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.
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.
Read more: The Value of Proactive Mediated Dialogue Around Estate Planning
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.