Uncluttering your conflicts means making sure the really important things don’t get crowded out by all the crap. It’s one piece of the conflict zen puzzle.
A few years ago I successfully mediated a messy family case in which a little girl’s grandparents had petitioned the court to be granted permanent guardianship. The little girl’s mother — who was their own daughter — was fighting the petition.
At the table were the two grandparents and their attorney, the mother and her attorney, and a court-appointed guardian ad litem whose role was to serve the interests of the child. The verbal skirmishes between the three family members began even before they were all seated.
I asked how long this had been going on. About 18 months. I asked what they thought this problem was about. The list generated by the mother and grandparents was fast, furious and long:
- Grandparents: Her inability to grow up.
- Mother: Their desire to control my life, as usual.
- Grandmother: Her awful temper and lack of decent anger management.
- Mother: My father’s inability to stand seeing how he’s passed down his bad temper to me. He can’t stand seeing himself in me!
- Grandfather: What’s right for our granddaughter — being with us.
- Mother: Their revenge for me calling the police on them last summer.
- Grandparents: Her own vengeful ways and not wanting our granddaughter to have to live in that kind of environment.
- And so on.
I asked if anyone had a photo of the little girl. The grandmother fetched one from her wallet and handed it to me.
Staring up at me was an angelic little 5-year-old, blonde curls and a white lace dress with yellow bow, her chin resting on her little hands and a sweet smile on just the most beautiful little face. It’s the kind of photo of a child that would melt anyone’s heart in an instant.
I set the photo in the middle of the table so we could all look at it. “Tell me about her,” I said.
It was the first real silence in the room. I’d just asked them to do something unexpected and unfamiliar in their argument pattern.
Grandma spoke first. “She’s a smart one, that’s for sure. All A’s in school so far this year. The teacher said she’s going to be a very good student.” Then the grandfather: “And just a sweet little kid, if you know what I mean. Always comes and curls up on my lap when I get home from work, just likes to cuddle with both of us. There’s not a mean bone in her body.” Mom hesitated, then added, “She’s been through a lot, but she still has a sunny personality. Everyone comments on it. And she loves her kitty.”
Looking at the photo, Mom started to cry. Grandma said quietly, looking across at her daughter, “You always loved your kitties when you were little, too. I think she got that from you.” Mom cried harder. Looking for the first time directly at her father, she said, “She does love being with you, I know that. You are both good to and for her. I know that. But she loves being with me, too, you know.” Grandpa nodded almost imperceptibly.
I wondered out loud, “With so much love in the room for this little girl, I wonder what you want to do here today to build on that love and make sure she gets everything she needs and deserves.”
Mom dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “I think we need to make this conversation about what she needs, not just what we all want.” Grandpa nodded. “We agree.” Then he kind of chuckled. “Waddya know? That’s the first thing we’ve agreed on in 18 months!”
With the initial conflict clutter cleared away, we began to figure out how to solve the most important problem they’d brought into the room with them: How to make sure their individual and collective love for that little girl could blossom in the coming months and years.
I wonder what conflict crap is cluttering your own important relationships, work, or goals? If you cleared away the clutter of your anger, judgment, diagnosis and certainty, what would you see more clearly?