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Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

My wife and I (actually, I should say my wife) recently got goats and chickens. We also have a German Shepherd.  While I would say that our German Shepherd is very well trained and of course the smartest dog ever, here’s the thing- he’s a German Shepherd.  There are certain instincts which are just ingrained, bred in and part of the fabric of his being.  And so, no matter how well trained he is, when he sees chickens his animal brain kicks in.  He is often smart enough to know that he cannot attack the chickens when we are looking but if we were not there- those chicken would be goners.  The same with the goats. If given the chance, he would go after them.  And so, it takes a lot of training and behavior modification to train him not to chase these animals when we say “leave it” and even harder to train him to “leave it” without us even saying so.

I was thinking about this during a recent conflict resolution training for high conflict couples.  Conflict resolution is not a natural skill.  It is not intuitive and when conflict happens, the first trigger is in our reptilian, i.e.  our German Shepherd brains.  If someone calls you a name a common response might be- “Screw you, asshole!” These are the folks in the “fight” end of the “flight, fight or freeze” spectrum about which much has been said and written. Other people fall into the category of people who avoid conflict like the plague. They respond to someone calling them a pejorative name by changing the topic, pretending nothing happened or quite literally walking away. The fighters would respond back with their own words or maybe even escalate to a physical response.

It is not at all intuitive to respond to someone calling you a name by saying something like, “It sounds to me like you are pretty upset with me right now.  Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” How many people do you know who you imagine would respond that way? That would not be my initial response and I have been involved in conflict resolution work for over 25 years. We teach kids reading, writing and arithmetic because we are not born with an innate ability to do those things. I have often thought that “conflict resolution” should be added to that triad.  It is not something we are born with but it sure would be helpful in life.

How does this apply to divorcing couples in mediation?  Let me count the ways. I recently had a mediation where one spouse’s pain of being left was excruciating. It was palpable and painful to watch.  Because I tend to fall into the conflict avoidant category, I acknowledged the pain and then quickly moved into a little speech about how difficult it is to separate the emotions from the factual and financial, but that in the end, this is essentially a financial process and ideally the decision making should be based on a rational analysis and not on emotions.  While I believe and know this is true, it occurred to me later that this little speech probably fell flat for this person in the midst of deep angst about the impending divorce.

Maybe I, as the mediator, should have asked if it would be helpful for that person to talk a little bit about how they are feeling? In future such situations, I might ask the person if their emotional state is preventing them or making it difficult to separate out the emotional from the “rational”? Does (s)he need some more time or would a break be helpful? Recognizing that it appears that the divorce is moving forward, is there something (s)he needs from his/her soon to be ex-spouse that might help? What is perhaps obvious, but should be stated here, is that of course there is another person in the room and that whatever attention the mediator gives one, particularly in the emotional realm, needs to be balanced against the needs of the other. That partner may have moved on and not want to dwell on the emotions. Finally, there is the financial aspect of this. They are paying me a significant hourly fee and they may very well not want to spend it talking about things that feel more like therapy, particularly when insurance is not paying for it!

Going back to my German Shepherd, the problem is that once we get into the emotional realm, it is very easy for the reptilian brain to take over. In the best of all possible worlds, if I was coaching the other spouse, I would encourage the response to be something like, “It sounds like you are having a difficult time with this… followed up by “Do you want to spend some time talking about it or telling me more”.  Or I, as a mediator, might say to the other partner, “It sounds like it might be helpful to delve into this a little bit, are you willing to spend a few minutes today doing that?” And then to the first, “can you talk a little bit about what is going on for you?”

Because I am working with two adults, as opposed to one, and they are human and not canine, this is always a delicate, complex and nuanced balancing act. But, what we can learn from dog training is that the response we are trying to evoke is not generally a natural response and that our job as mediators may involve some behavior modification and client retraining so that process stays on the level of rational rather than the instinctive/reactive. 

And, to state the obvious, we mediators are also humans subject to the flight, fight or freeze response. We are also always at the risk of our reptilian brains taking control.  So, while we can spend time trying to coach and guide our clients to not “chase that squirrel”, as mediators, it is critical that we develop the mindfulness to be aware of our own reactions in the face of conflict. This starts with being aware of where we, ourselves, fall on the fight or flight continuum and continues with developing the consciousness to know when our own reaction to conflict may be affecting the mediation and the clients we are trying to serve.


Oran Kaufman

Oran Kaufman has been a mediator since 1994 and runs Amherst Mediation Services in Amherst, MA where he concentrates his practice in the area of divorce and family mediation.  He is also co-owner of ConflictWorks which provides conflict resolution training for organizations and businesses.   He is a former president of… MORE >

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