Monday, May 30, 2011

The Oak Tree’s Lover

We live in a hundred year old house, with a hundred year old oak tree out front. I often find myself pointing out the window at the tree to teach clients how to have a happy marriage.

I tell them about the other oak tree which used to be right next to ours, in our neighbor's yard. They stood for a century, with only a thin, split-rail fence between them, their limbs forming a huge, green gumdrop that could be seen for blocks.

Last winter, my neighbor's tree fell in a storm, so now my tree stands alone, and I can see, for the first time, how unbalanced it is: all the limbs face towards my house. The other tree was so close my tree didn't bother, or didn't have the room, to grow in that direction. It wasn't obvious when the other tree was there, but now my tree looks misshapen, like it may fall at any moment.

Across the street is another oak tree, planted at about the same time. For a hundred years it has reached towards my tree, and mine has stretched and grown towards it. They are just about to touch. A hundred years of desire, about to be consummated.

That tree looks strong and balanced, full and healthy.

Perhaps our culture's model of relationship: two people pressed up against each other, isn't the best configuration for a long and healthy love.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Sock Puppet Argument

Several years ago, a couple came in, and the wife brought with her a 300 page notebook full of all of her husband's wrong doings. She didn't really need the notebook, she had all of his transgressions so committed to memory all I had to do was mention a problem, like "dishes" and she could find all the pages describing each of the instances involving dishes and what he had done 'wrong'.

Okay, so it's an extreme example, but essentially every person who comes in to see us has a log of their spouse's transgressions. They may not write them down on paper, they just know them by heart, but that may actually be worse!

Once you've logged enough of your partner's transgressions, you start to believe you not only know what your partner has done wrong, you also feel certain you know what they are going to do wrong! When it gets to that point, you don't really even need your partner there to have a fight.

Elise and I call this the "Sock Puppet" argument. Once she wanted me to do something which she thought I wouldn't want to do, so she said, "I want you to [whatever it was]" and then, before I had a chance to respond, she said, "I know what you're going to say, you're going to say, '[Her imagined counter argument of mine.]'" and then she said, "But, [and then she countered 'my' counter argument." And before I could speak, she countered her counter of her counter. I finally said, "Call me when this argument is over, and let me know how I did."

The image of putting a sock on your hand, and turning it back on yourself and arguing with it is so ridiculous; it often stops these kinds of arguments in their tracks.

The solution to a Sock Puppet argument is to let go of the idea that you know what the other person is thinking, and actually risk asking them for what you want. One of the first lessons they taught us as mediators was to be excitedly curious about the other person. This was also called the "dumb mediator" because even though you may think you know what the other person is thinking (it's obvious because you know what you would be thinking in that situation) you let go of what you 'know' and get curious about them.

It's amazing how often they surprise you.

Q4U: Watch for Sock Puppet arguments this week, and tell us about the ones you see - or better still, the times you caught yourself being the ventriloquist!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Story of Max, Elise and Teamwork Mediation

Although born fifteen years apart, Elise and I had very similar lives before we met.  We had both had done a lot of personal growth work, had done a lot of education, and although both of us had very rich and fun single lives, neither of us had married by the time we met at 35 and 50 years of age respectively.
The roots of Teamwork Mediation began before we’d even moved in together. In the wake of 9/11, I noticed that in just a few weeks, the rest of the world went from total support and concern for the people of the U.S. to turning their back on us, just because of the strident way the U.S. government spoke about its fear and hurt. This struck me as so analogous to what happens to individuals who go from infatuation and love to seeing each other as enemies. But what to do about it?
I found a weekend mediation program that I wanted to take as a way of learning better skills for dealing with conflict, both personal and political. Elise decided to take the training too.

Our Lawnmower Story (Everyone had one, right?)

After the training, Elise and I did more than a year apprenticing in a Small Claims Court to practice our skills, and it was here that we began to develop what we eventually named “Teamwork Mediation,” which we talk about in our book. 

The case that started us on this path involved two old neighbors who were also best friends. One of them had loaned the other his beat up, old lawn mower, and it had been returned broken so he was suing his friend! 

“We’ve been best friends for over 30 years, but I’ll never speak to him again!” said the borrower. Our training taught us how to help the disputants focus on the issues, so we could help them decide on the fair value of the item, and settle the case. And I started to do just that.

But Elise is a kind-hearted being, and her focus was elsewhere. “You’re willing to let a 30 year friendship go? For a lawnmower? Thirty years?” We three men could actually feel the lawnmower begin to recede from the room as Elise’s compassion helped us focus on the deeper need: the value of human connection.

They were sacrificing their life-long relationship for a broken-down power-tool.  Elise began to apply the soothing techniques of mediation to the relationship, instead of focusing on resolving the legal issue. Once the relationship was healed, the lawnmower and the legal issue were summarily dismissed by both parties.

That was the first in a long string of cases, in which we began to mediate the relationship instead of the issues. At first the judge would call us on our method, “This isn’t couple’s counseling! It’s small claims court!” But we were having amazing success with our new method, and after a while, even the other mediators began to notice that instead of randomly assigning cases, any case which involved an ongoing relationship got assigned to us.

After some time, Elise and I wanted to teach our clients the skills of conflict resolution. After all, it had only taken us 30 hours to learn to be mediators, and it was really changing the way she and I communicated with each other.  Since most of our clients had ongoing relationships, we wanted to share this new information with them, so we started doing what we called “teaching points.” 

The problem was, mediators are neutral – not involved in the conflict. Our clients were involved, and so the mediator skill set wasn’t quite right.

One of the other mediators came to us one day and said, “You want to be teaching them NVC – Non-Violent Communication.” It’s like mediation, but designed for regular people to use in their conversations and conflicts.

He was right.  NVC was exactly what we were looking for. So we began to create a hybrid form of mediation. We’d use our skills to demonstrate that the dispute could be resolved, and then we’d teach the clients the applicable NVC concept so they could do it themselves.

And Teamwork Mediation was born. 

Is there a “lawn mower” issue you’re dealing with? Have you lost sight of the value of one of your precious relationships over whether the toilet seat is down, or the top is back on the tooth paste tube? Tell us about it…

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Same Old, Same Old

So, you're arguing.
Not just arguing, but arguing repeatedly.

Like so many couples, like so many families, like so many lovers, you were seeking love, peace and fun. But you got fighting instead, with frustration and, upset thrown in.

It's a sad thing. Or, at least it was.

There's a story about a guy who falls into an open manhole. People walk by and look down, and offer suggestions, and then go on their way. Finally his best friend happens by, and he calls up to him for help. In response, his friends jumps down into the hole with him!

"Why did you do that?" the man shouts.

"Because I've been here myself, and I know the way out. And because I have faith, that with my support, you can find your way out."

I'm a mediator, and I've spent the last ten years jumping down into the hole with couples, and supporting them in their efforts to  find their way out.

This is a blog about that journey, and about the book my wife and I are writing about it.

 I also want this to be a place to  talk about the new things I learning as they happen, because I do learn something from each couple almost every session.  Obviously, I'll need to protect my clients' privacy, so I'll either be describing the new concepts I learn, or I'll change enough of the details so even they wouldn't recognize themselves.

I'm excited about getting the bulk of what we've learned down in the book, because my wife and I have co-created a skill set (on top of the huge pile of wisdom we've inherited from others - which we will also share here) that can take a couple, even one that has done years of couples counseling and are still on the brink of divorce, back into the intimacy and love that brought them together in the first place. And we can do this in just six sessions.

In fact, that's how we're writing the book - in six sections to coincide with our six sessions. So it will be just like being on our couch with us in our home/office. We realized we weren't going to be able to get all of you who need our little process onto our couch, or even into our office so we decided to bring our couch to you.  Try not to spill anything on it.

I'll also answer questions about those same old arguments, if you leave them here as comments.

So, if you were going to sit down on my couch, with or without your partner, what would you want to know about your Same Old Arguments?