I was reading a NYT article today about how separated parents are coping with the challenges of Covid 19. The author, Hannah Ingber explains that when social distancing in the US started she was worried about how co-parenting would work. Ingber and her ex-partner were in conflict over many parenting decisions. She is surprised and relieved to find that the petty differences between them fall away as they grapple with how to manage risks for their children. Perhaps in years to come it will become common practice to include pandemic arrangements in mediated agreements between separating parents. At present this is not the norm.
What is part of normal mediation practice is working to help parents to child-focus and to strengthen and re-imagine a co-parental alliance. The shared common value of keeping children safe can be a bridge for parents to adapting and changing. Adapting to the new circumstances; and changing established views of the other parent as the 'enemy'. The relative unimportance of that additional extracurricular activity, or whether handover is at 6pm or 7pm, is highlighted when parents must work together for basic health issues. this bridge can lead parents to shift from the negative views and beliefs about the other person as an adult, to a new vision of the other person as a co-parent. In the role of co-parent there is a chance for redemption and trust.
This ability to adapt and change is one Miss Marple has in spades. In "A Caribbean Mystery" she encounters Jason Rafiel, a rich and highly cantankerous man whom she wisely decides to avoid. However, through a series of circumstances, it becomes clear that Mr Rafiel has hidden depths of empathy and kindness. They become allies and work to solve the spate of murders at the resort.
If Miss Marple had held strong to her original beliefs about Mr Rafiel she would have lost the chance for his support and wisdom during her investigation, and his friendship thereafter. Without doubt, Miss Marple is justified in her negative opinion of Mr Rafiel's behaviour. What becomes apparent though is his intrinsic worth as a person is obscured by some of his behaviours. For many people in conflict, the behaviours are synonymous with the person. We observe the behaviours and weigh the worth (or otherwise) of the person themselves. As Miss Marple knows, people contain 'multitudes' (thank you Walt Whitman).
Being open to adapt and change, gives Miss Marple the edge in her investigation. In conflict, being open-minded can enable a shift in mindset from warring enemies to co-parents who can put their children first. Miss Marple knows that the charming host may conceal the murderer, the gentle lady in the next pew may be the poison pen writer. We need to be just as open to change and adapter as Miss Marple.
In 'Ordeal by Innocence', Miss Marple goes to visit an old friend who is marrying into her employer's family. As she reminds us there is a virtue in being non-partisan.
Sadly for Miss Marple's friend, there is no happy ever after for her friend, Gwenda. Despite, losing her friend, Miss Marple does not leave the scene. Although initially viewed with suspicion by some in the family, she perseveres with her moderate approach i.e. not fiercely partisan for her murdered friend, but open to hear any information from anyone.
In any negotiation or conflict, people will have a tribe behind them who supports and advises them. In every tribe there are people who play different roles, hawks, doves and moderates.
The hawks are easy to identify. They will be the ones advocating for the scorched earth, 'take no prisoners' approach. They are fiercely partisan. The challenge is that they can encourage or guilt parties into an adversarial approach. They will caution against concessions and will resist collaboration. For some parties, it can be challenging to resist the hawks and make an agreement. Parties can be embarrassed about 'disappointing' their hawks. They may reject a solution if it means they have to explain it to the hawk. I have seen parties in mediation, hesitate over a solution because they do not want to have to tell the hawks that the war is over and that they settled.
The doves are also easy to identify. They will counsel caution and unilateral disarmament. They will suggest that peace is worth it any price. They will be heavily focused on the costs of unresolved issues and the difficulties of holding out for a collaborative solution. They will be trying to spare their favoured party from the pain of ongoing conflict and will preach the benefits of taking what has been offered rather than continuing to work on a solution. For parties, it can be difficult to hold out against the doves. Their counsel sounds wise, but they are focused on accommodation to avoid conflict / negotiation rather than resolution.
Finally, the rare moderate. A moderate will acknowledge your pain and your positions, and they will be able to acknowledge that the other side may have pain and positions. They may be able to express the "other side's" thoughts in a manner that you can hear them. They are rare in the real world. If you have a moderate in your tribe, seek them out. They will be able to help you consider your perspective may not be the only one. They will help you to see all the sides. Not agree with all the sides, but at least see them.
Miss Marple is a born moderate. Her mind can see multiple sides to any question. She can appreciate that her favoured perspective (that of her murdered friend), is only one perspective in the tangled web of relationships. Using her ability to understand many perspectives is a key to unlocking the identity of the murderer. In conflict and negotiation, see if you can find your moderate. If you are supporting a friend in conflict / negotiation, see if you can be the moderate in their tribe.
Begin with an error of one inch and you will end a thousand miles off course
As a sometime weekend sailor I can testify to the truth of this proverb. However, in family mediation when I see parents who are child focused and struggling with the enormity of the challenge ahead, I find this proverb comforting.
The converse of this proverb means that, if an inch can throw you a thousand miles off course, the adjustment of an inch now can make an incredible difference to the outcome years in the future.
No-one can reasonably expect parents who are separating to co-parent harmoniously and co-operatively from Day 1. It is unhelpful and misleading to give parents false expectations that they can turn from ex-partners to collaborative co-parents overnight. This type of transition takes work. This proverb highlights that even small changes can lead to big results for children.
It may feel like a small thing that a handover was done courteously and without an argument. It is not. From these small steps, co-parents can rebuild respect and trust as co-parents. In family mediation, we work with parents to construct this new paradigm of how they will move forward as co-parents.
The most important step?, as always the first one.
When elephants battle the ants become victims
In any battle there will always be non-combatants who may be harmed by the war. In family mediation, it is usually easy to see who is bearing the brunt of the collateral damage, the children.
It can be difficult when a parent is engaged in what can feel like an existential fight to have capacity to focus on their children. The original choice to have children with the now ex-partner is long-forgotten. Instead, all of the negatives regarding the adult relationship and every fault as a parent are thrown into high relief.
The truth is that there are no perfect parents. The truth is that at some stage these parents decided to have children together. The truth is that the hurt and pain experienced as an ex-partner, needs to be put aside in order to facilitate a relationship of co-parenting for the benefit of the children. The truth is that no-one wants to hear this.
As a family mediator, I have an ethical duty to assist parents to keep their children’s best interests in focus. Using psycho-social education and research, there are ways for parents to find a path through the chaos to enable their children to survive and thrive the family’s transition through a parental separation.
Welcome to the last day of the decade. In order to celebrate the turning of the year and the decade, I am starting a new series next week based on Asian proverbs. Each week, I'll look at a proverb from around Asia which illuminates something for people in conflict or for conflict resolvers, or both. In the new year there is time for old wisdom.
It was inevitable that Bill Eddy would make the list. He has previously written a book called "It's All Your Fault" which deals with general conflict. However, this book translates those ideas to the workplace, "It's All Your Fault: at Work".
I know that when I worked in banking there were days when I felt that I was being blamed for everything including the tax regimes / short selling regulations / market disruptions of Asian markets.
Those familiar with Eddy will know that he has dedicated his life's work to understanding high conflict people and coming up with strategies for how to manage your interactions with them.
Whilst, it is not helpful or appropriate for anyone to use the book to diagnose a personality disorder, it is helpful to consider whether the behaviours are something you are experiencing in the workplace.
For example, if you are working with someone who has inflexible thinking, who is constantly seeking a target of blame, who never takes responsibility for anything, then you may need some help in working with that person. What will be noticeable is that this person will have a history of negative interactions with others. You won't be the only person with whom they have conflict.
Eddy suggests some tools which mediators have been using for years to try and help to manage conflict with someone who may be a high conflict person. One of my favourite strategies is BIFF. If you have a difficult email that you need to respond to, keep your response: Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm. There are many days when I have used BIFF as a mantra to keep me on track. I think everyone who has ever worked in a large office could benefit from reading this work.
Do you sometimes wonder why someone digs in their heels and refuses to change their mind even when it makes no sense? Do you sometimes see people make illogical or irrational decisions which they cling to in the face of all evidence? Then you like me need answers. This is one of my all-time favourite books.
"Mistakes were Made (but not my me)" explains the power of self-justification to make rational that which is not rational. In respect of some decisions, we make an emotional decision, we will then use our cognitive powers to rationalise this decision. The authors describe how we make a decision based on how we feel and then use our mental tools to support it.
The book starts with the work of Leon Festinger and his research into doomsday cults (where the spaceships don't come on the scheduled date!). It examines different areas of human experience: criminal work / relationships / politics / etc. Tavris and Aronson explain how we can start down a path from which the return journey is all uphill. From how people interact within a marriage to historical examples from Nazi Germany, the power of our minds to convince us is astonishing.
In terms of understanding others decision-making, the authors explain how we each essentially want to think of ourselves as good people. We may do things that are wrong or inflict pain on others but we are good people. The gap between our belief in our own goodness and the wrongness of our actions leads to cognitive dissonance. We desperately need to resolve this dissonance. We are good people, therefore we must have a good reason for acting in that way. It can't be that we would do something wrong, or behave badly? there must be a reason.
How do we do resolve the cognitive dissonance? we convince ourselves that there is a justification for our behaviour. Our memory becomes a "self-justifying historian" who is able to provide the proof that the person we have harmed is bad / wrong / evil / not human.
It can be uncomfortable confronting the truth about some of our strongly held beliefs and justifications. However, if we can understand how cognitive dissonance drives our decisions and beliefs, we have the opportunity to be free of it and, importantly, to let go of the need to be right.
A campaign group in Finland has decided to crowdsource a forgiveness emoji. Their website, Forgivemoji shows the submissions so far which they intend to submit to the Unicode Consortium and request the creation of a new emoji.
Looking at the emojis is an interesting way of seeing how people think about forgiveness. The emojis focus on healing (.e.g a heart with bandaids). However, many of the emojis show an exchange between one person and another. They use clasped hands and hearts being exchanged.
However regular readers will know that Dr Fred Luskin has a fundamentally different view of forgiveness. From his perspective it is a choice we make for ourselves. Forgiveness may be a group activity but it does not have to be. These emojis communicate that forgiveness is part of an exchange between the wronged and the offender. However, this traps us in a bind. If they do not apologise, if we are not in contact how do we ensure release from pain?
Forgiving someone else is a gift we give ourselves. Dr Luskin gives examples of forgiving people who are dead, who we have lost touch with or who we do not wish to communicate with. Forgiving in these circumstances highlights that forgiveness is a release we can control. Rather than being absolution for the other person, forgiveness frees us to move on.
In life, I find this concept of forgiveness very comforting. It restores power to the wronged person. Even if the other person does not apologise or seek forgiveness, we can still be free. We can choose to focus on our own health and not on the offender. Dr Luskin gives clear steps as to how to achieve this forgiveness. It is not an instantaneous process, however, he manages to show the benefits for everyone in learning these skills.