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April 7, 2015 / karendruryrussell

Listen for Understanding

Part two of a series

Communication is an art and too many people think it means they get to talk all the time…about themselves. Actually, this makes sense on some level. The single most important topic for any human beings is, themselves. Humans are hard-wired to want to be important and what they want above all, is to feel heard.
If every human wants to be heard and is always talking so others will hear them, so they can, in turn, feel important, how do we have actual conversations? How does anyone ever feel as though they have been heard? Some think it means they need to talk louder, longer and with more authority. Others get angry and use “control talk” in order to get their way and therefore, feel important. Anger is another manipulation to feel heard…except all it gets is fear from the person it is directed at.
Most conversation is small talk or chitchat but occasionally we need to have a more serious conversation about something that bothers us. I will refer to it as a conflict but that does not mean it has to be a huge blow up. I can be, but usually it is a small thing, that once addressed, will go away. It becomes big if you do not address it at the time the event occurs.
When you are in conflict and listen to someone else speak, think about whether you are interested in what they have to say. How often are you preparing your response while they speak? Do you hear words that push your buttons and bring up emotions that make it impossible for you to listen further or, you hear words and, because of whom the speaker is, or your history with them, you assume you know what they “really mean” and react based upon that assumption?
If people are always reacting to the words on the surface, how will they ever get to the deeper meaning and truth beneath the words?
In order to feel heard, one must first learn to listen.
Listening is a skill and requires practice.
In order to listen effectively, it is important to pay attention. For instance, if a person is angry, there is an underlying emotion showing up as anger. Usually it is fear or hurt. If you listen to someone who is angry, let them vent (remember the adrenaline rush I talked about last time in Conflict to Communication?). Keep telling yourself it is not about you and do NOT take it personally (this will help you keep from becoming defensive). Then empathize and imagine what it must be like in their shoes. Let them know you understand they are upset and based upon what they said; you can imagine they feel hurt and so on.
The key is this: Resolution cannot be achieved unless BOTH parties feel heard and each understands where the other one is coming from. Just because you understand another person’s point of view does NOT mean you have to agree with him or her. You just need to “get it”.
Once each party understands the other’s needs and concerns, then they can build an agreement that takes both parties’ interests in to account.
Listening for understanding requires that the listener put aside their own needs, concerns, hurt and defensiveness in order to truly hear what the other is saying.
If both parties are angry, remember it takes 20 minutes for the adrenaline to clear the system so a person can actually listen. Therefore, trying to have the discussion in the heat of the moment is futile and will only lead to further hurt, anger and upset. Take a time out, agree to come back to the discussion when you are both calm, agree on when you will have the discussion and then HAVE IT. Make sure you tie up the loose ends and take the time to hear each other. Otherwise, it will fester and become much bigger than it was to begin with.
Listening for understanding requires a true desire to resolve the matter and a willingness to let the other person be important in that moment. It means the listener puts off their need to be important until the other person has said what they need to say.
Next time, we will look at what it takes to be a good speaker and communicator.
Remember, talk less and listen more. Ask questions for understanding and put yourself in the other’s shoes.
Till next time.

March 2, 2015 / karendruryrussell

From Conflict to Communication

It takes TWO to make a conflict. Both people believe they are right and the other is wrong, insane, delusional or unreasonable…or all of the above. Then the blaming begins as to who started it, who insulted whom and so on. Then there are the “You” statements, like “You were a jerk”, “You betrayed me”, “You lied to me”, or, “It’s your fault”. My personal favorite is the “Look what you made me do” line.

In scenarios like this, each person spends a lot of time blaming the other and justifying their own behavior. The more one is blamed, the more they feel defensive and the more they justify their behavior. It is a cycle with no resolution. It takes a long time to unravel the mess and, most of the time, the original slight, hurt feelings or other thoughtless words could have been addressed and the matter resolved very quickly. Instead, we hold resentments and they grow over time.

The human brain is hardwired to hear negativity first, most likely because we are wired for survival (the old fight or flight thing) and anything our brain perceives as a threat (even words) will put us on high alert. It takes five times more effort for the brain to take in a positive comment or thought than a negative one. Think about how many times you heard someone say something nice and immediately wondered what the catch was.

To top it off, once the adrenaline of defensiveness is rushing, it takes a good 20 minutes to calm down to get back to the part of the brain that actually listens. All too often, we react to the words someone says and do not take the time to find out what they really meant. We assume we know what the speaker means but we rarely ask if our assumptions are correct. I mean, what if we ask and hear something we do not want to hear. How do we handle it when someone is upset with us and tells us so?

So, what’s the solution? It’s actually a series of solutions that all work together and the result is….communication. It takes two people to play; one is the speaker and one is the listener, then they take turns until the conversation is done. This set of skills takes practice.

Those skills are: listening for understanding, asking questions to test assumptions, clarifying for understanding, self-management (self-soothing) when we hear things that are hard to take, acknowledgment of our own behavior, saying how we feel or felt, taking personal responsibility for our actions, giving the other person a chance to speak and putting yourself in the other’s place. And of course, all of those skills apply to both people.

My next posts will address the listener and the speaker in turn. So, check in for the continuing series to see how conflict becomes communication.

Till next time, Karen

April 11, 2013 / karendruryrussell

The Role of Consulting Attorneys in Mediation

Many people who come to me to mediate their divorces do so because they do not want to “get lawyers involved”.  They are afraid the lawyers will turn things into an adversarial nightmare.  Therefore, it tends to make them nervous when I mention consulting attorneys in mediation.  Let’s look at some of the things they do to enhance the process:

1. Give individual legal advice and counsel

As the mediator, I am neutral and must remain so throughout the process.  While I am perfectly qualified and capable of giving individual legal advice, I do not do so in mediation in order to maintain my neutrality.  Some mediators require the parties to have consulting attorneys, others, like myself, do not.  I give the parties lots of general legal overview information designed to help them in their decision-making process but they need to see consulting counsel if they have specific questions.

2. Support you in the mediation process

Sometimes you just need someone to talk to and bat ideas around with in between mediation sessions.  Your consulting attorney is supposed to be there to support you in the mediation process by giving you ideas and suggestions for how you might approach the discussion around certain issues.

3. Review your agreements and explain the ramifications of the agreements to you

The beauty of mediation is that you are in charge of the decisions you make and you can think “outside the box” to find solutions for your case with the help of your mediator helps who then writes up the final agreement for you (known as a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).

Your consulting attorney is there to review that agreement with you BEFORE you sign it.  They will carefully explain the ramifications of the agreement so you are informed of your rights and obligations and how the agreement affects them.  It is NOT their job to talk you out of the agreement or give you permission to sign it.  They will give you feedback on the agreement and it will be up to you to decide which of their comment you want to incorporate into your MSA and which you want to leave out.

4. Give “reality checks”   as needed

The information swirling around in a mediation session can get confusing and it helps to have someone to give you a “reality check” about whether your expectations are realistic.  Sometimes, I send folks to consulting counsel when there is information they need that I cannot provide to them without breaking my neutrality.

5. Provide another set of eyes on the final agreement and help with language.

Marital Settlement Agreements are long and complex documents that take time to write.  As a mediator, I like to have consulting counsel review the MSA as it helps me.  They sometimes find things I missed or, I ask them to help me with language to clarify the intent of the parties.

The role of the consulting attorney mediation is a positive one.  They are members of YOUR team to help you as you go through the process.  Most mediators, me included, have a list of people they recommend as consulting attorneys so be sure to ask.  My list for example, consists of other mediators and collaborative attorneys who know me and how I work.  Many do not litigate at all.

In closing, keep in mind that in mediation, the lawyers are there to help and support you, not turn the case into an adversarial battle.  They have a very positive role to play and I highly respect them for it.

December 29, 2012 / karendruryrussell

The Power of an Apology (and how to do it)

The movie “Love Story” came out in 1970 and the famous line,  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” became a relationship mantra for many who saw the film.  However, in life, one of the most elegant and powerful things a person can do is apologize to another.  This is especially true when a relationship is ending.  In divorce or separation tensions are high, feelings are raw and communication can be very difficult.   In mediation, couples are free to discuss whatever they need to in order to reach an agreement.  This frequently means my clients talk about the past (that can mean yesterday or last week) and how they feel about things that one or the other said or did.  Once in a while (but not often enough) one or both will apologize to the other.  The apology is very powerful and truly helps a person feel they have been heard.  Once they feel that, the mediation continues and usually with great success.

You may be asking how on earth you can apologize to someone who has hurt you, betrayed you or treated you badly.  Or, how can you apologize when you are so angry yourself?  To paraphrase an old cliché, holding a resentment against another is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  Well, no one said this would be easy!  So here are the steps:

1.   Find a calm time for yourself and reflect on  the resentment and how you got it, the circumstances, the conversation, all of it.  Now, take a good long look at your own behavior without trying to justify it.  Be completely honest, no one is judging you.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would have felt if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.  Write about it if that helps you to gain clarity.  How do you feel about the way you behaved?  Are you ashamed? Would you have spoken that way to anyone else?  OK.  Now, forgive yourself and do the right thing so you can move past it…make a true and complete apology.

When you are speaking with or writing to the other person:

2.  Acknowledge the event or conversation that warrants the apology.  For instance you may say, “When we talked yesterday I said…”

3.   Take responsibility for your own behavior and show your recognition of it.  This may sound something like, “I could have chosen other words.” or, “I spoke without thinking”

4.   Acknowledge how your behavior and/or words affected the other person.  For example, “When I told you I thought you were a jerk for __________, I can imagine how hurt you must have felt”  OR “If someone had said that to me I would have felt attacked.”

5.     Make a statement or judgment about YOUR own behavior such as “I was very inconsiderate of your feelings when I said that.” OR “What I said was insensitive”

6.     Make a statement of regret (“I am sorry I said those things to you.) Avoid saying things like ” I’m sorry you get upset or hurt so easily.” as that will only put the person on the defensive.

7.     Make a statement or indication of future intentions.  This might be something like, “In the future I will call a time out if I do not feel I can be productive in the conversation.” OR, “I will think more carefully before I blurt things out.”

If you cannot make an apology on your own, ask for help.  Let your therapist guide you through your “script” or let your mediator guide you “in the moment” when something happens in  mediation itself.  The purpose of an apology is to give both of you the ability to move forward.  It is an act of integrity and humility and one that is very powerful.  It is an act of great strength and courage and is not to be done as a means to make someone else apologize to you.  A true apology is given with NO expectation of reciprocation.

Always remember you have no control over the other person but you always have control over how you chose to behave and respond to difficult situations.

December 16, 2012 / karendruryrussell

10 tips on How to Manage the Holidays in a Failing Marriage

Let’s face it, the holidays are stressful even when you love them.  They are worse when you are in a failing marriage or relationship.  There are children to consider, two sets of families and/or extended families and sometimes travel involved.  How can a person keep it together?  Here are my top ten hints to help you through (please note these are not intended for those in domestic violence and abusive relationships):

1.   Take care of your self first.  Take walks, meditate, listen to music you enjoy (the car works for this), go for drives…alone.  Do whatever you need to do to make yourself feel special.  There is NOTHING that can’t wait 30 minutes.  Do NOT do more than you feel you reasonably can.

2.     Make a list of your “Must do’s”.  These are the things that have to be done, not the ones you want to do to keep up appearances.  A Must Do is grocery shopping, paying bills, doctor appointments, taking the kids to school, going to work and so on.  Find ways to delegate some of these things to others if necessary.

3.   Make a list of the “I want to’s”.  These are the things you want to do to make the holidays look like the holidays even if you may not feel it on the inside.  Prioritize the list and put the things at the bottom that no one but you will notice.  Only do the things you have the energy to do.  Simplify your life.

4.   Be polite to your spouse.  You may not be getting along but you can always take the time to be considerate.  Even if you don’t want to do it, your spouse is still a human being worthy of the same consideration you are

5.     Focus on your children, make the holiday as special for them as you can.  They will know something is not right with the relationship intuitively so keep their world as complete as possible with the minimum of disruption.

6.     Start a new tradition…one that you can continue after you separate (if you end up doing that)

7.     Be honest with yourself about your limitations.  Be honest with your spouse if the situation warrants it.  If you do not want to travel to see your spouse’s family, don’t go or find a way to minimize the amount of time you all spend together.

8.     Begin to make a personal plan for what you will do once the holidays are over.  Will you ask to go to counseling with your spouse, will you end counseling, will you see an attorney, will you move out?  Really think about what you want and how to implement it.  This is just thoughts at this point.

9.    Think about a support system for yourself.  Talk to friends, get a therapist if you need to.  Get a hobby, find a church or support group.  Find someone or something you can turn to when you  are overwhelmed in the relationship.

10.   If you just can’t take it anymore, see an attorney just to get information about what you need to do to protect your rights and develop a course of action for the coming year.  Knowledge is power and information does help to reduce the stress of wondering.

I know how hard it is to manage a difficult relationship and the holidays at the same time so do the best you can and know that this will pass.  Your job is to make it through this year and develop a plan for yourself so that next year can be better.

July 20, 2012 / karendruryrussell

Your children matter most

A young couple I know were in a motorcycle accident on the first day of summer.  They chose not to wear their helmets to go on a short ride around the neighborhood..not far and not fast.  He went to take a right turn and had to swing wide around a parked car and came face-to-face with an oncoming car.  We think he laid the bike down to avoid a collision and as he did, he grabbed his fiance and pulled her on top of him.  She was out of the hospital in three days, he died from his injuries.  We will never know if a helmet would have saved him.  His parents divorced when he was 3 or 4.   Three families were devastated that night.  My former husband and I came within a hair’s breath of losing our only child.

Why share such a personal story with you?  Two reasons.  First, the young man’s parents  barely spoke and when they did, hurtful things were said by both.  They could not work together to plan their son’s memorial and they could not reach agreement on how to handle his ashes.  Second, the loss of a young man I had come to think of as my son, has made me look at the world very differently.  The children we assume will outlive us, might not.  Every moment with them is vital.

So many people going through divorce see it as a winner take all proposition.  Perhaps it is out of fear, anger, spite or revenge but it is important for them to win at all costs.  Money is more important to them than preserving a relationship as co-parents.  Being the better parent at all costs becomes more important than communicating as co- parents.  In the end, no one wins, feelings are hurt, egos are bruised, children are caught in the middle and the wounds may never heal.  Imagine those parents getting the worst phone call of their lives and having to now handle that grief together.

When I work with couples now, I ask them to look at the big picture and to determine what matters the most.  Is it really so important to “win”?  Isn’t it your children that matter the most?  Wouldn’t you rather put them first above all else?  Wouldn’t you rather learn to become good co-parents  than fight until the lawyers have all of your  money?

In the end, it is our children who are more precious than money or property and as hard as it is to say, we could lose them in an instant.  Spend the time in your divorce focusing on your most valuable assets…your children.

June 9, 2012 / karendruryrussell

5 Keys to communication during Mediation or Collaboration

Aside from the fact that going through a divorce is painful and stressful, many of my clients find communicating with their spouse the most difficult part of Mediation or Collaboration.  Both processes require you and your spouse to sit together at the same table AND actively participate in the discussions to build a resolution that works for each of you and for your family.  But what happens if you and your spouse just don’t speak the same language?  Here are some tips:

1.  Listen for understanding without interruption

We are often “triggered” by the tone of voice, body language and the words another person uses. When we are triggered, we go to our “fight or flight” instinct  to defend ourselves and we are no longer able to listen, reason or engage in a meaningful discussion.  We tend to become defensive and react rather than respond and that often means interrupting and judging.

Try to listen for understanding. Rather than making an assumption about what you think the other person means, ASK them. Take a deep breath, tell them you need to ask a question and then tell them what you heard and what you think it means and let them clarify for you.  The point here is to understand where the other person is coming from.  You don’t have to like what they say, you just need to “get it”.  Remember, understanding where another person is coming from does not mean you have to agree with their point of view.

2.   Tell the other person what you heard

As part of your listening, stop periodically and tell the other person what you heard them say.  Check in with them to make sure you got it right.  If you did not, then let them tell you again until you do get it.  This may take some time as it is hard to “hear” when we are triggered.

 3.   Respond rather than react

Once  you understand the other person’s point of view, continue to ask clarifying questions until you have all the information you need in order to respond.  Once you have that information, use “I” statements to express your point of view, tell the other person what you agree to and what you don’t agree to and tell them what is going on for you.  It might be a fear or concern about money or retirement or security. Remember, if you are angry, it is usually due to some other underlying emotion (hurt, fear etc.) The point is to give a thoughtful response rather than react to something you do not like.  Respond in a calm (this may take some practice) manner setting out your point of view.  You cannot build a lasting agreement until you each understand the other’s needs and concerns.  When you disagree, suggest alternatives acceptable to you.

4.   Tell your story

In a non-blaming or accusatory way, tell your story when there is an important issue for you in your divorce settlement discussions.  Talk about your point of view and your needs and concerns in a way that helps the other person understand what is important to you.  You do not need to convince them you are right, just tell them what you are experiencing.

5.  Have compassion

You do not have to agree with your spouse. However, do try to have some understanding of what it is like from their perspective.  Have some compassion for their point of view. This will help your spouse feel heard and more willing to see your point of view.


Remember, if you are in Mediation, your mediator can facilitate the discussions and if you are in the Collaborative process, your lawyer will be there with you and your coach will work with you on how to effectively communicate and listen.  This  is by no means the only way to effectively communicate, it is simply a short list to help you begin your process.