Approaches to conflict resolution

A local newspaper publishes a syndicated column, Direct Answers. When reading the answers with a mediation mindset, I have often thought how differently  from ‘Wayne’s’ and ‘Tamara’s’ answers I would respond to the questions.

On April 11 the following question and answer was published.

QUESTION FROM CYNTHIA

  • My daughter and her husband were childhood sweethearts and have been married for seven years. They have a six-year-old child. They own their home, are financially secure, and everything looked good.
  • A couple of days ago my husband and I received an email from our daughter telling us she had been in an affair for three years with a friend of her husband.
  • He found out a couple of months ago and they have been living together in silence.
  • There were the requisite tears from her and the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look. She admitted she has lied to everyone for years. After a hoax and tedious, she said she couldn’t end it. She does not know if she loves them, but he is kind and exciting. OMG!
  • Her husband came around to talk to us. He’s been in hell and is glad it’s in the open. He does not know what to do. He told her they could try to work it out but she has said she wants her husband’s financial support and her lover’s excitement.
  • We support our son-in-law entirely.We are trying to support her, but it is difficult when she won’t make a move to end this mess.  She has ruined so many lives and does not see it.
  • I am so scared for my granddaughter.She is smart enough to know things are wrong, even though there is no fighting. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
  • It is as though my daughter is more upset that she was caught.
  • How can I help her, or do I?                                                                          

ANSWER FROM WAYNE & TAMARA

  • Cynthia, for three years your daughter looked at life through a camera focused on its nearest object, herself. Everything else was out of focus. Now everything else has come into view.
  • It’s not a pretty sight. A man has suffered the worst assault a man can in the relationship. A parent is being forced to choose between what’s right and the bond to have a child. A child is growing up in confusion.
  • You can’t stop your daughter from doing what she is doing. Neither can her husband.She has a legal right to decide what she would do. No one has the power to stop her.
  • That said, the same is true of you and her husband. She can’t stop what he, or you decide to do. Say both need to understand where you are powerless and what that applies to where you are powerful and what that applies to.
  • Once your son-in-law realises a woman who loved him would never do this,he will realise the power of divorce. Your daughter wants to have her cake and eat it too, but your son-in-law does not have to provide the cake.
  • Hard as it is to support your son-in-law, he is in the right. You will son-in-law needs to consult with a lawyer and he needs to be frank about his reasons for divorce.He is safe while your daughter thinks he won’t do anything, but once she has an inkling he will act, she may retaliate
  • Now that it is in the open, your daughter may feel free to bring her lover or other men into the home and expose your granddaughter to their influence.
  • Protect your granddaughter as much as you can. Provided with a calming presence that never varies in its love.
  • You don’t understand your daughter’s motivation. She may think she should have dated more before marriage. She may think she didn’t know her own mind. You can support her only to the extent she is willing to bring her whole life into focus.

The Q commences 'My daughter and her husband...

The Q the above commences
‘My daughter and her husband…

I felt for the all the ‘Cynthias’ and wondered at the source of authority that informs the answer. The themes of Wayne’s and Tamara’s response seemed to focus on entitlement and authority and being quick to judge.The response implies that there are numerous ways to be wrong and only one way to be right. I sent this alternative response to the editor who published it the following week. It is premised on being aware of how little one knows of one’s own life let alone of others’;  being aware of boundaries and of the scope for reaching resolutions that work when each ‘or’ is replaced by ‘and’. Fundamentally it is about the role of a person who would like to be supportive.

RESPONSE FROM A FAMILY DISPUTE RESOLUTION PRACTITIONER

Cynthia, once a mother always a mother. You certainly can help your daughter and you can help your granddaughter and you can help your son-in-law. The word to focus on is ‘and’.

First of all help yourself. Give yourself time; a chance to pass through the early stages of shock and reaction.  Part of coping with a shock such as this is to find blame; to make assumptions; to make judgements. Each of these bring some short-term relief because they are cut and dried and keep the horror at arm’s length. Knee-jerk reactions come from self-protection. Let this phase pass privately. During this time keep in touch with your daughter, your granddaughter and your son-in-law. Listen well and make small talk, on the grounds that you are ‘getting your head around the situation’ and ‘getting your thoughts together’.

When the reacting phase has largely passed, you will be ready to make mostly considered responses. This is when you will be able to be more helpful.  First gather information so that you become very well-informed. If asked, use the information very sparingly and tentatively to suggest where your daughter, your granddaughter and your son-in-law might find some useful information. Considered responses come from acceptance of the person, their circumstances and of your ongoing relationship with them.

The sort of information you could start with includes professional support services: counselling, mediation, legal and financial services.

Most importantly, you can help by being more available than usual for your granddaughter.  Take your time to decide how you will answer your granddaughter’s questions, if any. Answer her questions honestly and in a way that meets her needs, no one else’s. Answer her questions expecting to be quoted to her mother and her father and expecting to be misquoted from time to time.

When you are considering what to say to your granddaughter take into account her developmental age, her temperament and her current circumstances. As children grow and develop their fears grow and develop with them. Find out online what your granddaughter’s six year old fears are likely to be and tentatively validate them and cautiously pre-empt them. Consider her temperament. Whatever her temperament, it is likely to become more pronounced during this time. Fit in with her approach to her circumstances, rather than asking her to fit in with your approach to her circumstances.

You asked how can you help your daughter? I have replied in terms of how you can help your granddaughter. That is one of the ways in which you can help your daughter and your son-in-law.

You can help your daughter and you can help your son-in-law. There is no need to make a choice. Remind yourself that of all the people in the world, you know most about yourself and yet you know very little about yourself. You know even less about your daughter and about your son-in-law. Gently remind yourself of this to prevent yourself from becoming an authority on their relationship and their family.

Stresses and challenges to family dynamics can be solved simplistically and temporarily by recourse to rights and entitlements, power and authority. Rights clash; power struggles. Real resolution comes from making the space for people to consider their own and others’ best interests. Your part in this situation is twofold: first to listen to your granddaughter, your daughter and your son-in-law for much longer than you can imagine, to ask broad, open questions for the purpose of the speaker hearing their own answer and to make very few statements. Second, to take the situation at a pace you can manage and to ensure you have the support you need.

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What has it to do with you when a conflict becomes a dispute?

Conflict is normal. Each person is unique so each person experiences the world differently from each other person. For there to be no conflict, each of us would need to be a clone of the other. How enervating that would be!

Since conflict is normal it is reasonable to expect to experience it more often than not; as a day-to-day reality; as an expression of uniqueness. I think of conflict as the experience you have when your sense-of-self, your sense of being unique and your sense of knowing yourself are stretched. When the stretching is contained within the scope of your usual range of coping, you (self) recognise that you have choices, you think about them  then you decide to walk away from some conflict;  to avoid some and settle  some with a temporary compromise.  Other conflict you decide to resolve.

coping

Sometimes it may seem as if you have few choices. The conflict has become acute. I regard this situation as a dispute.

Disputes occur when a conflict is sufficiently important to you and the other people involved that it stretches your sense-of-self, your sense of being unique  and your sense of knowing yourself  beyond your usual coping range and therefore beyond self-recognition. The situation becomes self-perpetuating: your sense-of-self is stretched beyond engaging your usual coping approaches so you do not cope; because you do not cope, your sense-of-self continues to stretch beyond self-recognition. As a result of the stress created by the gap which is created by being unrecognisable to your self, your thinking is likely to be replaced by emotion.

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By this stage many people would benefit from some assistance to be able to approach a dispute thoughtfully, that is, in the way that they would if it were a day-to-day conflict.

The shift from a conflict to a dispute occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the issue has become particularly important; perhaps the conflict has been persistent; perhaps communication has become counter-productive; perhaps there is a shift in ability to influence one another. Whatever the reason, the outcome is that you are stretched beyond your coping skills. This can lead to what can be described by the person experiencing the dispute as a weakening of resolve (to reach an amicable resolution) and observed by others as a strengthening of resolve…(to follow through on threats) … all can lead to what can be described by the person experiencing the dispute as a  strengthening of resolve (to reach an amicable resolution) and observed by others as a weakening of resolve… (to follow through on threats)

Q: weakening and strengthening of resolve to do what?

A: to resolve the dispute respectfully…

Disputes can be resolved respectfully.  Resolution is achieved when ‘the forum fits the fuss’. Mediation  can shift a dispute from being outside your coping range to being  within your coping range and then on to a resolution, if a resolution is appropriate. Mediation accomplishes this by facilitating a temporary shift in each participant from self-interest to joint interests. From the joint interests, an agreement that meets individuals’ self-interests can usually be crafted. Mediation is one among many ways to resolve disputes respectfully.  See ‘Your Guide to Dispute Resolution’ for other approaches.

Mediation is not suited to all circumstances of dispute.  There are rare situations when a decision that is imposed is more likely to be effective than a decision created by the people who will be affected.   An imposed decision is particularly appropriate in a crisis. Crises are rare.