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.

By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.