Dostoyevsky wrote that “while nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
As we so often witness in mediation and experience in our daily lives, consciously or not, we all give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and cast judgment on those with whom we are in conflict. “You must be crazy to think we’re going to have equal parenting time,” “All you care about is Mom’s and Dad’s money,” ” I’m caring for Grandma every weekend while you are flying off to see your girlfriend – how Is that fair?” The list of indictments is endless. These expressions of frustration, disappointment, anger, and resentment cross all client lines – as mediators, we hear them from husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, and business partners, old and young. No one has a monopoly on finger pointing or jumping to conclusions; everyone does it.
So how can you be productive when you feel anger, disappointment or frustration beginning to consume you? How can you communicate with the “evildoer” in a way that promotes discussion? Or, in situations where there is no immediate conflict or crisis but you simply don’t know how to approach a spouse, family member or business associate about a serious issue or concern that you expect will be divisive or sensitive, what do you do?
First, consider carefully the method and timing of introducing a topic and having a conversation. While email, voicemail or texting may work well for addressing logistics of personal or professional plans, or jotting off a quick note to a colleague, spouse or other family member, each can be fraught with danger when used to raise or discuss a delicate or challenging issue. Among the many risks of email or texting are that the tone will be misread or the intent misconstrued. Voicemail can be interpreted as impersonal or as an easy way out. Also key to opening these topics is timing. Saturday morning may seem like the perfect time for you to chat with your brother Ed about Mom and Dad, but Ed may have a standing golf date every Saturday morning, may carpool the kids to soccer and baseball, or may have brunch with his wife who he hardly sees all week long. Suggest a conversation in the way you would hope to be approached, indicating you’d like to talk at a time convenient for the other person and inquire what might work best for him.
Second, evaluate carefully what are the issues and your specific concerns. Focusing an initial discussion around one or two issues rather than launching into every complaint, fear or concern you have around your imminent separation, your parents’ aging, or your brother’s handling of the family business will bring you one step closer to having a successful conversation.
Instead of declaring to your brother, “John, you’re never home. You have no idea what’s happening here. Mom and Dad can’t do anything for themselves anymore,” you might say ”John, I’m concerned about Mom and Dad continuing to live in the house. I see them a couple times a week, and I’ve noticed over the last few months that Mom is not keeping the house up, and there are a number of maintenance projects that Dad hasn’t touched. He usually loves that kind of thing. Would you be open to planning a weekend visit so we can talk about how we might support them? I’d be interested in what your observations and thoughts are.”
Third, using “I” statements, talk about your observations, what you’ve seen, heard and felt. Making accusations or drawing conclusions about another’s behavior, motives or intent serves only to fuel the fires of conflict. In mediation, we often hear comments like “Mike, what are you doing to Jenny? You’re making her miserable. She cries every time I tell her she’s going to your house for the weekend, and is withdrawn for hours after she comes home. We need to cut back on your overnights.” A gentler and less judgmental way to approach Mike might sound like this. ”Mike, I hear Jenny cry when we talk about her leaving for her weekend with you. I feel worried because I see that she seems rather withdrawn for a few hours when she comes home. She goes to her room, sits on the bed and may color or do a puzzle. Even when her friends come by, she doesn’t want to play. Can we take some time to consider together what might be going on with her?”
Fourth, inquire about the perspectives of those with whom you’re speaking. What do they think about what you’ve observed or experienced? When Mike says he has no idea what is going on with Jenny and that she is fine when they are together, instead of responding in a way that Mike may hear as aggressive or judgmental, ask Mike to keep an eye out whether he perceives anything out of the ordinary with Jenny when she spends next weekend with him and suggest that you consider together what might be going on with her.
Fifth, listen carefully to each person‘s perspective and acknowledge what they have shared, even if you do not agree. You may want to scream at John when he asserts “Mom and Dad are fine. Why are you trying to create problems? I can’t possibly come home for the next few months. Don’t you know I have a company to run?” Instead, let John know you hear him. You might say “I can’t imagine what it’s like to run a start-up. It sounds like you’re stressed and facing a lot of pressure and it would be hard to plan a visit home right now. It’s hard for us to think of Mom and Dad not being as independent as they’ve always been. Would you be open to talking on the phone for a half hour or so and I can tell you a bit more about what I’m observing?” Acknowledging another’s point of view can go a long way toward moving conversation and decision making forward and does not require that you agree with their position.
Sixth, instead of interrupting, waiting impatiently to respond, or thinking about what you want to say while the other person is speaking, just listen. Look them in the eye, don’t look at your watch, and turn off the cell phone, TV and other distractions. Avoid dramatic responses such as “Oh my, you can’t seriously think that!” or “I knew this would never work” or shaking your head in or frustration or anger.
Finally, remember that having hard conversations and resolving conflict takes time, patience, understanding and creativity! You may need to have several discussions before you are able to understand one another’s points of view and consider paths to resolution.
At the Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution, we work with couples, families and small businesses who want support in addressing challenging and divisive issues and making hard decisions. As hard as we try, even the most skilled communicators sometimes need an impartial third party to help them navigate challenging issues and work toward mutually agreeable solutions. Our neutral mediators create a safe space for every participant to express concerns and points of view. We ensure that each person has an opportunity to identify his/her goals and needs. We work with you to explore options, and to develop creative solutions to address the differences that brought you to mediation.