Feelings: Suggestions for a New Paradigm & The Automatic Reaction Mechanism

I want to talk about feelings. As mediators, most of us think that allowing people to express their feelings is not only advisable but maybe crucial for a successful mediation. I know we all have had training in active listening to allow people to express their feelings.


I have done a lot of thinking about feelings and our ability to work with feelings. I want to share some thoughts with you about two things that I think are present, not so much consciously, that derail us or disempower us in our work with feelings.


The first one is the paradigm (or context or model) that we have in our culture to explain feelings from. In Western culture we relate to feelings out of a complicated model…not really…I’m being sarcastic here. It’s actually a simple “good-bad” model.


If you take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, and another line across the top so you have two columns – label one “good” and the other “bad”. We can readily list what we all agree are the good feelings and bad feelings.


Some “good “feelings are – happy, excited, love, comfort, contentment, joy, compassion, excitement, satisfied, serenity, comfort, security, recognition.


Bad feelings: anger, hate, depression, fear, insecurity, helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, and boredom.


Notice how we all have this idea that there are good feelings and bad feelings, and we know what they are. I’m going to suggest that the way we operate with feelings has everything to do with the fact that we operate out of this good-bad model.


I’m also going to suggest that the good-bad model has some disempowering consequences. One of the consequences is that we try to lead a life where we get as many good feelings as possible and try to avoid as many of the bad ones as possible. So we have a whole group of feelings that we try to avoid like the plague.


The second thing is that when we operate out of the good-bad model of feelings, whenever are having a “bad” feeling we never just have a bad feeling. Because there is a “bad” feeling, we also have one of these three feelings with it:


1. “I’m not OK.” For example, when I feel insecure, how am I feeling about myself? Not OK. Same thing if I am afraid. I feel afraid and not OK.


2. “You’re not OK.”


3. “This situation is not OK”….and usually, “I’m out of here.”


We never practice just BEING WITH a “bad” feeling. In other words, just letting the feeling be there.


One way to practice being with a feeling is, for example, if you have fear. – instead of going to the library and taking out a book on ‘”How to Succeed for People Who Have _______ “ (whatever fear it is),” you could actually ask yourself, “where in my physical body am I having these sensations that I call fear?” Every feeling has physical sensations that are part of it. That’s how we know one feeling from another. Different physical sensations.


So I identify a sensitive feeling at the back of my neck and sort or a queasy feeling in my stomach. Instead of trying to make it disappear, like by taking a pill or developing a strategy to make it go away since it is “bad,” what if I just invited it to be there?


Has anyone had a feeling that has stayed there for years and years and never gone away? No, it seems to be in the nature of feelings that they are like clouds passing through the air but what we do sometimes is resist them. And when we resist the ones that we think are bad, they seem to stick around. On the other hand, when we can just let them be, they often let us be…and leave.


So there is this good-bad model for feelings that doesn’t give us practice in being with the “bad” feelings because we don’t like to have them around. That’s our training our whole lives. Your first grade teacher never said, “By the way, when you’re feeling bad, just be with that bad feeling a little while and see what that’s like.”


I also want to suggest another principle about feelings. Whatever feelings I don’t like having myself, I don’t like you having either. So if I can’t let myself get too angry, for example, I am not going to want you to get very angry either. So however I relate to the feelings “inside” of me is pretty much how I am going to relate to them “outside” of me. My ability to relate to that feeling will be the same no matter where it seems to come from…you or me.


Now, is there a better or more empowering model than the “good-bad” model? I want to tell you a little story here because it is what led me to an answer to that question.


One day, I got a call from a friend. He asked if I would be part of a two-person “Vision Team” that would determine the five-year plan for the future of some organization in the western PA area. Let’s pretend it was like Dale Carnagie. At the time when I looked at what I saw as leaders in that organization, and compared myself to them, I didn’t feel like I was at their level of effectiveness. So I said to my friend, “How much time will the job take.” (A diversionary tactic on my part). He said, “Kim we’re just looking for someone that’s a ‘yes’.” I asked, “Can I get back to you?” He said, “Yes.”


Then I took a look at what I thought about the leaders of that organization. They seemed to really have things put together. They are confident, bright and eloquent. When I did an honest self-assessment of myself, I thought, “Gee, sometimes I still feel insecure, or afraid of something. OK, sometimes I feel afraid, sometimes not whole and complete.” In short, I didn’t feel like I measured up.


Then I had this insight. Do I really think that successful people sometimes don’t feel afraid, insecure or angry? Of course they do. Two examples:


Someone interviewed Frank Sinatra and asked him, “Does it ever get old for you, to go out on the stage and sing the same song for the 10,000th time. And he said, ”Are you kidding? There’s never been a time when I didn’t walk out on stage that I wasn’t in terror that when I opened my mouth, the voice wouldn’t be there. “Something to that effect anyway.


I also remember one of the finest closing arguments I ever saw, by a trial lawyer. He gave his closing argument to the jury with his hands clasped behind his back standing very close to the jury, speaking in a very slow and quiet voice. I thought this was so eloquent and effective. Later I ran into a fellow who was clerking for this attorney when he gave that closing argument. He said, “I happen to know why that lawyer delivered this closing arguments like that. It was because his hands were shaking so much that he didn’t want the jury to see his hands shaking.”


It is so inspiring to realize that even people who are masters at their work sometimes have what we call “bad” feelings. And often the only difference between them and us is that they don’t let those feelings stop them. They didn’t get rid of those feelings; they learned that they can have those feelings and still do their work or pursue their dreams anyway.


If I can feel insecure or afraid and still get the job done…still be successful….then having those feelings wouldn’t mean I am not successful. What a novel idea! I can feel afraid and not successful and still be successful!


So I called up my friend and said, “I’m your guy.” But the “me” that called back was not the “me” he spoke to earlier.


And it was from that event that I saw what might be a better model for relating to feelings than the “good-bad” model.” I call it “The Wheel of Feelings” model.


Draw a circle on a piece of paper. The circle represents life as it continually unfolds moment to moment. A spinning wheel. And as life unfolds, the circumstances of life from one moment to the next seem to automatically evoke feelings in us. It’s as if we were juke boxes and the circumstances in one moment hit button “E-7” and suddenly I feel, say, happy. Then in the next moment the circumstances press button “A-2” and I am feeling depressed.


So we can just go around the circle and write the different feelings around the circle like the numbers around the face of a clock….joy, resentment, then the next moment maybe contentment, satisfaction, despair, loneliness, and happiness.


I can go to our list of “good” and “bad” feelings and list them all around the wheel.


Now why would the “Wheel of Feelings” model be a better model than the “good-bad” model?


Well, first of all, it supports the notion that a “whole and complete” human being is not just going to have half of the feelings (only the “good” ones). No, they will have the whole range or spectrum of feelings. What would it mean then if it was just part of our natural make-up as human beings to have ALL the feelings and not just the “good” ones?


Let me use an example to help answer that question. If it is part of the natural make-up of a chair to have 4 legs, then what does it mean that the chair has four legs? Well, if its part of its natural make-up, then the fact that it has 4 legs means:


It’s a whole and complete chair, or It means nothing. It’s just how chairs are made.


I bet that while we sat here for the last two hours nobody was getting upset over the fact that the chair had four legs. We all know that it is part of the make-up of chairs to have four legs.


Now, if it is part of the natural mechanism or make-up of a human being to have all of the feelings, what would it mean that in any given moment I was feeling, say, angry? Nothing! Another accurate response is: “it just means I’m feeling angry at this moment. A thjrd accurate answer would be: “I’m a whole and complete human being,” or “I’m a whole and complete human being who is feeling angry at the moment. “


This is related to the second big thing that I think gets in the way of our relating to feelings in a more effective way (the first being the “good-bad” model”) – that we automatically relate to our feelings as if they are TRUE. Know what I mean?


If I am feeling insecure for example, I don’t sit there thinking “Oh, this is an interesting feeling I am having right now….hmmm….feeling insecure…very interesting.” Nope. Because I relate to my feelings as if they were “the truth about me.”


When I feel insecure, I AM insecure. Same with anger. I don’t normally say, “I am having angry feelings toward you.” No, I say, “I AM ANGRY with you.” I become my feeling.


To me, this is all part of what I call the “Automatic Reaction Mechanism” that maybe we all have as part of our natural make-up as human beings. Here’s how that Automatic Reaction Mechanism works:


First, we perceive an event. By “event” I mean that someone did or said something or something happened. We see it or hear it or feel it.


Second, in the next nano-second after we perceive the event, we innocently and automatically have thoughts, opinions and conclusions about those events. You can add judgments, assessments, and interpretations to that list.


Third, in the nano-second after that, we relate to those thoughts, opinions, conclusions, etc. as “The Truth.” They then become the truth about the event, or about the other person, or about ourselves.


The “Automatic Reaction Mechanism” is always adding to what’s there. So we watch someone doing something and we think we know what they are doing. For example there is the famous Zen story that goes something like this. There are three monks of different ages standing on the hillside looking out at a farmer who is standing in his field. The youngest says, “Oh, the farmer is waiting for his cattle to come home.” The next youngest one says, “Oh the farmer is thinking about his cows coming home,” and the oldest one says, “No, the farmer is just standing there.”


This forming of opinions and conclusions goes on almost endlessly and we don’t think about it. We don’t wake up in the morning to have this conversation with ourselves. “Gee this morning I know how I’m going to relate to my boss. I have an idea! I’ll relate to him as if he is a jerk.” No, if I had one or more bad experiences with my boss, he IS a jerk! And it is not a thought for me. It is THE TRUTH for me. In our culture we call this process “knowing” our boss.


Another example…this one actually happened to me. I’m driving down Interstate 79. It has 2 lanes northbound and southbound. There are two tractor-trailers in the right lane in front of me. I pull l out in the fast lane to pass them. I’m trying to get to my destination early enough to be on time for a court hearing.


As soon as I pull into the left lane, the tractor-trailer in front of me also pulls into the left lane. Now instead of passing the other truck it rides side by side. I’m doing every thing I can – flick my lights, blow my horn, thank the universe that I don’t have something like a dart gun to shoot his tire out, fortunately. I want to get by this truck and I can’t!


First, I “know” this driver is a guy. And I say to myself, “This guy is a jerk.” That is who I know him to be – who he is in my reality…a jerk. Now my “knowing” him gives me a very fixed way of relating of relating to him.


The people that I know as jerks – I have a particular relationship to them. It is usually characterized by what I would call non-relating. They are not the person I call up to share my happy moments. They are the people I avoid like the plague. And knowing someone as a jerk gives me a fixed way of relating to them. Like on a scale of 1 to 10, they are a “2” rather than a “10.”


And they probably realize at some level that I think they are a jerk. And that probably gives him a fixed way of relating to me. We have this unwritten agreement of how we are going to non-relate together. If someone asks me “Gee Kim, how’s your relationship with so-and-so? I say, “It’s fine, it’s OK.” Sure it is, just don’t look at the trail of bodies in my wake that I’ve cut out of life. But they are all jerks, so who cares?


Now this truck driver that is driving in front of me on Interstate 79, on a scale of 1 – 10 from jerk to saint – this truck driver was a 2. As we proceeded about ½ mile down the road the truck driver (the jerk) finally pulls around in front of the other truck and allows me to see the police car that would have caught me in a speed trap. Suddenly the driver, who was a 2, is now a 10! So we let the circumstances dictate to us automatically sometimes – because of the automatic mechanism of relating to our thoughts and feelings like the truth. Maybe it takes a little bit of reflection.


WE ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE IN RELATING TO OTHER PEOPLE. WE CAN EITHER RELATE TO THEM AS 2S …OR AS 10S ACTING LIKE 2S. AND THE DIFFERENCE IS HUGE. Grand Canyon-size huge. BECAUSE OUR CHOICE WILL GIVE US WHAT WORDS AND ACTIONS WE SAY OR TAKE NEXT. And they will be totally different depending on which one we choose.


By the way, it is not necessarily true that the person is a 10. BUT BY TREATING THEM AS A 10 ACTING LIKE A 2 RATHER THAN AS A 2, YOU HAVE CREATED THE SPACE FOR THAT PERSON TO GROW. AFTER ALL, WHAT IS THE CHANCE OF A 2 BECOMING A 10? NONE.


SOMETHING ELSE STARTS HAPPENING MAGICALLY WHEN YOU START TREATING PEOPLE LIKE 10S. NOT ONLY DO THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU GROW, BUT YOU GROW TOO.


Getting back to feelings. Some people who I regard as very wise, who have had enlightenment experiences, say that what we call bad or negative feelings – the reason they arise is that we judged something as “bad.”


So some event may have occurred and we had a thought, an opinion, a conclusion, an assessment, a judgment, or an interpretation about that event. And then, we innocently and automatically related to that thought as “The Truth.” What if our thought or conclusion about the event was “this is bad?” Once we relate to our thought “this is bad” or “this is not OK” or “I’m not OK,” or “You’re not OK” as “the truth” – how are we going to feel? Bad!


Once somebody does something, like not send you a birthday card, and you have this happen, say, 3 years in a row, you might conclude –“they don’t care about me” or “I’m not valued by them.” You begin to relate to that as THE TRUTH, and now it gives you a FIXED WAY OF RELATING TO THEM. How are you going to feel? Bad, upset.


THE PROBLEM WITH RELATING TO OUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AS IF THEY ARE THE TRUTH IS THAT IT DOESN’T LEAVE US OPEN TO THE POSSIBILITY THAT MAYBE WE ARE NOT RIGHT ABOUT THAT PERSON NOT LIKING, NOT RESPECTING, US. Maybe we are not right about our negative conclusions about other people, things that happened, or about ourselves. If they weren’t the truth, what would then be possible?


By the way, I am not saying that I think it is bad that we have what I call an “Automatic Reaction Mechanism.” I don’t. I think it is just part of our nature as human beings to have this mechanism. But I do think that it is very valuable, maybe invaluable, to be aware of it.


If we are aware of the “Automatic Reaction Mechanism” and how it works, then we can look at some really old negative conclusions that we may have adopted as “THE TRUTH” ABOUT OURSELVES from events that happened when we were much younger. Like when I struck out in my first little league game with my father watching. Can you guess what I concluded? Right: “I am not good at baseball.” Then, because that thought became “THE TRUTH” about me, I found other sports and hobbies to keep me busy.


Maybe an event happened and I concluded, “I am not OK” or “I am not loved” or “They don’t value me (or my opinions).” What if those old thoughts and feelings were not the truth about them or about me? What if they were just conclusions I made, quite reasonably, as a young child under those circumstances? What would then be possible?


I find it useful to practice just being with feelings that used to make me uncomfortable. I think about just letting them be there or about inviting them to be there. I find this to be a valuable practice.


Some folks don’t just invite the feeling to be there, they ask the feeling to increase or expand! Can you imagine being afraid and saying, “Oh, let me not only invite that fear in, let me try to increase the feeling and just be there with it.” Sometimes that can actually end up reducing the feeling, or at least increasing our ability to be with it. (By the way…I am not suggesting that you jump off a bridge to try to reduce a fear of heights! Please keep this all in perspective).


I want to spend a moment talking about anger. That is a key feeling that shows up sometimes in mediations because people are upset to a very high degree before they have an opportunity to vent. And before they have an opportunity to be heard. And I think a reason why we don’t have an ability to be with yelling and anger is because as children we had the experience that if somebody yells, then pain, fighting, or physical violence followed. I’m not suggesting this came from a parent or playmate.


It probably happened somewhere in our lives, with kids in the neighborhood or maybe at family gatherings. That was our experience of what happens when people start yelling. So we never developed a capacity (unless we had training, for example, in the transformative mediation model) to allow people to yell.


Maybe there is something valuable in realizing that people can actually yell and it doesn’t necessarily result in violence. And in finding that if you let people yell they can sometimes get it out of their system. And if we can do that, maybe we will find all that good stuff that Folger and Bush say underlies all of us… that can emerge when that anger is allowed to release. If we repress it, bang our hands on the table and say, “There will be no yelling here,” I’m not sure we are doing a service to anyone. Just because our comfort level doesn’t allow us to let people yell.


Now what does this have to do with mediation?


When I’m in mediation, it’s not that I don’t have opinions or conclusions about the people around the table. I have thoughts and feelings about them all the time. I might have a particular thought about one or more or the parties to the mediation or about the way it is going. And I say to myself, “I think this person is a 2.” Then I notice that thought and ask myself, “CAN I PUT THAT THOUGHT ASIDE FOR JUST A FEW MOMENTS SO I CAN STILL JUST BE WITH THEM AND LISTEN TO THEM WITHOUT THAT THOUGHT GETTING IN THE WAY?” YOU FIND OUT YOU CAN. THERE IS SOMETHING REALLY VALUABLE TO THAT.


IT IS ALSO VERY VALUABLE TO KNOW THAT WHEN YOU ARE HAVING A THOUGHT OR FEELING – “THIS ISN’T’ GOING TO SETTLE” – THAT THERE IS A DANGER IN RELATING TO THAT AS A TRUTH. WE NEED TO RECOGNIZE THAT IF WE RELATE TO THAT THOUGHT OR FEELING (OR BOTH) AS “THE TRUTH,” IT WILL BE LIKE THE KISS OF DEATH FOR THE CHANCES OF YOUR CASE SETTLING THE CASE (IF SETTLEMENT IS YOUR GOAL).


THAT IS ONE OF MY BIGGEST SECRETS I KNOW: UNLESS YOU HAVE TRAINING IN NOT RELATING TO YOUR THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS AND FEELINGS LIKE THE TRUTH, YOU ARE GOING TO GET SUCKED IN BY THEM LIKE WATER GOING DOWN THE DRAIN.


SOMEBODY IS GOING TO DO OR SAY SOMETHING AND YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE THE THOUGHT OR FEELING “THIS JUST ISN’T GOING TO WORK.” IT’S GOING TO BE IN YOUR HEAD LIKE THE TRUTH – AUTOMATICALLY. IF YOU ACT ON THAT – YOU’RE DEAD. AND YOU WILL HAVE AN INTERESTING STORY TO TELL YOUR FELLOW MEDIATORS ABOUT WHY THE CASE DIDN’T SETTLE. In reality maybe the case didn’t settle because you innocently and automatically pulled the plug on mediation when you didn’t have to.


Thank you for being here this evening and for allowing me to share these ideas with you.


                        author

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