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

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

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

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