Every now and then, I’ll meet with a couple to discuss divorce mediation just to discover that neither spouse is necessarily seeking a divorce. Recently, I’ve had three such couples. In one consultation, I recall the husband gently putting his hand on his wife’s knee as she tearfully said, “This is so hard because we still love each other.” Another couple both agreed, “We don’t want a divorce but feel like there’s no other choice”. These occasions leave me especially heavy hearted. I have seen first-hand the devastation of divorce even when both spouses seemed certain that it was time to split up. It is difficult to fathom the depth of heartache when neither are convinced the marriage is over. In cases like these, I often remind the couple of the option of filing for legal separation instead of divorce until they are certain of what they want. I also mention the possibility of Conflict Coaching. Many couples can benefit from meeting with a coach who specializes in conflict and communication breakdown. Hearing how we sound and the words we use through the lens of an objective third party can illuminate growth areas and even inject new hope in the relationship. This is not to oversimplify the slow, painful dismantling of a marriage. I understand that years and layers of hurt are not easily overcome. However, if couples are willing to take an honest look at their destructive patterns of relating and take steps to change, in some cases, the results can be dramatic. For couples who aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, conflict coaching could be a good next step. Change can be excruciatingly hard work though, so hang on to the towel for wiping away the sweat!
Sweetening sour relationships may need more than just a spoon full of sugar. The following excerpt from the book, Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (by Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School. friendandfoebook.com) talks about the importance of using a mediator to facilitate face-to-face meetings with people we consider foes. “We often think that meeting face-to-face is the best way to build a relationship. This is certainly true for fledgling relationships and for existing relationships that need to be nurtured. When we face foes, however, face-to-face meetings can actually escalate conflict. Sometimes we need to take a break from seeing each other and have someone help mediate: A mediator can help two foes bridge their differences and repair their relationship.” The authors go on to say that based on the analysis of hundreds of labor disputes, when a mediator came in and held private meetings with each disputant before a joint mediation session, conflict was reduced, and better agreements were created.
Why are we often gripped by fear when it comes to managing conflict? For many, the answer could be summed up in this simple acronym for FEAR by business consultant, Terry Corbell, – “Frantic Effort to Avoid Responsibility”. We want to avoid owning up to our words and actions, shutting down self-examination that could uncover culpability. We often resist assuming responsibility for any role in the office brouhaha for risk that it will reflect badly on us. So instead, we make excuses, accusations and quick exits. What the primitive “fight or flight” lobe of our brains doesn’t realize is we generally capture the respect of people and gain their confidence when we acknowledge and own our mistakes. In fact, accountability not only can mitigate and defuse conflict, it is a key to increased trust and productivity in the workplace.
Contrary to popular belief, conflict is not the enemy. The truth is, conflict is often the best way to create intimacy and trust between people. Conflict has the ability to generate creativity and fresh energy, strengthen leadership and loyalty, renew morale and motivation, increase productivity and financial stability. Few things accomplish these in life. Conflict also instills a healthy checks-and-balances that promote accountability within families and businesses. In fact, studies show that the most destructive approach to conflict is no approach at all; in other words, avoidance. Yes, conflict can be uncomfortable and sometimes excruciatingly painful but if effectively managed, it is a valuable asset in our private and professional lives. The answer to failing relationships isn’t simply avoiding conflict but rather facing it head on and choosing to manage it. I believe this is a key to healthy and sustainable relationships.
Last week’s divorce mediation reinforced for me the importance of asking questions in place of assuming the worst about a person’s actions...or even the best without confirmation.
A year earlier, the husband had requested a divorce and for a year the wife had been dragging her feet on filing. He concluded that she was sabotaging the divorce process out of spite while she truly believed her husband was showing signs of ambivalence toward divorcing (even though they had been separated for 18 months and he was currently living with another woman). When asked how his wife might have read ambivalence in him regarding the divorce, the husband responded categorically that he had no doubt they should divorce. He said she was probably picking up on his deep sadness that divorce meant violating his Christian values.
If only the wife had asked him to clarify her hopeful impressions instead of assuming the best or the husband had sought to understand his wife’s reluctance to file instead of assuming the worst. They may have saved months of painful confusion and growing hostility.
The perils of assumption!
For the longest time, whenever I texted the word “mediation”, my cell would auto correct it to “meditation”. What a difference one-letter makes.
However, those two words have a lot more in common than you might think. I love yoga and practice it regularly. I guess you could call me a “yogi” (not a term I use often!) I’m also a mediator by profession. I assist people in managing and resolving their own conflict. As one who practices both yoga and mediation (with no “ t ”), I’ve begun to understand parallels between the two disciplines.
Yoga seeks to promote inner peace through strength, balance and flexibility poses. As a mediator, I promote relational peace by applying these same three attributes. How do I help people experience strength in conflict? By empowering the disputants to hear and communicate their core needs and values more effectively, whereby ultimately empowering them to self-determine. Balance is best achieved in mediation when the mediator remains impartial and supports each party with equal dignity and attention. Of course, flexibility is paramount for mediators willing to place more importance on the people than the process. I even find that practicing intentional breathing while helping people work through conflict keeps me present for my clients.
Finally, the traditional yoga greeting, “Namaste”, translates “I bow to good qualities within you”. For me, that pretty much sums up the essence of my role as a mediator and why I believe in mediation’s ability to transform relationships!
Is conflict the missing ingredient in your work meetings? According to Patrick Lencioni, author of, Death by Meeting, the answer is a resounding Yes! Lencioni writes, “Meetings are not inherently boring. By definition, they are dynamic interactions involving groups of people discussing topics that are relevant to their livelihoods. So why are they so often dull? Because we eliminate the one element that is required to make any human activity interesting: conflict”
So it appears that conflict in meetings is not only a good thing but a necessity if the boss wants to keep employees engaged and meetings “interactive and relevant”. This may seem counter-intuitive since a large and growing body of research supports the fact that conflict in the workplace costs businesses exorbitant amounts of money every year. Conflict in and of its self is not the problem but rather, it is management’s inaction or inability to properly deal with conflict. Just the other day I received a phone call from a bank manager who said, “All I do is deal with conflict so I figured I should learn how to do it”
It’s estimated that 30% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with conflict and yet a mere 57% of managers have actually received conflict management training. Lencioni says that if conflict were productively “mined” and “nurtured” during meetings, workers might actually enjoy going to a meeting more than going to the movies!
Empowering people and businesses to transform conflict into opportunities for profound growth!