Information relating to resolving conflict without going to court. And using mediation to do this.

Move forward- don’t focus on the past!

Maybe there was another student or teacher last year that your child was in conflict with, or someone at work or in the community that you had problems with. We are starting a new school year and a new season, and its my hope that everyone can start it with an open mind and an open heart. Let go of past conflicts and start with a clean slate.
In mediation, I encourage parties to focus not on the past, but on the future; what’s going to happen moving forward. Don’t look at how you may have been wronged, but how you can get past the conflict and move on. People that live in the present are generally more satisfied than those that live in the past. Brainstorm ideas so that the same or similar conflicts don’t arise this year. Sometimes it’s as easy as making the other person aware that you were affected by something they did or said; preface it with language like “I feel” or “I think”, not “you always” or “you should”; having a neutral party (i.e. someone with no interest in the conflict) present can help. Other times, the conversation can, and should, be more in depth, in this situation, someone trained in conflict resolution can help guide the conversation in a more productive way; this person could be a mediator, guidance counselor, or maybe even a teacher. As a new school year begins, I encourage you to ask yourself (or have your children ask themselves) “What do I want this new season/school year to look like?” and “What steps can I take to make that happen?”

Accountability

What is your reaction when you hear someone talk about holding people accountable? Do you think that it is about judgment? I don’t, I think it’s about our need for truth and/or the need to feel that we are being treated fairly. No one wants to feel like they are being taken advantage. No one wants to feel “stupid”. Miriam Webster defines accountability as- the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

When you were a child, how did your parents hold you accountable? They likely grounded you or punished you in some other way for not doing your homework, getting bad grades or not cleaning your room, or not following some other rule, right? As an adult, who is there to hold us accountable? Sure, at work, you likely have a boss that will hold you accountable, but what about in life?

In life in general, it’s a little different, everyone has their own moral compass; yours is likely different than mine, though they may be similar, they are probably not exactly the same. This year, I’m working with second graders in my church who are presently preparing for their first Penance and Reconciliation. Our class the other day was about examining your conscience. I went through a number of scenarios with them and asked them what they would do in certain circumstances and why. There were a variety of answers and reasoning behind them even among the eight year olds in the class. As adults, there are more grey areas and rationalizations in our decision making, but we still need to be accountable to ourselves and those around us. Whether it’s right or wrong to eat that chocolate in the cupboard, the scale will hold me accountable for my actions.

I find that when I’m mediating or even practicing law, one of the things expressed by one side or the other is the need for accountability.

  • From landlords, “Look, I know that he can’t pay me the thousands in back rent that I’m owed because he’s not working, but I have my own problems and bills I have to pay too. I just want him out so I can rent the property to someone who can pay me. I also want him to accept responsibility for what he owes. I want him to know how I’ve been affected by his actions.”
  • Or from a plaintiff in a small claims action “I just want her to acknowledge that she swore in front of my kid and then hit him.” “I just want him to admit that he didn’t take the steps he should have before he painted.”
  • Or from a wife in a divorce “I wish he would just admit he was out with another woman.”

Sometimes the resolution of the case is contingent upon one side or both acknowledging their actions; this is true whether there is an apology accompanied with that acknowledgment or not.

  • Tenant: “I’ve told my landlord that I’m not working and it’s been months since I’ve been able to pay my bills. I don’t understand why he doesn’t just give me some more time.”
  • Defendant: “I did everything I should’ve I don’t how what his problem is… I said I’d fix it so it looks better.
  • OR “She’s always swearing at her kids and swatting at them if they break the rules. Her kid hit mine…”
  • From the husband “I didn’t cheat!”

As a mediator, I’d reflect back something that I learned from the other person in the joint session in an effort to get the person I’m speaking with to put themselves in the shoes of the other party. I believe it’s my job to help my client resolve their conflicts in a manner that is best for them, as an attorney representing my client to do that I often need to find out what’s behind my client’s position (keep in mind I don’t represent people in criminal matters). I believe this is especially important in the context of family law to help the client look at the situation from the point of view of others, whether that means their soon to be ex-spouse or their children, etc.

When we feel like we are being judged, its human nature to defend our actions (past or present) and to express the reasons for our position, but does this help you move forward? It’s not my job to judge you or your actions, no matter what role I’m in. I’m there to help you resolve your conflict and might mean helping you acknowledge those actions that may not have been seen in the most favorable light. Before you jump to defend your position, I urge you to look inside yourself and think of how others might have been affected by your actions or words. Remember, sometimes solving the problem may be as simple as acknowledgement so that everyone involved can move forward.

Preparing YOURSELF for the Thanksgiving Table

I saw a funny card on social media the other day, which I shared on my Facebook page.  It got me thinking about the fact that each person has a different level of tolerance for conflict.  Likewise, each family or social group also has its own level of conflict that is tolerable to them.  For some people and groups, sitting around the holiday table discussing politics and arguing with other family members or friends about past wrongs (or perceived wrongs) is the highlight of their year; for people or groups, just thinking about enduring another argument with “Uncle John” makes our stomach turn, but they do it because it’s what’s expected.

Some people may seek to avoid the conflict by simply not being present, maybe they moved away or go to a different gathering on holidays. At the other end of the spectrum, some people are highly competitive and love those arguments trying to on up each other (though others at the table may not).  In between those two extremes, we have others trying to accommodate the offending party and in doing so sacrifice their own needs or opinions.  We also have compromisers, who seek to resolve the conflict by having everyone give up something, but this doesn’t always get at the heart of the issue.  Finally, you have the collaborator.  This is the person that seeks to work with the other party to really listen to their point of view and see if they can find a way to move forward together acknowledging that everyone’s point of view is important to any resolution.

I encourage you to think about how you approach conflict resolution because recognizing your tolerance for conflict (and that of your family members or others around you) and how you deal with it can go a long way toward reducing it and making holiday more pleasurable.  This year when you’re sitting around the table with your family (or friends) and something comes up that is a hot button for you or your family ask yourself, “How can I change the dynamic here so that a conflict doesn’t cause me, or other members of my family, anxiety?”  “Is there a way we can hear each other better?”  For helpful strategies on managing anger, see my July 9, 2014 post entitled “Anger Meet Management”.

I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Something to think about…How will your divorce affect your children?

Even thinking about divorce can feel like going down a river without a paddle, but imagine how it feels for our children.  Of course your divorce will affect your child(ren), but how can you as a parent best to protect your child(ren) from the pain of a divorce?  How can you avoid putting them in the middle of your divorce?  The answer may be either mediation or collaborative divorce process.  Many people have heard of mediation, but like a neighbor of mine, who shall remain nameless, you may think of meditation when I say mediation. No, we are not all sitting around a table saying “Ohm” with our eyes closed seeking to find inner peace. When I talk about mediation, I am talking about using a neutral mediator to run the process and help you and your soon-to-be-ex figure out what is important to you and your family so that you can move forward.  While collaborative divorce is growing as a field, there are still very few people who have heard about it or know what it is. Both of these processes fall into the “alternative dispute resolution” or “ADR” category; which means that you choose to resolve your matter outside of court.

Frankly, I do not know many people who like going to court. While it can be entertaining to watch others stand there before the judge and hear their stories, you need to remember, while you’re standing there, others are listening to and watching you. Who wants to sit around at a courthouse for hours on end to wait and let someone else decide their dispute? Who wants the entire courtroom to know the intimate details of their lives? The courtroom is a public space, which means that anyone can be there. It doesn’t have to be that way; if you are able to settle your differences before you go to court, then your life remains more private. It’s also important to remember that your lawyer gets paid to sit there in court too while waiting for your case to be called by the clerk; and the more you go to court, the more you pay your lawyer to be there with you.  I’m not saying professionals don’t deserve to get paid to be at court preparing, representing, and reassuring you; for many attorneys this is what they really enjoy, standing before the court, fighting to their last breath, but I believe that there are more effective uses of all of our time.

In mediation and collaborative law, you work to find solutions that will work for your family, as a whole. You may not “win” in the traditional sense or “have your day in court” so you can be “proven right” (or “wrong”). Frankly, the judge doesn’t know or necessarily care about you or your family individually, sure they might, but their job is to make decisions and they have hundreds of cases on their docket that they need to make decisions on. Do you really think that the judge is the person who should be making the decisions that will affect how your family supports itself or operates (think visitation schedule) or should you and your soon to be ex-spouse be making those decisions? Outside people don’t know what your children and family need to function;  its more likely than not that you and your soon-to-be-ex know better what will work for your family and children.

Of course, mediation and collaborative law are not for everyone, you have to be willing to listen to the other person. You may be thinking” I can’t stand hearing his/her voice” or “I can’t be in the same room as him/her”.  You need to examine yourself and decide what’s important to you.  These processes allow you the time and space, with the assistance of the professionals taking part in the process, to figure out what is really important to you and how you can satisfy those goals. You may not always get what you want, but we, as a group, help you to figure out what you need to move forward with your new life.

In order to get legally divorced, you eventually will have to go to court to get any agreement reached approved, but that appearance with an agreement is quite different than that of a litigated divorce. Divorce is the end of your marriage, but if you have children, it is not the end of your contact with your ex.  It is important to remember that whether you like it or not, you your ex is still your child’s other parent and it is very likely that you will see them at your child’s events (games, graduations, weddings, etc.)  Therefore, you and your soon-to-be ex still need to parent your children, as a team, to give them the best chance of growing up as happy, healthy individuals.

While it is often not easy, either mediation or a collaborative process can give you the skills to develop an effective co-parenting relationship. Going through these processes can also teach you how to resolve issues that may come up in the future, without litigation. You can and will learn a lot about yourself if you are willing to put in the effort. If you are thinking about a divorce, I urge you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to look back with regret when I think about how I behaved during our divorce?
  • Don’t I want to look back and say we did the best we could for the good of our family and our futures?
  • Do I want to be a positive role model for my child(ren) and show them that differences can be resolved in a more civilized way and that I can work through challenges with others to get to a better place?

If your answers to the last 2 are yes, then I urge you to look at all your process options before jumping into litigation. Remember, your divorce can be different!

Anger Meet Management

It’s hot outside, children are home for the summer (which can be frustrating), and tempers can be high both at work and at home, so I thought I’d share some tips for how you can manage your own anger and reduce conflict in your life.

Take a breath and count to 10 before responding to someone who you are having conflict with. This gives you some time to think before you speak. We often respond (especially to emails/texts) right away and it doesn’t give us an opportunity to think about how our reply will be received. Is letting yourself say what you’re actually thinking worth escalating the conflict? This is especially true with dealing with a superior at your workplace; you don’t want to say or do something that could jeopardize your job or a promotion or raise.

If you are face to face with the person, another option is to Walk away to give yourself (or the other party) time to calm down. But make sure to tell the other person that you need a break, simply walking away may escalate the situation. It can be as simple as saying you need to use the restroom or get some water. Just give yourself the time you need to cool down before responding. Remember, however, 99.99% of the time, you do need to come back to the discussion topic; avoidance will not do you much good if you’re dealing with a family member or co-worker, as you’ll have to deal with the issue eventually and by then, both of you will likely be further entrenched in your positions. If you need more time than just a restroom break, take a walk or run around the block if you can. Physical activity can help you control your body’s physical response to anger/stress, which can help you to manage that emotion.

Think about the issue from the other person’s point of view. This is often a hard one, especially when you are emotionally invested in the situation. In law school, they teach students to look at the case from both sides. You have to look at your conflict from both sides in order to see the weaknesses in your own point of view. If you don’t try to step into their shoes, you only see the weaknesses in the other person’s case/argument, not your own.

I am not saying that you should not express your anger. I am saying you need to be thinking clearly when you express your frustration so that you can be non-confrontational (which can escalate the dispute), but assertive. You also need to Listen to the other person’s expression of frustration from their point of view. They may not be expressing themselves in the best way, but try to look behind that and get to what’s really in those words or actions.

Be respectful and use “I” statements, not “You” statements.

Present a possible solution to the issue at hand, but don’t be wed to it. In other words, it’s not my way or the highway. Be open to the other person’s ideas for resolution as well, there’s likely a compromise in there that you can both live with.

Lastly, recognize when you need help, whether it’s someone to help you deal with your anger alone (i.e. an anger management specialist or course) or a professional like a mediator to facilitate the conversation and direct the process.

Listening

One of the hardest things to do for  many people is to “just listen”.  I mean really listen, not half listen, or hear their words while trying to figure out how to solve their problem.  When someone is talking, listen to the words they are saying and their body language then try to reflect back what they told you in your own words.  It is a mediator’s job to do this and help the other party really hear what the speaker is saying.  To get at the underlying matters not just what’s on the surface.  It can be more difficult than it seems.  Can you do this in your life when you are having a conflict with another?  I encourage you to give it a try, just listen.  You might be surprised at what you discover.

Dealing with Conflict

Not many people like to deal with conflict in their lives.  Many avoid conflict by not talking about the issue, some even avoid the person they are in conflict with altogether so that they don’t have to deal with it at all.  It is very easy to fall into that trap.  Relationships breakdown and what started small often develops into something that seems insurmountable.  I like to focus on the problem not the person.  That is what those of us who practice in the fields of mediation and collaborative law have come to find can get you to a place where you are able to resolve your conflict and reach an agreement that you can both live with.