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!
For many separating or divorcing couples with minor children, the last thing on their minds is a new romantic relationship. It’s all they can do to get out of their current soured one as fast as possible. However, more than ever, I’m realizing the importance of couples thinking through and establishing some guidelines for future dating relationships and including them in court decreed parenting plans.
I recently did a mediation for a young couple with a 5-yr. old daughter. A year after their separation, the mother started including her new boyfriend and his adolescent son into her scheduled parenting time with her daughter. When the daughter's father got wind of this, he was very angry and concerned that mom hadn't consulted with or even informed him before she exposed their daughter to this man and his son. He was sick with worry about his daughter’s safety and how this new relationship could confuse and negatively impact her.
Understanding and agreeing to dating guidelines can help preempt conflict and foster more productive communication between parents. It’s important that parents consider such questions as: How long should a parent wait before introducing a new romantic interest to their children? What wording should be used when making introductions? How much time with this person and what activities with the child are appropriate? What might be the impact if the relationship ends?
These issues are difficult and complex, but one thing I know; they are much messier when a parenting plan does not attempt to address them from the get go. Taking the time to think through dating guidelines before dating can spare parents unnecessary conflict and stress. More importantly, it's an extra measure of protection for the children.
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!
Mediation is not about getting people to compromise and compromise should not be a mediator’s goal. If you’re a mediator that uses the word “compromise" or even thinks it in your mediation sessions, it’s time to please stop! Meeting someone half way means no one ever arrives! The beauty of mediation is that it allows people to go far beyond positions and luke warm compromises to a place where their real interests and needs are addressed. The driving force behind the conversation changes from staunch demands to dialogue about the things that truly matter. Instead of merely settling for a "middle ground" concession, parties are free to be creative in problem solving, often resulting in options that are satisfying to both.
In my mediation practice I've noted that the deeper interests of parties are usually in regards to broken trust and dignity, not something with which you can "split the difference" or barter over. When the mediator facilitates and empowers both parties to focus on interests, the parties are more apt to collaborate on and customize an optimal agreement. The best outcomes are always the ones generated and driven by the parties.
As mediators, we must learn to bite our lips and resist the temptation to offer our solutions. This is a discipline and practice that takes tremendous effort and self awareness. The benefits, however, are worth it. I have been blown away many times by the agreements my clients have reached; solutions I wouldn't or couldn't have come up with. I remember a court mediation between two former army buddies (let’s say Sam and Jack). Sam had entrusted some of his personal belongings to Jack. Jack had left them in his unlocked vehicle and they were stolen. For almost an hour, Sam kept demanding compensation of $500 and Jack kept insisting that he didn’t have that much money. Fortunately, I squelched the impulse to say what I was thinking, “How about a compromise and just split the difference”. Instead, in a last ditch effort to move the young men off of positions onto interests, I asked if there was anything in addition to money that could be considered of value in their conversation. Sam quickly said, “Yeah, I want my ABU back! It was really special to me.” (Airmen Battle Uniform – I looked it up later). Jack quickly replied, “Really, well you can have mine. We’re the same size and I don’t care about it.” From there, it was just a matter of minutes before an agreement was signed and they were shaking hands with grins on their faces. Jack even voluntarily threw in $100. As they walked out the door, Jack said to Sam, “We’re still friends, right?” I’ll never forget that moment and the realization that I could have really messed it up by inserting myself in their conversation.
Thank goodness I didn’t push for a compromise!
Empowering people and businesses to transform conflict into opportunities for profound growth!