One of the influences that led me to become an attorney mediator focusing on helping families navigate conflicts, challenges, change and opportunity is the incredibly useful book, Difficult Conversations, written by the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project. This book is the product of thousands of hours of discussions with people from all walks of life who came into their clinic to talk about the difficulties they were having in navigating conversations about conflicts in their lives. In constantly analyzing where such conversations broke down, turned nasty, or just lost focus, the authors were able to develop an understanding of the anatomy of the difficult conversation. That is, the authors found in their thousands of case studies that there was a uniform arrangement of structures, obstacles, opportunities and pitfalls that must be carefully navigated in talking about any conflict. More importantly, they created a map and a tool kit to help everyone learn how to navigate these conversations skillfully.
The most basic “bare bones” version of this anatomy is this: Every difficult conversation has three layers and each layer has certain pitfalls that must be avoided by applying specific constructive communication practices.
The three layers present in every difficult conversation are: the What Happened layer, the Feelings layer, and the Identity layer. Over the last several blog posts, I have provided a brief description of the significance of each of these layers in understanding the forces at play in any conflict. In addition, I have described each of the pitfalls present in the difficult conversation anatomy and refelcted on the communication strategies developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project for keeping things constructive.
In “The What Happened Conversation, Part 1,” I suggested that our lack of experience skillfully navigating difficult conversations all too often leads us to conclude that we are damned if we do (pardon my French), and damned if we don’t. For this reason we are prone to adopt a strategy of avoidance, choosing to let the perceived doom of a looming conflict come and get us, rather than to actively assist that doom along by seeking it out and opening it up for discussion.
But, as I discussed, the flaw in this approach is that our history of making a bad situation worse by rolling head-long into it does not mean that the problem lies in choosing to engage rather than to avoid. What it means, actually, is that we have to engage the conflict in a skillful way. Avoidance will eventually blow up in our face. Yet picking up the ticking conflict bomb without preparation for disarming it, also means it will blow up in our face. Fortunately, disarmament skills can be acquired.
Last time, we looked at the skill of holding the “And-Stance” posture when initiating a difficult conversation at the What Happened layer, the surface layer of three layers present in every difficult conversation, the surface where the facts of who, what, where, when, how, and why are discussed.
The "And-Stance" is a skill that can help you avoid the truth assumption pitfall—the pitfall wherein you approach the conflict with an either/or mindset that assigns exclusive right to the truth to one of you or the other. Since you can plainly see the errors of the other, that means you must be the one who's right, right?
They are all too common, those difficult conversations we would do almost anything to avoid. And though we do try our best to avoid them, that never seems to work. Sooner or later, we get cornered by a situation grown intolerable for at least one of the parties in the mix. If no one musters up the courage to dive into the situation, someone eventually “breaks” and the vectors of the conflict fly across the room from every angle. Chaos ensues. The perils of avoiding a difficult conversation are many and complex and they merit separate attention. Today, however, I want to think about why we are tempted to embrace avoidance in the first place.
I would like to venture the hypothesis that the temptation to embrace avoidance arises not just because conversations about painful conflicts are hard. Even if such conflicts are hard, if they were reliably successful in achieving a constructive outcome, no one would choose the inevitable failure of avoidance over the promise of eventually getting what we want in exchange for facing sooner rather than later the challenges ahead.
Instead, I think the reason we are tempted to embrace avoidance is that we have so much experience messing things up worse whenever we try to talk about triggering and difficult issues. Based on this experience, we cannot help but feel doomed either way, and therefore we are less inclined to speed our unhappy fate along by opening up the dangerous subject. You may end up catching me, we say to the situation, but I’m certainly not going to help you do it!
Well, let's see if we can find a more hopeful approach to our plight.
Last time, I talked about all the ways sharing feelings feels unsafe and why it’s actually more risky to keep feelings out of a difficult conversation than it is to put them in it. I also explained that this “feelings layer” of the conversation was only part of the anatomy of any difficult conversation, there also being a “what happened layer” and an “identity layer.” Finally, I noted that the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project whose book, Difficult Conversation, presents this anatomy, recommend a three-step process for including feelings in any difficult conversation in a manner that is both wise and self-possessed. These steps are:
1.) Sort out your feelings for yourself;
2.) Negotiate with your feelings; and
3.) Share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Last time, I also offered my thoughts on how to sort out your feelings for yourself in a meaningful way. Today, I’d like to offer some insight into the process of negotiating with your feelings and also how to share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Negotiating with Your Feelings
The idea that you can negotiate with your feelings at first seems a little ridiculous. It sounds a little bit like playing a game of chess by yourself – playing the black knight, pretending you don’t know the white queen’s countermove. The suggestion seems to be that you should be the instigator of your own psychological manipulation. But in fact, it’s not as bad or crazy as it seems.
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/)
The tree is such a powerful force and symbol, with its skyward direction, offer of shelter, witness of time, and embrace of the diversity of its branches. In my favorite poem, the first in Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke uses the tree as a symbol of the enlightenment growing within the hearts and minds of the animals of the forest as they listen to the poet Orpheus sing. Rilke begins: "A tree ascended there! Oh, pure transendence!/ Orpheus sings! Oh, tall tree in the ear!" [Translation by Stephen Mitchell] I like to think the affection I developed for these lines long before I became a mediator foretold my own calling to be a listener and a provider of space in which mutual understanding may grow. At the same time, these lines have also long spoken to me of my own identification with Orpheus, the poet, the singer of meaning who songs brings people together.
Revisiting the tree of lights post on our facebook page, I remembered a poem I wrote almost thirty 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.