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. Putnam, 1994.

Source: Hocker, Joyce L, and William W. Wilmot. Interpersonal Conflict. W.C. Brown, 1978.

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 family facilitation. Like Elaine sharing with the camera about her hopes and fears, in facilitation 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 facilitator 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. Family facilitation 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. Family facilitation 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.

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-resolution facilitator and work out solutions. Specifically, a facilitator can help everyone tell each other what is true for each person, and utilize listening skills to hear the perspective of others. Facilitation 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 facilitation 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. <>.

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 facilitation 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 facilitation 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. <>.