Fighting siblings and divorcing spouses are more alike than you may think, and both can find peace by following these three steps.
There is serious drama in my house this morning.
My seven-year-old recently found a passion for all things Captain Jack Sparrow. My 12-year-old happens to be the owner of a pristine Captain Jack figure; pristine because he has never once wanted to play with it over the past half of a decade since he got it. Seven wants the figure, and offered Twelve a toy of his own in exchange for it. Any toy, except for the one Lego that Twelve decided he would be willing to accept as payment.
There is screaming. There are tears. There are cries of “He’s not being flexible!” The negotiation has reached an impasse.
Except that in 2008, commercial mediator Lee Jay Berman coined the phrase “impasse is a fallacy.” In his article of the same name, he stated: “For negotiators to declare impasse can make sense, if you think about it. The goal in negotiation, after all, is to win. And the threat of impasse can sometimes be an effective tactic in achieving that goal. [Mediators], however, are hired to settle cases… Impasses that simply cannot be explained often occur due to a failure during the communication stage. Simply stated, the mediator may not have discovered or addressed a party’s underlying interests. When parties have underlying interests or emotional barriers to settlement, it is common for them not to know what is keeping them from settling.”
In plain English, negotiations break down between business partners, spouses, and siblings when an emotional trigger so overwhelms the nervous system that our unconscious pushes aside our original goal and reprioritizes our needs with no rational reason. We then push at all costs, spending precious time, energy, and money fighting for something that may or may not satisfy our goal. These misdirected battles destroy health, relationships and retirement plans every day.
I could easily swap Seven and Twelve with “Husband” and “Wife,” replace Captain Jack Sparrow with a valuable 401K, and you would have an entirely realistic glimpse into the conversations that take place in a divorce mediator’s office on any given day.
When I compare battling siblings to a divorcing couple, I am neither expecting adult behavior from children too young to handle it, nor am I mocking the painful emotional struggles of a couple being asked to pick apart and divide the material remains of a troubled marriage. I am exploring a typical pattern of human behavior that results from the natural impulse to fight for what we believe we need when we feel cornered at any age. All of us need an occasional reminder from someone we trust when we let our animal instincts stand in our own way.
Siblings share a relationship that in many ways provides direct education for their future relationship with a spouse. That sounds extremely odd, but think about it. Siblings are bound to each other by laws and family. They must live together even on days they wish the other would just disappear for a little (or a long) while. Their restaurant, activity, and scheduling choices revolve around each other’s. Romantic aspects of marriage obviously aside, how much siblings have in common, how much empathy they feel for and show each other, and how well they communicate to manage their differences make or break their daily quality of life.
Sibling dynamics therefore shape our entire world view. How we allow our children to treat each other colors their expectations for what they should and shouldn’t expect from their relationships in the future. We all want our children to become resilient, kind and successful adults with happy, healthy marriages. Providing them with tools for manage their childhood conflicts is your greatest opportunity for not only peace in your own home, but peace in their adult lives.
Here are three steps you can teach your children to resolve their conflicts, and maybe even let you sleep in, based on mediation techniques (and illustrated though the events of my early first hours awake today).
Step 1: Re-direct the initially frustrated child’s attention to what he or she truly wanted to achieve.
When Seven engaged my “services” this morning, he told me he wanted Jack Sparrow and was willing to do anything in order to get it. I asked if his current efforts were working, to which he offered me an eye roll and more crying. I asked him to sit quietly and take deep breaths, explaining that I couldn’t help him with his problem until he was calm enough to hear me.
Once I sensed a reasonable breathing pattern from him, I asked him what he originally wanted when he initiated the trade. Captain Jack Sparrow, duh! I explained that I wouldn’t force Twelve to part with Jack any more than I would force him to give up the Lego in return, and asked him what was most important to him — that he acquire Jack, or that this particular trade be completed. Acquire Jack, of course. But, he insisted, Twelve doesn’t even play with Jack! I asked again which was most important to him — that Twelve give Jack up, or that he acquire Jack for himself? Answer re-confirmed.
Step 2: Engage the other sibling by asking what his or her own initial priorities were in response.
I suggested to Seven that if we could understand what was important to Twelve we might be able to find a solution together. In order to do so, I needed him to remain calm and allow me and Twelve the same opportunity to hear each other as he and I just had. He agreed and we invited Twelve to join us.
I told Twelve that Seven understood now that his goal was not to take something from his brother, but to have Jack to play with. I asked Twelve how important Jack is to him, on a scale of 1 to 10, to which he replied a 6 — not as high a priority as I expected from the volume of argument, and also not surprising. I explained the financial value of the figure to him, and asked whether there was something he had been wanting from his brother for longer than just this brief moment in which he decided he needed the never-before-today-mentioned Lego. Indeed there was!
Step 3: Oversee the exchange, ask the kids to acknowledge each other and enjoy watching them play!
Twelve gave Jack to Seven and found the toy of his heart’s true desire. I asked Seven to apologize for his over-reaction and thank his big bro for being flexible after all. Twelve kindly accepted and they both turned back to what was really important, peacefully enjoying their day. For now.
As I wrap up, Seven just excitedly turned to me and said “I haven’t even had Jack Sparrow for an hour yet and I feel like I’ve had him for a whole year!” Next week he may not remember what the details of this particular compromise were, but he will remember that it worked, and that he and his brother both happily got what they wanted from each other.
And the notion of an “impasse” is that much farther on the path beyond the limits of their beautiful imaginations.
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