Thursday, 28 June 2007

Conversational riffs - revised

I had something of a breakthrough earlier this week. One of my workshops/skill sets is based upon some material that I have always been quite pleased with and has certainly been well received by various audiences.

I was always aware, however, that one or two of the elements were rather clumsy. You become particularly aware of this when you are delivering the workshop and can almost feel yourself blurting it out instead of enjoying the material.

I have a very exciting opportunity to present to some major employers next week and so I took the opportunity to revisit the material. I was able to come up with new, better titles and the impact has been great. With only a few different words, the material is now much stronger. The eleven components of the course group together in a natural thematic way, into elements of language that we currently use too readily, to components that we can aim to try more frequently and finishing up with a couple of punchy no-go's - Despair and flair.

Despair is that temptation to throw your hand in or give up. Flair is any comment that comes from showboating, being over-elaborate, or self indulgent flippancy or sarcasm.

I'm looking forward to getting the improved material out there and will be sure to let you know how it is received. If my own vanity gets the better of me, this will probably be the book I write.

Things I still love you too much to say - the need to encourage your opponent to elaborate on their complaint

On Elvis Costello's Spike album there is a top song called Deep Dark Truthful Mirror which contains the lyric there are "Things I still love you too much to say". A painful realisation and one I often see my clients wrestling with.

They feel a need to redress a situation within their relationship but cannot bring themselves to say what is going wrong. The result? "Oh we've just fallen out of love." - not a line, actually, that I let my clients get away with.

It is a key problem within dispute dialogue and one reason for conflict aversion.

For a more general application the lyric would be changed to "But if I tell them that, they might be hurt and I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

The result is that we hedge around the issues without openly or transparently communicating what is bugging us. As we continue to avert the problem though, the behaviour or characteristic continues and our irritation increases.

We become frustrated with ourselves for lacking the skills to sensitively address the issue and then compound our irritation with blame for the way it is making us feel. A vicious circle.

In the end, the frustration and irritation explodes in a disproportionate and hurtful outburst. For example, we see couples divorcing when really they need an honest communication about their respective spending plans, personal hygiene or dress sense. They hold off communicating out of love and the result is one of those dispute ironies, that their marriage and the love they were trying to protect is lost within perceived conflict.

So, as we look at learning communication skills, one of them has to be encouragement. If my wife has a beef with me, I need to be able to reassure her that it is safe for her to truly communicate whatever the issue might be.

The same applies in the workplace. Chances are that an employee will do anything they can to avoid raising a problem. They like their boss, or are grateful to a colleague for something they did, but there's just this one thing...

Employees need a safe environment where they can communicate grievances and employees ought to provided with the skills to enable them to do so. It will make a difference on how they, in return, carry out their employment.

Only last week I was in a large department store in Bristol in the shoe department. A floor manager had just spoken to the young sales assistant who then wheeled away from the manager with a scowl on her face that spoke volumes to me, the customer. It said, this is not a happy place. I do not want to be here. I have a beef with my manager and if you so much as think of asking me to try a pair of those shoes in size 9 I will give you everything that I am currently holding back from telling my boss. If you even attempt to buy shoes here you will only be compounding my misery by endorsing the abuse I perceive I have to suffer under this tyrannical regime.

I didn't buy the shoes. I turned and left.

I have turned and left pubs or restaurants where there is an atmosphere between staff as well. Clients see this stuff going on and they respond to it. I know that if I've been a bit stressy that it will impact on my secretary and that is disastrous. On the telephone, the dissatisfaction is even more deafening.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Is there a role for conflict in conflict resolution?

As I was working through my Collaborative law training I was repeatedly troubled by the role that conflict actually has to play within the process.

We were taught that when one party starts to express some strongly held opinions, no doubt in equally strong terms, that we should seek to acknowledge that with a phrase such as "I can see that this is clearly an important matter for you."

I explored the possibility of not seeking to contain the grievance in this manner but to really embrace it and get it out in the open. If I am in a dialogue with my client, and his/her wife, and one spouse is getting agitated about something then I want to understand just what is at play.

The alternative, to nod, acknowledge and contain, deprives us all.

The concerned party is deprived of what might be the only opportunity or forum to safely set out what their position is. Such an opportunity can be incredibly cathartic and just knowing that they have been heard can provide real breakthroughs. There is always the possibility that the storm might blow itself out and simply pass once it has been aired.

Both myself and my collaborative colleague are denied the opportunity to fully understand the dynamic between the parties and so we are left with our own guesses filling in the blanks.

We are all denied the possible insights that a fully aired grievance might provide. Perhaps that raw and unguarded outpouring might offer footholds or show signposts to a new shape of proposal that hadn't been anticipated before.

"Alison, while you were explaining how you felt about John leaving, you indicated that none of this would be as bad if only the problems with Connor's schooling hadn't started 2 months earlier. Would it help if we looked at addressing that problem before moving forwards with ...."

Both partners can be coached that such complaints are normal and almost inevitable. We can listen and acknowledge, we can listen and choose not to defend ourselves. "I hear what you say and I can see why it must have felt that way to you." Full stop. There might be a role for apologies.

So is there a role for conflict in conflict resolution? There has to be. We should be skilled enough and courageous enough to embrace it. How can we ensure the communication is expressed without violence or intimidation? How can our clients be assisted and coached as to what is likely, almost inevitable? How can we move away from the reactive response of seeing criticism as an attack. Very often it is nothing more than the other party's opinion. They are entitled to that and we can learn a great deal by hearing it and understanding how they came to hold that opinion.

"If someone responds to your negotiation offer with a fist, it is almost impossible to resist responding in kind."

Colin Rule posts in his blog about what he states are the very clear limits of non-violence.

I responded that we have no real choice but to continue to find other ways to avoid the classic cycle of provocation and escalation. But just what would that take, and just who has the alternative?

Is it enough for bloggers to continue to post in their optimism without having plans or solutions or are such hopes nothing more than trite sentimentality?

I don't pretend to have the answer to resolve the plight set out in the article that Colin links to but that uncertainty is all part of the process within dispute resolution or management. It is one reason why the indulgence in conflict is so attractive because at least it is certain and we know the rules, even if we cannot fully anticipate the fallout.

It is not for us as observers to impose solutions upon the parties involved. Instead what is required is a means of referring to suitable services so that all the matters can be explored. The full range of conflict, of differences between the parties need to be communicated and acknowledged before anyone can start even contemplating solutions that might fit.

It is a temptation, always, to respond in kind when we feel provoked. I address this temptation to some extent in an article below "...But conflict feels so good". We don't have to have all the answers. What we need is the will and conviction to carry on searching for other ways to resolve issues such as these and the skills and enthusiasm to encourage others to do the same.

I have mentioned De Bono's book called Conflict below. In that book De Bono suggests an International body working on possible solutions. This could have been just the kind of scenario he had in mind.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Reiterating the triangle...

One of the great things about having commissioned this blog is that I can make resources and articles available to clients that I might not otherwise have to hand within a client interview. Alternatively, sometimes there are issues that might be out of bounds within the confines of a conventional solicitor/client relationship.

The purpose of this post is to link to an excellent article by Lynne Forrest about the Drama Triangle.

I don't intend to re-invent the wheel or re-iterate the triangle so I'll leave you to read the article. It is long and very comprehensive but worth working through. As ever if you have any questions then just ask.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

ADR Blogs

I am delighted to have been embraced by the World Directory of Alternative Dispute Resolution Blogs. Please do have a look at their list of supported blogs where you will find all manner of approaches to ADR, mediation, conflict and the like. A word of warning though - if you make it through to the reading room then you might just lose the rest of your evening. The reading room is great. A central hub from which you can access the contents of all the supporting blogs. Compelling, challenging stuff.

"If the boxing ring catches fire then both boxers co-operate to extinguish the flames."

Edward De Bono's "Conflict" is an excellent but elusive book.

It addresses conflict in De Bono's lateral thinking way and is therefore freed from the conventions that restrict much thinking within conflict situations.

The writing is packed with ideas, metaphors, suggestions and starting positions. Sometimes the ideas are almost throwaway one-liners, like the title to this article. Sometimes De Bono kicks an idea around for a paragraph or two before before moving on.

Other writers would probably lavish a whole chapter on individual ideas in this book but De Bono just keeps moving on, seemingly content to let us ponder the implications and logical progressions for ourselves.

So, to the burning boxing ring then. A wonderfully absurd graphic image and one I hope that will stick in the mind.

As a metaphor it raises the concept of externalising conflict. Once the boxing ring has caught fire the boxers realise that they are not in a fight between themselves. Instead they are but two out of three elements within that struggle, namely Boxer #1, Boxer #2 and the arena in which the fight is being held.

The illusion of being wrapped up within the fight is shattered once attention is drawn to the Arena itself. What we see is the Boxers then collaborating to address the fire.

Very often I will draw client's attention to the fact that they could well be behaving in a certain fashion towards their spouses or partners as a result of currently having to operate within a litigious or courtroom arena. That can then lead them to recall how they used to address each other, or recall better times they had shared in different environments.

What happens once the fire has been extinguished? It would be hard to imagine the fight continuing. Would the Boxers just walk away, or maybe go through the motions of a fight but without the same passion? After all, there will still be the paying audience, our cheering supporters, who have their own expectations of us and we might feel a need to play to the galleries in that regard.

How would it work if we entertained the metaphorical notion of deliberately setting light to the boxing ring. In other words what can we do to draw the attention of the protagonists away from the all consuming combat and to create awareness within them of the environment in which they are working through this conflict?

Of course all of this could be a fallacy. Who is to say that the Boxers, so consumed by their conflict would not continue to duke it out to a knockout and then hotfoot it from what is left of the burning stadium? But then who said these ideas need to be true? All we need sometimes is a suitably ridiculous image to be aware of how we might be responding to conflict and how we might be acting up to the conventions of the arena we are in.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Getting your client's partner to collaborate.

Collaborative law and lawyers face an interesting challenge. On the whole we are a passionate bunch with a real belief in the potential that a different approach to dispute resolution can offer.

A by product of that passion and belief is that we would like to see more clients take up collaborative solutions. So why don't they?

My experience, and it is one that is shared by many, is that when we first meet with a client and explain what the collaborative process means that they are ready to sign up. The difficulty arises when we try to get the other party to engage.

The proposal is resisted for any number of reasons and we spend a great deal of time worrying about that.

I wonder to what extent the proposal is rejected just because it was us who suggested it rather than them.

A tricky thing happens in family disputes, you see, and it is this. Even the most reasonable proposal risks being rejected for the simple reason that the other side has proposed it. There is probably an interesting correlation in that the more reasonable a proposal is, the more it is to be suspected by the parties concerned. "He must be up to something" or "There must be something in this for them."

The problem stems possibly from the disappointment and hurt that follows in the aftermath of a relationship that has ended. The parties will very often feel the most profound betrayal or let down from the one person that they had invested the most in. As a result of that perception, anything that they now propose is to be treated as suspicious. No doubt, it is a defensive approach.

Compound that with the trauma of receiving that first letter from your partner's solicitor, and all that such an event confirms and stands for and perhaps it is not surprising that we see the suggestion viewed with skepticism.

So how can we overcome that and get greater take up? Perhaps the way, as it so often is, is to change ourselves rather than them.

So instead of our initial letters to the estranged partners recommending this process or that, perhaps we should be engaging with them in a different way. Would a similar approach to that set out below in the "An alternative initial letter to the client's partner." work?

What is the best way to get any disputing parties to agree and buy into a proposed solution? Make sure they are part of the solution design process.

An alternative initial letter to the client's partner.

I address the difficulty in getting client's partners to buy into the collaborative law process above. It occurred to me that one of the problems is that by presenting this remedy as a solution to the partner that we are failing to include them in the solution design process.

We are also missing an opportunity to consider more bespoke dispute resolution processes.

Within industry and commerce it is quite normal to establish or design systems to resolve disputes but that is something that we tend not to do in our family law sphere. Too often we simply offer an array of off-the-peg processes.

We fail to have what is called a "Meta-conversation" - that is a dialogue about the dialogue itself. Essentially, "How are we going to talk about what we have to talk about?"

As I state within the draft letter below, there is an opportunity to demonstrate to the client's partner that we are not being dictatorial in laying down the process to be adopted. We can use this first letter both as a hook and a demonstration that we are interested in their opinion and what they feel is important just as we are interested in our client's own opinions. After all, it is only by understanding both partners that we can then start to explore solutions that will fit.

I have set out below an initial crack at an alternative "First letter".

It isn't supposed to be definitive, but a stimulus for discussion. I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Dear *******

We have been approached by ****** with regards to the situation within your marriage/relationship. ******* has been keen to ensure that we understand that it is a priority for him/her to be able to work with you through the issues that will need to be addressed over the coming months.

One of the initial concerns will be just how *********, yourself and your respective advisers can best communicate with each other?

We recognise that solicitors correspondence can often be seen as being antagonistic, and it is certainly an expensive and slow process.

A series of round table meetings might help to minimise the risk of mis-understandings and save time. If you both felt this was an attractive option then we could go on to consider how such meetings would be facilitated. For example, would we need there to be agreed levels of conduct within such meetings? How would concerns that you or ********* have be accomodated and resolved? Perhaps the Collaborative law process(see offers a suitable format?

Perhaps it would help if an arbitrator, therapist or ombudsman, were appointed quite independent of either of you? Could such a person help in offering a different and objective interpretation of any element of dispute, communication or process that causes difficulty, or stuckness, as we try to move forwards? What authority would they have to make recommendations to overcome any offence caused or unblock the negotiations?

Are there immediate concerns that either of you need to be addressed, such as legal funding, joint outgoings and the like?

These are just a few suggestions to illustrate just how flexible we can all be in creating a process to enable us all to discuss matters safely and candidly. ******** does want to work with you and we have an immediate opportunity here to start building that co-operation as we determine, together, how we are best going to address and resolve matters.

We recommend that you discuss this letter with your own solicitor. If you have not yet instructed a solicitor then we recommend that you instruct a one who is affiliated, or even better, recognised as an expert by Resolution, the family solicitors group. Their website can be found at where you will find a directory of members and experts alike. We have enclosed an extra copy of this letter for you to give to your solicitor ahead of your meeting.

We hope to hear from you or your instructed solicitor over the course of the next 14 days.

Yours faithfully..."

Sunday, 17 June 2007

25p? I'll give you 20! Conventions controlling our conduct.

I've got to admit to being a car boot sale addict. There is pleasure in getting up at the crack of dawn on a weekend morning and wandering about a field seeing what you might glean. I think it is something to do with the early morning air, fresh and unsoiled, except for the fried onion fumes from the Bacon roll van.

Who knows what you might find. Just this morning I found a new foot pump and a whole bag of CD's to add to the collection.

So why am I writing about car boot sales here?

As I was passing one car I heard a lady asking the price for some trinket that had caught her eye.

"25p" said the seller.

Her response? "I'll give you 20."

My question? What was the point? What was the point of haggling over the 5p difference? There cannot have been any benefit to her in doing so, but I suspect the point was that she was playing up to the conventions within that arena.

Whatever a seller at a car boot sale asks for, you knock them down. It's all part of the process, or at least convention would dictate as such. But what does it say?

If we accept that the 5p saved is irrelevant then why go along with it?

To belong within that environment? To adopt a role that is expected of them? To conform?

And what does it say about the relationship between seller and buyer? Who is in control here? The buyer gets one - or even 5p - over on the seller. Does that count as a victory in the car boot world? But then the buyer's position itself has been set by the seller. Had the seller said 30p would the buyer have still gone for 20? What if the buyer had said 75p? What position would the buyer then have found herself in?

What other arena's do we find ourselves in where we feel compelled to play to type? Is that what I do, for example, when I am in Court, steeped in convention as it is? What about board meetings, team meetings and such like? And what benefits do such conventions offer us in our relationships?

"...but conflict feels so good!"

I was talking last weekend with a friend about this stuff - conflict, dispute management, a new approach and the like. Very often, such discussions address a perceived futility in trying to change our ways or learn a new approach. But this discussion was different.

Mike pointed out, quite rightly, "But conflict feels so good."

And he was right. Conflict feels good at the point we are in it.

In the book "Mediating Dangerously" there is an excellent quote about people being seduced by conflict. Another quote I came across on the point is this "Speak when you are angry and it will be the best speech you ever regret."

What is the point being made here?

When we are wound up in conflict we often try to suppress our responses to it until we feel that the provocation has got too much and then we go ballistic.

I have had plenty of clients with whom I have been able to work calmly and constructively. And then that phone call comes in. It is the "Right, that does it" moment and the whole demeanour of the client has changed from peaceful problem solving to "Let them have it."

Sometimes it is I myself who has the "That does it moment" and I'll dictate some stupid letter which then gets erased or modified drastically before being sent out. But it feels good to dictate it.

The recognition that it feels good is actually a useful stance. It recognises that "Conflict" is an external influence, that is to say that we are being affected by the power of this thing called conflict. If we can keep ourselves separate from the conflict we are currently experiencing then we can better identify what feelings and motives are our own, and which are the ones we are being tricked or seduced into feeling.

The other aspect of this "Good feeling" lies, I think, in the dominant role of conflict within TV and films. Conflict is everywhere on TV and in popular culture. When we succumb to that "That does it" feeling I wonder to what extent we are falling into roles that we anticipate or we see around.

This is perhaps illustrated by the comment made by many clients "But I am supposed to hate my husband/wife/ex-partner."

I'll come back to the concept of conflict as a separate entity repeatedly. It is a very useful device within conflict management. In the meantime watch out that you don't get seduced by the illusionary good feeling that conflict offers.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

That Tony Blair speech

"A problem is "a crisis". A setback is a policy "in tatters". A criticism, "a savage attack".

So says Tony in a quite remarkable speech about the media.

This episode illustrates rather nicely behaviour within conflict. Take a look at The Independent's response. We see articles setting out counter-allegations of blame, and direct attacks on the original protagonist - "Mr Blair - if you were braver..." in attempts not to engage the discourse but to attack the speaker as so reduce their standing within the discussion. We can come back to that in the future. There will be almost daily examples.

But the point I want to highlight here is the one of the power of language to create, or call into being.

A "Crisis" is a news event whereas a problem would not be. A policy "In tatters" has so much drama to it that a setback would not. Criticism, an entirely valid discourse in itself is inflamed so that it becomes a savage attack.

How in our own debates and discussions do we use language that calls the other party, or their actions, into a specific role that they may or may not welcome?

The complaint against the media's tendency for hyperbole is that such exaggerated language makes it very difficult to have a moderate, progressive conversation. The topic or issue of the dialogue is lost or side tracked as the original protagonist is now forced to respond to the language itself that is being used as opposed to the subject matter the language is trying to convey. How can that promote effective communication?

The space between stimulus and response

Stephen Covey writes in The 8th Habit that "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness."

That is a central tenet of my approach to conflict management. We can always choose our response to any stimulus, provocation or comment made within a conversation. if we can train ourselves on the range of possible responses, and how they will effect the direction of the argument then we do two things.

Firstly, we empower ourselves. We become the driver of the discussion rather than just letting the dispute take us along in its path.

Secondly, we take back on board the responsibility that we have to ourselves, our families, colleagues and community to act, communicate and relate effectively.

It is no longer enough to blame our partner or colleague for the dispute. We contribute to it by the way we respond and we need to recognise that and make sure that we don't let ourselves and each other down by not keeping up our end of the bargain.

Dialogue in dispute resolution

Ever noticed how conversations get stuck in that same old rut. You know the one. The one where your boss points out that your billable hours are down this month, or your good wife objects that you never do anything around the house, and just why is it my turn to walk the dog again?

These conversations, and please share your own examples, become almost ritualistic. We know what our responses are going to be, what the counter-response is and so on. We know at the outset where the conversation will escalate and just what the provocation will be. We know how the discussion will end and we know it won't be pretty.

Maybe there'll be tears like last time. Or that silent sulk.

We know just where despair will set in. We'll experience that sense of "Here we go again".

And what a waste. What a waste of our abilities to use our intellect, to use this wonderful tool of language, to choose better responses at each stage of those stuck discussions. Even if we just chose a different response then that would be better.

What if, for example, instead of coming back with the defensive comment we actually reassured our dialogue partner that we are interested in knowing why they feel that way? How have they come to hold that point of view? Or maybe we could even acknowledge that it is a reasonable point of view to have, even though we may not agree with it. That would certainly send the discussion in a different direction to the one we are accustomed to. Who knows then, just what we could achieve out of any of those repetitive arguments.

Welcome - and an introduction

Welcome to Embracing Conflict.

I am a Collaborative family solicitor working in the South West of England. I have long been fascinated by the patterns that we see within family conflicts and have become more and more curious as to how such patterns are played out within other spheres, such as commerce, international relationships and communities generally.

As I researched more I had a similar feeling of excitement that I once felt in class as a 9 year old. We were working on right angles and had to cut out the corner from a piece of card which became our right angle template. We then had some experiments to see which corners our template fitted into.

I was amazed to learn that this same right angle fitted into the corner of my text book, my desk, the black board, even the school hall.

That feeling was then replicated when I came across material from the Harvard Negotiation Project, The Arbinger Institute and organisations such as The Search for Common Ground.

Here was a science of dispute, or conflict which explained how we respond to conflict and how we contribute to the situation and it was being applied to disputes of all sizes from the inter-personal to the international.

I developed a library for my family law clients to make this kind of thinking available to them and have since developed an approach to conflict rooted firmly in creating space to listen, acknowledge and explore differences safely and responsibly.

That in turn has led to a wild diversion in my career. Increasingly I am asked to present workshops and seminars exploring these issues and the application of conflict theory within the workplace. They are invites I am happy to accept and I look forward to developing that side of my career further over the coming years.

So, what is this blog "Embracing Conflict" for? I see it as a space to develop and share ideas that I can probably not get published on my company's website.

I see it as another means - together with my client contact and seminar presentations - to explore the idea that by heightening awareness of this thing called conflict, that we can step outside of conflict rather than allowing it to consume us.

Hopefully it can become a forum where workshop delegates might visit to explore the issues we touch upon there.

Let's see how we get on.