Dear Nick and Nora:
It’s Rose’s turn in the hot seat.
My goal for the session referred to in the last letter (and continued here) was to create an atmosphere where Paul could tell — and Rose could hear — a story about someone who instantaneously changes both his behavior and his attitude to get what he wants (which, in Coby’s case, was crossing the border). Neither the story nor the protagonist is attractive. But once Paul describes what he observed to an audience, he wonders if he has the same capability as Coby, and if not, why not.
This technique doesn’t teach directly; instead, it uses an experience to implant information that’s contrary to a person’s beliefs. The purpose? To create cognitive dissonance. Some people can tolerate more cognitive dissonance than others, but it’s annoying to everyone to some degree. It persists until the new information can be reconciled with the old. This can be done by discarding the new information or by changing the old belief. In Paul’s case, this means changing the fundamental way in which he is defined by his thoughts and feelings.
I correctly anticipated that the effect of the story on Rose wouldn’t be as direct. She missed the main point only because the information was secondhand and therefore much less powerful than it would have been if she had witnessed the incident herself. If she could have actually listened to what Paul said, she’d remember the story and I might be able to use it in the future. Instead, I hypothesized that Rose was using mediation as a source of material to amuse friends and family. At a future session, I’ll ask Rose if she retold Paul’s story and what reaction she received. If she hasn’t shared the story, I’ll ask her why not.
“Paul, when you said, ‘No one has said that Rose was easy,’ did you intend the sexual connotation of the word?”
Paul exclaimed, “No! I meant that Rose is complicated!”
Rose began, “Damn you, Paul …”
I interrupted her interruption. This is a risky move. When a person — in this case, Rose — is interrupted, two negative things can happen: 1) Her thought continues along the line interrupted and no attention is paid to whatever comes after the interruption, or 2) even worse, she develops resentment toward the person responsible for the interruption — especially if she’s paying that someone. However, if I let her continue, she’ll pull Paul back into their dance, so I decide it is worth taking a chance.
“Rose, either let me do the job you hired me to do and take a chance on learning something, or I’ll give the first pencil to Paul.”
She didn’t have a comeback, but she didn’t seem angry with me either. Maybe she was amused or even pleased to know that she wasn’t the only “crazy” person in the room. I decided to push my apparent advantage.
“Are you willing to try to observe with an open mind what I’m about to show you?”
“I guess,” she said.
Sometimes I’ll accept "weasel words" as better than nothing. Maybe I’ll accept them from Rose in the future. This time, I decided it was beneficial to see if Rose had reached a point in her grief where it was possible to communicate to her something she would rather not know.
“Rose, ‘I guess’ is not good enough. I asked if you were willing to try to observe with an open mind — to try to observe. That’s an easy question, and it deserves a yes or no answer. If your answer isn’t yes, then it’s no. So?”
These exchanges held Rose for a minute or two. This was the first time Paul had seen me confront her and probably one of the first times he’d seen her respond to coaching — or maybe it was bullying.
He looked comfortable, almost smug, but that was about to end. I made a decision to treat Paul more aggressively than the situation warranted. Rose would be confused by my harsh treatment of Paul and this, in turn, would compel her to pay closer attention to what he was saying in order to figure out what was happening in the mediation session.
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 protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.