Dear Nick and Dear Nora:
The Slippery Slope
In the last letter, we left off just as Coby ordered Fernando to get another form from the border guard. The guard refused, saying, “Mexico no necesita mas hombre incendido.” Paul marveled at Coby’s instantaneous personality change. Coby humbly recovered the crumpled form and tried to smooth it out on his thigh. There was a tear down the middle, and Coby asked Fernando if the guard would give him a piece of tape. Fernando asked. The guard didn’t answer the question but told Fernando to take the three hunters into Mexico — and leave Coby behind.
Paul continued his story, “We jumped into Fernando’s SUV and headed for the ranch.”
“To get you some of them pigeons,” Rose interjected.
“I know it sounds stupid.”
“What happened to good ol’ Coby?”
“They eventually let him cross the border and Fernando went back to fetch him.”
Rose asked, “Was he still the obnoxious jerk he’s always been?”
“You took an immediate dislike to Coby; I didn’t get it then, but I see it now. Actually, Coby was subdued for the rest of the weekend.”
With a mixture of curiosity and malice, Rose asked, “How many chickens, oops, I mean pigeons, did the gringo hunter track down and slay?”
“If you mean me, the answer is zero. At dinner that evening, the ranch owner explained that all the produce served on the ranch came from an organic farm run by Fernando’s brother. I think the border incident reminded me that I didn’t have anything against pigeons and no reason to shoot them. When we mounted up for the hunt the next day, I asked Fernando if he could give me a ride to the farm. It was on the way to the killing fields, so he just dropped me off saying that his brother, Nestor, spoke English and would be happy to show me around.”
“Nestor?” Rose asked.
Paul began, “Nestor is the king …”
At this point, the mediation became instructive beyond what Paul was trying to accomplish with his story. I will use these italicized, indented paragraphs to comment on the mediation using the vocabulary of Reflective Practice.
Rose interrupted, “The blowhard old king in the Iliad — the king Telemachus visits at the beginning of the Odyssey? There’s also a gold vase called the ‘cup of Nestor.’ Don’t patronize me. I’m not Princess Laura, and I was stupid to marry you, but I’m not ignorant.”
This caught me off guard. I was in doubt, so I followed the Principle of Practice that says, "Don’t just do something, stand [or sit] there." I made a mental note that Rose mentioned a Saint Laura previously and now she was referencing a Princess Laura. I needed to find out who or what she was talking about, but at that moment an inquiry would fuel her fire, which was already roaring.
Paul’s comeback was fast, “To my knowledge no one has called you ignorant, no one has ever called you stupid, and …” Both Rose and I were listening carefully to what was coming next, “No one has ever said you were … easy.”
“How dare you? How dare you say anything about my sexuality? I think I may have had enough of you for one day.”
This was a potentially teachable moment if I could seize it before they took the next step. A “Slippery Slope Argument” is listed in books on practical logic as one of the known fallacies because it assumes that one thing leads to another without evidence that proves the causal link.
All of us recognize, in retrospect, experiences where a single move in a particular direction led to consequences we didn’t anticipate and effects we never intended. To distinguish the circumstance from the argument, I’ll refer to these as Slippery Slope Situations. They are common in mediation, and a mediator can often avert that last step if the situation is recognized before it’s too late.
Paul and Rose had created their own situation. I hypothesized: (1) It was familiar to them; (2) they were habitually drawn toward the point of no return as a way to disengage from an acrimonious conversation; (3) it was a re-enactment of the toxic dance that contributed to the death of their marriage. One move too many would end the mediation — at least for this session and possibly for good.
I usually titrate the force of an intervention, beginning with mild words and manner and increasing the strength of the vocabulary and the style of delivery as the occasion requires. Here, I began with the strongest thing I could think of.
“Stop! You’re paying me to coach you and that’s what I’m going to do. Once I’ve had my say you can poke each other’s eyes out with these expensive and sharp pencils I keep on the table for that specific use.”
I have a bunch of good pencils in a box on the mediation table as a part of a technique that has nothing to do with eye-poking. Here, I wanted to acquire and hold my clients’ attention long enough to communicate three important ideas that they were not in the mood to hear.
Rose communicated dramatically, and Paul had been receiving her dramatic communications for the duration of their marriage. I’ve worked with only a few couples who would tolerate the suggestion that I’d help poke out one of their eyes, but I was willing to take the risk with Paul and Rose.
This technique probably has less than a 50 percent chance of success. The downside is that I could lose the couple’s trust. At this point I thought Rose’s primary purpose in mediation was to punish Paul and to generate material for stories to tell her friends and family. [Both parts of this hypothesis required testing.] The challenge was to snap Rose away from her anger and from her role as family entertainer just long enough to give her an experience that would require her to think about the possibility that mediation might provide tools she could use to help diminish her sorrow.
Did the intervention succeed? Or have I forever removed the box of pencils from the mediation table?
To be continued ...
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail email@example.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.