Suited to a T - Meditation and Mediation

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It is a joke among mediators that we are mistaken for meditators. Only an extra “t” stands between the two words. But, beyond this superficial similarity, the principles of mindfulness meditation and mediation share more in common than similar spelling. Both disciplines seek insight and awareness, both depend on attentiveness.

Mindfulness is the western world’s version of eastern religions’ awareness. In some branches of Buddhism, including Taoism and experiential Prajna, or meditation, awareness is known as zazen. Zazen, “an awakening,” is achieved through the practice of zen. Being awake to each moment allows us to be fully present and attentive to ourselves and those around us. According to mindfulness teachings, this calm awareness opens our hearts and frees us of judgments so that we can find kinship with all beings. Through mindfulness we can find peace within, create harmony in our communities and balance in our environment. The rewards for mindfulness are compassion, openness, and clarity - the three hallmarks of transformative mediation.

When mediators meet with disputing parties, we are privileged to be let into our clients’ lives when they may be most vulnerable. As mediators we must be alert to every nuance of their interaction so that by connecting with them, we can help them to make connections that will move them forward. Paying close attention to words, body language, the storyline, the slightest changes in facial expressions, allows us to read all of the signals in the room, to collect all of the information available to help the mediation participants more fully express themselves. Our mindful attention to what is going on in the room gives us access to deeper insight so that we can help those involved identify all of their choices.

Mindfulness must be nurtured daily. It is not an innate trait that we are born with. To be mindful during a prolonged and intense conversation takes focus and mental preparation. A mediator friend of mine pauses deliberately to center himself before leaving his office to greet mediation clients in the lobby. He explains that he uses this moment to remind himself of why he is a mediator. On the credenza in his office he keeps another reminder, a framed copy of the Prayer of St. Francis. It begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

To be mindful mediators, each of us must find our own place of centeredness before entering the mediation room. For some of us it will be a mindfulness practice through yoga or meditation, prayer, or simple breath work. Whatever it is, our intentional practices connect us to ourselves so that we can better connect with others. The takeaway is that mindfulness awakens our hearts and minds to the myriad opportunities for peace that each moment in a mediation may offer.

To read more about Mindfulness Meditation
To read the Prayer of St. Francis

Going to the 'Uncomfortable Place'

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The principles of mediation are practiced daily all around us: in classrooms and boardrooms, in homes and on streets. People find themselves in conflict and rather than “turn tail and beat a hasty retreat” or, worse, “slug it out, mano-a-mano” they go to that uncomfortable place and speak the truth to one another. This thought was brought home to me last weekend as I found myself in the middle of a family drama/conflict, and also, as I listened to the words of Barack Obama in his address to Notre Dame’s graduating class of 2009. My own story first.

My beloved great aunt turned 90 this month, and to commemorate the event she self-published her memoir. This was no schlock thrown together manuscript. She labored for 3 years and wrote a powerful story beneath a beautiful, professionally designed cover. No controversy here. The problem arose when she approached my son and his fiancée, in my presence, and, by way of explaining her choice to inscribe the book to my son alone, said to his fiancée, “Darling, I didn’t put your name in the book because you’re not married yet, and you never know how these things will go.” If she’d stopped there it might have been okay. She continued to explain that she inscribed a book to another son AND his wife, because the wife had been in the family so long and they shared a history together. I was certain I saw a flicker of pain across my soon to be daughter-in law’s face, but she recovered quickly and said, “Of course, it’s fine that my name isn’t in the book.”

What to do. The conflict grew in my heart and mind until it had taken on a life of its own. I needed to say something. Three days later over our weekly lunch, I broached the subject. I practiced what I’d say ahead of time. I chose my words carefully so that they wouldn’t polarize. That moment as I started the process – the difficult talk – time seemed to slow down. The noise of the restaurant disappeared. We were in the zone…that place where real connection happens. My aunt was both surprised and appalled that her words had hurt. She teared up and explained her intentions and sought my advice about how to remedy the situation. I left that lunch grateful for our conversation and, surprisingly, for the conflict that had led me to it, for confronting the conflict had connected me to my aunt in a profound way. My reward for talking about something uncomfortable was that I experienced in a new way my aunt’s deep core of kindness. Only days before I had been furious with her!

This last weekend President Obama also demonstrated the power of going to that uncomfortable place to discuss hard things. Delivering the Notre Dame commencement address amidst controversy for his pro-choice stance on abortion, President Obama spoke to his critics in the audience. His words were conciliatory and visionary. He described a defining moment in his Illinois Senate campaign when a doctor wrote to him and said he couldn’t vote for a candidate who used inflammatory words in the abortion debate. On his campaign website Obama had pledged to "fight right wing idealogues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” Obama referenced this story to underscore his mistake in framing his position with polarizing words. The doctor had written: “I do not ask that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words." Obama changed the wording on his website and vowed to use fair-minded words from that day forward.

If you read President Obama’s speech in its entirety (the link is posted below) you will be struck by his willingness to go to that uncomfortable place to talk about difficult things, “without fudging.” His speech highlights the principles of mediation that common folk put into practice everyday - communicating in order to further understanding, listening in order to consider different viewpoints, finding points of agreement to seek common ground, all for the purpose of finding peaceful ways to settle conflict. Here’s the takeaway: It is not always possible to walk away from a conflict-based conversation feeling (as I did with my aunt) a deeper bond from working through our misunderstandings. But we can leave these conversations better able to understand one another, and when we're lucky, grateful to have made a real connection, both palpable and profound.

For President Obama's Notre Dame Commencement Address

How the "Sieve Model" Sifts Out Court Battles

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In the 2009 Spring issue of the ACR Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Robert Silver and Deborah Coe Silver write about a new program in the 20th Judicial Circuit of the State of Florida called “The Sieve Model.*” According to the article, in the state of Florida where the divorce rate is the tenth highest in the nation at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 couples (Iowa averages 3.1 divorces per 1,000**), the Hon. Hugh E. Starnes asked family law and mental health professionals to work together to develop an alternative to custody court battles.

The program works like this: When Florida couples with children begin the divorce process, their needs are “sifted through a sieve,” or filtered through a series of least to most invasive processes with the hope that disputing parents will devise their own parenting agreement once they understand the costs and emotional damage associated with going to court. The Sieve Process takes the disputing couple through a series of steps, including surveys, parent education classes, mental health coaching, mediation, reality training, etc., with each step incrementally increasing both the tactics and individualized attention directed at the disputing parties. The parents may opt out of the program at any point by devising their own parenting plan.

The last stages in the process are particularly costly and emotionally trying for all involved, especially the children. For example, the third to the last step, a “focused parenting evaluation” takes up to two months, costs $1,500, and involves interviews with the children as well as other assessments to evaluate a particular issue that the couple cites as blocking an agreement. These are often cases where substance abuse is a safety concern. The final step in the process takes the couple to court for a “comprehensive custody evaluation,” a 9 month ordeal that costs $5,000 . Experts believe this phase may cause irreparable damage to the children placed in the middle of warring parents. The Sieve program exists to protect the families from this last, difficult measure when possible.

The Silvers draw several conclusions based on the early success of the Sieve Model. They find that substance abuse issues in a divorce often cause protracted conflict. One of the benefits of screening in the first stages of the process is that early substance abuse detection leads to a better outcome for the family. Similarly, when even one parent is receptive to expert guidance, there is a greater chance that the entire family will have reduced conflict. Here’s the takeaway, the success of the Sieve program demonstrates that helpful and supportive professional intervention can lead couples toward finding their own solutions. Family mediation is an important step in the Sieve Model. Rather than expend energy blaming and fighting, divorcing couples redirect their energy toward working together constructively in the best interests of their children.

*The Sieve Model: An Innovative Process for Identifying Alternatives to Custody Evaluations (p 333-348) by Robert B. Silver and Deborah Coe Silver, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Spring 2009. This article is available to ACR registered members who may log in to read it, or for purchase. click here.

**For further information about the national divorce rate click here