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.
As humans we susceptible to feeling judged all the time. In conflict, parties can feel judged by the other side, by their lawyers, the mediator and even, themselves. Dogs know that judging others is a losing proposition.
Dogs do not judge us. For many humans this is one of their best qualities, their non-judgmental gaze. Dogs are not thinking that you could have handled that situation better or been more diplomatic in your response. Dogs are not considering that they would have managed things better if given the chance.
As we work with people in conflict, we need to remember as participants, mediators and lawyers that judgment may feel satisfying but achieves nothing. People who feel judged are not more likely to be negotiable, or reasonable. We are apt to feel more defensive and less conciliatory if we feel that we are being judged.
Dogs know this.
When a dog looks at you, the dog is not thinking what kind of person you are. The dog is not judging you.
What is canine assisted mediation? the question may be more easily answered by asking why canine assisted mediation? David A. Paul wrote a fascinating article about Canine Assisted Mediation which highlights the research around the benefits of dogs.
Paul considers the well-documented psychological and physiological impacts of dogs on humans. These include:
Paul suggests the use of therapy dogs who are trained to work with people in pain and who are monitored to ensure that the dogs are not experiencing stress themselves. Rather than being responsible for the technical aspects of the process, the canine assistant would be present in the mediation to help parties to self-regulate and to improve the atmosphere in the mediation.
The presence of the canine assistant would allow parties the opportunity to increase their ability to regulate and self-soothe. In mediation, parties are sometimes so focused on their emotional reaction to the other party that they are unable to negotiate effectively. They may continue to argue about the past / blame rather than trying to problem solve the future. If dogs can help to calm parties this would be a significant benefit to the overall negotiation process.
He does caution that mediators and dogs need to be specially trained to participate in canine assisted mediation. Without doubt bringing any living creature into a conflict situation needs to be done sensitively and ethically. As a dog lover, I can see the promise of canine assisted mediation. Dogs have many lessons to teach us about negotiation and conflict.
Next week what can dogs teach us about negotiation?
Every day my dogs have taught me something about life or myself. In the next few weeks, I will share some thoughts about the gurus in our homes and what they can teach us about conflict and negotiation.
Back at mediator school, we would brave the small claims court and attempt "guerrilla mediation". It was a challenging space to work in and often we were in the corridor outside the court room. One day I turned up at Santa Monica's court house to be told that the generator was down and therefore court was cancelled. The clerk for Court Room 4, Dwight was outside on the grass with the parties and was explaining that they would need to reschedule for court or they could mediate right away.
Within a few minutes I was mediating an employment dispute about termination. As the former employee started explaining her position, a golden retriever walked a few feet away from us heading for the trees. A few steps further on and the dog rolled over as his delighted dog walker exclaimed "tummy tickle time". It was distracting to say the least. We all gazed over and smiled at the happy dog and owner. A shift came over the conversation. I think that everyone had realised that maybe life held other possibilities. We continued to mediate and they were able to reach agreement.
In mediation, it can be a struggle to shift parties from their positions to a negotiating posture. The golden retriever was able to assist the parties to shift just by rolling over.
Without realising it, I had just seen the benefits of canine assisted mediation. There is a a lot of research to suggest that just seeing a dog can help to lower cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. Next week, what is canine assisted mediation?
The starting point for me to think about Hope was listening to a podcast on the BBC. For those not familiar with "In Our Time" hosted by Melvyn Bragg, you are in store for a treasury of information. Each podcast is on a different topic, historical, philosophical, psychological, religious or scientific. Melvyn guides his expert guests through a conversation. The podcast on Hope considered the historical and philosophical conception of hope. There is also additional reading for those who are extra keen!
Jean-Paul Sartre is not often associated with positivity or hope. However, you may be surprised by the quote below which is from his play, Bariona. In an article looking at Sartre through the lens of positive psychology, Quackenbush, Lockwood and Cyr argue that Sartre's philosophy may be summed up as: I have dispositions towards future action, but this can be altered.
You are suffering, and yet your duty is to hope
This can provide the bridge to hope from what has happened in the past (and gone wrong) and what can happen in the future (and could go right). In order to allow our 'disposition' (our nature) to change we need to be ready to let go of what has happened and allow ourselves to accept that we may even surprise ourselves with what comes next.
In family separation, people need containment for the chaos that may be unfolding for them and, hope to see a path forward. For many people, separation exposes them to a range of negative emotions which can strip them of a sense of agency and of their future. As a family mediator, it is typical to meet with people for whom trust, faith and shared futures are gone. People can remain mired in the past and blame, and this can lead to a sense of cynicism and a strong sense of disempowerment.
If there are children then it is in their best interests that their parents find a way to function effectively as co-parents. This can be extremely challenging at a time when parents wish to separate their lives, their duties as parents compel them to communicate and interact.
One way to help parents is through the concept of hope. Hope can provide the motivation for parties to try and choose a different path forward. Used appropriately hope can provide people with the ability to make an effort, to choose to move forward and to allow themselves to reimagine the future.
Some have seen hope as a negative as it can be deceptive and may encourage delusional expectations. This can be a risk in some cases, where co-operation is interpreted as providing hope for reconciliation. In family mediation, we need to ensure that hope is not creating ‘false’ hope.
Instead a family mediator can work with the parents to use hope as a transformative tool to enable them to move forward. J.R.R. Tolkein compared hope to a fairy-tale, however he also saw that hope has the virtue of allowing us to change and adapt. Without the hope of change and a better path forward many families would remain mired in conflict and negative intimacy. Hope remains a powerful tool in the mediator’s toolbox.
Are hope and despair two sides of the same coin? Michael Schreiner commented that they are two sides of the expectations coin. Both hope and despair are focused on a set of future and unknown circumstances. Schreiner describes them as an educated guess about what will happen. He argues that hope is despair in disguise as if it is not supported by circumstances then the coin will flip and it will be replaced with despair.
Hope can also be seen as delusional. It can be seen as a form of self-deception. Rather than facing up to the realities of a situation, hope may make someone ‘hope’ for the best. This line of thought argues that hope may prolong suffering as rather than take responsibility for making changes, someone may hope for the solution to appear. In addition, rather than accepting a negative reality they may deceive themselves.
Hope may be seen as preventing us from preparing for the worst. If we cling to hope rather than prepare and take action we may be overwhelmed when positive expectations are not met and negative realities occur. This is a special type of magical thinking. A belief that we do not need to anticipate or prepare for negative consequences as can just cling to hope that things will be better.
Hope can be seen as an abdication of our personal responsibility to solve problems for ourselves. If we hope that the ‘deus ex machina’ will arrive and save the day we may cease our own efforts. if we maintain a false hope that a solution will come we may cease to work on our own solutions.
Whilst I acknowledge these challenges, I reject these characterisations. From my perspective, hope is an attempt to navigate an unknown future. I applaud the parties in mediation who have the courage to hope that they can make a better reality than the one they have inhabited. Without doubt it takes courage to choose hope when bitterness and disillusionment beckon from the present and the past. As a problem solver I am interested in what works. Does it help for parties to despair? Does it help for them to remain mired in blame?
In mediation, I see people who have no reason to trust, deciding to make that leap so that they can motivate themselves to move forward. Choosing hope is an acknowledgement that the alternative to hope is a never-ending battle. It is a defiant statement that empowers people to create structures and plans for tomorrow.