there. All that sounded like a role I could play, so I applied for CASA training. Prior to the first Zoom session, I learned that one of my favorite pediatricians had retired from his medical practice and and became a CASA. What a coincidence!

So, to recap: An article in a local paper seemed to call out to me with a golden opportunity to contribute, and I was ready to grab it.

Not so fast. The second training, "Trauma in Children," was indeed traumatic. A video depicting a pair of agents from Health and Human Services (HHA) removing a brother and sister from their alcoholic parents. Kids running, screaming. Resisting. The adults arguing. Mother crying. Watching the video from the comfort of my room triggered memories of my own parents' fights and divorce from way back when I was 5. The trainers did a good job of debriefing us trainees, but that video appeared as a rough speed bump on my road toward becoming a CASA.

Still, I looked forward to the next training. Well, not exactly "looked forward," but I did prepare for it with their online course. I passed the quizzes, conducted some research, and was ready for the next Zoom unit: Court Procedures. But first we did an observation exercise where we were told that our role will be to "observe." I learned that a lot of the work of a CASA is like a private detective. You don't talk much. Then other situations were described: You use counseling skills, but you're not a counselor; you gather information for and about the kids; you help them with things their case-givers aren't taking care of; you work with attorneys, social workers, teachers, biological and foster families, and other agencies. You also take the kiddos on outings or engage in age-appropriate activities.

That's when it hit me: I love children, but I don't have any special affinity for young kids. And if I saw mistreatment, or even potential for it, I wouldn't be "objective." Or quiet. I might even call for vigilante justice. As my son Walt said: "You'd get emotional, Dad. Admit it!" And he's right. If I got as involved as the best CASAs do with their kiddo cases, there's a good chance I'd be in need of therapy. My liaison laughed when I shared as much, because, well, you also gotta admit that in a sense it sounded funny. But we both agreed, and I'm sure you would too, that it would be no laughing matter if I were assigned to a case only to become yet another here-today-gone-tomorrow adult in a foster kid's life.

Then there was the Zoom training. As valuable and necessary as the training is, I couldn't help but feel exasperated about the way it was conducted. "They need my book on presentations and the one on remote work!" I (perhaps arrogantly) thought. But they do! And that's when it really hit me: I can help this organization in other ways, and actually be effective, or as Arnold Schwarzenegger says in his new book, "Be Useful." And after a few days of serious reflection, discussions with a couple of coaches, and yes, some self-negotiating, I pulled the plug on becoming a CASA and instead am going to focus on other ways to help Voices for Children. When I spoke to the training manager after I had met with the liaison, the manager said she's been looking for ways to improve the online training, so here I come!

And that leads me to today's 3-point conclusion, as applied to Negotiations, and especially if and when you find yourself negotiating with yourself: Define, Flex, and Question.

1) Define. Define your your terms (two meanings): A) Say what you want. What "terms of agreement" are you seeking? Often defining our objectives, and what we mean by what we want, helps us achieve those objectives. And there's usually more than one pathway to whatever true objectives you define. And then there's the second meaning of "define your terms" –simply know what the words mean. In this case I thought I knew what "CASA" meant, even once I learned the definition, but I sure didn't know all that the role entailed.

2) Flex. Again, two meanings: A) be flexible and open to others' different definition of terms, and B) show your strengths. Flex your muscles!

3) Question. We human beings are question-answering machines. Do you agree? Think about it for a second. Do you? See? You nodded or thought "yes," "no," or you shrugged or in some other way responded to my question. You can't help it. You're a question-answering machine! Aim to ask your counterpart and yourself better questions. In my case, the key question two of my coaches asked me was, "Why do you want to do this?" When I realized my answers lacked the punch to convince them, I had found the answer for myself. Yes, maybe I could have been useful as a CASA. Maybe. But would I be truly effective? Would being a CASA put my strengths to their best use? Doubtful, especially compared to what I know I can offer.

As I wrote above, I'm planning to help Voices for Children, and to promote them. If there's a CASA opportunity where you live and the role sounds like it would suit you, go for it! You don't need to open your house (casa) or an umbrella (kasa) to be a CASA. You need to be able to dedicate 15 hours a week; you need an excellent driving record; you need to be able to pay close attention to details; you need patience; and above all, you need a real affinity for children, especially those who have been neglected and/or abused. Voices for Children provides you with everything else to help those kiddos succeed.

These past few months were a roller-coaster CASA ride. It's given me food for thought. And for action. How about you? It also gave me (and you, I trust) three good reminders: Define, Flex, Question. Three winning reminders for any negotiation, even for those negotiations we engage in with ourselves.


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