Inside Out: Family meetings avoid putting the foot down

Family meetings are more than just a way to promote cooperation and joint decision making. Family meetings also provide an opportunity to respectfully discuss family disagreements and negotiate solutions. In the meetings, each family member is given time to talk and everyone else listens to understand each other. Most importantly, family members get to share with each other the emotions that they are feeling.

Dinner disaster: The foot is down!

Disney’s movie Inside Out shows what can go wrong when family members do not share how they are feeling. While sitting down to dinner, we get to look into the mind of eleven-year-old Riley as well as the minds of her parents. Each mind has a headquarters with a console operated by five Emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Dinners with this family are usually fun and friendly. But this mealtime Riley is being sarcastic because Riley’s Joy and Sadness are absent from her headquarters, leaving Riley with just her Disgust, Fear and Anger. Mom’s Emotions, led by her Sadness, want to get Dad involved in the dinner conversation to figure out what is wrong with Riley, but he is slow to respond. That is because Dad’s Emotions are distracted watching a hockey game.

In Dad’s headquarters, Dad’s Anger notices Mom’s signals and says, “Uh-oh, she’s looking at us,” while clicking off the hockey game. Dad tries to pay attention and asks Riley about school, but Riley gives a dismissive response. Dad’s Fear reports, “Sir, she just rolled her eyes at us” and Dad lets Riley know that he doesn’t like her attitude. In Riley’s headquarters, Riley’s Anger is getting hot and says, “Oh, I’ll show you attitude, old man,” and Riley accusingly tells Dad to leave her alone. Dad’s Fear reports “high level of sass” and sounds the alarm as Dad’s Emotions prepare to “put the foot down.” Dad starts to lecture Riley.

Riley’s Anger yells, “You want a piece of this, Pops?” and Riley tells Dad to shut up. In response, Dad’s Anger commands “Fire the foot!” as Dad tells Riley to go to her room. Riley briefly looks surprised, then leaves the table. Dad’s Fear exclaims, “The foot is down! The foot is down!” while Dad’s Emotions cheer. Dad’s Anger praises his Emotions saying, “Good job, gentlemen, that could have been a disaster.” Mom’s Emotions all moan, and Mom’s Sadness sighs, “Well, that was a disaster,” as Mom hears Riley’s bedroom door slam.

Learning to manage conflict

What happened in this family? It’s helpful to understand their conflict by using Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot’s definition of conflict from their book Interpersonal Conflict. The authors think of conflict as having five components:

  1. Interdependence: The behavior of one affects the other.
  2. Difference: A perceived difference that is going to bother somebody.
  3. Opposition: Frustration of the goals of at least one person.
  4. Expression: Someone has to act in a way so that the conflict is visible.
  5. Emotion: There is always some level of negative emotion, typically anger, in a conflict.

Feelings aid reasoning

Focusing on the last conflict component of emotion, the movie portrays anger as controlling Riley and her Dad. This makes the dinner scene an example of what can happen when anger is at the console. Everyone knows that the improper expression of anger can cause irreparable harm in close relationships. However, as Antonio Damasio points out in his book Descartes’ Error, reasoning without emotions can actually cause more harm than when emotions run free. Here’s how the author describes Descartes’ alleged error of separating feelings from reasoning:

When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.

In other words, feelings are not a luxury, but a necessity. They are necessary to be able to predict the future and plan next steps, which are essential to navigating through any problem presented in a conflict. How then should you deal with negative emotions when you are in conflict? The answer isn’t easy, but is worth the effort. Rather than mindlessly reacting, notice your emotions and let them aid your reasoning to think through your options and choose the best course of action.

Express feelings rather than act them out

As shown at the end of the movie Inside Out, Riley’s family reached intimacy when they shared with each other their feelings. Riley felt sad, and had acted on this feeling by running away. But when she returned home, she shared with her parents her feeling of sadness. Her parents then shared how they too felt sad. But, unlike Riley’s family who waited until the end of the movie, you can start expressing feelings now by putting on your family’s calendar a regularly scheduled family meeting that is a safe place to discuss conflicts between family members and to take turns sharing emotions.


Image: “Big Foot!” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Craig Sunter

Source: Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.
Source: Hocker, Joyce L, and William W. Wilmot. Interpersonal Conflict. Dubuque, Iowa: W.C. Brown Co, 1978.

Bridge of Spies: Pre-mediation conference avoids being left out in the cold

In Stephen Spielberg’s movie Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks portrayed Jim Donovan, an attorney who engaged in an historical negotiation. During the Cold War, Jim was enlisted by the CIA to be the negotiator in an exchange of accused spies. This exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge spanning between East Germany and West Berlin. However, before the prisoner exchange occurred, Jim had to enter into negotiations with the USSR and East Germany. These negotiations had a frosty start.

As portrayed in the movie, the negotiations were preceded by Jim’s sleeping in a damp and cold cottage on the outskirts of West Berlin, instead of in a welcoming and warm hotel. On February 3, 1962, the day Jim was to make contact with his Soviet counterpart, he walked alone through the icy streets of East Berlin, only to be robbed of his overcoat before finding his way in the snow to the Soviet embassy. There, while trying to regain his composure and warmth, he was accosted by a cacophony of confusion from three KGB imposters who claimed to be the relatives of Rudolph Abel, the accused Soviet spy. Jim quickly realized that the clamorous family was fake. While Jim needed to overcome his body’s chill, he did not lose his cool as a negotiator.

Pre-mediation conference call is a warm up for negotiation

This movie scene illustrates the importance of pre-mediation conference calls. The purpose of having a phone call with a mediator is to remove as much uncertainty about the negotiation process as possible before the mediation begins. In the movie, Jim would have benefited from a call with a mediator to at least discuss with whom he was negotiating, confirm the exact time and place of the meeting, and receive specific directions to the conference room.

A goal of a pre-mediation conference call is to start a mediation with everyone being prepared to work hard and put their best thoughts forward. To reach this goal, here is a brief checklist of things that you can expect to be covered in a pre-mediation conference call:

  • Disclosure of any issues uncovered during a mediator conflicts check.
  • Explanation of the case status, such as last offers made.
  • Format of mediation, including expectations and goals.
  • Exchange of documents, including submission of summaries to the mediator.
  • Listing of who will participate in the mediation.
  • Time and place of the mediation session.
  • Arrangement for snacks or meals and a discussion of any special accommodations due to health or schedules.
  • Decision of what each party is to bring as support materials.
  • Confirmation of mediator compensation.

The pre-mediation conference call addresses issues in advance so that, once the mediation session starts, everyone can focus on reaching a settlement. In other words, think of the pre-mediation conference call as a time to become educated about the upcoming mediation.

Advice from JFK about difficult negotiations

While we are thinking about the Cold War, it’s good to remember a quote from John F. Kennedy, who was president during Jim’s negotiations. JFK admonished the nation in his inaugural address:

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Just as the Glienicke Bridge spanned the Havel River between West Berlin and East Germany, mediation is a process that can help parties span the dispute that is between them. Because the process is voluntary, even if a court orders parties to mediation, they don’t have to settle. To take JFK’s advice, knowing that you have control over your negotiated decisions, you don’t need to enter into mediation in fear. Nevertheless, because mediation is a confidential process that enables you and the other party to make informed decisions, you also don’t need to fear offering proposals that meet your needs. It’s as good a time as any to imitate Jim Donovan’s savvy determination to reach an agreement that you can live with and that puts the dispute behind you.


Image: “Bridge of Spies” (CC BY 2.0) by David Stanley

Pirates of Penzance: A most ingenious conflict paradox

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic, a pirate apprentice, was faced with a “most ingenious paradox.” A paradox is a situation with two competing sides that appear as a contradiction. The Pirate King explained the paradox to Frederic. Frederic was bound by contract to serve the Pirate King as an apprentice until he reached his “twenty-first birthday.” However, Frederic was born on a leap day, the 29th of February that only appears on the calendar every four years. So, although Frederic could count 21 years of his life, he could count only 5 birthdays. His paradox was that his age was 21 and 5 at the same time, depending on the method of calculation. Here’s how Frederic explained his situation:

How quaint the ways of Paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
Though counting in the usual way,
Years twenty-one I’ve been alive,
Yet reckoning by my natal day,
I am a little boy of five!

This paradox placed Frederic in a conflict with the Pirate King over the interpretation of the contract that defined his freedom. When we are in conflict, we may also experience our own paradoxes. In fact, Bernard Mayer describes seven conflict paradoxes in his book, The Conflict Paradox. Let’s take a look at these through Frederic’s eyes.

1) Competition & Cooperation Paradox

In negotiation, offers can be considered either competitive or cooperative. For example, when Frederic was faced with the news that his indenture with the pirates was to last another 63 years, he took a cooperative approach by playing nice and asking, “You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?” He sought to cooperate with the Pirate King to find a solution. In contrast, when Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, got the news, she took a more competitive stance by acting tough and asserting that the pirates “have no legal claim.” She appeared ready to challenge the pirates. Choosing between competition and cooperation can be a tricky balancing act. As Bernard Mayer teaches, cooperation tends to yield better results, yet without competition there may be no motivation to cooperate. In this case, Frederic would have benefited from balancing his cooperative approach with Mabel’s competitive approach, rather than simply telling Mabel that “when Duty calls, I must obey.”

2) Optimism & Realism Paradox

An optimist may be confident that everything will work out. A realist might say, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Bernard Mayer points out that optimism without realism is not meaningful, while realism without optimism is a dead end. When motivated by optimism and guided by realism, one can wrestle with uncertainty and doubt. In Frederic’s case, he displayed optimism with laughter as the Pirate King described the paradox. But the optimistic outlook soon vanished when Frederic was faced with the reality of his contract with the Pirate King, leaving Frederic in a state of confusion. Bernard Mayer recommends approaching such confusion under the assumption that a way can be found forward that will make a difference, but with the full knowledge that there is no guarantee that there will be a successful conclusion to the conflict.

3) Avoidance & Engagement Paradox

We pick our battles by choosing to raise a conflict or ignore it. Before learning the news about his contract, Frederic enlisted the police to hunt down the pirates. Mabel tried to encourage the police to engage against the pirates by exhorting, “Go, ye heroes, go to glory, though you die in combat gory.” In comic display, the police avoided the pirates by staying in place while saying, “Yes, yes, we go.” Such avoidance, while frustrating to Mabel, may have been the prudent course of action in this case. For example, Bernard Mayer recommends waiting a bit before confrontation and, in the meantime, asking for more information in order to prepare for constructive engagement when the time is right.

4) Principle & Compromise Paradox

Compromising on principles can be considered cowardly, while being unwilling to compromise for practical reasons can be considered arrogant. Bernard Mayer recommends that in order to advance our principles that are based on our most important values and beliefs, we have to be willing to compromise on those principles. He put it another way with the phrase: Never let your values get in the way of doing what is right. Frederic would have benefited from this advice. Instead, he clung to the principle that “duty is before all — at any price I will do my duty.” In contrast, Bernard Mayer might have told Frederic that his approach to conflict could have improved by distinguishing interests from principles.

5) Emotion & Logic Paradox

Traditionally, emotion and logic are kept separate under the belief that logic is an aspect of the left-brain and emotion is an aspect of the right-brain. However, Bernard Mayer believes that emotion and logic are best integrated as part of the same conflict resolution process of expression and analysis. For Frederic, he logically told Mabel that he will return to her in 63 years, while Mabel responded emotionally (and accurately), “It seems so long!” Frederic would have benefited by integrating some of Mabel’s emotional expression into his own logical analysis.

6) Neutrality & Advocacy Paradox

While most disputing parties are willing to have a neutral third-party assist with conflict resolution, parties ultimately hope that a neutral third-party will be an advocate for their position. In Frederic’s case, Mabel went to the Sergeant of Police and imploringly advocated that Frederic was acting nobly by returning to piracy, because of his “heroic sacrifice to his sense of duty.” Comically, the Sergeant wanted to concur, but he did admit, “This is perplexing.” Bernard Mayer acknowledges the perplexing nature of the tension between neutrality and advocacy, especially in relation to the contrasting styles of transformative and evaluative mediation.

7) Community & Autonomy Paradox

Bernard Mayer defines community as interdependence with others in our lives and autonomy as independence with individuality. Both community and autonomy give one a sense of identity of who one is. Frederic wanted his autonomy by breaking free from the pirates. He explained, “Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable; but collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.” Bernard Mayer explains that both community and autonomy are necessary in life. Specifically, independence is established by having a healthy attachment to others, and one can become truly autonomous by having a healthy network of social relationships. Of course, Frederic recognized that his relationship with the pirates was unhealthy, and so he attempted to free himself from them.

Taste for paradox

Before Frederic was faced with his paradox, Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley, introduced himself by asserting that “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” He further exclaimed that “I’ve a pretty taste for paradox.” Bernard Mayer shows his taste for paradox by saying that both sides of a conflict paradox “are not really polarities” because “each element of the paradox is dependent on the other.” Bernard Mayer acknowledges that finding the unity of each polarity is difficult to do, but teaches that “embracing paradox is a core method of dealing with conflict.” Have you ever dealt with conflict by embracing a paradox?


Image: “Jolly Roger Pirate Grunge Flag” (CC BY 2.0) by Nicolas Raymond

Source: Mayer, Bernard S. The Conflict Paradox: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Elaine Stritch’s Shoot Me: Giving up the car keys

For an elder, few things are as symbolic of the loss of freedom as the phrase “giving up the car keys.” Elaine Stritch illustrates this well in her documentary Shoot Me, filmed when she was 86 years old. At the beginning of the documentary, it was clear how full of life she was walking the streets of New York City. She trotted on the sidewalks with driven determination, pausing along the way to engage with fans who recognized this Tony Award winning Broadway legend. And, as she connected with passersby, she delivered witty remarks that indicated that she not only was a master of active listening but that her mind was sharp as a tack.

Yet, before these introductory Manhattan neighborhood scenes, even before the opening credits, Elaine was filmed in her apartment responding to a question about how she felt about her life at age 86. She emphatically stated with her saucy voice:

Look. I’ve got a certain amount of fame. I’ve got money. I wish I could [expletive] drive! Then I’d really be a menace.

For Elaine, who was bounding with energy at 86 years old, she was frustrated at having to give up the car keys. Considering the sense of isolation and dependency that comes from not being able to drive, giving up the car keys can feel like a devastating experience.

Transparent conversations with Elaine Stritch

If the name Elaine Stritch does not sound familiar to you, you may recognize her from her guest appearances on 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy’s mother. For theatregoers, she is famous as the grande dame of Broadway musical comedies featuring songs from Stephen Sondheim. In her documentary, she reprised those Sondheim songs in cabaret shows while occasionally forgetting her lyrics. Despite her memory lapses, she connected with her audience to the envy of any attorney attempting to connect with a jury.

In her documentary, for example, a reviewer of one of her performances writes: “The mere presence of this lean, glaring lion of a woman said everything about resilience, feisty determination, and the will to continue. Almost any other performer would probably throw in the towel, but a trouper grits her teeth and plunges ahead, trusting in her survival instincts to carry her through any crisis. That is exactly what Ms. Stritch did, to wild acclaim.” To see an example of her classy determination to push through her forgotten lyrics, watch her performance of I’m Still Here sung at the White House.

The documentary showed much more than just Elaine’s stage presence. It also chronicled her daily struggles with diabetes and alcoholism. For example, after being rushed to the hospital due to a sudden drop in blood sugar, Elaine described what it was like when she was physically unable to talk, yet her mind was fully engaged. Throughout the documentary, her transparency allowed the viewer to journey alongside her as she dealt with the advances of age.

Transparent conversations uncover interests beneath positions

Transparent conversations don’t have to be limited to up-close and personal documentaries. Transparency can be between adult children and their parents by participating in elder mediation. Like Elaine sharing with the camera about her hopes and fears, in mediation an elder parent can intimately share with his or her family the emotions of aging. Similarly, strained sibling relationships can be eased when an adult child shares with other siblings concerns about what is often called “caregiver burnout.” With the goal of planning for the right level of care, families can collaboratively make tough decisions that come along with aging.

A family meeting with a mediator can be effective because it enables families to go beneath the surface and uncover what is important for each family member. As an elder parent enters a life transition, families can go beneath positions and uncover interests. In the classic book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury explain that positions are things you want, while interests indicate why you want it or think the way you do about it. Often, families will get stuck in arguments over declared positions. Mediation can help preserve family ties by having difficult conversations that recognize and satisfy interests. For example, an adult child might take the position that the elder parent must no longer drive. By exploring why the adult child has taken this position, and why an elder parent needs access to transportation, solutions can be explored that balance the twin desires of safety and independence. While this type of collaborative dialogue may take time, understanding what is important to everyone is time well spent to reach family decisions based on mutual understanding.

Cheering “Bravo!” for aging parents

Elaine helps us understand her views of aging when she explained:

I like the courage of age. And Bette Davis said it better than anyone, you know? Not for sissies. Getting old is not for sissies. And I never liked the word ‘old.’ I like ‘older.’ I’m getting older every single day, and so is everybody else. So we’re all going together. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. And why not enjoy it? ‘Cause there’s not a [expletive] thing you can do about it.

Similar to Elaine looking ahead to her life’s curtain call with brave honesty, elder parents can map out their plans for what they still want to accomplish. Elder mediation can strengthen family bonds by uncovering dreams as well as recognizing vulnerabilities. By engaging in family discussions, adult children can help their parents cast themselves in their life’s scripts and understudy Elaine by living life with pizzazz.


Image: “Panning around” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Damianos Chronakis

Finding Vivian Maier: Exposing conflict like a street photographer

Street photographers have an eye for seeing reality from new perspectives. Just as film is exposed to light, street photographers can teach us how to expose our understanding to the reality of our conflicts. The documentary Finding Vivian Maier from John Maloof gives an inside look at a 20th century street photographer, Vivian, who was a full-time nanny. Ready with her Rolleiflex camera, Vivian would stroll throughout Chicago with the children under her care in tow. A Rolleiflex is a film camera for the street because it has a viewfinder on top, which lets you hang the camera from your neck and look down to take a picture. In other words, you don’t have to hold this type of camera up to your face. Because the camera is at waist level, a street photographer can trigger the shutter without being noticed. However, street photographers aren’t disengaged. Rather, they briefly enter into a street scene, take a picture in an unobtrusive way, and then walk away. This is what Vivian would do.

Joel Meyerowitz, a street photographer featured in the documentary, had this to say about street photography:

Street photographers tend to be gregarious in the sense that they can go out on the street and they’re comfortable being among people, but they’re also a funny mixture of solitaries at the same time as being gregarious. You observe and you embrace and you take in, but you stay back and you try to stay invisible.

In particular, Joel described Vivian’s photographic style in this way:

As [Vivian] was photographing, she was seeing just how close you can come into somebody’s space and make a picture of them. That tells me a lot about her. It tells me that she could go into a space with a total stranger and get them to accommodate her by being themselves and generate this kind of moment where two presences were actually kind of vibrating together. And then she’s gone.

He also stated about her pictures that:

Vivian’s work had those qualities of human understanding and warmth and playfulness. . . . I think her pictures show a tenderness, instant alertness to human tragedies, and those moments of generosity of sweetness. I see her as an incredibly watchful, observant, caring person. And probably why she was a nanny was that she had those capacities.

When it comes to conflict, it’s possible for us to learn to be watchful, observant, and caring. We can observe like a street photographer, but instead of shooting a picture, we can ask a question. A question can help you take a snapshot of your situation the way Vivian took snapshots of the people she saw on the street. You can ask a question to discover whether your perceptions are accurate, kind of like focusing a camera. Asking a question allows the other to clarify what was meant and provide an explanation, giving you a focused view into your situation.

To ask good questions, or to take good street photos, it helps to be in the present moment. In his book Getting to Yes with Yourself, William Ury describes embracing the present. He writes that we “can visit the past from time to time to learn from it and we can visit the future to plan and take necessary precautions, but we make our home in the only place where we can make positive change happen: in the present moment.” He goes on to say that it “is by being present and spotting the present opportunities in our negotiations that we can most easily get to yes with others.” Like having a flash on a camera, by being in the present moment, you will be able to see things that you might otherwise have missed, and ask questions that lead you to resolution.

Vivian was able to be in the present moment for her photography. As Joel Meyerowitz said, she took pictures with “an authentic eye and a real savvy about human nature.” You can do the same with your questions.


Image: “Rolleiflex” (CC BY 2.0) by Oreste Pantegani

NASA sails into space inspiring faster-better-cheaper resolution

Demonstrating the rubric of faster-better-cheaper (called “FBC”), NASA will be taking a new tack into space exploration. However, not everyone has come aboard on the faster-better-cheaper ship. NASA engineers often respond to faster-better-cheaper by demanding: “Pick two!” For example, with software development it is generally believed that if a project’s scope increases (better), then either the completion time increases (slower) or the people expense increases (costlier). Because of the pick-two response of engineers, there is often a debate over whether faster-better-cheaper is all that NASA’s leadership has claimed it to be. Nevertheless, it appears that faster-better-cheaper remains useful to help achieve continued exploration of space.

According to National Geographic, NASA will be sending a spacecraft the size of a shoebox to rendezvous with a distant asteroid. The spacecraft, known as the Scout, won’t be powered by rocket fuel. Instead, it will draw power from sunlight using an ultrathin solar sail. When light particles (photons) from the sun bounce off of the solar sail, the spacecraft will be propelled forward and is expected to reach a speed of over 63,000 miles per hour. That is fast, especially considering the Scout doesn’t require storage for fuel after it is released from a launching rocket. Furthermore, because the sun is always shining, the Scout can keep accelerating. This makes the Scout faster because there are fewer mechanical parts requiring time to develop. The Scout is better because it can reach high speeds without fuel. And, the Scout is cheaper to develop due to the solar sail’s simplicity.

Mediation compared to going to trial

Not only can faster-better-cheaper be helpful to promote space exploration, it is also a useful rubric for dispute resolution. When compared to going to trial, mediation is almost always faster and cheaper. Mediation is considered faster because you can schedule a mediation at any convenient time, as opposed to waiting for trial to be scheduled on a court calendar. And, mediation is considered cheaper because you can resolve your conflict before a court process spirals out of your control, with corresponding out of control costs.

When deciding whether to mediate, the most typical question asked is whether the outcome of mediation will be better than what would likely be achieved in the courtroom, given the extra cost and time of protracted litigation. Of course, it is often difficult to determine what a litigated outcome will be. After all, it can be hard to predict what a jury will do. This is why, in a preconference phone call, a mediator will often discuss with parties what their objectives are and whether they have compared those objectives to a likely outcome at trial. After parties analyze their options, the courtroom may become the preferred destination. However, one must also take into account that mediation is a confidential process, and some may consider mediation better simply because it allows one to preserve privacy.

Conflict coaching compared to doing nothing

Conflict coaching also fits within the faster-better-cheaper rubric. As Ken Cloke points out in his book Resolving Conflicts at Work, the time and money spent resolving conflicts in the workplace are far less than the time and money wasted on unresolved conflicts. For example, unresolved conflicts can destroy relationships, decrease productivity, increase employee turnover, and ultimately lead to lawsuits. Further, managers get pulled into unresolved conflicts after they become intolerable for everyone, taking managers away from their other business duties. Also, there is an opportunity cost to unresolved conflicts in that an organization may be missing the opportunity to improve its structure and culture by addressing what might be a widespread problem.

Rather than sweeping conflict under the rug and hoping that it disappears, people in conflict can sit down with a conflict coach and work out solutions. Specifically, a conflict coach can help everyone tell each other what is true for each person, and utilize listening skills to hear the perspective of others. Conflict coaching is a small investment compared to the time, energy, money, and resources lost through people being unable to work together.

Set your own sail

Like NASA’s Scout that is stretching out to achieve great things, don’t be afraid to rely on faster-better-cheaper to go places with conflict resolution that may seem unreachable. Just as NASA is coming up with creative solutions to set lofty goals, try mediation and conflict coaching to find creative resolutions that free you to catch the solar winds of your own goals.


Image: “Solar Sail” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Kevin M. Gill

Source: Strauss, Mark. “New NASA Spacecraft Will Be Propelled By Light.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 3 February 2016. <news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160202-solar-sail-space-nasa-exploration/>.

Van Halen: Tracking mediation issues with a checklist

It turns out that there was method to Van Halen’s madness. Have you heard the story of David Lee Roth demanding that a bowl of M&Ms be placed in his dressing room, except that all of the brown M&Ms had to be removed, and if there was a single brown M&M in the bowl, Van Halen had the right to cancel that evening’s show? Despite the story sounding far-fetched, it is not about an eccentric rock star. The story is actually about checklists designed to keep everyone safe.

According to Atul Gawande who wrote The Checklist Manifesto, Van Halen’s truckloads of heavy equipment had to be set up correctly, especially in smaller arenas. If something was set up wrong, it could fall and crush someone. To ensure safety, Van Halen’s contract provided a detailed checklist of precise setup instructions. However, the checklist was only useful if it was followed. So, the band buried in the checklist the unexpected instruction to remove all brown M&Ms. When David Lee Roth arrived backstage, all he had to do was inspect his bowl for brown M&Ms to know whether or not the equipment checklist had been followed.

Mediators use checklists to provide you with a consistent and predictable process surrounding what can be an inconsistent and unpredictable negotiation. One of the checklists is the mediation agenda, which is a list of the issues that need to be addressed. Just as airplane pilots use concise checklists in emergency situations, mediation agendas work best when each issue is described with a short phrase that captures the main idea. These short phrases help ensure that issues don’t get forgotten.

According to Atul Gawande, sometimes people object to taking time to create a checklist. For example, in the past, some surgeons didn’t want to follow checklists. However, those surgeons became fans after they saw the improved results. Here are some improvements that you can expect with the creation of an agenda of issues in mediation:

  1. Agendas provide a way for you to think about what is important to you.
  2. Agendas communicate that importance to the other side.
  3. Agendas assist negotiation by indicating to you what is important for the other side.
  4. Agendas ensure that as we go deep into the trees of conflict, we won’t lose sight of the forest of resolution.

Of course, just because an issue is on an agenda doesn’t mean that we have to talk about it. After all, sometimes an issue will decrease in importance during a negotiation. Similarly, if you think of an issue after we create an agenda, we can always add that issue. This makes an agenda a tool that helps keep mediation on track without it adding unnecessary constraints.

As you prepare for mediation and think through your needs and wants, be ready to explain them to your mediator so that they can be tracked on an agenda. Like airplane pilots and surgeons who benefit from checklists, you’ll appreciate that the mediation agenda is a simple checklist that will keep you focused on what is important to you.


Image: “m” (CC BY 2.0) by Dawn Huczek

Source: Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Study shows your dog can read your emotions

There is a saying that dogs don’t bark at parked cars. It’s funny how a dog will chase what’s in motion and ignore what is standing still. In reality, just because something is moving doesn’t mean it deserves attention. In conflict, the issue you are facing may be the equivalent of a moving car. But you might want to consider whether the parked car of an emotion might also deserve some thought. After all, an emotion may actually be what’s driving your decisions.

University of Lincoln’s study of dogs

It turns out that your dog pays attention not just to moving cars, but to your emotions as well. As reported in ScienceDaily, a study by the University of Lincoln shows that dogs can recognize human emotions. If you are a dog person, you’ve probably always suspected this. If you are a cat person, you are probably asking how this can be. Well, dogs simultaneously saw images and heard voices of people experiencing certain emotions. The tricky part is that when the emotions of the two were the same, such as a happy picture and a happy voice, the dogs spent much more time looking at the picture. This showed that dogs pick up on our emotions. If dogs can do it, let’s try to do it too.

1) Emotions can signal where you need to pay attention

Emotions are generally categorized as positive, such as happy, or negative, such as sad. However, this positive-negative categorization can be misleading because emotions themselves are morally neutral. It’s how you express emotions and what you do with them that you need to watch. For example, if anger clouds your reason, then you may make poor decisions. On the other hand, Harriet Lerner explains in her book The Dance of Anger that anger can be used as a tool for change. Don’t ignore your emotion as a dog ignores a parked car.

2) Try to understand what is behind an emotion

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey was on a subway when he observed a father and his out-of-control children. He felt anger at what he perceived as a father who was incompetent and derelict. Thank goodness that he didn’t act improperly on his feeling of anger because he later learned that the children’s mother had recently passed away. There was nothing wrong with Stephen Covey’s feeling of anger, but he allowed his anger to cause a snap judgment. He was like the dog chasing after a moving car, until he explored what was actually going on. Similarly, mediation and coaching helps you explore the cause of a conflict in order to resolve it.

3) Get moving in the right direction

The word “emotion” comes from the Latin word emovere. Although it sounds like a spell out of Hogwarts, it means “to move or set into motion.” In fact, the word “motivation” also comes from emovere. At the very least, foster the emotion of happiness. In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes what he calls the “Tetris Effect” that helps you spot opportunities from patterns of possibilities. Noticing your parked cars of opportunities is what makes mediation and coaching so helpful.

Do you prefer cats or dogs?

While we are speaking of pets and emotions, I am curious. Are you a cat person or dog person? I tend to think of myself as a dog person because I get a kick out of playing pooch tug-of-war. But, I have to admit that our last cat had me wrapped around her little claw. Even though her meowing would wake me in the middle of the night, after she passed away, I missed her terribly. Okay, I’ll say it. The emotion I felt was “sad.”

How about you? Whether you are a dog or a cat person, what can you learn about emotions from your pet?


Image: “Dog” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Céline

Source: University of Lincoln. “A man’s best friend: Study shows dogs can recognize human emotions.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 January 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160112214507.htm>.

The Martian: Feeling stranded by conflict

I hope none of us are ever in such dire straits as Mark Watney, the character from the book The Martian by Andy Weir and played by Matt Damon in the movie. Yet, despite Mark’s predicament of being stranded on Mars and his immense loneliness and desperation, he never lost sight of the importance of being a problem solver. Hopefully you are not feeling as if you are stranded on Mars by a conflict, but here are some ideas to use mediation to put a conflict behind you.

1) Prepare for rescue by focusing on the future

Problem solving kept Mark alive on Mars. To be a problem solver, he did not let the past of being abandoned by his crew interfere with what he wanted to achieve for his future. Staying focused on the future is also a good idea with mediation. While the courtroom is the place to explore the past to determine who is to blame, mediation provides the opportunity to look into the future to determine what outcome will feel like a rescue from Mars and give you a future that you can live with.

2) Know your goal

One of the first things Mark had to do was set his sights on his desired outcome, which was to stay alive until the next scheduled Mars landing in about three years (1480 sols). His goal kept him focused on his needs, such as conserving his food, rather than being distracted by his wants of eating a full meal. With mediation, understanding your needs and wants will help you achieve your goal.

3) Think broadly about information

Mark did a thorough job of collecting data about his problems, but even with such diligence, he invariably would forget some important piece of information that would cause havoc to his plans (“Everything went great right up to the explosion,” Mark Watney). Don’t suppress your intuition about what data will help you make good decisions. During a pre-conference phone call, let your mediator know if you need more information to have a productive mediation.

4) Take care of yourself

I was impressed by Mark’s recognition that he had to take care of himself in order to survive. If he became exhausted, he knew that he would not be able to deal with the next life-threatening event. Similarly, pace yourself in mediation. Ask your mediator for a break and go for a short walk to get the creative juices flowing. Make sure that you take care of yourself physically and emotionally.

5) Laugh a little

Of course, the hallmark of Mark’s survival was his sense of humor. If your mediator brings humor into your mediation, use that time to relax and give your brain a rest before getting back to the serious work of resolving your dispute.

Working together

What else can we learn about mediation from The Martian? Think about the phrase, “Let’s work the problem, people,” spoken by Flight Director Gene Kranz played by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13.


Image: “Daybreak at Gale Crater” (CC BY 2.0) by NASA Goddard Photo and Video