SOULFUL Insights is a regular series featuring expert advice on matters relevant to health and wellness. Specialists, with interests that intersect with our salon topics, will share their respective insights. Our aim is to deliver cutting-edge science and wellness information to you, our reader.
Peace at Home
by Adar Cohen, PhD
A family is emerging from a high-conflict divorce. Everything feels combustible—from scheduling to COVID safety, even snacks. The parents seem to agree on one thing only: they both want less stress for their kids.
Another family is shaken by the sudden illness of their beloved husband, father and grandfather. Decades-old conflicts resurface as the family struggles to make effective and timely decisions about his care. They miscommunicate across generations and, unaddressed, the misunderstandings harden into mistrust.
A 20-year-old returns to live with his parents, his life disrupted by the pandemic. Thrust together in this way, each family member has different views of how they should live together. Attempts to talk result in shouting matches or with the son holed up in his room. He drops out of online college, disengages from his friends and wears headphones to ward off his parents.
I’m a mediator, and I believe that conversations create the future. So in each of these cases, I guided the families through a series of conversations that helped them do just that—create their future. A new future that was less exhausting, less hostile, less destructive. They had conversations that enabled them to understand one another better and feel understood. They got more clarity, they set shared agreements and some even re-established a sense of connection they didn’t think was possible.
There were no miracles involved. These are the four strategies that helped these families move forward.
Set the conversation apart
In each of the three cases above, we scheduled the conversations in advance. We agreed mutually on a time and space. Finding the window that works for everyone can be challenging, of course, but it’s also a low-stakes activity that can prime the group for future problem-solving. Agreeing on a time to talk may seem trivial (and it may even generate frustration or friction), but it still introduces a precedent for the group being able to figure something out together. Agreeing to a space for the conversation (these days video and audio conferencing are more common than ever) also allows everyone to have a mental picture of what to expect.
Most importantly, scheduling the conversation ensures that the group can at least start from a calmer, steadier place—rather than flailing at the conflict during an episode of door-slamming, at a co-parenting drop-off or on the day of a critical surgery. We can’t be expected to thread a needle in the midst of a hurricane. Set a time. Reschedule if that time becomes inopportune.
It’s also essential to find a way to close or pause the conversation before people start to run out of juice. This work can be profoundly exhausting. If you go for too long, you can begin to undo the progress you’ve made. Pausing can protect that progress. Then when you come back to the conversation at another mutually agreed time and place, people will have spent the intervening period wondering what further progress might be possible rather than recalling how horrible they felt after the last talk.
When we ask questions, we offer our counterpart(s) in a conversation the opportunity to feel understood. When people feel understood, they in turn, become more capable of listening well. The trick is that someone needs to get this started, and in a high-conflict situation, no one’s really in the mood to go first.
If you can prepare a series of open-ended questions before a challenging conversation, you will create space for your counterpart(s) to feel heard, which enables them to do a better job of hearing you. Their answers to your open-ended questions will also help you gather valuable information about how to proceed in less painful, less costly ways.
An open-ended question is one that is hard to respond to in a single word, but it can be much more than that. Just the asking of a really good open-ended question can feel like a breakthrough to its recipient. You can determine whether your open-ended question is a great one by asking yourself: “Does this question sincerely invite my counterpart to share their ideas, concerns or feelings?” If it doesn’t, keep working on the question until it does. It’s natural for our agendas to sneak into our questions. Working on your questions in advance means you don’t have to come up with them in the roiling moment, which can feel like trying to lift a noodle out of hot water.
As a mediator, I know that if I can get people to listen to each other in a deeper way than they’ve been listening to each other—and for a little longer than the listener might prefer—good things start to happen. So I create a dedicated time and space for them to do this, encourage them to ask each other questions and then support them in the challenging but productive work of listening.
A concrete solution to a complex conflict is difficult to define, challenging to implement and close to impossible to sustain. (Think of divorced parents with a history of poor communication, new partners, stressful lives, packed schedules and kids with evolving needs.) Maybe there isn’t a perfect win-win solution to the conflict, at least not one that can be achieved with the time and money available. But here lies the secret of successful mediation: good listening is better than the best problem-solving.
Listening well to our counterpart, even if we disagree—especially if we disagree—is the best route to resolution because their feeling heard makes them better listeners, which means we’ll feel heard soon afterward. In difficult family conversations, listening without interrupting and refuting what’s being said is essential. To go a step further, ask follow-up questions that genuinely invite others to describe what they have experienced, their emotions around that experience and their concerns about the future. When you feel like you want to litigate, just listen. Your listening is doing more for you than litigating can. While some approaches to conflict resemble trying to stop a ceiling fan by grasping for one of the whirring blades or reaching a broomstick into the blur, good listening turns off the fan as the manufacturer intended. Listening slows everything down.
In a heated or volatile conflict, slowing down is a very good thing. One indication you’ve succeeded in slowing down your conversation is silence. In challenging conversations, silence can be more valuable than the most thoughtful and well-chosen words. But we panic over silence. We feel awkward or nervous, so we blurt something out that isn’t even what we really wanted to say, and we might set the conversation back.
What is actually happening during a brief pause or an extended silence? At the outset of one of the mediations referenced above, two sisters disagreed bitterly over how to care for their ailing father. In an extreme example of our aversion to silence, one of the daughters interpreted a two-second pause as evidence of her sister’s recalcitrance and stubbornness. In fact, the sister who paused had barely begun to process what had just been said and would have needed several more seconds to respond productively.
Silence gives people the moment they need to absorb what they just heard, orient themselves, and gather themselves—all of which enables them to ask a question or offer a thought that is significantly more useful than their instantaneous reaction. If you want someone to imagine how you feel, they might need a moment to imagine it.
In my work with the three families mentioned above, we set a mutually agreed time and space for the conversation, we used open-ended questions to power transformative listening and we didn’t squander breakthrough moments by panicking about silence.
The family finding its way through a difficult divorce now enjoys uneventful drop-offs, and they agreed to protocols and commitments that make the new reality easier for kids and parents alike. Said one parent, “I feel like I have my life back.”
The family clashing as they cared for their beloved father and grandfather were finally able to hear his wishes, chiefly that they stop fighting. Guided by good questions and better listening, they divided responsibilities and set boundaries, which decreased the intensity and frequency of miscommunications and confrontations.
The family adjusting to living together again during the pandemic created new conversations that defused defensiveness and fostered new connection. Their relationships have grown as a result of their conversations. The son is enrolled in school and working. His mom enjoys the sound of his laughter in the house.
Adar Cohen, PhD
Adar Cohen is a mediator and facilitator who has spent the past 20 years leading conversations in conflict zones, family rooms and other places where people need to hear and be heard. He united gang leaders and police officers to prevent homicides in Chicago. Following the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, he helped Protestants and Catholics plan for a shared future in Belfast. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has helped families achieve peace in their homes.
Adar holds a PhD in conflict resolution from the University of Dublin. He has lectured at Harvard University, the University of Chicago and at the invitation of the King of Bhutan, at Sherubste College, the Himalayan Kingdom’s first institution for higher education. His work has been featured by the New York Times, TED, MSNBC and AEON.
He is a co-founder of Civic Leadership Foundation, which has supported over 25,000 young people in preparing for success in school, in their careers and as citizens. His book, Jimmie Lee & James, is now available in paperback.
TEDx talk: How to Lead Tough Conversations