Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
“Quality is never an accident… it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” I lifted this from a friend’s Facebook status. I don’t know whom I should attribute this to, but I’ll share it anyway.
When I first started mediating I thought every case would be as unique and different as the individuals coming to me. However, when it came to divorcing couples it didn’t take long for me to become aware of an obvious pattern I still see today. Quite often I notice that my clients want to “split” the relationship but they don’t want to “split” the lifestyle. Of course there are exceptions to every pattern, but for the most part each person approaches the break up insisting that they should be able to continue life as they know it – just without the other person.
When asked how they’ll fund multiplying today’s lifestyle by two, responses range from, “Well, he’s just going to have to figure that out,” to “I’m not the one who wants this, so why should I have to change anything” to a whole host of reasons why cutting any line item in the budget is unthinkable and would seriously harm the children. These answers help me as a mediator understand some of the underlying issues involved, but they don’t answer the funding question and they certainly don’t help the couple see that the math just doesn’t add up.
Changing your lifestyle is a very real result of changing your relationship status and even though arithmetic is supposed to be pretty cut and dried, discussing the math of divorce is one of the most emotional discussions separating couples will have. My wish for these clients is that they find a way to see the bigger picture. Being too close to the forest to see the trees makes people argue over the crockpot, fight for things they don’t even want, and spend tens of thousands of dollars battling over a house that’s in foreclosure.
As a neutral facilitator I try to help individuals see themselves separate and apart from their things. I encourage them instead to focus on the intangibles they find important like peace of mind and joy. In the course of the conversation they may come to realize that keeping the DVDs no one listens to anymore doesn’t really give them the satisfaction they seek. I know it’s hard to let go (quite frankly, I’ve had to do it myself), but letting go of things in exchange for holding on to or getting back to one’s real values is actually trading up. Besides that, staying stuck in a fight over the portable basketball hoop as a means to hurt the other person rarely works (see previous blog on forgiveness!).
The election season has me wondering about something. Why is it that we seem to be so deeply divided on issues and candidates that we’re afraid to concede we might actually agree with certain points the other side is making?
Rather than have an open dialogue about the points we think make sense and the ones we’re not so crazy about, we force each other to take an all or nothing position. I wish we could get better about the way we discuss politics and allow each other the opportunity to have a few doubts without jumping in to say, “Aha, see! My side is right!”
Ever want something for another person more than they want it for themselves?
I recently heard about a woman who joined a gym she couldn’t afford and purged her cupboards of all junk food in support of her best friend who said she needed help losing a considerable amount of weight that was causing her serious health problems. After being the sole participant at numerous workout sessions and seeing her overweight friend’s poor eating habits continue, the woman finally faced the reality that she was the only one truly committed to the goal. The realization caused quite a conflict between the two and the woman ultimately isolated herself from her friend.
There’s probably a pretty good chance you’ve been sucked in a time or two (or three or four) by a similar situation. You listen to someone share her problems, you get involved in her tales of woe, and the next thing you know you’re jumping through hoops to fix things on her behalf. Then, you slowly start to figure out that you’re the head cheerleader for a team that has no intention of winning – and that your friend is actually working againstyou. Gah!
Maybe the problem in these situations is that there’s a difference between a person who would “like something to happen” and the individual who really “wants” to reach a goal.
Like = talk.
Want = action (and by action I mean willing to do EVERYTHING it takes to reach the goal).
Most of us start with talk and move into action later so it’s okay to be in the “like for it to happen” mode for a while because we need to consider all our options, clarify what it is we really want, etc. However, if you believe someone is in the “want” stage when they’re really in the “like” stage, you may end up with a huge problem between the two of you. Rather than walk away in frustration like the woman in the example or end up resenting the other person for not putting in enough effort try adjusting your efforts.
Tell the other person that you think there’s a difference between “like” and “want” and that you believe she might be in the “like” stage. Let her know that when she’s ready (if ever) to move into doing what it takes to make her goal come to fruition, you’ll jump back on board and match her efforts. Then focus your energy on the part of the relationship with her that you enjoy and when she starts talking about the thing she’d “like to see happen”, listen politely, do a lot of self-talk to avoid being sucked back in, and get on with achieving your own goals.
A reporter contacted me the other day to ask my opinion about healthy anger versus unhealthy anger on the job. Toward the end of the interview she asked what I thought about the airline employee who made the national news for losing his cool, grabbing a beer, and walking (okay, sliding) off the job. His actions made him an instant folk hero presumably because there isn’t a one of us who hasn’t fantasized about doing the same thing at one time or another.
Before answering her question I had to stop and think back to my initial, uncensored reaction to the news piece. I think I blurted out something like, “Wow, that’s hilarious!” Okay, coming from someone who’s supposed to coach and guide people through conflicts with dignity, I admit that being momentarily entertained by his actions probably wasn’t the most professional response. I did, however, quickly pull myself together and look for the learning in the story.
Upon further reflection I decided that there is quite a contradiction between what we want from customers and co-workers, and what we give to others. When we’re on the job we expect others to treat us with respect and dignity, right? So, why is it we can so easily turn into the snotty lady or condescending guy when someone else is just trying to do his job? I’m not sure what makes us lose our dignity and jump right into a fight with a complete stranger but I don’t think the world is out to get us. Even though it often feels like the cashier at the store or the receptionist at the doctor’s office spent the entire morning plotting how they could ruin our day, I’m pretty certain they didn’t. Rather than believe the silly stories we tell ourselves about the motivation of others, I’ve learned over the years to switch out the negative explanations with those that are a bit more compassionate. It helps me keep my blood pressure down and I’m sure the employees I deal with appreciate me for it.
If you’re interested in taking a similar approach, feel free to start with a few explanations I use on a regular basis:
Situation: A delivery van driver cuts me off in traffic
Old explanation: He treats everyone with disrespect because he’s a complete and utter jerk
New explanation: He’s distracted because last night his wife told him she has breast cancer
Situation: The cashier snaps at me when I question the total on my receipt
Old explanation: She’s incompetent and will be embarrassed when she finds her mistake
New explanation: Her baby is at home with a high fever and she’s worried about him
Situation: The customer service rep I call is condescending when I ask for a refund
Old explanation: He’s lazy and doesn’t want to help me
New explanation: He found out he didn’t get into the school he wanted and just wants to call his mom
Situation: The receptionist ignores me
Old explanation: She’s rude
New explanation: She’s the delivery van driver’s wife
Turns out there are smart, engaging mediators outside my circle of colleagues. Who knew?! (grin)
I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the Idaho Mediation Association’s annual conference and met some amazing people over the weekend. How lucky am I to be inspired by the attorneys, mediators, and BSU students who were brave enough to sign up for my sessions? Thank you to everyone for enthusiastically participating in the “Dollars and Sense: The benefits of exploiting the opportunity in workplace conflict” plenary presentation as well as those who hung in there with me during the “Little Red Wagons”” and “Collaborating Makes Us a Team and Other Fibs that Cause Workplace Conflict” afternoon sessions. And, thank you to Paul Litow, Lance Coumerilh, Rachelle Koon, Tracy BSU Student Organization, the conference volunteers, and the attendees for making a Washington gal feel welcome and, yes, kind of important (another grin).
The weekend was a great investment on my part because I now have loads of new ideas for my mediation practice, this blog, and my life. I just love when inspiration unexpectedly comes my way!
I participated in a good discussion last week about forgiveness. Okay, I admit it was with two of my nieces on Facebook, but it was a good conversation nonetheless. We went back and forth trying to define forgiveness and as it turns out it’s easier to describe what forgiveness isn’t than it is to define what it is. And, that got me thinking.
For years I didn’t get the concept of forgiveness because I was stuck on something. I thought that if I said I forgave someone that would mean that I was saying what they did to me was okay, or that I deserved it, or that it was all right to tread on me without any consequences. So, I didn’t forgive and instead I carried the burden around while (seemingly) my perpetrators happily skipped along never giving their bad acts a second thought. The possibility that they weren’t suffering just made me more hurt and frustrated. I once heard that not forgiving was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I was definitely drinking enough poison for the both of us.
So, I decided it might be a good idea to find a definition of forgiveness that resonated with me so that I could actually do it. Here’s what I came up with. I decided that in spite of what anyone had done to me and in spite of any good fortune that may come their way, I would have the best life I could create. I told myself that no matter what happens to them (good, bad, or indifferent) it will have no bearing on whether I’m able to move through the hurt and come out the other side. If the other person never apologizes, never throws themselves at my feet begging for my forgiveness, or never takes out a full-page ad in USA Today detailing the 101 ways they stink and I’m great, I’ll be fine. I decided in that moment that forgiveness to me was leaving their bad acts and intentions piled up on the sidewalk for them to collect if and when they wanted. And, I decided that in my definition of forgiveness it would make no difference to me whether or not I ever knew what they did with their stack of ugly.
I also decided that I could never really hurt someone enough for hurting me. What I mean by that is no matter what I did to the other person it wouldn’t erase my sense of betrayal or disappointment. As much as I wanted to believe that my creative daydreams about their ultimate ruin, public embarrassment, or financial disaster would make me feel better if they came true, I knew that wasn’t the case. Wishing ill on others did nothing to erase the acts for which I needed to forgive so I decided just to let life take care of that.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. I also gave myself permission to let go of the need for an explanation. A smart guy once told me about a disappointment from his childhood and then said, “My parents did what they did.” I expected him to continue with the standard line about parents doing the best they could with what they had at the time and was surprised when he didn’t. I asked why he stopped short of a full explanation and he replied because his parents didn’t do the best they could. They just did what they did! He went on to say that there would never be a reason sound enough or big enough or perfect enough that would pull everything together for him and make the situation hurt less. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.
Fast forward. I finally came to the conclusion that forgiveness is something I give myself. I don’t need to know everything about everything in order to forgive. I know that my definition needs to make sense for me even if doesn’t work for anyone else. Whew, what a relief!
What definitions or approaches to forgiveness have helped or hindered you?
This is an edited version of an email I received awhile back. There was a lot more to it, but I wanted to share the gist of it as well as part of my response. I’m curious what you think.
Q: How do you deal with grown women who are bullies? My husband, Tom’s, childhood friend’s wives, Terri and Jennifer, are really getting to me. Jennifer seems to be the one calling the shots, but they’ve both behaved badly so many times I’ve lost count. In fact, when I first met Jennifer at a party at Terri’s house, she glared at me the entire time, wouldn’t say hello, and never returned my smiles. It’s gone downhill from there!
My husband has a serious health condition and Terri has made fun of it right in front of me. On other occasions she’s said degrading things about our jobs. I could go on with many more examples of bullying behavior from the both of them, but the bottom line is I can’t deal with this any longer. I’ve been given advice to ignore them. What do you think I should I do?
A: My first thought is to wonder what Tom thinks about all this. These are his friends and their wives, after all. He’ll need to have an opinion about which approach you take because he’ll need to support your decision 100%. Leaving you to deal with it on your own shouldn’t be an option (and you can tell him I said so ).
First, you could take the aforementioned advice and ignore them. Ignoring, though, will mean more than turning the other cheek when a snide remark is made at a party. What it may mean is not attending any events for an extended period of time. Only allowing yourself to drink just a little poison will still make you sick and for now maybe you need a clean break. That’s not to say you couldn’t jump back in later, though.
If you and Tom decide that you’d like to continue the relationship with his buddies and their wives, you could work to resolve enough of the issues to be able to handle the occasional get-together. Of course, I’m always hopeful that people can get to a point where they do more than just tolerate each other, but I completely understand if you want to take baby steps here. So, to begin, I would think in terms of individual relationships rather than the entire group.
I would probably start with Jennifer because Terri seems to take her cues from her. I would email her and ask her to meet for coffee. I like the idea of making appointments like that even with family members and close friends because it sends the message that what you have to talk about is important. Then, choose a place where you can actually talk so don’t opt to meet up at the middle table at Starbucks at 9am on a Saturday morning. I would follow this with the same request of Terri.
(Note to reader: I’m going to lump my suggestions for the two meetings into a few paragraphs here). Once the two of you sit down begin by asking if there’s something you’ve done or said to offend Jennifer or her husband. If she says you have, hear her out, ask lots of open-ended questions that keep her talking, and then apologize. If she says you haven’t done anything, then say that you feel the two of you may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Continue with something like, “maybe I just don’t get your sense of humor and I’m taking some of the things that have been said in a way that you didn’t mean them to be taken. For instance, when you said the thing about Tom’s health problems I didn’t know how to respond. Or, when you said those things about our jobs, I have to admit I was hurt.” If you can stick to talking about the impact of her actions and words rather than the accusatory “you did this and then you did that” approach, she’ll be able to hear you better.
Once you ask the questions, be prepared with responses to what she might say or do. If she can’t remember saying any of those things, you might say, “Okay, so I guess then we need to talk about what I find funny and what I don’t. Our husbands are good friends and I think it would be better for us to get along and enjoy each other’s company than to have tension between us.” If she says she was just kidding, you could probably say the same thing. If she says something like, “I never liked you anyway” (which is unlikely but could happen), thank her for at least letting you know and then talk to Tom about how he can have time with his buddies (if he so chooses) outside of the couples’ events and remove yourself from anything that involves her.
Finally, after the discussion with Jennifer, I would suggest you do the same with Terri.
Readers, what other suggestions do you have?
It’s tough finding encouraging and insightful words when a friend comes to you with news that (s)he’s headed for a breakup. I’ve noticed that most people either want to put down their friend’s soon-to-be ex or talk up the friend’s amazing ability to cope with anything. How often have you heard, “Well, if anyone can handle this, you can”? Agh!—talk about pressure to keep it together when everything is falling apart! If it doesn’t feel good for you to hear things like that, you may want to rethink such a response before offering it up to someone else.
I decided long ago that it’s not my place to make people feel better about sad or disappointing breakups—only they can do that for themselves. I finally (after way too many years of poor and awkward responses!) came to the conclusion that when my friends and family face conflict, the best thing I can do is listen, ask good questions, and let them process the disappointments, frustrations, and regrets. I might even say, “Let me know if you’d like me to give you my thoughts” and if they want, I’ll share a few insights. Otherwise, I zip it and let them talk.
What about you? How do you respond?
My mediation practice often sees families in various states of emotional disrepair. They each have unique circumstances, but the couples I see often have a few things in common—namely children and a need to create a sense of family out of what is now a “new normal.” You may be in a similar position and wondering how you can get past the past, so to speak, and create an approach to family you would want your children to emulate in their adult lives.
I’m not a child psychologist or an expert in human behavior, but experience tells me that when there are children involved in a parential dispute, there are certain patterns that emerge at the mediation table. It’s never a surprise to me when I hear comments such as, “He’s just about the money!” or “She’s always trying to control me!” Of course there are variations on how exes describe each other’s motivation and I could create quite an interesting list for you, but the one statement that I hear over and over again from both sides is, “I would do anything for my kids.” The parents will repeat the phrase a number of times and then go on to describe all the horrible things they’ve done (and continue to do!) to each other. Let me be bold here and say that when it comes to “doing anything for your kids” creating a sense of family for them deserves to be first on your list. And, when it comes to building a positive family environment, it’s not what you say but rather what you do that matters.
So, if you’re interested in creating a sense of family after a divorce or separation, adopting a new code of conduct is vital. If you need motivation for changing the way you present the concept of family to your children, please remember that the few moments in which they see you interacting with your ex are the same moments they see themselves as part of a family. It doesn’t matter to them if you were never married, if you have deep seeded resentment toward each other, or if you view your ex as the person who has hurt you the most in life. What matters to your little ones in those moments is how they view their family. If you’re ready to create a family your child can feel good about, make a pledge to follow a code of conduct such as this one:
1) I will acknowledge that my children have two parents whom they love equally (and a lot!).
2) Regardless of how the other parent speaks about or to me, I will remain respectful.
3) I will not participate in efforts to make sport out of trying to get our child to choose a favorite.
4) I will not speak ill of my child’s other parent when my child is within 5,000 miles of me, nor will I allow relatives, friends, or acquaintances to speak ill of them either.
5) I will be careful how I interpret or judge my ex’s behavior and intentions.
6) I will not deliver cold shoulders, mutter snarky remarks under my breath, or do anything that demonstrates poor communication with the other parent during phone calls, emails, or while exchanging our children in parking lots, fast food restaurants, the front door, or any other place for that matter.
7) When asking for a favor of the other parent, I will also present a few benefits, which means I will think about his/her perspective as well as my own.
8) If I experience a problem in any of our agreements, I will present the issue along with three possible solutions.
9) I will be aware that my children love me and may want to tell me negative things about the other parent, step-parents, or my exes’ significant others. I will listen, give appropriate feedback, and approach any subject with my ex the same way in which I would want my ex to approach it with me. I will do this mostly because I am smart enough to know that if my children are bringing negative comments back to me about my ex, they’re probably delivering similar comments to my ex as well.
10) I will conduct myself in such a way that when my children are grown they will acknowledge me for teaching them how to treat others when we disagree with them and, that above all else, I loved them enough to “do anything for them” including creating a sense of family even when I didn’t feel like it.
Don’t worry about adhering to all the points right away. If it seems overwhelming to change your habits with your child’s other parent all at once, try tackling one or two and then adding a few more from the list after you’ve mastered the first ones (or at least become relatively good at them). Also, feel free to add your own points—a list of things you’re willing to do for your children can never be too long.