Monday, November 10, 2014

Negotiating: preschool years part II (or “prequel” if this was a Star Wars movie)

The field of dispute resolution has a lot to offer educators, parents and other care givers beyond peer mediation programs.  Young people can benefit from an application of this knowledge as a preventative measure before they become someone Bill Eddy might define as having a high-conflict personality (HCP), his area of specialty in the field. Eddy’s definition of someone with a high-conflict personality is as follows:

Basically, when a person has a high-conflict personality, he or she is stuck in conflict. It’s part of who they are. The issue’s not the issue. They will just find another issue to fight about the same way. It’s how they routinely think, feel, and act. Because it’s part of their personality, they can’t see it. They can’t see that their behavior is out of line or “over-the-top.” It feels necessary and normal to them even though everyone around them can see that the person—who I call an HCP—is acting very inappropriately. It’s hard to believe, but they really lack self-awareness of how inappropriate they are. And you can’t “make” them see it like you can’t make a blind person see. HCPs just get defensive when you give them negative feedback, and often escalate the conflict even more.  The biggest sign is whether they can turn their aggressive behavior on and off to appropriately fit the circumstances. If they are always aggressive—even when it hurts their client or themselves—that is a sign they can’t stop themselves. It’s this lack of self-awareness that’s key; e.g., if you can’t even talk to them reasonably on the phone; if they always make it personal with personal attacks or public rebukes of you or your client; if they have emotional outbursts they can’t control; when they can’t even make a settlement proposal or respond to one; if they “project” their own behavior onto you and blame you for acting in ways that they are really acting; or if they tell the judge that you’re being uncooperative or not communicating. These are all signs of a high-conflict personality and predictive of future uncivil behavior.  (Interview with Deborah Bayus, President, NorthCounty Bar Association, The Magazine of the North County Bar Association, Vol.25, No. 10, October 2008)

I first heard Eddy present at the Academy of Professional Family Mediators annual conference a year ago in Denver (I recently posted about this year's conference in San Diego). There’s clarity and practicality to his writing and speaking that is immediately applicable to working with clients. It turns out that the language Eddy uses to describe HCPs resonated for me when interacting with preschoolers as well so I thought I'd attempt to more formally apply his ideas to that population.

In July I wrote a post, Negotiating: preschool years and perhaps I made it sound easy, which it is not. I didn't really address what to do when the preschooler‘s emotions have completely consumed him to the point of intense expressions of anger (throwing objects, hitting, demanding), sadness (withdrawal, inconsolable sobbing), or both. Once those emotions set in they often continue to escalate and ultimately peak (minutes, hours later) then gradually subside. It’s hard to prevent a preschooler from climbing to that emotional peak, and perhaps best not to interfere with that if it’s a natural progression of an emotional release. Often once on the other side the child is relieved, relaxed and finally able to express herself verbally. Sometimes, though, the child appears to be actually suffering from his own loss of emotional control.

Young people are obviously born highly emotional beings that ultimately learn how to reason.  Eddy is not the first to talk about the functioning of different parts of the brain but he does it very well and adds layers of value to existing knowledge. In summary, Eddy tells us that HCP’s have a really difficult time shifting from an emotional state to a problem-solving place. Deep seated fear (the origins of which – usually from childhood –can be any number of things), and experiencing everything from this place of fear, results in a fight or flight response which projects outward as defensiveness, lack of personal insight or responsibility and an inability to problem-solve (APFM Conference, San Diego October 16-19). Similarly, Andra Medea, an alternative dispute resolution researcher and writer, describes an individual’s intense escalation of emotion as “flooding” and she talks about “shifting to healthy conflict” in her book, ConflictUnraveled.  Toddlers flood easily (what many would call "tantrums") and preschoolers, while less prone to this, still struggle to make this shift.

Children who don’t learn how, at crucial moments, to move from a place of intense emotion into problem solving could become adults who are personally challenged in such a way. The ability to shift from a place of intense, unhealthy expressions of emotion to a place of healthy expressions of emotion and problem solving requires practice and actual learned behavior to create a physical change in the brain. If we don’t teach children how to do this, they risk becoming an adult HCP.

Medea suggests that when someone is “flooding” give them a mundane task or a physical objective, such as repeating their address, or having them carry a large object (Safe Within These Walls, Medea 2014). These tasks force someone who is overcome by intense emotion to relax their primordial fight or flight response and bring down the level of adrenaline coursing through their body.   Similarly, asking questions of a preschooler in the grips of flooding such as “What day of the week is today?” or “How many different kinds of trains are there?” creates enough of an internal shift that he becomes capable of providing answers between ever-calming exhalations of breath. On another day, if those questions are asked, that same preschooler may throw his train across the room.

Eddy suggests using a process he named “E.A.R” which stands for Empathy, Attention & Respect and by providing structure. E.A.R. decreases the individual’s defensive response by connecting in a non-threatening way; “Calm them down first, so they can hear you”, Eddy says (APFM Conference, Oct 16-19, San Diego). Preschoolers, like HCPs, can be emotionally sensitive.   Whether intuitive to others’ emotions or not, they can also be highly reactive. For some preschoolers, E.A.R. may be an effective first step toward tempering what a child may be experiencing as an unwelcome flood of emotion. A preschooler may melt into open arms when a caregiver provides empathy with full attention and respectful language such as “I see you’re having some big feelings about that. I’m right here with you. I know we can figure this out together.”  Other times it may set off a reaction from the preschooler of: “I’m not having big feelings! Go away!  Don’t say that!”

No matter what, requesting that a person—adult or child—respond from a place of reason when they are in a place of high emotion, almost always backfires. Helping a child internalize calming skills undoubtedly takes practice and patience and creative thinking as a child ages and develops. Once they’re in a calmer place, successful processes and solutions become more possible. 

After helping a person feel calmer and less threatened (they are not in a state of flooding) providing a structured process for discussion allows the potential for a positive outcome to most any conflict. Since HCPs flood easily (as do preschoolers) Eddy suggests having HCPs in mediation set the agenda because that requires that they define the problem and take personal responsibility for solving it. Similarly, a preschooler could be asked: “I think there’s a problem here but I need help in naming it. How would you describe the problem right now?” This gives the preschooler the opportunity to “set the agenda” so to speak. 

When dealing with an HCP one-on-one (even if that person is flooding), Eddy suggests asking “So, what’s your proposal” thus speaking to that person from a problem-solving place, getting them engaged in taking responsibility for a solution, and providing structure for the discussion. When working with a preschooler, whether or not the problem is already defined, a caregiver might ask: “Okay, so what do you think we should do about it?”  A caregiver could even teach a preschooler what “propose” means and how to do it, likely surprising you both by his insatiable interest in coming up with creative solutions.  When we define it, it becomes our problem and teaches cooperative problem solving skills while simultaneously empowering her as her own agent capable of proposing—and ultimately implementing—solutions. From there, the process I outlined in my previous post may flow more naturally.

Expanding our use of dispute resolution knowledge to preschoolers allows us to potentially preempt needing to use such skills on them as adults.  In this case, Eddy’s and Medea’s understanding and approach can allow caregivers to develop opportunities for the firing of neurons in preschoolers , thus nurturing  the connection between the emotional and problem solving parts of young brains. We may teach preschoolers how to recognize their own signs of flooding and how to internalize important calming mechanisms. We can help them engage in becoming solution-makers and sharers of life’s big and small challenges. Or at the very least, preschoolers may stop throwing objects, hitting caregivers or friends, or making irrational demands long enough to melt into a body-changing hug, and from there, the work of true collaboration begins.

Digital image content © 2014 Laura L. Noah. All Right Reserved.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Academy of Professional Family Mediators Annual Conference, San Diego (Coronado) 2014

I just returned from the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) Annual Conference in San Diego. Presenters included veteran mediators Forrest (Woody) Mosten, Bill Eddy, Marilyn McKnight and John Fiske, among others. I've been mediating since early 1999 so I’m not new to the field, but these folks have been mediating since the 70’s and 80’s, many of whom have had a direct hand in actually creating the field of family mediation (including Diane Neumann who unfortunately was not present this year). In fact, in the late 90’s or early 2000’s I attended a family mediation conference where John Fiske facilitated family mediation role-plays in front of a room full of 50 or more people, and I even participated as one of the parties. There’s no reason for Fiske to recall me, but I remember him quite well because of his sense of humor and his ease in front of others. At one point during this recent conference in San Diego I turned to a colleague during Bill Eddy’s presentation and asked about Eddy, “Do you think he knows he’s a mediation rock star?” My colleague replied: “absolutely, yes.” Eddy’s confidence and knowledge is always on display, yet so is his accessibility and willingness to teach, like with Fiske and other veteran mediators. Folks new to the field may not be fully aware of how unique an opportunity it is to tap the expertise of individuals so instrumental in creating, defining, and expanding a profession.

I have created and presented on a number of topics myself, most recently collaborating on the topic of same-sex couple disputes including at the national Association for Conflict Resolution Annual Conference held in Chicago four years ago. I recently blogged about how I entered the field of dispute resolution which is re-posted on a colleague, Alyson Carrel’s, blog: ADR as First Career. I've written a fair amount about mediation, have taught conflict resolution to undergraduate and graduate students, and have educated the public about mediation at my own cost.

Yet I found myself having two simultaneous thoughts during this conference. The first was that, given how energizing it was to be around such collective mediation knowledge, I realized that I need to re-challenge myself to consider my own offerings to the mediation field after nearly 16 years of experience. What do I have to contribute to the field of mediation at the present time and how do I build on that to have something to offer in the future? How do I connect with colleagues in some meaningful way? How do I say something not already being said that is practical and accessible and pushes fellow mediators in the ways I was professionally challenged during this conference?  

The second permeating thought I had during and since the conference meant looking at how I defined myself from the outside in, considering the ways in which other attendees perhaps saw me. I could see them size me up, being 41 years of age (thanks Mom and Dad for blessing me with genes that make me look even younger) among a majority of folks in their 50’s and 60’s, and having a non-traditional entry into the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution. I saw expressions of surprise when I told folks that I mediated full-time, that I've had my own business since 2007 (currently accept select pro-bono cases only) and employment from one of the largest court systems in the country, and that I had been mediating since 1999.

For example, I continued to get the age-old question: “are you an attorney … therapist … social worker?”
“No,” was my reply complete with a head shake.
“Oh, so …. “
“I have a Master of Arts degree in Dispute Resolution,” I nodded.
“Oh, really? You can get a degree? From where?”
“Mine was from UMass Boston, but there are other programs.”
“Oh, so you…”
“I mediate full-time,” I concluded.

This particular conversation-along with my asking the open ended question of “what’s your ADR background” – was repeated with everyone I met. In the past, such questions didn’t surprise me, but keep in mind how long I’ve been mediating now. It was one thing to get this question in 2001, another thing all together to get it from fellow mediators in 2014; not clients or associates asking, but folks working directly in the field. How do folks in my own field, after all this time, not know that it’s possible to get a graduate degree in our field, and to have done so fifteen years ago? Initially, I found this irritating, but as I reflected on it, I saw that the shift had to come from me, not them. This brings me back to my first thought, and to the education work my colleague, Alyson Carrel, is doing through her ADR as FirstCareer blog. I, as well as others who started professional careers in ADR, need to make our presence more widely known.

So here’s what I will do. I can’t promise to present at next year’s conference, but I do commit to thinking beyond my day to day mediations, to analyzing the body of knowledge that I’ve accumulated in 16 years, and to building upon my unique perspective and experience to meaningfully connect with my peers in ways that will challenge and inspire them like so many mediators did for me in San Diego. It’s true that in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s great attorneys took it upon themselves to become excellent family mediators, as did therapists and social workers. I won't become a mediation “rock star” but I do hope to shift the perspective within our field that we are limited to our origins when in fact the field of dispute resolution is itself its own field of origin for increasing numbers of us. Some speakers touched upon this at the conference, but there is a lot more work to do.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Dear Mediator"

I’ve decided to try something I’m calling “Dear Mediator” where readers write to me about a conflict and I present a possible approach for how they might go about resolving it. Since I will obviously only be learning one side of the conflict, and since I am a mediator, I will refrain from presenting one solution or outcome. Instead I will focus my response on a possible process for obtaining a healthy resolution. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

One pathway to a Career in the field of Conflict Resolution

I recently read “Engaging Conflict for Fun and Profit: Current and Emerging Career Trends in Conflict Resolution” by Robert J. Rhudy (2014), none of which surprised me, but all of which I wish I could have told my 30-something self when I was first considering starting my own business. In particular, I wish I had known that: 

Several parties interviewed echoed the point that we have failed to develop clear pathways into conflict resolution careers… With some exceptions, most persons interviewed described a fairly long pathway to full-time career success.  With particular reference to such private practitioner services as mediation and public policy facilitation, the perception is that a small number of practitioners get very good incomes while there are fairly recent estimates that the majority of providers in private practice likely make $50,000 annually or less from such work while perhaps supplementing their conflict resolution income through other activities (Rhudy, 2014, P.3).

With hindsight being 20/20, would I have done things differently?  Yes, probably. But it was still a perfect time in my life to launch a business; and to begin adjunct teaching; and to engage in a fascinating part-time job as a program development consultant with a lovely non-profit. My wife and I lost money—more money than I want to even consider—but we didn’t lose money we had, we lost money I could have otherwise earned if I had stayed at my court mediation job. I knew that I was lucky to have ever landed that job (I get to mediate full time and be paid for it!) when I first did so after moving to Chicago in 2004 and I knew I was giving up a lot when I left the court mediation job in 2007, butwithout going into detailI had no choice at the time, and a mediation business was something I had always imagined starting someday.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Negotiating: preschool years


My wife (Yay, gay marriage was legalized in Illinois during my four-year hiatus from blogging!) often tells me that I am raising a little negotiator.   He and I discuss “terms” and “make proposals” and “offers” and “counter offers.”  We also identify the “problem” and “develop solutions” and, after running through the pluses and minuses of each option, we choose the best one together.  There is no right or wrong, no power struggle.  It’s a collaborative negotiation, where we try to meet the needs and interests of all parties.
He’s a preschooler and he’s an excellent negotiator; in fact, I would suggest that all kids are excellent negotiators but often parents don’t have the time or energy to nurture that in them. Most of us in our forties (Something else that happened to me these past four years: I aged out of my thirties.) had at least one parent, if not both, who asserted power and authority over us—certainly we experienced the power and authority of teachers and school administrators— so it comes more naturally.  It takes a great deal of conscious thought to negotiate with someone, particularly a preschooler who thinks he knows everything already (or is preschooler and “thinks he knows everything” redundant?), but it’s always worth it. 

For example, one day when I picked him up from school after work we needed to get dinner started soon and disagreed on how to spend the little time we had left.  We identified the problem: we had limited time and he wanted to go to the park whereas I wanted to go to the library.  Then we asked questions.  I asked him why he wanted to go to the park.  They hadn’t gone to the park at school that day he explained (unusual for a school day).  I told him I had a book waiting for me to pick up at the library.  There were two obvious solutions: go to the park or go to the library.  I asked him what we should do.  Instead of whining or yelling or insisting we go to the park “NOW!,” my son offered a third solution:  we could go to the park that day and the library the next day.  I talked it through for a minute while he listened: the book would still be waiting for me the following day; I had another book I was still reading (I am lost without a good book on hand at all times); and the weather was gorgeous while (quickly pulling over and checking my weather app) it was purported to rain the following day.  Okay, I said, he had a good idea: park today, library tomorrow.  We had a lovely time at the park that afternoon and the following day, as the rain came down, we skipped into the library, hand in hand.