Diana Cutaia's hands-on workshop creates a space for relationships between co-workers to flourish

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - What does Coaching Peace President Diana Cutaia do? 'I go around the country,' Cutaia said, 'and I do trainings, and most of the trainings I do fall into culture, so we really work on organizations or companies to foster really positive safe, inclusive, cultures. What happens in a lot of those is I work on empathy. I teach people about empathy, which doesnt seem to be a hot topic right now at all.'It’s breaking with the standard form to write a news story in first person, but sometimes The Review makes exceptions — like when a journalist has persuaded almost all of her co-workers to juggle tennis balls and participate in a full-body, tournament-style game of Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS).

That’s what happened a few weeks ago, when Coaching Peace President Diana Cutaia told me that she wanted to spread the word about the empathy workshops she leads in an effort to improve the culture for adult professionals as well as students.

“There’s so much good in everybody, but because we live in a society that oftentimes doesn’t allow that, we don’t value it,” Cutaia said. “We never had a space for it to come out, so I try to create that space where it can come out a little bit.”

Celebrating the good in people sounded great to me. I admit, I didn’t know the workshop would involve juggling, or that I’d temporarily earn the same nickname as Dwayne Johnson for my RPS prowess. But I knew it would be fun because I (The Review’s education reporter/assistant editor) have seen Cutaia — whose clients include the Lake Oswego School District — at work as a charismatic presenter.

Cutaia can engage even a post-dinner crowd of exhausted parents in discussing abstract concepts, such as developing empathy in kids, creating sportsmanship in athletes or boosting the overall culture.

BECK“Her wisdom is her expertise and knowledge in assisting organizations to continuously improve their culture,” LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck told The Review. “Her gift is her gracious spirit that makes all of us want to be better.”

Not every one of Cutaia’s clients will enjoy the particular games we did, but all of her workshops are hands-on.

“I think we live in a world where we want to feel, touch and see,” she said. “We don’t do enough of that.”

An entire organization must be involved for a workshop to be effective, not just one department or an individual, said Cutaia, who has a master’s degree in education from Lesley University and nearly 25 years of experience in empathy and/or athletics coaching across the country.

“You can’t train somebody to do something and then put them back into (a problematic) environment,” Cutaia said.

And so (almost) all of us gathered on Oct. 20: nine reporters and editors from The Review, West Linn Tidings, Wilsonville Spokesman and Southwest Community Connection who work together in a downtown Lake Oswego office.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Gary M. Stein, editor of The Review, tells empathy workshop leader Diana Cutaia that he has mastered the art of juggling two tennis balls. West Linn Tidings education reporter Andrew Kilstrom (right) offers encouragement.


“I go around the country, and I do trainings,” Cutaia told us as we settled into the conference room, “and most of the trainings I do fall into culture, so we really work on organizations or companies to foster really positive, safe, inclusive cultures. What happens in a lot of those is I work on empathy. I teach people about empathy — which doesn’t seem to be a hot topic right now at all.”

She was just kidding. In fact, people are talking about how technology seems to have created a dearth of empathy in society today, she noted, and one of the reasons for that is that kids develop empathy by first being mean. When cruel words are said to someone’s face, a child can watch the tears well up and realize the impact of bullying behavior. But when cruelty is levied at someone online, Cutaia said, there’s no feedback from the person. Instead, digital insults are often rewarded by “likes.”

“We critique people more than ever,” Cutaia said. “We criticize people. That’s what sells. That’s why we have reality TV. The more we can find the worst in humankind and exploit that, the more people are interested in it in some way.”

Children become indoctrinated into those online digital practices by watching or listening to their parents, she said, and the one thing she can guarantee is that we were all children at one point. (Many of us, including her, are still like a kid in some ways, she said.) So she designs her workshops to appeal to the kid in us, with “kinesthetic and visceral” games to excite the mind and change perceptions.REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Editors and reporters from the Lake Oswego Review, West Linn Tidings, Wilsonville Spokesman and Southwest Community connection quickly realize that most of them cant juggle.

One of those games is Rock-Paper-Scissors — and she soon had our group of hardened journalists playing with glee.

We started with our backs turned to each other, then spun around to face off against our opponent. We could choose to raise up karate hands to denote scissors, to hunch slightly with scrunched-in arms to seem rocklike or to lift our arms at right angles to appear more rectangular, like a sheet of paper.

I beat Leslie Pugmire Hole, the editor of the Tidings and Spokesman, by being paper, and later trounced Wilsonville reporter Claire Colby by constricting myself into a human rock.

Cutaia then suggested my new nickname (I’m a 5-foot-4-inch, nonathletic bookworm) should be “The Rock,” something the rest the staff seemed to love.

“In fact, you might want to put it in your byline from now on,” Cutaia said.

My boss, Review Editor Gary M. Stein, looked contemplative. “We can do that,” he said.

It wasn’t to be this time. But the exercise quickly gave her a sense of how comfortable we feel with one another.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Leslie Pugmire Hole, editor of the West Linn Tidings and Wilsonville Spokesman, tries to juggle tennis balls during a Coaching Peace empathy workshop Oct. 20 designed to draw staff members together.


Cutaia then delved into the difference between empathy and sympathy, and the effect each can have on our relationship with others.

Sympathy “drives disconnection,” she told us. It’s like saying “I’m sorry” to someone who is sad about their pet dying, without showing that you truly understand. On the other hand, empathy is about asking how the other person is feeling, and showing that you do understand how terrible it is to lose something, even if you’ve never had a pet die.

But not everyone can feel empathy for another person, she said.

“There is a big problem that we find,” she said. “Extreme privilege sometimes inhibits the development of empathy.”

She asked us why we thought that might be.

“Because you don’t have any difficult experiences to draw on,” said Patrick Malee, assistant editor for the Tidings, and Cutaia agreed.

Shielding a child from negative experiences her whole life will make it tough for her to relate to people who are struggling when she is an adult — essentially inhibiting the growth of empathy, Cutaia said.REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Leslie Pugmire Hole, editor of the West Linn Tidings and Wilsonville Spokesman (left), and Spokesman reporter Claire Colby run through an exercise during a workshop with Coaching Peace.

“Challenges and failures and struggles build more empathetic kids,” Cutaia said. (She later added that a caring adult needs to be there to guide children, so they aren’t traumatized.)

To prove her point, Cutaia paired us up again for an activity that would illustrate how failure builds empathy.

At first, the pairs juggled as one person, each of us using an outside hand to toss a ball to the other. We started with one ball, gradually building to three. And when it looked as if we had gotten the hang of the basic principles, we tried to juggle on our own.

Lake Oswego city reporter Anthony Macuk and Tidings education reporter Andrew Kilstrom already knew how to juggle and embarrassed themselves slightly less than the rest of us. But Cutaia said the same rules applied to everyone: We could only offer constructive criticism or specific encouragement, even when our partner got frustrated.

“An important word, frustration,” Cutaia said. “Frustration is when expectations and reality are different. It’s like when the guy (driving) in front of me has his right blinker on, but he takes a left.”

We all admitted to having felt some level of that as our hand-eye coordination failed us and tennis balls bounced to the floor. But not having things go your way was basically the point, Cutaia said, and the exercise offered not only an opportunity for a shared experience but also a chance to see how each of us learns. Some of us need others to coach them, while some, like me, want to sit on our own until we’ve unraveled the problem.

“Is one better than the other?” Stein asked. “Or is it just kind of understanding how each person needs to be treated?”

Cutaia said it’s about understanding how others react, especially if their needs aren’t being met — such as a worker who needs coaching but can’t get anyone to provide it.REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Coaching Peace always offers different activities depending on the organization's structure and needs, Diana Cutaia said.

“What if you flip that?” Stein said. “What if, as the manager, your reaction is, ‘Give me space. Leave me alone. I’ll figure this out.’ That can be destructive, too.”

“Absolutely,” Cutaia said, because trust is built through communication.

“So if you are not communicating with your team, then it’s like being the captain of a plane and you’re in bumpy air,” she said, “and they don’t say anything to you. And you’re like, uh,

‘Are we going down? What’s happening?’”

She said effective leaders and managers can solve a problem on their own, as long as they tell others that’s what they’re doing.

She then asked us what we thought this exercise was about.

“I think you want us to open up to each other,” I said, “so you wanted to create an exercise during which we would connect.”

Cutaia, who can juggle really well, looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and replied, “Jillian’s like, ‘That was terrible!’”

We all laughed. Then she got serious.

“You’re right in some respects,” she said, “that what I do want to do is create this artificial environment where you now understand the experience that somebody is having and the challenge that they’re having, and you have to coach them through that experience, but you have to do it through an empathetic lens. And the only reason that you can do it is because you’ve had a similar experience.”

If we’d actually hired Cutaia, she’d have returned to hold follow-up workshops to build our empathy. This was just intended as a sample of what she offers, but she left us with some parting advice: Say something we appreciate about our co-workers on a regular basis.

“We think about people differently when we show appreciation for them,” she said.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Coaching Peace, which Diana Cutaia founded in 2012, offers workshops for schools, companies and other organizations.

Other workshops

In addition to empathy workshops, Cutaia also offers other services to corporations and organizations needing to enhance culture. In addition, she helps groups achieve Title IX compliance, and gives training in sportsmanship and other team culture issues. Other groups or schools, such as Lewis & Clark College, have participated in training for “building intrinsic motivation” in athletes, while the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts gained technical assistance for their Girl Sports Series.

Cutaia brings a strong coaching background to those workshops. She has served as a national team training coach for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and she has been both the director of athletics and sport-based initiatives at Boston’s Wheelock College and head women’s basketball coach at Curry College in Milton, Mass. She earned the nickname Coach Peace through her emphasis on team building. This longtime value is also evident in her master’s thesis, “Creating Peaceful Communities through How We Coach Youth.”

Coach Peace is from Boston, but she moved to the Portland area in 2014 to be closer to her then-partner (and now wife). She’s made a huge difference since she got here, especially in the LOSD.

“Coaching Peace has made a tremendous impact on our district,” Beck says on the Coaching Peace website. “The comprehensive work that Diana has directed is focused on building healthy, professional relationships through an empathetic lens.”

And interwoven in that important work, there just might be some juggling or Rock-Paper-Scissors involved.

By Jillian Daley
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