Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Is Heartbreak In the Air?

Have you noticed a surge in break-ups recently?  Well, you are definitely not alone.  As we adjust to the cold weather season, knowing that the holidays are around the corner, many men see this as time to "hibernate and cuddle," but unfortunately what many don't realize is that for women (who tend to plan much further ahead) this is the time to end something that isn't going anywhere.  Why?  Easy-- because 1) there is no point in trying to get through the holidays with someone you are no longer in love with, and 2) the sooner you stop going down a dead-end street, the sooner you can go find a more promising path-- maybe even before New Year's Eve if the stars align just right.

This my friends is one of the best examples of how women and men think differently.  Year after year, I have heard so many of my male clients say they would have just continued with the status quo.  As long as work is good and home life is comfy, 9 out of 10 guys will just let things lie.  But women, hmm ...we  really are an entirely different breed.  We let our minds (and often our emotions) race ahead, and as we check in with our girlfriends we wonder out loud, "what's the plan for the holidays?  are we getting engaged?  are we moving in together? are we going to talk about having kids in the new year?" Or if we are already married with kids, we may be thinking, "how are we going to spice things up?  does he realize I'm not feeling emotionally connected? what efforts is he going to make to focus on us?"

Now, if you don't think you are on the same page with your partner, before jumping to any conclusions, try to ask yourself these 3 basic questions:

1. Do you think your partner cares about you?
2. Is your partner willing/able to hear you?
3. Do you think your partner can change?

If the answer to all three questions is "no" then there really isn't any point in trying to work anything out.  But if there is still love and hopes of a brighter future together, then an open and honest conversation about what can be done to fix things is in order-- preferably at a mutually convenient time when neither one of you is too emotional.

When you have "the talk" remember to keep an open mind.  Don't assume anything for I have yet to meet a single human being with the ability to read another person's mind, regardless of how many years they have been together or how much love they once shared together.

Also, respect that there are gender differences-- the way guys speak is vastly different from how women speak.   While 21st century men have made great progress at learning to meet the heightened expectations women now have of their male partners, the way they continue to socialize among each other is vastly different from how women socialize together.  For example, the men I know generally don't talk much about their feelings-- certainly not with their other guy friends, and they are wired to want to find a quick fix.  So if you are going to raise a problem with them, make sure you filter out too much emotion and try to offer some viable options for a solution.

In the end, the solution may just be that it is time to go your separate ways.  That doesn't mean that either party is not worthy of being loved, it just means that the effort required to maintain that particular relationship is just too much.  I don't mean to say that we should expect love to be easy, but it certainly should not be difficult.

Is heartbreak in the air?  Maybe so, but you live, you learn and you will both move on.

Monday, October 19, 2015

How Flexible Is Your Thinking?

This week, I am looking forward to presenting at the annual conference for the Academy of Professional Family Mediators on the topic of Flexible Thinking.  Obviously the majority of those in the audience, given their chosen profession, probably already have a proven ability to think flexibly, but the challenge for us is still this: how do you teach others to be flexible thinkers?

Flexible thinkers have a demonstrated ability to see problems from various points of view, and they don't see conflict as a failure, but rather a challenge that requires some creativity in order to find a solution.  If you are a flexible thinker, you don't see things as black or white.  It's not your way or the highway.  You are open to possibilities.  You listen with genuine interest.  You collaborate well with others and enjoy brainstorming.  You share ideas readily, and appreciate feedback.  You draw others into your world with diverse backgrounds and expertise.  And as you pull all of these things together, you see magic happen.  Truly, if you have experienced this you know what I mean.

Now, if none of what I just said resonates with you does that mean it is game over?  No, not at all.  It does mean you will need a guide, and there's a lot of work ahead for you.  But the payoff is immense, both professionally and personally, for the less rigid you are in life, the easier it will be to ride the waves as they come--and to pick up the pieces if/when it all comes crashing down on you like a Tsunami that appeared without warning.

When I first began mediation almost a decade ago, I was still stinging from the raw feelings of immense failure and defeat following my own divorce.  I naively thought that my mediation cases would be easy, because I stupidly assumed that those choosing mediation instead of litigation must value the preservation of goodwill.  In fact, that is not always the case, and often the motivating factors may well just be to 1) spend less in legal fees or 2) avoid disclosing embarrassing details in an open courtroom.  It turns out, the reasons a couple chooses mediation does not matter at all, but to get them to the finish line, it is critical that they get past their positions and learn to articulate their needs, wants and concerns in an honest and respectful manner so that we can then start to brainstorm options, and eventually find a solution that in the end works for everyone.

First, we need to establish some ground rules:
1. Take turns speaking-- listen with empathy and express yourself respectfully;
2. Stick to "I" statements, don't speak for the other person;
3. Don't pass judgment or try to place blame;
4. Try not to guess someone's motive, instead just ask "why?
5. Focus on the problems at hand,  and not the past.

Second, we have to check in with how everyone in the room feels as we delve into serious discussions about the problems at hand.  Are they all calm?  Is anyone getting upset?  If so, we need to take a break and find a way to relax because it is not helpful to be emotional when we are trying to talk about difficult issues.  Also, we need to pay attention to how different people respond to conflict-- turns out not everyone likes to fight (something that probably comes naturally to those of us initially trained as trial lawyers).  Some people freeze, some want to flee, and then there are those that will just forfeit.  So I caution you to be aware of these 4 Fs.

Third, instead of a free for all, have a structured conversation.  What are the common goals/concerns?  What are the issues? Find common ground first, then split up on the brainstorming part keeping in mind that no idea is a bad idea, it just may not work.  After you have developed all the options you can think of, simply see if there are some you could consider-- no need to rush to a decision, just sleep on it if you have to, without shutting down any option that you did not generate.  Then, agree to come back at a specific date/time to try and conclude the matter.

Does this sound simple?  I bet it does, but it is the hardest process I've ever had to manage.  Indeed, court is much easier, believe me-- especially when you are not dealing with flexible thinkers.  But do you know what the real irony is here?  That if all these couples had tried these tactics DURING their marriage, then they may not have to learn then on the back-end as part of their divorce process.

Indeed, marriage counselors use a lot of the techniques described above in their sessions with couples.    Now just imagine if more people would actually avail themselves of these services when things first become difficult instead of waiting until it is too late?  Surely we can all agree that it is so much easier to clean a surface wound than to heal a deeply infected cut.  So if you think you need help with your flexible thinking, don't delay in getting help.  The resources are out there, and if you want to change, I believe you can.

So now go back and ask yourself, how flexible is your thinking? Could it be better? Of that, I have no doubt for even after all these years I am humbled each day by the realization of how much I have yet to learn.  However, hopefully together, we can at least give each other an "A" for effort-- for at least trying to preserve some basic sense of humanity by demonstrating empathy and respect at least for those we love, even as we see these two basic skills quickly slip away from our society.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What Is Your Window of Opportunity?

In the medical world, they say every minute counts when it comes to restoring blood flow to stroke patients.  It is believed that the maximum amount of time to start administering blood clot dissolving treatment once symptoms of a stroke start is 4.5 hours.  The more time you lose, the greater the chances of causing irreparable damage to a person's brain.  May I suggest that the same is true when you have a blow-up with your significant other.  Time is simply not on your side when it comes to repair work.

While we all need time to cool off after an upsetting situation, research suggests that within 20 minutes you should be able to calm down.  During that time, take a walk, a soothing shower, perhaps sit still in a quiet room and take several deep breaths.  Collect yourself and your thoughts.  Start to think with your frontal lobe, not the emotional side of your brain, and then do something.  Try to think of at least one thing you can do to repair the situation at hand.  Remaining immobile should not be an option.  Why? Because each minute that goes by without taking action is just depriving your heart of the love it needs.  Simply stated you could act quickly to make the wound nothing more than a minor paper cut, or allow the wound to deepen with time into an infected gash requiring a major operation that may or may not succeed.

All significant relationships will face challenging times, it is how you face those challenges that makes or breaks you.  Unfortunately, there are many out there that are conflict avoiders.  Obviously, I am not one, but inevitably in every marriage that I encounter there is always one person that is more assertive and another that is more passive, and when these two personalities have to tackle a problem, their conflict styles are bound to clash.  The passive person feels the other one is being aggressive and in response becomes defensive or simply shuts down.  This is very infuriating to the other, who can quickly cross the line from assertive to aggressive, and hopefully you can see how quickly a minor dispute can erupt into World War III.

No one is capable of withstanding repeated blows without any injury.  No one.  We are all human, and we do all bleed.  Keeping this in mind, together with the analogy of the stroke situation, the next time an issue comes up with anyone close to you, try to quickly remove yourself from the fiery situation, calm down, and then within 20 minutes start to think: what is my window of opportunity?  How can you get things flowing again before it is too late?

We have all loved and lost.  Looking back we may rewrite history and convince ourselves that certain relationships just were not meant to be.  But be honest- it is not always that simple, and indeed if we are being truthful with ourselves we can recognize that a lot of our personal losses stem from one thing: our inability to see that window of opportunity to make things right.

My dad says, "people see what they want to see."  Here's hoping you see the opportunities for repair that stand before you and that you find a way to act prior to having that window close forever.