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Posted by Jacinta Gallant on July 29, 2020
In Collaborative Practice, we have to manage the financial, practical and deeply emotional aspects of separation in order to help our clients reach workable and meaningful agreement. Our clients are often strongly defensive and feel challenged in ways that threaten their very identities. Their behavior can seem demanding, conflictual and “unreasonable”. When we try to help them see things from a different perspective, or use active listening to acknowledge the strong feelings, it is often not enough to calm the conflict. What the heck is going on and how can we help?!
Separation deeply affects our clients’ relational values and they are feeling threatened and judged – by themselves, each other and the many people who are trying to help. Think about it: When you are feeling judged, how do you react?
If we are to deliver a client-centered process that enhances our clients’ abilities to focus on what matters and to make good decisions for their futures, we need to be aware that we, just like everyone else, bring our judgments and assumptions to our cases. Clients pick up on these judgments, and defend against our efforts to help.
Trying to direct, guide or tell someone anything when they are feeling judged and defensive is ineffective and sometimes leads to a further escalation of conflict.
A shift from judgment to curiosity is vital
Dr. Megan Price explains it this way in an article published in Revista Mediacion Journal: (available in Spanish and English online)
Researchers have been studying the effects of both being curious –of asking questions and wondering– and the effects of being on the receiving end of curiosity –of being wondered about. What they are finding is that when we are wondered about and when we feel understood by others, transformative shifts take place. Three decades ago, Prilleltelsky and Lobel (1987) … discovered that when individuals have the experience of another’s understanding of them … three emotions predominate: satisfaction, security and tension relief. These emotions are the opposite of the anxiety, fear and stress that accompany threat. When we feel understood, we relax and we open up; we make connections that feel good, ease threat, and temper defense.
Part of this is due to the fact that people have an inherent desire for self-disclosure. According to Tamir and Mitchell, 30-40% of conversation communicates personal experiences and feelings. Through a series of five studies, they showed what people have experienced for ages – that sharing about ourselves with others has intrinsic value. In fact, self-disclosure is associated with the reward and social bonding centers of our brains and “may serve to sustain the behaviors that underlie the extreme sociality of our species”. On the flip side, when we do not have the opportunity to self disclose and as a result feel misunderstood, the experience is associated with negative affect and social pain. This is particularly true in conflict.
So, if curiosity calms, we need to do more of it. For our own sakes as well as for our clients!
We need to ask better, and more authentically curious questions, and not to assume what the answer might be.
Practice this in very day life.
Notice when you are leaning toward judgment or assumption.
Pause. Reflect. Wonder. Ask.