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.
Part workshop, part master-mind support group – the Grow Your Life workshop is my effort to create a proactive vehicle for personal growth:
The Grow Your Life Workshop is also a deliberate attempt to apply to the social dynamics of our personal lives the ecological wisdom of permaculture, which works with natural forces to weave a diverse web of resilient relationships in the environment to produce healthy, abundant, and richly satisfying homesteads and harvests.
Above all, the Grow Your Life Workshop is a dedicated dynamic space for you to get organized, inspired, creative and connected with the things that matter most to you in life.
This space is “dedicated” because by signing up, you are setting aside two hours a week to tend to your own growth and wellbeing. This space is “dynamic” because it offers a rich social and collaborative small group context in which your voiced intentions, concerns, challenges, experiences and inspirations interact with those of up to eight other group members, including a skilled facilitator. The Grow Your Life Workshop thus offers the opportunity to step your personal goals and pursuit of wellbeing out of the isolation of private thought and into a shared interactive enterprise. At the same time that the Grow Your Life Workshop offers structure, sophistication and nurturance to your efforts to grow at your leading edges, the workshop does so in an informal, organic manner that imposes no institutional group think, expectations or standards. It is simply smart time devoted to living the adventure of your life ever more fully.
Mediation: My hourly rate is $200 per hour for mediation services related to divorce, post-nuptial agreements, estate disputes and elder care.
Corporate Trainings: My fee for corporate training, speaking engagements and coaching is $250 per hour.
Coaching: My fee for couples coaching, personal development and communication coaching for individuals, family meeting facilitation and work with families supporting young adults in their transition to independence is $125 per hour.
Sliding Scale: Reduced fees are available on a limited bases to couples who can demonstrate financial need as determined by Family Tree Mediation.
For mediation, there is no charge for first session if you decide not to contract with Family Tree Mediation. This way there is no risk. Even if you decide not to continue, you get the free benefit of gaining further understanding about the options available to you for resolving the dispute you are experiencing. To schedule an appointment, you can call me at (650) 762-TREE [762-8733] or email me using the email form on our Contact Us page.
In a standard divorce mediation, the costs of obtaining your final Dissolution of Marriage Judgment fall into five parts: (1) the fee for the mediator's time during the mediation process, (2) the fee for the mediator's time drafting the marital settlement agreement, (3) the fee for assistance with the initial filings and required disclosures, (4) the fee for assistance with preparation and filing of the judgment and standard attachments, and (5) filing fees required by the court. A sixth type of cost is sometimes required: the fees charged by experts required to appraise property, prepare and file more complex orders requiring attorney assistance, provide forensic accounting appraisals, or other provide any other type of service beyond the scope of mediation.
1. Mediation Fee: My fee for mediation is $200 per hour, payable at the end of each session.
2. Marital Settlement Agreement Fee: My fee for drafting the marital settlement agreement negotiated in the mediation is also $200 per hour, but I require payment up-front for 5 hours' work ($1,000). In the event drafting an agreement does not require 5 hours work, I will refund the portion of the up-front payment not used. If the agreement requires more than 5 hours to produce, I will either request another up-front payment based on the estimated time needed to complete the agreement or I will require further payment at the same hourly rate, payable at the time the final agreement is provided.
3. Fee for Assistance with Petition and Response: I charge a $350 flat fee for assisting the mediating couple in preparation of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage and the Response. I do not provide you legal advice in helping you fill out and file these forms, but only administrative assistance. This assistance does, however, relieve you of the great majority of the work involved with preparing these initial filings. As part of this assistance, I will also help each of you collect and organize the information required to make the required disclosures to the other and help you prepare and file the associated declaration concerning service of these disclosures.
4. Fee for Assistance with Judgment and Related Attachments: I charge a $650 flat fee for assisting the mediating couple in preparation of the Dissolution of Marriage Judgment and various standard attachments. However, this flat fee does not cover preparation of QDRO orders and a range of more complex motions and orders that, if desired, often merit the involvement of a specialist, whose fees will be additional to those charged by Family Tree Mediation.
5. Court Filing Fees Not Included. Filing and other fees charged by the court are not covered by either the flat fees or hourly fees charged by Family Tree Mediation. The mediating spouses will write checks covering such fees to be included with the documents to be filed by the mediator on behalf of the divorcing couple.
6. Fees for Expert Services Beyond the Scope of Mediation Not Included. Where the divorcing spouses choose to seek a QDRO or various other orders warranting legal help or where they seek the services of experts in valuing property or providing services beyond the scope of mediation, they will be responsible to pay the fees charged by the experts used.
No Charge for first session if you decide not to contract with Family Tree Mediation. This way there is no risk. Even if you decide not to continue, you get the free benefit of gaining further understanding about the divorce process and the options available to you. To schedule an appointment, you can call me at (650) 762-TREE [762-8733] or email me using the email form on our Contact Us page.
Sliding Scale: Reduced fees are available on a limited bases to couples who can demonstrate financial need as determined by Family Tree Mediation.
Are you looking for a way to better handle conflict with your spouse, a close friend or a colleague at work? Do you have an issue with your spouse that you would like to mediate, but your spouse refuses to participate? Would you simply like to strengthen your ability to stand up for yourself while still respecting and caring for others?
If so, Family Tree Mediation’s conflict coaching service may be right for you. While it is always a great opportunity when two parties in conflict are willing to work on improving the way they communicate, especially with the assistance of a mediator, a relationship can be greatly improved on the initiative of just one person.
In the past four decades, a great deal has been learned about the nature of conflict, the communication patterns that help individuals navigate such conflict, and those that don’t. We have greatly increased our awareness of the way that culture, emotion, information, past experience, worldviews, and communication models complicate our participation in conflict. In the heat of the moment, however, we rarely have the capacity to make effective use of this understanding, if we are fortunate enough to have obtained it. We find ourselves reacting according to the models for dealing with conflict we learned long ago and now apply unconsciously.
That’s why conflict coaching can be so helpful. Breaking old patterns and learning to consciously and effortlessly apply new ones takes practice. When one person in a relationship begins practicing using more productive communication tools in conflict, the old pattern of exchange is no longer the same, space is created, the temperature cools, and connections are made. Each small adjustment in the exchange is assisted by other small adjustments. As with the tumblers in a lock mechanism, it can be a wonder to witness how these little pins can open a door that kept two people from really hearing and appreciating each other’s experience, needs, and intentions.
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.