When the letter came on the last day of February, I had a foreboding. I’d noticed a certain energy around the building where Family Tree Mediation has had its office for the past six years, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. To begin with, the owner had put in a putting green in a little courtyard space near the rear of the building. Why not? I supposed. The space wasn’t really being used. Maybe the landlord, whose offices occupied the bottom floor, was an avid golfer? But then there were the new fences and the trellis constructed across the back wall facing the parking lot. As I came and went, in the morning and the evening, these details didn’t really register in my thoughts, but subconsciously there was definitely a whisper.
And then the envelope with the 90-days eviction notice inside on the door of every office on the upper floor. The space was being converted for a single tenant start-up. It’s a familiar Silicon Valley story.
We, people in general, or, heck, me-- I get rooted in my life and being uprooted, for me, feels dismaying. In case you haven’t checked lately, the commercial real estate market in Palo Alto and Menlo Park is no picnic. I’d had it good in my old office. I now understood just how good. I looked at a lot of depressing places at four and five times my old rent and a lot of them involved investment beyond just higher rent. Even the wonderful place I found after a month of searching, and a stressful episode or two in contemplation of other contracts, even this new, affordable, exciting prospect required just such an investment, not just financially, but of imagination, time, elbow grease, and judgment, risk assessment.
When I got the eviction notice, I had a foreboding of all this. A storm of sorts was about to hit, and I was in for a good month or two, possibly more, of hard work steering my business to a new home, while still seeing a full client load and making sure their needs were well met.
Alexandra Petri, the author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, wrote a funny opinion piece in the Washington Post this week entitled “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting.” The piece uses humor to make the point that our communication styles demonstrate just how real and pervasive gender bias is in our culture. Here are Ms. Petri’s translation of famous quotes from men.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”
“I have a dream today!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?” ...
Read more: Overcoming the Impact of Gender Bias on Our Communication Styles
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.
Read more: Communication Skills Roundup: The Difficult Conversation Anatomy
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.
Read more: Working Separately with Different Aspects of Our Experience of Conflict
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
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.