The Trouble with Bubbles

This month I’m delighted to feature a guest article from my longtime colleague, Carolyn Parr. Carolyn has graciously agreed to let us post her newsletter article here. To learn more about Carolyn, click here.


These days we hear a lot about people living in ‘bubbles.’ In mediation I often encounter parties whose positions are encased in a bubble, reinforced by an interior monologue that strengthens their conviction that they are right and the opposing party is wrong. In time it’s possible to pierce these bubbles and engage in conversations about mutual concerns and interests they share with the other party.

In politics, bubbles have taken a more sinister significance. Living just 12 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I’m sure many think I not only live in a bubble, but in ‘The Swamp’ as well.

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End of Life Issues: How Mediators Help Families Settle Disputes

A brother sued his sister over the accounting of assets when the sister held the power of attorney for their mother as her health was failing. After a four-hour mediation, the case was settled and the siblings were on speaking terms again. Sound familiar?  Similar situation in your family?  Mediation is more frequently being used for disputes about estates, trusts, and other end-of-life issues. This article is the first in a series that will focus on how mediation can help keep families from going through an expensive and challenging litigation process for such emotionally charged issues.  We will also review situations where litigation may be the best alternative. In August 2016, the book Mediation for Estate Planners: Managing Family Conflict was released by the American Bar Association. I wrote the chapter “A Mediator’s Perspective: Situations Mediators May Face”. This blog series will feature some of the salient points in this book.

Why Do Estates Become Contested?

Estate and trust disputes are as varied as the families who are involved in them. These situations are extremely emotionally charged, as the dispute may involve disinherited children, sibling rivalries, contentious relationships, or blended families with second or third marriages. Another situation that is becoming increasingly common and often the cause of disputes is when an adult child or other family member becomes the caregiver for a parent and takes over responsibility for the parent’s finances.

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Destructive Conflict Patterns

Destructive conflict

According to Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn in Managing Conflict Through Communication (MA Pearson Education, 2011), a process view of conflict sees the conflict as a dynamic and changeable and moving through various stages. Dysfunctional conflict is generally not successfully resolved. In destructive conflict, people get stuck in one phase, while successfully resolved conflict moves through the five distinct steps or phases. Sometimes conflicts become scripted behavior and people get trapped into responding in their habitual way to a particular set of circumstances or individuals.

Two Primary Destructive Conflict Cycles

Confrontation Avoidance Cycle. This cycle occurs with people whose first impulse is to avoid initiating conflict. They think of conflict as bad, get nervous about the conflict experience, and avoid it as long as possible. When the conflict gets out of control, that individual handles it poorly. In this cycle, there is a prelude and a triggering event but the conflict doesn’t proceed to initiation. An example of a prelude is a past history of poorly managed conflict. A triggering event may occur when one person forgets an appointment or says something hurtful.

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Your Brain on Conflict

the brain; credit: A Health Blog, from Flickr, labeled for reuse

NEWSLETTER EDITION: FEBRUARY 2017

This month I’m delighted to feature a guest article by my colleague and friend Gloria K. Vanderhorst, Ph.D.  I asked Gloria to write a piece about what happens in our brains when we experience conflict.

Your Brain on Conflict

You are heading for a mediation session about a workplace issue and you know it will be tense. Your heart is racing a bit and you take some deep breaths to calm your nerves and prepare to stay in control. The outcome of this mediation is important to you and you do not want to lose control.  Then you walk into the conference room and see your nemesis. Somewhere inside a switch is flipped and your fury is about to burst into the room.[1]

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Workplace & Intergenerational Communication

Labor Force Composition by Generation

Communication between people has always been fraught with conflicts as individuals have their own unique way of communicating and interpreting the messages of others. Combine this with the tremendous generational diversity in today’s workplace and managers have a potential cauldron of trouble on their hands. This article will address some of the communication challenges which result from today’s multi-generational work force and how mediation can be used to address these challenges.

Today’s workforce

In a Forbes article, we find that a third of the working adults in career jobs today, consist of Millennials. Moreover, due to higher costs of living, many Baby Boomers work until much later ages. With such a wide spectrum of ages, managers are faced with the wide spectrum of communication methods and styles. The generation gap can produce much conflict as co-workers and managers grapple with the various challenges. When employees and managers don’t get along with each other and communication goes astray, it is vital that businesses have conflict resolution skills in their tool kit.

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How Stress Affects Conflict Resolution

Stress levels among adults in the United States have risen overall since 2015. According to TIME Magazine, 24 percent of adults reported feeling “extreme stress” in a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. Money, work, family responsibilities, the economy, and health concerns are the top five most common stressors. With so many adults experiencing such high levels of stress, what does that mean for conflict and mediation? I’ve written previously about instigators of holiday stress as well as misplaced, displaced, and overblown conflicts resulting from stress. Let’s look further at how stress impacts conflict and its resolution.

The Different Types of Stress

There are actually multiple different types of stress, and each type has its unique challenges and impacts on our behavior. Hyperstress is too much stress, such as too many competing deadlines or tasks, while hypostress is too little, such as when you’re not being challenged or stimulated enough at work or school. Boredom and malaise are often the results of hypostress. What we might think of as “normal” stress, then, is our brain responding to demands, and only falls under the categories of hyperstress or hypostress when there are too many or too few demands placed on us. When a person is hyper- or hypostressed, they may become aggressive or angry, irritable, unable to focus, or depressed. None of these reactions or behaviors is conducive to resolving a conflict and is only likely to inflame it.

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Conquering Conflict During the Holidays

The holidays are approaching, and many of us encounter some level of anxiety during these two months. Family conflicts occur because typically your family knows which buttons to push and which topics to broach to cause an argument. Nearly every family has at least one person who likes to stir the pot in this way. According to Chris Logan, a senior lecturer in psychology at Southern Methodist University, we all have a tendency to focus on small differences between ourselves and family members as well as focus on past hurts or negative memories. This makes the holidays difficult, as unconsciously focusing on past hurts or differences between us may lead to passive-aggressive behavior, annoyance, or a sense of dissatisfaction. In this post, we’ll explore some strategies for dealing with family conflicts this holiday season.

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Is It Ever OK to Blame?

NEWSLETTER EDITION: NOVEMBER 2016

This election season seems to have been filled with more vitriol and blame than most. However, the election, and politics in general, also provides many excellent examples of how blame is used to keep tensions high and instigate conflict rather than resolve disagreements.

Is It Ever OK to Blame?

Blame is frequently used, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an attempt to assign responsibility for something gone awry. To blame is to “assign responsibility for a fault or wrong.” My colleague, Cinnie Noble, tweeted a thought-provoking question: “When is it alright to blame?” This article will explore in brief the nature of blame and when it’s acceptable to blame, if ever.

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Asking the Right Questions

It is natural for people to get defensive when they are in conflict. In this post, I’d like to suggest some other approaches that are more beneficial and may produce a better outcome. Rather than engaging in defensive communication, try the following: stay centered, breathe deeply, stay positive, listen to what the other person is saying, and ask questions. Asking questions, a big part of a mediator’s job, accomplishes several objectives. First, it allows the other person to feel as if they are being heard. Second, it enables both parties to start to uncover the source of the dispute. Third, the emotion underlying the conflict is likely to be expressed. Finally, it starts the trust building process.

You also start to get to the heart of the conflict by asking questions. Anger and defensiveness are usually masking a deeper emotion, and the real problem causing someone to be argumentative. Questions asked in a calm and conversational manner may also help the other person relax and shift out of utilizing defensive or aggressive behaviors.

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The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

NEWSLETTER EDITION: OCTOBER 2016
This election season, especially the Presidential debates, has displayed many examples of the use of nonverbal body language in communication.

In many cases, body language is more important and conveys more information than verbal communication. Last month I wrote about the nonverbal vocal elements of body language: volume, pitch, inflection. This article will focus on other nonverbal aspects of body language.

One of the most common sources of conflict is misinterpretation of  communication.  Tone of voice and body language make up 93% of human communication.  While some people are unconsciously adept at reading nonverbal cues, many are not.  When your nonverbal cues don’t match with what you’re saying, you are likely to find yourself experiencing interpersonal conflict with others.

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