We all know what it’s like to NOT want to share our feelings. We know the vulnerability, imbalance, unpredictability, and wild nature the feelings by themselves often embody. We know their subjectivity, and the ease with which they may be ridiculed and judged. We know how challenging they make maintaining strategic control when other important things are also at stake. And we know that in many cultural contexts, feelings are also taboo as either unprofessional, effeminate , or simply bad taste. The cards are basically stacked against us putting our feelings on the table.
But it turns out, keeping our feelings out of a difficult conversation is actually more risky, not less, than putting them in it.
Consider the following points:
~ Unexpressed feelings can leak into the conversation through one’s affect, tone of voice, body language, facial expression, withdrawal, distance, sarcasm, impatience, defensiveness, and unpredictability.
~ Unexpressed feelings can burst uncontrolled into conversation once they have built up such intensity that we are unable to contain them any longer.
~ Unexpressed feelings make it difficult to listen because all our psychic energy is consumed in simultaneously keeping them in check and seeking their relief.
~ Unexpressed feelings take a toll on our self-esteem and relationships as you judge yourself for not sticking up for yourself and deny others the opportunity to step up in response to your sharing.
All of these aspects of unexpressed feelings can seriously hurt our chances of achieving a resolution to a conflict that serves our best interests.
When we experience difficult conflicts, part of the reason they are difficult is that we are not just confronting someone else; we are also confronting ourselves. One common form of conflict involves us receiving feedback that is painful to us. We find ourselves objecting to whatever it is, unwilling to accept delivery of the message being sent to us, in conflict with it.
What we are so often unable to understand is that there is a reason for our strong reaction to such feedback: the feedback challenges a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about the way we show up as a human being in the world. We all need confirmation that we are competent, good and lovable people. This sense of ourselves is our identity. Over time, we develop identity stories that explain why and to what extent we are competent, good and loveable beings. But at times, we are confronted with feedback that is difficult to face because it suggests we are not who we thought we were, we are not who we have claimed to be to ourselves. Confronting ourselves in this way is no picnic.
Figuring out how to cope with such identity confrontations is one of the great offerings contained in one of my favorite books, Difficult Conversations.
On the Family Tree Mediation facebook page, we have a weekly tradition in tandem with our Pinterest page. We call it Our Weekly Celebration of the Family Tree. Each week we choose an inspiring photo of a beautiful tree and reflect on what the photo might say about families.
Last week’s celebration of the family tree was called “The Tree of Lights” and evoked the following reflection: “Each member in the family glows with a beautiful vibration he or she has been singing since before any of us had an agenda or experience. The holidays are a time, amid the busyness, to get quiet enough to enjoy each other's nature singing, to bathe in the gift of the glow each one gives off, that cannot be improved upon or corrected.” (See http://www.facebook.com/FamilyTreeMediation and http://pinterest.com/fmlytrmediation/)
Later, revisiting this post on our facebook page, I remembered a poem I wrote some twenty years ago as an English major in college and I realized how meaningful the ebb and flow of family relationships have always been to me. As the poem is also about the holidays, I thought I would share it with you on this widely celebrated winter solstice, the night for which the ever green tree has always been a symbol of magical vitality even in the darkest of winter nights. As you will see, the constancy of the family tree, amid every kind of change of season, has clearly held a place of central value for me for a long time.
Holiday traditions are great, but only when they serve their purpose, which is to celebrate and nurture a healthy family culture. The hitch is that, traditions aside, the holidays can be very stressful times, particularly if the family is already dealing with significant challenges. And there seems to be no end to the different kinds of challenges families face.
For example, you may be a newly single parent trying to meet the emotional needs of your children at the same time you are dealing with the financial challenges of re-entering the job market. You may be a recent graduate who does not want to spend the holiday season being judged by the family because your professional or romantic life is struggling. Or you may be in the political or cultural minority within your family and you are just tired of having to either hold your tongue at family gatherings or land in a big fight with Uncle Bob.
Whatever the flavor of the challenges your family faces, a creative way to cope is to challenge the status quo. The holidays seem to beg for rituals and traditions that can be either heart-warming or uncomfortably stifling. The longer they have been going on, the more mandatory they feel. All the good memories they have created make suggestions of change feel wrong, even hurtful. But if the tradition is actually aggravating pain you are already experiencing, change is not wrong; it is good medicine, like fresh air and rest. In some situations, such change can be an essential part of taking responsible care of yourself.
So if you are approaching this holiday season with anxiety about the pain you are going to suffer, why not give the old routines a rest? Why not breathe some fresh air into the spirit of the season?
Let me give you an example from my family. My parents were divorced when I was four. From that time on and for nearly 40 years, Christmas Eve was spent with my mother and eventually my step father and his kids, and Christmas Day was spent with my father and eventually my step-mother’s family.
There has been a fair amount of coverage in the news of the growing numbers of college graduates who find it necessary to move back in with their parents. Many factors contribute to this new pattern. There is the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the unprecedented debt with which recent graduates are now often burdened. There is the unhealthy economic climate that has gripped our country for several years now. Jobs are hard to get. Salaries are falling. Economic disparities are increasing. Home ownership is more of a challenge than ever, putting increased pressure on the rental market. Questions about the adequacy of college preparation for the changing demands of the American workplace also loom. One may even step back and regard the environmental threats, wars, and cultural trends shaping the society into which enter our newly minted college graduates as factors contributing to their need or decision to move back home.
No doubt for many parents and many young adult children, this new living dynamic is stressful and even painful. There are two thoughts, however, that can be of help to families trying to find a way to adjust to these new circumstances.
What happens in mediation can be hard to describe. A word of acknowledgment, an admission of pain, an uncovered fact can cause an internal shift within one or all of the participants that completely reorients the dynamics between individuals in a positive way. The internal aspects of our experience of dispute are indeed wondrous when an opening occurs that helps the parties to find agreement and even healing. But the opposite is also true: the internal aspects of our experience of dispute are also cause for frustration and dysfunction when we are unable to navigate our disputes effectively because we don’t have a good enough handle on what’s going on inside ourselves.
Yes, our conflicts are not just about the material goods, the outward aspects of the dispute at issue. Our conflicts inevitably are also very much about (1) the inward perceptions of the participants, (2) the way the inward emotional landscape of each participant effects his or her perceptions, and (3) the deeper inward needs that are emotionally linked to the outward material goods at issue.
A principal value of mediation is that the mediator offers the opportunity to isolate and focus upon different aspects of each party’s perceptions and experience so that it can be dealt with effectively on its own terms. Each mediation is different and the elements of the dispute that need to be isolated and dealt with separately are different in each case. However, Sharon Strand Ellison provides an illuminating insight into how useful this process of separating out different aspects of our inward perceptions and experience can be in her book, Taking the War Out of Words.
Perhaps one of the aspects of mediation that makes it so effective is its diversity of forms. Mediation is not pursued just by lawyers or just by therapists, for example, but by both, and also by a wide variety of others with different professional backgrounds. The mediation field is fertile with experimentation and new sources of inspiration. Over the past four decades, there has been a tremendous amount of energy devoted to advancing new mediation techniques. As a result of all this energy, a growing number of people have found more empowering, more economical, and more durable resolutions to their disputes than they would have otherwise found in an adversarial process such as litigation.
However, the diversity in the mediation field is also cause for caution and an indication that there may be significant disagreements about what mediation should and should not be. These disagreements can lead to confusion by people wondering whether mediation is right for them.For people in such circumstances, it is useful to take time to consider a number of people’s perspectives on mediation in order to gain awareness of the variety of opinions about mediation and the various experiences informing those opinions.
A terrific book about mediation and negotiation that is aimed at the general public is Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, by Robert Mnooken, Chair of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. The book explores disputes in a variety of contexts where the relationship between the parties in conflict has grown so hostile that at least one side views the other as immoral, even evil. Thus, the title, Bargaining with the Devil. I will say a word about Mnooken's advice in such situations at the end of this post, but my real interest in mentioning Bargaining with the Devil is that, at the end of this book's last case study, Mnooken offers an important gem of advice relative to proactive, preventative communication in the estate planning context.
The case at hand involved three siblings’ inheritance of a large and valuable vacation property. The conflict had escalated to the point that two of the siblings were no longer talking to each other. If nothing was done to change the situation, the parents' gift to them threatened to permanently injure all the siblings’ relationships with each other, which certainly was not their parents' intention in making the gift.
A core belief here at Family Tree Mediation is that one of the keys that makes mediation successful is each party feeling that the other has really heard what he or she had to say. If you think back on your own experience, whenever you are in an argument or even just a conversation where you do not feel like you are being heard, you will probably recognize that internally all your mental energies become focused on the fact that you are not being heard and on your continuing need to make yourself heard.
It makes sense that when your mental energies are held hostage in this way that you are not able to think further about how it feels to speak your own words or what thoughts reveal themselves as your own words sink in. All your energy is just focused on the fact that the other didn’t listen.
It’s like that old saying in Monopoly: “Do not collect $200; do not pass go.” Our thoughts are a process like a board game. They have a course to run that must be run one move at a time. Each move has its own unique challenge or reward that cannot be predicted until the dice, our words, tell us which square we have landed on.
Today, I am celebrating the first post on this blog and I thought a good first topic to discuss is the name I have given my mediation practice. I call my practice Family Tree Mediation because, to me, the metaphor of the Family Tree expresses many values and beliefs that I think make mediation an extremely valuable tool for getting the most out of our lives:
Striving for Organic Self-Development
First, the Family Tree image reflects the positive growth of each of our lives through all of life’s changing seasons. As we grow older, the strength, peace and grace we embody are a reflection of our authenticity, integrity, and self-awareness. Mediation is a process that provides the opportunity for navigating deeply painful conflicts with all of these desirable qualities so that you feel yourself growing stronger, more peaceful and more graceful no matter what challenges you face.
Managing Essential Relationships