First published in The Professional Family Mediator, Summer, 2014. Re-published here with permission.
Hidden beneath the arguments of a couple in mediation there is a repeating theme. The argument is like Joseph’s coat of many colors. Each disagreement on the surface appears to be about something different, like one of the many colors on the coat. Under the coat, however, there is only Joseph, who remains mostly unchanged.
Over the course of the three decades I have been doing mediation, I have noticed an interesting pattern shown by couples during conflict. Arguments revolve around specific events which occurred at some point in their relationship. Regardless of the event being generated, the intent of each individual’s perception is to prove that the other is to blame. “Winning” the argument means one person is “right” and the other is “wrong.” Each party maintains a great deal of importance in being “right.” Both individuals have positions, based on their respective perceptual realities and their subjective personal experience. Regardless of the event at issue, the argument has little if anything to do with fact. If it were verifiable by an actual concrete source, then there would be nothing to disagree about; you can’t easily argue a verifiable fact. I consider the arguing of one’s perception of an event to be similar to wave-particle duality theory, which can be utilized by the mediator to understand what is going on between the couple. Bob Dylan said it far more poetically in his song, One Too Many Mornings — “You are right from your side and I am right from mine; we’re just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.”
When listening for the conflict dynamic, rather than for the content within each event being argued, a repeated “theme” begins to emerge from beneath the “position” presented by each party. In fact, regardless of the number of events presented, each individual typically has only one or two life-long themes permeating and motivating every “position” of each event presented in any disagreement.
Some common themes are:
1. Lack of trust.
2. Fear of being abandoned.
3. Fear of intimacy
4. Need to control.
5. Fear of being controlled.
6. Feeling worthless.
7. Feeling superior.
8. Feeling non-existent (not seen and not heard)
A person’s “themes” color the way that individual interprets life experiences. “Themes” are the driving force or the “why” a person takes a “position” to seek what s/he wants in a relationship.
Beneath each theme lie a number (perhaps five or six) of “core values” that are unique to the individual. They evolve from impactful childhood experiences and are influenced by family and cultural mores, and they are expressed as enduring beliefs that are mostly unchanging and non-negotiable throughout one’s lifetime. Some examples are:
1. Living a Healthy Lifestyle vs. Not Valuing Health
2. Maintaining or Rejecting Monogamy
3. Embracing or Rejecting Religious or Spiritual Beliefs
4. Embracing of, or Aversion toward, Human Differences
5. Relationship to Money
When two parties differ significantly in their core values, their repetitive arguments about events rigidify into on-going themes that, in mediation, get expressed as positions.
Maintaining awareness of themes helps both parties move beyond the event du jour to compromise and negotiate solutions more effectively. When a “theme” (why I want something) is identified by the mediator as motivating the “position” (what I want), it becomes evident to the couple that, to solve the problem, both parties need to modify their respective positions to ones that address and satisfy the theme(s) of the other party. When each party realizes that “I may not get everything I want, but I can live with the results,” both themes are addressed. A mutual solution has been achieved. In identifying the theme of each individual, the mediator is facilitating the couple to achieve the following:
1. To be able to listen in a way that the other knows s/he is being heard.
2. To be able to identify and express their own themes.
3. To be able to validate what their partner thinks even if it is not what that individual thinks or believes.
4. To be able to empathize with the themes of their partner.
5. To be able to negotiate a compromise with a solution addressing the theme of the other by modifying one’s position.
The task of the mediator is to help the couple reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties and assist the couple in understanding how to resolve future conflicts. As mediators, it is critical to enact a process that facilitates, educates, and makes safe the experience of the couple such that each awakens to the value of being able to negotiate and resolve problems more effectively. In being aware of themes, both parties will then respond to each other more consciously. If each individual thinks in terms of themes rather than positions, s/he will bring awareness to the problem-solving by looking for ways to address the theme(s) of the other party, rather than arguing about who is right and who is wrong. As one becomes aware of themes, the individual comes to understand what drives behavior, which leads to compromise and resolution of the problem. With that as the primary understanding, negotiated settlements in mediation become more meaningful to all involved.
To be effective, a mediator must carefully observe the conflict. When one party presents the “event,” the mediator must remember that the issue being presented is that person’s subjective reality of the occurrence. Similarly, the response of the other party is that individual’s subjective reality of the same event. By listening and observing the words and actions of the parties, the mediator begins to notice the repetitive theme(s) of each individual. The mediator can then comment in ways that help the parties discriminate the theme from the event. For example:
(Mediator addressing the person presenting the argument) “It appears to me that you do not trust Sara.”
(To Sara) “And, it seems to me that you see Joel as very controlling.”
Assuming each party confirms the statement, themes are now identified.
(The mediator continues) “In the many cases I have mediated, I have observed that people argue over events. The situation may be different each time, but it is just an event. Regardless of the event, there is a theme running beneath most arguments. In your case, I would guess that if you look at your relationship, Joel, you do not trust Sara, and Sara, you think Joel is controlling.”
Generally, if accurate, you will get acknowledgement from each party.
(The mediator continues) “If that is correct, establishing blame will not solve the problem we are here to address. Let’s look for solutions, not who is right and who is wrong.”
The mediator explains to Sara and Joel that arguments are about events that involve stating “positions” of what a person wants. All positions are negotiable. Themes, on the other hand, are not negotiable and, at best, only slightly modifiable. They are the underlying motivation for why one wants what they want.
At this point the couple is reflecting. They often do not have effective tools to easily compromise. The mediator then moves in with the necessary guidelines that the couple will need to understand how to work with themes, stating:
“Joel, if you do not trust Sara, you need to tell her what she will need to do to earn your trust. But, since she experiences you as controlling, you have to state it in a way that Sara does not experience it as controlling her.”
(Turning to Sara) “You say Joel is controlling, and he does not trust you. If you are looking for a solution, you would have to let him know what you are willing to do that is acceptable to you. It must, however, address his theme of mistrust, so that he will feel that you are trustworthy by doing what you agree to do.”
When both of their themes are addressed by Sara and Joel, a compromise will be achieved. And, when couples reach agreements by learning how to identify their themes, their agreement is more likely to endure. As such, they will have a greater potential for future successful negotiations with each other.
Frequently, a couple in mediation plays out the conflictual dynamic (themes) of their relationship during negotiation. The mediator can easily be inducted by focusing only on the event(s) being argued. This simply impedes resolution. Rather than join the couple trapped in their all-too-familiar dysfunctional interactions regarding an event, the mediator who directs the attention of the couple to the motivating theme will lead the clients toward effective negotiations with insights that will be useful to them for resolving future problems.
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