Mediator Sarah Read is on a mission to improve communication

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 | 5:10 p.m. CST; updated 8:07 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Sarah Read listens as other members of the First Christian Church planning committee debate the church's meeting room rental rates and schedule. Read is involved with several planning committees across the city to try to help improve quality of life in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Sarah Read is all about the science of thinking. That’s why she likes to use the 120-question Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument to figure out how the people, groups and teams she works with think.

Once Read figures out their personal thinking preferences, she works to help people get the maximum results.

“Just like how you can strengthen a muscle by working on it ... you can strengthen your ability to access and apply a thinking style through exercise,” said Read, a consultant and mediator who owns The Communications Center in Columbia.

Read is on a mission to improve how the people around her communicate. She incorporates communication techniques into her daily life and wants to spread that knowledge. Because Read is a lawyer and consultant, much of her work is closed to the public. But the city of Columbia has assigned Read a huge task: to develop a process for overseeing implementation of the vision plan known as Imagine Columbia’s Future — and to get the public to buy into it.

Read described her visioning work as the most rewarding and challenging project her firm is involved with.

“It is a great vision for the future and a tremendous opportunity for our community, yet it is a very broad vision and covers many areas,” Read said.

The visioning process is meant to keep Columbia residents engaged in 13 different areas, including arts and culture, community facilities and services, economic development and transportation. It is long-term process to change Columbia over the next 10 years.

'It is about building ideas'

Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins explained why the city chose Read.

“She is involved in organizational development, conceptual thinking, systematic thinking, which is what implementing the vision is largely about,” Hertwig Hopkins said. “It is about building ideas. ... It isn’t about building a zoo or building a museum; it is about moving Columbia forward."

Because the process is so drawn out, Read said it is important to remain transparent and inclusive. That’s why The Communications Center is teaming up with The Watchword, a local-government blog produced by the Missourian, to spread the word.

“One thing you do with a very large and complex project is you don’t reinvent the wheel,” Read said.

Read recently finished a rough draft of the implementation report. The public will review the draft in January. Then Read will use the public's input and the feedback from city departments to create a final report that will go to City Council in late March, Hertwig Hopkins said.

Keeping confidences

Read’s visioning work is open to the public, but she emphasizes that much of the legal mediation and negotiating she does is strictly confidential. When those topics come up, Read goes silent.

Last summer, Stadium 63 Properties hired Read to mediate its negotiations with the Shepard Boulevard and Timberhill neighborhood associations regarding the  Crosscreek development. Jim Muench, chairman of the Shepard association, said he wished the process were more transparent. Instead, Read insisted that participants sign a confidentiality agreement.

“I’m a journalist and public relations person myself, and I believe in open, honest, frank discussion,” Muench said. “But she comes from a more legal background. She is a lawyer, and lawyers tend to believe you should be more secret about anything. ... We decided if we were going to play, we were going to play by the rules.”

Muench holds mixed feelings about the outcome of the Crosscreek talks but said Read did an admirable job of creating a compromise between sides that were  antagonistic toward one another.

Read also presents communication workshops to organizations nationally and locally. She recently led the Women’s Network Leadership Series, sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, through a brainstorming session that taught them better ways to communicate.

“I think it was obvious that it was helpful because it got everyone thinking ... Women's Network is wanting to gain new members and keep the members they have so it is important to find out what members like and what they don’t like,” participant Nancy Fay said.

Helping teachers communicate

Read also does consulting for public schools. Last June, she helped teachers at West Boulevard Elementary School learn communication skills. Principal Peter Stiepleman said Read chooses her words carefully, and when people first meet her, she might not appear to be approachable.

But “after five minutes you realize she is so driven by her beliefs and her desire to make public education the best it can be… you subscribe to that passion.”

Read used this passion, and a listening circle technique, with the teachers.

“We do such a great modeling for children on how to talk to each other, but we as adults sometimes miss the boat on how to interact,” Stiepleman said.

Now the school staff practices Read’s techniques when they have a disagreement during meetings.

Read also founded the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools in 1998. She was a member of the national board from 2002 to 2008 and is president of the local chapter. Read said the purpose of the group is to help parents become engaged.

“She is an excellent public speaker and truly supports the public schools,” said Tracy Holmquest, treasurer and co-secretary of the group.

Working with junior high students

Her involvement with children also extends to her work at First Christian Church, where Read teaches Sunday school to junior high students. Read said that’s a key age when students need to come up with their own questions.

“Their brains are growing and being rewired, and often they are treated like kids,” Read said. “I think faith is a very important foundation for teens to have to navigate our modern culture.”

Read was raised in a Jewish neighborhood; her father was an Anglican and her mother a Roman Catholic. Her entire family, including two sisters and a brother, actively discussed religion and politics at the dinner table. On Sundays, her father often quizzed her on the Sunday sermon.

John Yonker, Read’s senior minister at First Christian Church, described her as a creative teacher. She tries to teach students three main points throughout the semester: that students are created as unique and special people, that God has a plan for their lives and that for that plan to unfold, the students must work with God.

Read moved to Columbia from Chicago in 1996 after her husband, David Read, started working as an English professor at MU. For four years she commuted between Columbia and Chicago. Her daughter Molly Read said journals that she and her mother kept helped them cope with the distance. They would recap their days in writing then exchange journals when Read returned home.

During the long commutes, Read brainstormed the idea for The Communications Center.

“I started The Communications Center because I believe people can learn the communication and thinking patterns that underlie (alternative dispute resolution) processes and be happier, more productive and more efficient as a result,” Read said. “You can make an analogy here to the preventative model of medicine — education and early intervention can do a lot of good.”

Turning toward Columbia

In 2000, Read withdrew from a partnership in Chicago when the job became physically exhausting, and she redirected her attention toward Columbia. Her family was supportive of her business idea, which came to fruition in 2003.

“We were all thrilled when she started doing something that was really meaningful to her, and she enjoyed the work she is doing. My dad and my sister and I always tried to convince her to change the work she was doing if it would make her happy… rather than focusing on the career ladder,” Molly Read said.

While Read was working in Chicago, Molly and her sister Anna would visit their mother at work and travel to a shop on the 39th floor of her building. The girls would choose from an assortment of crayons and markers to add to their collection kept hidden away in a special drawer in their mother’s office, Anna Read, the elder daughter, said. The girls would then create artwork, and anything they drew ended up wallpapering their mother’s office.

She still keeps her children's artwork in her office in Columbia. One prominent example is a picture her daughters gave her of a giant light bulb after she negotiated legislation to restructure the Illinois electric industry. The framed but crinkled paper, which says “electric deregulation ‘rules’” above a white painted light bulb and the words “a bright idea” on the bottom, was left under her Christmas tree in 1997, crinkled up and placed into a tiny jewelry box.

Beneath the poster, Read's desk is anything but cluttered. All her paperwork is neatly  sorted in file cabinets behind her desk. Organization is a hallmark of Read’s personality, not only in terms of her office but the way she manages her time. Her tone grows excited as she shares her time-management techniques.

A Hoberman sphere, a plastic jointed spherical toy that expands and contracts, is one of her favorite teaching tools when talking to lawyers. She uses it to represent the elasticity and three dimensions of time: past, present and future.

To capture the three dimensions, a two-dimensional planner just won’t cut it. So, if anyone — a client or her family — wants to schedule anything with Read, they’ll have to leave a message in her voice mailbox. She’ll take information from her messages, a “collection point,” then distribute and sort it. Read refers to a glass jar filled will marbles. Even if the jar is filled to the top, water or sand can be poured in. Time, she says, is the same way. Filling those empty spaces is what time management is all about.

Molly Read and Read’s assistant calculated that overall Read works between 80 and 90 hours each week.

“When she is interested in something or cares about something, she commits 100 percent to it. I think that is such a great quality, but also that doesn’t help her to relax,” Molly Read said. “She gets super involved in the things she cares about, which is something I admire.”

Norm Benedict, president of the Columbia Metro Rotary Club, another organization Read is involved with, commented on Read’s thoroughness and her ability to reach goals.

“She is very thorough in her work and her responsibilities, which is an absolute plus. You always know that if she is in charge of something that every ‘i’ is going to be dotted and every ‘t’ is going to be crossed. She is not a micro-manger; she is very open … she will sit in a discussion and be a part of it, but she will neither dominate it nor be a wallflower.”

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