One beautiful morning my toddler was playing in his Cozy Coupe toy car when it was time for me to take him to playgroup. He was having a great time playing, and when I told him it was time to go to playgroup, he (quite cutely but determinedly) insisted, “No, it is not time to go to playgroup.” I saw a possible tantrum coming and recalled the guidance of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who explained that, to a child, his toy ship is as complete a reality as a real ship is to a wealthy merchant. When either ship is taken away, it is a tragedy to its owner. So instead of taking my son’s words at face value, I quickly thought about what was underlying his thoughts. I realized that he was just enjoying his Cozy Coupe, and that the best thing I could do was to validate and embrace his reality. I asked him if he wanted me to put gas into his car so it would work better. He smiled brightly. Within 30 seconds he was parking the car by the house and reaching his hand into mine so we could go to playgroup.
The approach I used to defuse my toddler’s resistance is a common style of mediation, which I like to call the emotional embrace. One of the reasons I am fond of mediation is because it is so relevant to calming everyday situations. A screaming toddler, a standoffish coworker, or a suddenly emotionally-distant spouse present challenging situations that can often be solved with techniques that form the very core of mediation.
Let us back up for a moment and consider, “What is mediation?”
Too often, people mistake this word for “meditation.” While both can be used to achieve serenity, mediation uses common Torah values to resolve conflict by deescalating and delving to the essence of the other person’s interests.
A core principle of mediation is that people seem to develop a position which may be at odds with those around them. This creates conflict. In the case of my toddler, he wanted to play, while I wanted to take him to playgroup. But the underlying interest is often something that we can readily identify with and cater to on some level. Feelings like loss, fear, isolation, failure, and vulnerability drive all kinds of positions and behaviors. Those behaviors can be offensive. Sometimes people lash out verbally, or they distance themselves emotionally. We might be very put off and tempted to respond in kind. Responding in kind would surely escalate the situation unnecessarily. By appreciating what is underlying a behavior, we can better respond in an appropriately nurturing and calming way.
Sometimes a normally cordial coworker suddenly becomes sullen or verbally caustic. I was once in a post office where one of the clerks was being short-tempered with the customers. She responded to every question impatiently, saying loudly, “If only people would just read the posted instructions.” As the line snaked towards the service desk, many of us were becoming uncomfortable. The emotional environment started to feel polluted.
I give credit to the woman ahead of me in line. When it was her turn, she approached this clerk with a gentle, understanding smile. She said, “I just want to thank you for being here this morning. I know some days are hard. We really appreciate your being here and helping us.”
I was amazed at the transformation. The clerk clearly had been bothered by something. Maybe it was work related, or maybe a close family member had been hospitalized. She was clearly dealing with something, and this public forum was not the place to tease that out. But the kind words of appreciation expressed by this customer acknowledged that, although the clerk might not have been in the mood to be at work that day, she did a wonderful thing by coming. The clerk heard that she was truly appreciated, and it made such a difference.
The husband-wife setting is probably the most common example of the need to embrace rather than distance. Sometimes, a child or a spouse will withdraw or be terribly distracted due to stresses they are dealing with. The natural inclination is to reciprocate and tune them out too. But a deeper look at what is really going on brings us to recognize that the state of distraction is an appeal for love, attention, and understanding. A simple question like, “Do you want your space right now, or would you like to talk?” can well provide the support the spouse or child needs. Instead of entering a cycle of emotional retaliation, we can use the opportunity to affirm how much a loved one really means to us.
By seeing situations as opportunities to act wisely and courageously, we can provide those close to us with an emotional embrace, even when they are distancing themselves or being antagonistic. Such moments are moments of greatness, opportunities for us to exercise our free choice, to chart a path of pleasantness and support, thus creating blessings in our relationships.