There is a fable attributed to Aesop, The Tree and the Reed:
Well, little one, said a Tree to a Reed that was growing at its foot,
“why do you not plant your feet deeply in the ground, and raise your
head boldly in the air as I do?”
“I am contented with my lot,” said the Reed. “I may not be so grand,
but I think I am safer.”
“Safe!” sneered the Tree. “Who shall pluck me up by the roots or bow
my head to the ground?” But it soon had to repent of its boasting, for
a hurricane arose which tore it up from its roots, and cast it a
useless log on the ground, while the little Reed, bending to the force
of the wind, soon stood upright again when the storm had passed over.
And so, it is the power of FLEXIBILITY that makes the Reed safe and able to stand upright after the storm passes. The application of this parable to mediation is a perfect fit. Yet, flexibility can be hard to accomplish. Our brains resist a shift in our patterns and retreat to the safety of the familiar. Strong positions that we hold when coming to the mediation table often seem impermeable. Yet, flexibility is achievable leading to greater choices and out of the box thinking conducive to arriving at a “win-win” resolution in mediation.
FLEXIBILITY AND COVID 19
While I preach the importance of flexibility in mediation, I did not truly appreciate the mental energy it takes to step outside of one’s comfort zone and accept a flexible alternative until Covid 19 required me to do so. I teach a seminar in Conflict Resolution to Honors students at a University. In March 2020, I was given ten days to transfer a face-to-face, discussion and role play class to online learning. Yes, ten days! With great trepidation Zoom became my friend for online classes. Surprisingly, the online learning was a success and very little of the face-to-face benefits we enjoyed in class were sacrificed. As a bonus, I gained the experience to be confident offering online mediations via Zoom. What started as a difficult process actually turned out well and resulted in learning a new skill I will use well past Covid.
Covid 19 has forced many of us to be flexible. Suddenly, safe child visitation does not look the same. Home schooling children and remote working are difficult to balance. Court hearings for those with pending domestic cases may be delayed. Zoom court hearings or a hybrid of online and in person hearings have been a way of keeping courts open and people safe.
Think of the changes to your life brought on by Covid. Looking back, adaptation to a new normal seemed impossible but many of us are doing it. Sure, sometimes it is easier than others and sometimes we fail. That does not mean we cannot adapt to our circumstances. I love the quote, “Circumstances don’t make the man; they only reveal him to himself.” ― Epictetus
There is a strong self to reveal in all of us. Whether you are preparing for mediation as a party or an attorney representing a party, good preparation includes the psychological component. We know from brain science that when we are stressed our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive decisions, goes offline. Coming to mediation with an open mind and a functioning pre-frontal cortex is essential for maximum results.
We believed at one time that a person’s brain could not change after they reached a certain age. As adults, there was little hope to rewire the neurons in our brains. Scientists now know that the brain CAN change at any age. Younger brains have greater neuroplasticity than older brains. This just means that an older person has to work harder at rewiring those brain circuits that are responsible for ridged thinking. How can we give neuroplasticity our best shot? Below are five things that help.
- Take care of physical needs
Getting enough sleep is vital to brain health and is a buffer to the stress of mediation. People going through a divorce or other family issues are already stressed and sleep may not come easily. There are excellent articles on sleep hygiene. Do some research and find solutions that can work for you. Practice good sleep habits in the weeks prior to mediation. Eating a good diet is also important. The Mediterranean Diet is a good one to follow. Foods like avocado, nuts, vegetables such as spinach and asparagus, and grains boost the brain chemicals that aid collaboration and flexibility. It has been said that exercise is a wonder drug. Study after study show the strong benefits of physical activity. Select something that you like and stick with it. Walking is relatively easy and may help clear and calm the mind benefitting the mediation process.
- Embrace the benefits of a flexible process
If you chose mediation over litigation, then congratulations! Litigation can be brutal emotionally as well as costly. If you were ordered to go to mediation by a court, consider this as an opportunity rather than a barrier. There you go with a start to flexible thinking! Mediation is a confidential process that is more informal than a court setting. The process can be tailored to your needs such as scheduling, online or in person, caucusing- where you and your attorney, if you are represented, meet privately with the mediator, and numerous other needs that cannot be addressed in a more structured court system.
- Focus on the here and now rather than the past
It is natural to ruminate on the conflicts and events that brought you to mediation. The past shapes our future and is important. However, if you allow your mind to constantly deliberate the wrongs that you have experienced you are crippling that pre-frontal cortex needed to make wise decisions today. That executive decision-making part of your brain goes offline and leaves you making decisions with a part of your brain lead by emotions. The decisions you make in mediation impact the future which, unlike the past, you do have some ability to control.
- Ask yourself questions
In order to change our brains pattern of thinking, contemplation of questions might redirect your thinking. You may have decided something just “cannot be.” Asking yourself, “what if it could?” or “What would it look like if the ‘cannot be’ happens?” Ask yourself what is the worst-case scenario, and what is the best-case scenario.
- Brainstorm solutions
Activate that pre-frontal cortex thinking part of your brain by brainstorming different solutions and resolutions to your conflict. Gathering data may be a helpful part of this process. Think of every possibility for resolution you can – from the unacceptable, the ridiculous, the appealing, to the “maybe this could work” scenario. You do not have to commit to a brainstormed solution. Just the process of realizing there are many possibilities and hybrids of possibilities tamps down out of control emotions and enhances flexible thinking.
As you approach mediation, remember when the storm comes, the Reed is both safer and stronger than the tree.