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.
Record your injuries in dust and your benefits in marble
The human brain is a wonder. One of the downsides of our human brains is that we are hard wired to focus on the negative and to focus on loss. It is understandable. In the days when we had to fight for survival, we needed to focus on things that were dangerous or worrying. You might enjoy the warmth of the sun after a long winter but it wasn’t going to mean the difference between life and death.
This inherent bias now serves us poorly when we are in conflict. We focus on the losses to the exclusion of gains. In MRIs, our brains light up like Vegas when we feel that we have lost something, even if that loss is illusory. We struggle to let things go and recite endlessly the wrongs we have suffered. While this may be justified, it makes for a poor negotiation strategy.
I have seen people in mediation argue passionately for a specific outcome and then when the other side agrees, they move to the next outcome they desire. We need to take a moment and enjoy the win. We need to pause and express gratitude for the agreement.
People often say, “why should I say thank you, this is what I am entitled to”. The reason is simple, because you are in a negotiation. In negotiation, you need to give to get. If you want to get something, this is easier if you can acknowledge the other person. The chances are that they do not want to give up this outcome, but they are willing to do so for another more important outcome to them. Or, the mediator in me believes they may have listened to the underlying interests and be trying to meet them. Either way, whether this is a strategic move or a genuine intention, acknowledgement of the win, leads to better outcomes.
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.
You do not stumble over a mountain but you do over a stone
There is a point in some negotiations when a party will decide that this is the hill on which they will fight the final battle. They may have reached agreement on a myriad of issues but this one is “a principle” or “so unjust” that they are willing to walk away from the whole agreement if they do not get what they want on this one issue.
Often these parties have worked extremely hard and are at the end of their energy and endurance. It is critical at this stage for parties to take a moment and consider the entirety of the negotiation. It is helpful for parties to remember:
For me, this proverb rings true when I see parties who have overcome significant challenges and have climbed the mountain, only to trip over a stone in the path. Staying focused at this stage can help parties to keep sight of their goals and to side step that last stone.
A sari is not woven from a single thread
What could this mean in the context of conflict? Just as in any fabric where threads must go in two directions, the warp and the weft, a negotiation cannot just achieve one person’s positions. A durable solution, a negotiated agreement will have threads going in both directions.
Mediators are seeking to work with parties to find a solution that provides enough of what each party needs to make an agreement work. The warp and the weft are both needed to make the agreement sustainable.
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.
Today I hope that everyone can take time to spend with family and friends to celebrate whatever they feel like. So today there is no post, just a wintry Christmas colouring page to encourage some rest and relaxation.
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.