Bob Morris had an anger problem, in his marriage and his life. Could mediation—typically used to resolve conflict as an alternative to court—turn things around?
The security line to get into the hulking municipal building in downtown Brooklyn has a bride in it. She’s wearing a short ivory lace dress and platform shoes, carrying a modest bouquet, and her bearded, bespectacled groom is in a baggy blue suit. They look fresh and excited about this momentous morning in their lives. I should be happy for them. But I’m peeved, not just at how slowly they’re putting their stuff into bins, which keeps me waiting, but at the idea of anyone looking so happy about marriage. “Move it, lovebirds,” I mutter. “This isn’t the Circle Line cruise!”
I’m a half hour late for the first day of training at the New York Peace Institute, a nonprofit that provides mediation for parties in conflict—employees and bosses, tenants and landlords, siblings—who are either under court order or trying to avoid ending up in front of a judge. I’m not a course taker or a self-helper, but it’s become clear lately, after too many blowups with my neighbors, family, and friends, that I need better tools to help me get along in a world with people in it. Then there’s my marriage. I tend to see in starkest black or white, rush to judgment, and get in fights that leave my voice raw from yelling and the dog hiding under the couch. Klonopin isn’t the answer. Therapy is too much about the past, and marriage counseling is a can of worms that neither my spouse, Ira, nor I has the time for, especially with me in Manhattan and him commuting to a big new job in Washington, DC. I came across mediation searching online with terms like conflict and relationship. “Conflict is a part of life,” the website said. “It does not have to escalate.” I showed Ira. His face lit up. “It sounds perfect,” he said. Then we proceeded to have a fight about installing a rug.
“You hate me, don’t you?!” I found myself bellowing.
“I do when you behave like this,” Ira said.
“You make me behave like this!”
“Nobody makes you do anything.” He had a weary, exasperated tone that got me thinking we were through. I’m in desperate need of a gray area if this marriage is to survive.
I jog from security into an elevator and then into a room of 25 people listening to a very pregnant instructor. Behind her, there’s a large drawing of a sheep with a line through it. I assume it means don’t be complacent. “The skills you’ll learn here will teach you to help others in conflict, but a side effect is that it will help with your own relationships,” the instructor is saying. “How many of you would say you’re good listeners?”
In the room with grayish-green walls and slate-gray carpet (a very gray area indeed), many hands go up. Not mine. Controlling people don’t listen; they script. When someone’s talking, I’m usually fashioning a response before hearing a full sentence. It’s like being a talk-show host 24-7, always angling to produce the most potent observation or the snappiest comeback.
“If you talk a lot, please be mindful that others will want to share as well,” the instructor says. Mindful. Buddhist-speak. Also Ira-speak. He tells me all the time I’m not mindful enough. “You have to be more mindful loading the dishwasher,” he says. A couple of times a plate has gotten nicked, nothing major to me, and it’s not like the stuff is family-heirloom quality. It infuriates him. Then it infuriates me that he’s so infuriated, and another altercation ensues and ruins another day. “But why is it so damned important how I load the dishwasher?” I once barked.
“I can’t stand your chaos,” he said. “And it hurts my feelings when you don’t load the dishes carefully.” I wanted to laugh, but he was serious. He has an emotional relationship to his things and a need for order that makes me want to rebel, then riot.
“Everyone, choose a partner,” the instructor is saying.
We’re to tell the stranger next to us who we think he or she is, based on appearance. He’ll do the same, and then we’ll each report our findings to the class. What surprises me, as I listen to the others, is the wealth of detail. This one is saying where that one went to high school, and that one’s talking about the other’s pets, kids, dreams. All I report is that my partner is a Manhattan lawyer with an odd name because his parents are iconoclasts. I’d been too preoccupied drawing my own conclusions to probe much further.
To glean the most information and perspective, the instructor suggests we ask open-ended, encouraging questions. The bottom line is listening—active, empathetic listening. Which rings a bell.
“You don’t listen,” Ira said the other night. “It drives me crazy.”
I know he’s right, and lately it’s gotten worse, in part because he has a lot to say about the stresses of his new job, and in part because the logistics of maintaining a bi-city relationship are epic. “Write down how you felt in a recent conflict,” the instructor says.
I scribble without thinking: “Demoralized. Frustrated. Hopeless.” But where we civilians consider such fraught encounters disastrous and debilitating, mediators see them as opportunities for growth through collaboration. It’s their job to facilitate conversation between disputing parties. That requires listening with absolute neutrality, with no rush to judge or impose fixes. It also means, crucially, letting combatants devise their own solutions, which increases the potential that the solutions will last.
In class, we spend hours learning about listening levels. There’s filtered listening, when we hear based only on our own experiences and biases. Then there’s empathetic, when we absorb the context of the conversation and how the other party is emotionally affected by it. Mediators also listen for comments that may lay the groundwork for reconciliation. “We used to be such good friends,” for instance. Keeping eye contact, neural mirroring (smiling when someone smiles, nodding when they nod), validating what another says, and at times repeating it so they hear it in a new way—these are the basic methods mediators use.
But they can be employed when you’re half of a couple, too. Obviously, it’s far more difficult in the heat of battle, but just being made aware of a more evolved form of listening gets me thinking that maybe I don’t have to be held hostage by my feelings during every single fight, even though I’ve always believed my feelings are of tantamount importance. “Take yourself out of it as much as possible,” the instructor says as class winds down on day one. She points to the crossed-out sheep sign. “Remember, it’s not about you.”
“I thought that sign meant don’t be like a sheep,” I say.
“That’s a ewe,” she says. “It’s a joke—not about you. Get it?” Yes, I do, but when you’ve spent years either vigorously defending yourself or trying to impress with brilliant solutions, how to dial yourself down? “There’s an egolessness to which we aspire,” the instructor says with a calm that annoys me far more than it should. “We’re asking you to ignore yourself.”
“They’re trying to tone down my thoughts,” I howl at Ira by phone that night, worried that I’m neither toned down nor calm enough to finish the class. “It’s really scary. They want me to be some kind of Stepford person.”
He doesn’t reply for a beat. Then he does: “That sounds great.”
I’m shocked. We both laugh.
As a human interaction, mediation is as old as the first parent who made peace between siblings. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that alternative dispute resolution programs began to provide options to courtroom hearings in this country. Over the past decade or so, the number of mediation centers has risen from about 150 to 550, with roughly 20,000 volunteers handling nearly 100,000 cases annually. The programs report that agreements are reached 85 percent of the time, and participant satisfaction with the process is higher still. Mediation is increasingly used to negotiate peaceful, inexpensive divorces, not to mention global conflicts.
Peter Pearson, a cofounder of the Couples Institute in Northern California, teaches the gospel of listening, even though he knows that when the amygdala (the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response) gets activated, it’s nearly impossible to think rationally or maintain composure. “We teach couples to be curious, not furious,” he says. “When you feel attacked, defending yourself only throws gas on the fire, so it’s better to try to ask, ‘Can you tell me more?’ because even if you feel you’d rather hang yourself than hear more, it actually calms the other person down.”
Elizabeth Weil, the author of No Cheating, No Dying, a recent memoir about improving her marriage, points out that “there’s a difference between actively listening and actually caring. Caring can be hard when you have your own needs and emotions. And if you’ve been married for a while, you probably aren’t as fascinated by your spouse as you were in the beginning. So you do have to remake the decision to listen.” I hear her.
As the training rolls on, we learn more about how to solicit information from adversaries. “Reframing” is used to restate an issue more positively, and “appreciative inquiry” means noting something that sounded conciliatory, however minor. “Future casting,” aka brainstorming ideal outcomes, can help move things forward. Then there’s a powerful tool that sounds as simple as it is hard to achieve while fighting: silence. “It’s like what Miles Davis said,” one instructor lectures. “It isn’t the notes, it’s the space between them. All kinds of things happen when there’s silence.” This is a revelation for me; I can’t wait to try it with Ira.
At month’s end, with the course completed, we’re driving from DC to New York. He’s had a tough week; I’m strung out by traffic. But something else is bugging me. He’s refusing to take a few extra days with me in Europe, where I’ll be staying in a five-star hotel on assignment. I can’t imagine being on holiday in such luxury without him. “You really can’t fly in Thursday instead of Friday?”
“Bob, I told you no. Why do you keep asking?”
Before mediation training I would’ve shot back that our marriage is as important as his new job, which would’ve gotten both our amygdalas firing. Now I calmly ask more questions. One reveals something that I suspect might be changeable in his schedule, a sliver of possibility. I ask more, but delicately.
“I can’t change anything,” he says.
I say nothing; I just let him think. “Well, it’s almost two months away,” he says after a moment. “So maybe I can look into it.”
The next day, he tells me he got us the extra weekend together. It’s wonderful, and also a little spooky, to use a kind of covert manipulation that gets me what I want without as much as a yelp.
Later that week, I practice mediation skills with two friends in troubled relationships. My usual tack has been to make blunt observations and peremptory suggestions, which I suspect only incites more antagonism. But now I let my friends unburden themselves, then reflect back, hoping to give them a chance to think. Do we solve anything? I don’t know. But they both follow up to thank me for the help. I can’t remember when that’s ever happened.
I’d like to say that mediation training has made me the perfect husband, friend, family member. But I’m still an irascible opinionator. After talking my niece through her issues with her parents, I got into a brawl with her about politics that left her in tears. And of course, Ira and I still go at each other. But when we do, I find myself listening for what’s beneath his frustration, which can lead me to figuring out why I’m upset too. While it takes discipline and focus, it’s worth it.
But then, we’re lucky. We remain committed to our relationship, so much so that a month after my training, Ira lets me drag him to a one-day Peace Institute course called “Playing With Fire: Making Difficult Conversations Easy.” “Conflict is like the weather,” the instructor says. “It’s a fact of life, but if you’re prepared, you can lessen its impact.” During hard times, he recommends not making demands on each other and ticks off ways to ask for what you want without raising defenses, even if it’s simply by saying “could you” rather than “you need to.”
Mostly, what I learn in the course is how much I admire Ira. The truth about our quarreling is that it comes out of caring. At one point, the instructor shows a picture of two rams knocking horns. It’s supposed to represent conflict. But those horns together make the shape of a heart. I’m going to remember that the next time I fight with anyone I love.
Reprinted from the September 2012 edition of ELLE Magazine. Thanks, ELLE!