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Parables For Divorce Mediations And Negotiations

If one picture is worth a thousand words, an appropriately told parable may be worth even more than a thousand words. A simple story that conveys an obvious teaching can gently evoke an “ah-ha” powerful enough to illuminate clouded thinking or to pry open a locked mind.

In divorce mediations and negotiations, participants commonly lock themselves into positions before identifying their actual interests. Many mediators are familiar with the old folk tale of two women fighting for an orange without realizing that cutting the orange in half would give each only half of what she needed but separating the rind from the pulp would give each all that she wanted – the first wanted to grate the rind to flavor pie crust and the second wanted the pulp for orange juice. Our task as mediators and negotiators is to separate the rind from the pulp in order to address each client’s interests rather than their positions.

Remaining stuck in the old place or in old ways is often more comfortable than moving on to something new, even when that which is new appears, at least on the surface, to be more attractive. For many, staying with the familiar seems safer despite dangers that may be obvious to someone more objective. A frog who lived in a pond invited his frog friend who lived in a gully to join him in the pond because gullies are dangerous but the friend replied that he couldn’t move because it was too hard to leave the place he was used to. A few days later, a heavy wagon drive through the gully and crushed the gully frog.

Some clients have the correct facts but stick to assumptions that render such facts useless or worse. An old Chinese tale tells of the same advice given by two different men after the wall of his home was damaged by heavy rains. His neighbor advised him to repair the wall quickly in order to protect himself from thieves who might come in the night. He suspected his neighbor’s motives and failed to make the necessary preparations. Later, his son gave him the same warning, whereupon he took the advice but could not complete the job before nightfall. When thieves did come in the night, the rich man continued to suspect his neighbor’s motives but concluded that his son had indeed been smart.

Others remain stuck because their assumptions prevent them from accepting facts. Another Chinese story tells of a man who lost his axe and insisted that his neighbor’s speech, dress and behavior identified him as the thief. The man subsequently found his axe buried under dirt in his own cellar. And when he next saw his neighbor, there was nothing different about the neighbor’s speech, dress and behavior.

Another form of being stuck occurs when clients continually repeat behavior that they view as “natural” for them and thus not amenable to change. They may see their self-destructive patterns more clearly after we relate the old parable of the frog and the scorpion. A scorpion who wanted to cross a wide and swift river asked a frog for a lift. The frog refused for fear that the scorpion would kill him with a sting, until the scorpion assured him that this wouldn’t occur because then the scorpion would die as well. Halfway across the river, the frog found himself paralyzed by the poison of the scorpion’s sharp sting. The frog cried out, “Why?” and the scorpion answered just before both drowned in the swiftly flowing river, “I couldn’t help myself. It is my nature.”

Destructive behavior is sometimes not recognized because it has become destructive gradually. They say that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately leap out to escape the danger but if you put a frog in a kettle of cool water and gradually heat the kettle to the boiling point, the frog won’t recognize the danger until it is too late. How many times do we see clients caught in a boiling pot who fail to recognize the danger therein because the pot came to a boil over time?

People sometimes face smaller difficulties with less courage than they demonstrate in the face of true disaster. An ass with a heavy load of wood tripped and fell while crossing a pond. He struggled unsuccessfully to get up under the weight of his heavy load and proceeded to make a terrible fuss. Some frogs heard his complaints and responded, “Why make such a commotion about falling in the water? What would you do if you had no choice and had to live here all the time as we do?

For some people, change, even to something obviously better, is simply too frightening to consider. They will change only when the fear of not changing is greater than the fear of change itself. It may be useful to remember Mark Twain’s words urging us to dream, to explore and to discover. Twain noted that twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So we best throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in our sails!

Not all change, however, is real or useful. An old Chinese story tells of a zookeeper who upset his monkeys by telling them that they would get three bananas in the morning but four in the afternoon and placating them by changing this to four bananas in the morning and three in the afternoon. Change for change itself has no meaning.

No matter how resistant they may be to change, most parents believe that they would do anything for their children. Ask them if they would donate a kidney, rush into a burning building, or dive into rushing water to save their child and you can expect them to say “of course.” And yet they find themselves unable to cooperate with the other parent or to avoid putting their child in the middle. They are like the student who goes to a young professor’s office, closes the door, and says, “I would do anything to pass this exam.” This student leans closer and whispers, “I mean anything!” The professor “Anything?” And she again says “Anything.” The professor lowers his voice and again says “Anything? She moves closer and again says “Anything!” Whereupon, he whispers, “Would you study?” And we mediators ask, “Could you find a way to work with the other parent if your child’s life depended upon it?”

Those parents who can’t see their way to cooperative parenting may be perceiving only part of the picture. A famous Indian legend speaks about three blind men who each wanted to feel an elephant to “see” what it is really like. The first touched the elephant’s left and then the right foreleg and concluded that the elephant was like two big trees without any branches. The second blind man grasped the elephant’s touched the elephant’s tail, which wagged a few times, and he concluded that the elephant was like a straw fan swing in the air. The third blind man rubbed the elephant’s trunk and concluded that the elephant was like a snake, long and round and very strong. And they argued long into the night, each insisting that he along was correct. Each was partly right and all three were in the wrong! How often do we see parents who each are partly right at the same time that both are in the wrong!

Encouraging clients to persevere in the face of enormous difficulties can be a real challenge. It may be useful to remind them of the frog who fell into a pail half-filled with milk and thrashed and thrashed about seemingly hopelessly while trying to get out; refusing to give up, the frog’s persistence paid off. It’s thrashing about finally caused the milk to turn into hard butter, whereupon the frog climb up onto it and stepped up and out to freedom. In this case, however, the transformation occurred as an unintended consequence of the frog’s refusal to give up.

Many times, clients are so bogged down in dirt that they appear unable to persevere and seem doomed to remain stuck. At such times, we might tell the story of the donkey who fell down a well and cried for hours because he couldn’t get out. The farmer tried and tried to help and finally gave up and asked his neighbors to help shovel dirt down the well and bury the donkey. The donkey cried horribly at first and then grew silent. The farmer and his neighbors continued to shovel dirt. Suddenly, much to their amazement, the donkey stepped over the edge of the well, shook off the dirt, and trotted off. The donkey freed itself by shaking off the dirt and taking a step up with each new level of dirt thrown at it. We can help our clients to do the very same thing! Perseverance is necessary but not sufficient; we must also think outside the box, a phrase used too much these days but still helpful. The point is well illustrated by an old Chinese story of a man who kept trying unsuccessfully to enter a city gate with a long pole. A second gate just beyond the first made it impossible to take the pole directly through the gate. And the pole was too long to go through the gate either horizontally or vertically. The task appeared to be impossible until an old man ventured by and suggested that he cut the pole in two. The Chinese combine two pictograms to write the word “crisis.” The first denotes “danger” and the second “opportunity.” When we see impasse as opportunity we will find a way to assist our clients in taking their long poles through the gate.

Finally, how we and our clients handle adversity will play a key role in determining how the mediation and/or negotiation goes. A young woman complained to her mother that life was so hard she didn’t think she could make it. Her mother filled three pots with boiling water. She put carrots in the first, an egg in the second, and coffee beans in the third. The carrots softened and became limp. The egg developed a hard shell to protect its interior. And the coffee beans changed the water. The mother asked her daughter, “Which are you? In the face of adversity, do you soften and become limp, do you develop a hard shell to protect yourself, or do you change the circumstances that bring you pain? When adversity strikes, ask yourself: Are you a carrot, an egg, or coffee beans? We professionals who are mediating, negotiating and/or facilitating negotiations – are we carrots, eggs or coffee beans? How might thinking about this influence the work that we do?


Sharon Lowenstein

Sharon Lowenstein is a Kansas and Missouri collaborative law attorney, mediator and mediator trainer in Greater Kansas City. She will be a presenter on the Mediation Training Institute International’s Mediation-at-Sea cruise for mediators and collaborative professionals November 4-11, 2007 from New York to Bermuda.  See: see For more information… MORE >

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