Over the past year, a group of professionals involved with divorcing couples (lawyers, mediators, therapists, and financial planners) met once a month in my office. Sitting in a circle, we talked about the cases in which we had become angry or frustrated with our clients or with another lawyer on the case. We shared times when we were fearful or confused and wanted to help but had no idea how. We talked about the client’s stories of pain that reminded us of our own past painful experiences and produced great sadness in us.
We didn’t stop with the stories. We learned to be present and acquainted with our emotions. We noticed how those emotions often caused us to push away from our clients, or to enmesh ourselves with our clients, or to try to control the outcome.
We also learned about our own underlying needs and unresolved emotional issues and how to take care of ourselves. And with that growth in self-awareness, we began to see beyond our own experiences and truly understand what our clients might be thinking and feeling.
This empathic bridge enabled us to be more effective in helping our clients resolve their conflicts.
We called ourselves Inside Out. The name of our group and our group’s practices came directly from the excellent and valuable book, Inside Out (2014 American Bar Association) authored by Gary Friedman, a prominent mediator, lawyer, and teacher in the Bay Area.
Resolving Personal Conflict Through Understanding
Training in emotional intelligence has not exactly been promoted in our law schools or favored in the profession. Our
Consequently, lawyers and mediators are often uncomfortable with the inner world – theirs and their clients –and simply push it away. Indeed, family lawyers and mediators commonly inform their clients, who are in the midst of the emotional turbulence of divorce, that there is no room for emotion in the legal system, and they need to take their feelings to a therapist.
Even Friedman, who received a traditional legal education and practiced as a lawyer before finding his own path as a mediator and teacher, acknowledges that it has been an “extraordinary revelation” for him “to discover that understanding our personal reactions to people we are trying to help is indispensable to doing this work effectively” (Introduction, p. xix).
The Four Themes of Personal Conflict
Our Inside Out group followed the program that Friedman, along with law professor Jack Himmelstein and Buddhist monk Norman Fischer established in San Francisco and New York. There are four major themes Friedman asks conflict professionals to explore:
- Learning to become more present and aware;
- Learning to deal with strong emotional reactions in a way that enables conflict professionals to understand and gain empathy for clients;
- Connecting the inner experience
tothe conflict manifesting in the outer world; and
- Deepening motivation to handle conflict so professionals can continue to do the work without getting burned out or overwhelmed (p.14).
This emphasis on inner work is based on several important basic premises underlying Friedman’s approach, all of which challenge the traditional approach to law and mediation.
He understands that the solution to conflict depends on the feelings and perceptions below the surface.
Like couples therapist Dan Wile (see my prior blog post), Friedman realizes that it is not possible for a conflict professional, even a supposedly objectively neutral mediator, to participate in conflict resolution without experiencing human biases and reactions.
In a significant departure from more traditional mediators who practice conflict resolution in a quasi-adversarial way, Friedman believes the primary goal of conflict work is to “help the parties better understand themselves, each other, and the realities they face” (p. 15).
Finally, drawing on the best insights of Western and Buddhist psychology, Friedman teaches that a professional is best able to listen to others when she is capable of listening to herself (p. 15).
Going Down the V
The process Friedman uses to listen to oneself brilliantly mirrors the process he teaches mediators and collaborative lawyers to use in the external world when working with conflict. Conflict professionals help their clients go below their surface positions to understand deeply their own needs and interests, and to explore multiple creative options to address them. He calls this “Going Down the V.”
From the surface arguments and positions, we help the client “descend” to gain an understanding of their deeper needs and desire, then “ascend” with options and possible solutions that can be discussed to resolve the conflict.
In like fashion, conflict professionals that encounter difficult emotions are taught to go down our own V to notice and feel and become familiar with our emotions. We first need to understand ourselves.
We then ask what might be happening inside the person who triggered this difficult emotion in us. That bridge is the path of empathy and compassion that enables us to reconnect with the other that has triggered anger or avoidance in me. By regaining connection, the conflict professional is once again able to be fully present for the clients and able to participate in the resolution.
Applying The Inside Out Methodology
For the past year, our Inside Out group met and used Friedman’s book to practice. Every day, we practiced meditation and journaling to strengthen our self-awareness and ability to be present. Each week we met with one other group member, our “Buddy,” and took turns using the V method. Then, in our monthly sessions, facilitated by Kim Gordon and me, we took turns in the “fishbowl.”
My Experience in the Fishbowl
When it was my turn, I came into the circle with my “buddy” and begin talking about a recent experience that caused me to feel very angry. In a collaborative case, the two clients and two lawyers had met in a 4-way discussion to work on settling the terms of clients' divorce. When we were examining financial records, the wife, who was not my client, told me that the way I was reading the records was wrong and stupid. I was immediately triggered. I felt insulted and furious and had trouble participating the rest of the session.
When our Inside Out group met, I was still seething. In the fishbowl, I felt my anger and expressed it. I was easily able to understand where it came from, as I remembered back to childhood and painful incidents when someone made me feel wrong or stupid. Clearly, the scabs had been taken off old wounds when I heard the woman’s words.
From my own pain, I wanted to lash out. I felt an inclination to want to embarrass her and point out, in a humiliating way, that she was wrong about the financial documents; and, quite righteously announce, that I had been right. I felt extra anger because I thought I had done, up to that point, a good job of holding my own sharp tongue when she had tried to manipulate and control and dominate our 4-way conversation.
But in the fishbowl I also took Friedman’s instruction and began, first privately and then out loud in the group, to ask myself what that woman might be feeling and thinking such that she would want to control the conversation and insult me.
Regaining Internal Footing
From that vantage point on the bridge, it was fairly easy to see that she was in great pain over a recent betrayal by her husband (my client, who was now in relationship with her former best friend); was overwhelmed with chaos (he had pretty much abandoned their joint business for her to run and money was very tight); and she was struggling mightily to keep control for herself and her young daughter’s sake.
Now I understood her, for like her I have known pain and chaos and rage. We were not so different. I still didn’t like the insult or the way she tried to control the conversation, but now I understood where it came from. I was representing her husband, who had ruined her life and was causing her excruciating pain and rage and anxiety.
And with that, I regained my internal footing. The next day I was able to have a constructive conversation with the wife’s lawyer and get the negotiations back on track.
Takeaways From This Experience
Our year culminated with a workshop given by Gary Friedman himself. We felt grateful to work directly with Gary, who is a great teacher and very skillful working with people. Because he has done his own work, he has the depth and experience and skill to support others on their internal journey. He helped all of us learn to go even deeper than we had during the year.
Many participants said they experienced a profound level of insight and growth during the workshop. All the members of our group who participated in the Inside Out group and the workshop said it was challenging to be vulnerable and to acknowledge our wounds, biases, and coping strategies.
But as each member of our group engaged in the practice, those observing felt only admiration for the courage it took to work in the fishbowl.
All of us felt humbled and bonded by the experience. We emerged with respect and caring for each other. We also emerged with new levels of self-awareness.
I can’t help but believe we will all be a little better at our jobs.