Reframing is a tool we can use with the statements of others and also ourselves. Why would we reframe ourselves? For many of the same reasons as we use reframing with others:
start with the behaviour or the event - describe it factually without blame
describe the impact on you
"I would prefer if..."
your preferred outcome / needs / change to future focus
"This would work for both of us because..."
positive consequences for both
No tool can guarantee a constructive conversation, but an 'I' statement creates the possibility of one.
When I read about reframing, it is often a relatively upbeat article that suggests we can reframe negative statements into positive statements to resolve conflict. However, I would urge some caution. Reframing requires practice. It is much easier to reframe a statement into a neutral statement rather than a positive statement.
This is because, reframes fail when they do not capture the essence or truth of what has been said. A botched reframe may increase negativity as it may seem as if you are minimising or wilfully ignoring the other person's statement.
How can you do a reframe which will help rather than hinder?
So if we know a little about our fundamental beliefs about difficult conversations and conflict, and we have reflected on our personal conflict preference, how do we try and achieve meaningful results in a difficult conversation?
Next in the planning, we need to consider the wants / needs that we have and the other person may have.
In negotiation theory, these are known as positions (tangible, concrete) and interests (underlying needs / fears / concerns). (For more information please check my Chinese horoscope Snake post.)
Often we launch into a difficult conversation without stopping to plan ahead. If we are able to reflect on our positions and interests, we can then consider how else our interests might be met? what else could address our need / fear / concern? Is there a chance that the other person might find this more palatable?
Crucially, once we have conducted this exercise for ourselves, we can then ask these same questions for the other person. In mediation, I often see one party refuse an offer. When they are pressed to make a counter-proposal, they merely repeat their rejection of the offer that has been made. Sometimes this is a tactic, to make the other person negotiate against themselves.
Often I think it is because none of this planning has occurred before the mediation. People become fixated on their own position and just repeat what they want like a mantra. The challenge of having to change gear and think about how to adapt this is overwhelming in the mediation session itself.
Help yourself, if you are going into a difficult conversation - prepare! Understand your own positions / interests / alternatives and consider the other person's positions / interests / possible alternatives.
We all have a preference for our conflict style. In mediation, we often use the lens of the Thomas Kilman Instrument which arranges preferences along two axes.
One measures concern for our own goals / assertiveness and the other measures concern for others / co-operativeness.
For those who have a high focus on their own goals and a relatively low interest in relationships, they may adopt a competitive stance. For those who wish to dash to a conclusion or get a deal, they may compromise too quickly to achieve the deal. Each conflict preference has a pro / con. It may sound like being competitive may sound like a winning strategy, but if this is a long-term relationship then winning at all costs may backfire.
Having spoken to many people in training / classes about their personal conflict preferences, most people have a strong idea of their own preference. We know ourselves. What people are less aware of is that we are all able to adapt our behaviour to assume a different style if we want to.
What criteria should we use to decide which style to use?
Using these criteria to approach communication in conflict can be part of a planning process that occurs prior to the interaction. Next time you are approaching a difficult conversation, pause and think for a moment about how you could be in the conflict?
In addition to the influence of our family of origin on our conflict communication, we also need to look at other factors including:
As we consider communication in conflict, we need to reflect on the beliefs / values / behaviours which underlie our understanding of communication in conflict.
This means understanding that our most basic beliefs about conflict come from our family of origin. How the adults around us raised conflict, addressed conflict, and resolved conflict became the most basic lessons we absorbed as a child.
Some people learn good lessons from their families of origin, they learn to address conflict constructively, to speak assertively, to listen attentively and to problem solve collaboratively. However, this is not everyone. Many people learn poor lessons as a child, they may learn that conflict is to be avoided and any resulting feelings suppressed. They may learn that conflict is a battle and one party needs to back down to accommodate the more dominant party. They may never see their parents make up after an argument.
When we are under stress, these foundational behaviours are likely to surface. We may abandon the lessons we have learnt about effective communication and cling to the earliest lessons we have. This is the challenge.
The first step is to reflect on what lessons we learnt as a child. Understanding how your family dealt with communication in conflict and deciding if these lessons are helpful is a truly worthwhile exercise. Some questions to consider:
Answering these questions will help you to understand how you behave in conflict. You may have since learnt more constructive skills, but many of our reactions to conflict as adults have their origins in our childhood.
Next week, what other factors influence our communication in conflict?
What was that? How often have we tried to say something and found that our message was not received? In a mediation recently, a party said to me, "But I am good at communicating, he just doesn't understand me!". It can feel like that, we send out a message that we feel is clear in content and intent. In conflict situations or difficult conversations, frequently these messages are either not received, or from our perspective are misinterpreted.
Communication is literally a two-way street. We need to send a message, but the recipient is just as important. What do they understand the message to be? Maybe they perceive a different substantive message, or they interpret a specific emotional content. In conflict, we need to pay attention to both ends of the message sending / receiving.
This series is going to focus on how to approach difficult conversations and how we can improve our communication to make sure that we give our messages the best chance to be heard, and when receiving messages we apply our best tools to understand them.
Agatha Christie, borrowed from Omar Khayyam for the title, The Moving Finger. In his famous Rubiayat, Khayyam ponders the truth that time moves on and we cannot call it back or erase what has happened (Verse 51). In her book, Christie explores the impact of a poison pen writer in a small village. Needless to say the letters are not the only subject matter of Miss Marple's investigation. In fact, the letters are a diversion to attract attention away from the real crimes. Miss Marple sees beyond the words.
In conflict, and in the heat of anger, words can be weapons. We have all done it. The red mist descends and before we realise it, we have said something hurtful and cruel. We have made a threat, the closer to a real fear the better. If we are lucky then these words are forgiven or forgotten and our relationship continues. However, if we are in an ongoing conflict or in a separation then these words can come back to haunt us.
I can recall many mediations where the angry words spoken by one party are used to justify the fears or positions of the other party. It may have taken a microsecond for the words to come out of our mouths, but the tail is long.
The reality is that we are all capable of saying terrible things when we are angry. As humans we need to acknowledge that whilst words are important, we are all capable of speaking without thinking.
As Miss Marple and Omar Khayyam know we cannot go back in time to change them, we can only change things going forward. We cannot ask people to trust us, we can only show them through our actions that trust can be rebuilt.
The Mirror Crack’d has been filmed several times, with Angela Lansbury, Julia McKenzie and Joan Hickson playing Miss Marple. The story involves both high glamour and high tragedy. The movie star Marina Gregg (played by Elizabeth Taylor, Claire Bloom and Lindsay Duncan) has come to the English countryside trailing stardust. A series of murders occurs and the police believe that Ms Gregg is the intended victim given her notoriety. In due course, Miss Marple uncovers the tragic origins of the murders which can be found in the seemingly insignificant yet deeply consequential actions of the first victim. In the same way, small decisions now can have massive ramifications in future.
At present, many separated and separating parents are struggling to manage their interactions and co-parenting, with the added complexity of Covid-19. On one level there are practical concerns, if there is no school, how will children be cared for during the day? For schools which have gone online, how do parents manage their learning? With lockdowns in place in some countries, where should children live? How can access be managed? How can parents communicate to make arrangements?
On a more structural level, some families are re-evaluating everything. Perhaps one parent has decided that relocation to their home country is the only option, for health or educational reasons. Perhaps one or both parents have lost their jobs and can no longer manage the financial arrangements. Perhaps both parents are seeking to relocate with the children to difference countries.
For all of these questions, large and small, the interactions of the separating parents will impact the children long after the separation has occurred, and long after any court orders are put in place. In order to be able to address these questions, parents need to be able to move away from the past and towards the future, even though it is no longer shared.
This requires clarity of purpose and emotional strength. To allow of a future where conflict has ended and life has transitioned requires each parent to let go of the hurt / blame of the past and to move forward. This is easier said than done. Each person will experience letting go in their own way. Sadly for some people this may never happen. In addition, to be able to see reality as opposed to a desired for or feared future requires a positive choice.
As someone who has lived with heartache, Miss Marple knows that letting go of the past is a prerequisite for being able to move on with life. She comments of one character that “she couldn’t let go of the past and she could never see the future as it really was, only as she imagined it to be”. Letting go of the past and the imagined future, enables parents and children to realise their future.