I’m privileged to be writing this segment of the Anti-Antagonist while I’m sitting in Upstate New York looking out an the autumnal beauty of Lake George. The events of the trip have given me pause to think, once again, about something at the heart of the work for every mediator, conflict coach and, for that matter, lawyer: we are working with clients who are typically at a point of dramatic change in their lives. And, change is easier for some than others.
We took a drive from Lake George into the High Peaks yesterday. As I finished a coffee at the ADK Café in Keene and was recording into my high tech phone my joy of being in the mountains, a large red signal flashed onto the dash of my car: Electrical system is failing. I’d had an unexpected major difficulty with my prior car a few years ago, so the first thing that flashed into my mind, now, was one big NO! That led to calls to my dealer; calls to the on-service phone contact for my car model; calls to the hotel to see if someone could help us get back to where we were staying; all followed by a long drive with the tow driver on his route to getting the car to Albany; and then a myriad of calls about how to manage all the pieces of life given there would be no way to get information about the car until Monday morning.
Frankly, in the context of life’s whole picture, the event honestly wasn’t monumental. However, in flashes came disbelief, shock, anger, frantic efforts to find solutions, and my inability to listen to anyone with a supportive suggestion. Finally, as the hours went on from the recesses of somewhere, I found my ability to develop some optional plans and steps to put them in place, so I would have choices early Monday about how to get home to my client schedule and other obligations.
Most of the time when conflict is wrapping itself around our lives the conflict has started at a deeper place inside us. And, generally, that conflict is seeded by an interaction or event dictating a change in our lives. As with many of you, I’ve faced life changes far greater than having to get my car towed 150 miles down from a mountain roadside: the loss of parents, adjustments in my work life. Still, I only began to experience the disruption of my precious weekend get-away as not so monumental the next day as I finalized some alternative plans and had an ability to put the whole car scene within a larger context.
And, that is what so often happens for our clients. Something that within the context of life doesn’t look big to others—such as trial judges, or perhaps for a few minutes even to we mediators or lawyers—in the life of our client is experienced as an enormous event that rocks their lives. For example, in divorce and custody mediation, a client will often express great frustration, even rage, because the other parent never seems to pick up the children without being at least 30 minutes late. To one spouse it’s only thirty minutes and it’s small potatoes compared with everything that took place during the day, or the week. For the spouse who’s waiting, though, it means a last-minute need to alter plans, the embarrassment of having to give yet one more explanation to friends who are waiting, and the emotional upset of having to try to explain to the children that the plans are going to shift a little (and to offer that explanation in a way that doesn’t undermine the children’s relationship with their other parent).
Our work is about helping people move on with their lives. We do our work because we want to make a difference. It can be hard, at times, not to push people to move faster than they are able to move. The solution to someone else’s conflict seems to be, in certain instances, apparent to us. Many lawyers during the course of their careers permit the goal of winning a case to overshadow their obligation to first understand what it is a client honestly wants and needs. Mediators, if driven to get to a resolution, might easily overlook the real intentions clients are expressing.
My trip to Upstate New York has compelled me, yet again, to remember the work I do requires deep patience: patience with my clients, patience with my colleagues, and patience with myself.
People in the midst of a conflict are constantly faced with the need to live simultaneously with both the time required to think clearly and the demands placed on them to take action. It’s an amazing challenge to balance those points that can feel so oppositional. Finding a way to meet that challenge, however, is a critical key to maintaining one’s sense of equilibrium.
James Alfini describes the development of mediation within Florida's legal community and state bar.By James J. Alfini