My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Difficult Conversations

Your body tells you when a conversation will be difficult. It is the tight feeling in your stomach, the slight headache that you have had all day and that jitteriness that you have been experiencing. These senses all put us on notice of a difficult conversation which has to be had but which we do not want to have. When we get those signals from our body we need to pay attention and think about what might be going on and how we are going to deal with it. The more we are in dread or feeling overwhelmed by what lies ahead the more we need to pay attention to ourselves. It could be that the imminent conversation is hitting a sore spot in our own psyche and that is causing us to be in dread rather than anything inherent in the conversation necessarily or, of course, it could be that the conversation itself will be difficult of its very nature.
The other day a friend approached me looking for help with a forthcoming “difficult conversation”. It is a conversation that many couples may need to have. My friend is divorced and in another relationship and she and her partner have different parenting styles. Recently Dad , who was absent from the scene, returned, causing my friend’s partner to become very angry and frustrated. The child who is in fear of her Dad disappearing again is now wondering if she should go and live with Dad so as to anchor him down. Partner got exceedingly angry at this suggestion and said some nasty things about the Dad in front of the child. My friend needs to have a “difficult conversation”.
How might she approach this conversation? On analysis it becomes clear that the partner has an authoritarian style of parenting. This would mirror his experience of parenting growing up and he has little experience of his own other than what he is now acquiring. My friend’s style is more authoritative or democratic. Many parents have different styles of parenting and it is not the end of the world but it does need to be recognized when it occurs. An authoritarian style sees discipline as exceedingly important and the parental word is law. An authoritative style takes account of the child’s wishes and tries to establish dialogue. It is important not to confuse an authoritative style with a permissive style. In the permissive style there is very little discipline and the demarcation lines between parent and child are blurred. That is not the case in authoritative. An authoritative parent is very clear that they are the parent but they are prepared to consult and look for consensus in a way that the authoritarian parent is not.
Once we have established where the tension lies and then looked at the particular problem that has arisen, we can look at how we might have this conversation. First of all, my friend need to remember that her partner was prepared to be a father to her daughter when her real father was not around and as such he played a vital role in helping to restore the child’s self esteem. She also needs to walk a mile in his shoes and understand why he might be feeling hurt and angry when he hears that the child now thinks she should live with her Dad. Then she needs to reflect on what happens to us when we are overwhelmed by emotions. We get flooded. The frontal lobe of our brains shuts down and we react in one of two ways, fight or flight. Literally we can attack or run away. A rational response is not possible for us when we are in that state. It is what a colleague of mine calls the primordial soup and when we are in it, we are not rational beings. A person in this position may use very intemperate language. Clearly, my friend’s partner was flooded and used intemperate language. It is helpful to understand that nature of that response so that my friend can then approach her partner from a compassionate and understanding perspective. This approach will improve the possibilities of having a successful conversation.
Should my friend try and change his style of parenting and move him to her way of thinking? She may have issues with his parenting style but it is a fact that many children grow up successfully in houses where the parents had very different approaches to parenting. What she needs to ensure is that he does not make negative comments about her Father to the child or in front of her. When my friend spoke to me about this she said that if he did not stop this behaviour then she would have to ask him to move out as she could not allow her daughter to be damaged. I was pretty sure if she communicated this to her partner the conversation would not go well. Men, in my experience, do not respond well to ultimata and women tend to be overly fond of them. Apart, however, from gender differences, people as a rule will understand requests as demands if they hear themselves being blamed by the language being used or if they suspect that if they do not comply, they will be punished. Sometimes you do all of the above and the other party still says that they think they were in the right and they are not sure they want to or can comply with what you are requesting. What do you do then? Well what you don’t want to do is challenge their failure to comply with your request because if you do, then they will quite rightly perceive that you were, in fact, making a demand and not a request. So a simple statement like, “Ok, I will leave it with you and perhaps we might talk about it again later in the week when we both have had time to digest this conversation” should suffice or if you are feeling energetic you might go right back to understanding and empathy again. Marshall Rosenberg in his book “Non Violent Communication” says that “Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy-our strong need for choice”. We all need to reflect very deeply on this statement. If you have conversations with your children which consist of demands and I know I do that myself particularly when I am stressed or in a hurry, their lack of cooperation and useful response may be explained by the fact that instinctively they feel their autonomy is being threatened. And, taking that a step further, if that is an instinctive reaction, then how much time and energy have we wasted and continue to waste on totally useless and frustrating communication? Rosenberg goes even further with this when he says that even when we talk to ourselves in the language of “should” such as “I should have known better” we are already inside ourselves reacting to the “internal tyranny” of the “should”.
In any event, I am not sure that we can ever change anyone else. The only person we can really change is ourselves but I do think if we make an honest attempt to understand another’s point of view then we can reach understandings and accommodations if not outright changes. Once she has truly listened to how he might feel and empathised with it then she might tell him that her daughter’s self esteem is tied up with her relationship with her Father and that when he attacks her Father, he attacks her. She might explain to him that even though her Dad might only spend a short time with his daughter every weekend, that time was worth as much to her daughter as a whole week spent with her Mum no matter how unfair that might seem. And finally she might look to build a fail safe device so that neither of them would fall into the trap of losing their temper around the child again and saying things that they would regret. Approached like this it is likely that her partner, while he might not initially agree, would start to hear her. A fail safe device might be something like “this is a little overwhelming” as a reminder that we are moving into the danger zone. If you can both agree something like that as an alert to each other it is a very useful safety valve for both of you both in parenting and even between each other when one of you may be pushing the other too hard without necessarily realizing or appreciating the effect you are having.
The most important thing to remember when you have to have a difficult conversation is that no matter how well you prepare sometimes things can take an awkward turn and you might find yourself locked into a row without even realising how you got there. So, give yourself a break and try again. It is not a race. These things take time and ,occasionally, you have to take the scenic route a few times before you arrive. When I was learning how to mediate it took me a while to realise that I did not necessarily have to progress nicely along a path ticking off each marker as I passed. It was very nice when a mediation went that way but the markers were essentially teaching and memory devices. You needed to know them and try and make sure you included them in the process as a way of marking progress but conversations are not generally conducted in a linear progression and sometimes the person telling their story needs to tell it more than once so that you sometimes find yourself going around in a circle. This is all perfectly normal. And so it is with difficult conversations, sometimes they won’t go exactly to plan but as long as you and your partner are listening to one another and appreciative of each other, you almost can’t go wrong.

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