Obviously, more than one of us is thinking about stories this week. Seth Godin wrote in a recent blog, "If you spend enough time experiencing your own take on reality, you come to believe that what works for you might actually be a universal truth. Marketing plus psychology might equal science, it seems." He was talking about the placebo effect in marketing, but it applies to the stories we tell ourselves as well. He also says "We've so blurred the lines between stories we tell ourselves and our perception of the outside world that it's easy to be confused and easier still to confuse others if it advances your cause." (For the entire blog, click on his name, above). What he means is that if you choose to believe only one set of facts, and you close your eyes to any others, and add a good dose of emotion, you can create a reality that can persuade or confuse the rest of the world. It's why when we tell our stories to others who know and trust us, they believe our version of reality and become the advocates for our views. It's how the lovely man you married became the S.O.B. you divorced, and how the terrific mother became the woman who abandoned her family. Seth asks at the close of his post whether we should get upset when others' version of reality doesn't match ours, or whether we should leave ourselves open to acquiring additional knowledge and the possibility that our truth is not THE truth. I guess it depends on whether the story you tell yourself is that you want to know what you don't know, or would rather be secure in your own beliefs however flawed. Your answer to that last question tells me how we resolve the issues related to your family law matter. I know you won't be surprised to know I prefer the former and not the latter, as that usually means you might not be a return customer.
Yes, "Once upon a time" is our theme this week. The first two days, we talked about stories we tell to each other. Today, we'll talk about the stories we tell ourselves. These are probably our most important stories. The stories we tell ourselves can help us overcome our fears; that's a good thing. Sometimes, however, our stories blind us to the truth; then they are not such good things. Sometimes our stories tell us that we're not an alcoholic, because "real" alcoholics are the falling down drunks we see in movies, and we only drink once in a while, although then we drink until we pass out. Sometimes our stories tell us that we're not be abused, because "real" abuse victims are covered in bruises and broken bones, and our spouse only calls us names and belittles us, albeit all the time. Maybe our stories tell us that "good" parents stay together for the children, even when all the children hear is arguing and fighting. Again, we need to ask ourselves whether we are telling ourselves the whole story, or just the part we want to hear and which supports what we want to believe. Then, we have to invite ourselves to tell a different story and look at what we know a different way. We need to consider whether the alcohol or the verbal violence affects how we live our lives, and whether our children would be better off with two intact and whole parents instead of an intact marriage. Only when we consider all sides, and angles do we have a story worth telling.
I'll let you in on a secret - I love reading advice columns. Sometimes I agree with the advice and sometimes I don't, but reading them kind of feels like you're being allowed to spy on someone else's life. It's delicious and somewhat naughty. Well, enough about me. On Sunday, I was reading Carolyn Hax, as I usually do on Sunday, and a man's second wife wrote in to tell Carolyn that she was extremely upset because her husband was civil to his first wife when he saw her. She wasn't bothered at all that he referred to her to others as a "lying, cheating @#*^%" Caroline hit the nail on the head with her advice (which you can read if you click her full name above). What was at the heart of her advice was a story telling moment. Here the second wife was, listening to her husband bash the first wife, and instead of remembering that the first wife, like her, was someone her husband had loved for a long time, and wondering about whether his story of the divorce was the whole truth, she chose to internalize his story. No wonder she was confused when he was civil to the first wife when they met in person. It never occurred to her that what he said and what was the impartial truth could be different.
The other thing that did not occur to the second wife was that she had the power to change his story. That was the beauty of Carolyn's advice - an invitation to change the husband's story into something healing and positive which would allow all of them to move forward with their lives. Thank you, Carolyn.
We all have them. Here in the Trenches, we hear more than most. What happened and who did what to whom is what we hear in the Trenches. The interesting thing about our stories is that they are so one sided. They are told from the perspective of our client, and are colored by their experiences in life and their emotions. Listening to them is like reading a book told from the perspective of a single narrator. I love books with narrators, but I especially love when the book has two narrators, and the story goes back and forth between them. What you learn from those stories is how the same events can be seen entirely differently by two people. We keep that in mind here in the Trenches. We know that no matter how rational and detached the narration, our client's story is always colored by their past life and their emotions. The impartial truth about the situation is usually not what they say, and not what their spouse says, but something that combines parts of each story. When we say this to clients, it's not because we don't believe their story. It is because we know that in order to help them move on with their lives and resolve the issues facing them, we need to understand the whole story, know what each of them includes and leaves out. That gives us information about what is important to each of them, so that we can help fashion a solution that works for both of them. If it only works for one, there will never be a lasting agreement. As the song says, "It takes two."
In a couple of weeks, my friend Bruce and I will be presenting at the IACP (International Academy of Collaborative Professionals) Forum in San Francisco on informed consent in the collaborative process. A large part of our presentation centers on what people understand, and how the same word can mean different things to different people. Sometimes the emotions of the speaker or the listener can affect what's heard. Sometimes it's the speaker's or the listener's experience, upbringing, profession, family that affects meaning. How different words mean different things to different people was driven home to me today. I am involved in a collaborative case. There are five professionals involved: two lawyers, two coaches/mental health professionals and one financial professional. We had a professional team phone call last week and discussed what we were going to do next. Next thing you know, two of the professionals were doing something the other three didn't think they were supposed to do. Then, two of the remaining three talked and found out they didn't exactly agree on what was supposed to be done either. Short story is that all five of us are talking tomorrow to make sure we're on the same page moving forward. You'd better believe we're going to check and double check that we actually all understand the same thing this time. We will make no assumptions about the meanings of our words, whether we speak them or hear them. The point here is that we have five professionals who communicate for a living, all taking different conclusions from the same conversation. We had no emotional undercurrents to get in the way of our understanding, and yet, look what happened. It just drives home how easy it is for our clients to misinterpret even those things we think we say clearly. Active listening makes sure all of us are on the same page.
I mediated a custody case today and in response to the mother's comment that the father wasn't supportive of her parenting, and set her up to be the bad guy, the father became offended because he did, in fact, support her parenting and backed her up with the kids. He said he always told them, "It's Fine with Me if Your Mom Says it's All Right." A lot of parents, even in intact families, think that such a statement is being supportive. They mean that if the child gets both votes, they can do it, but if they only have the one vote, they can't. What their teenage children hear, however, is an opportunity to exploit, divide and conquer. It's hard to do in an intact family, where Mom and Dad may actually talk to each other and compare stories. In a separated family, it's golden. You know where this is going....."Why can't I? Dad says it's OK." "You're so mean, Dad would let me!" (By the way, this scheme works just as well when Mom makes the "supportive" statement). What happens as a result? Mom feels pressured to give in, so the child gets what she wants. If Mom doesn't give in, then the child says she's a horrible parent. What is definite is that Mom is furious with Dad for setting her up in a no win situation. What happens when Mom sees/talks to Dad next? She lets him have it for putting her in a no win situation. Dad doesn't understand why she's so upset. They're separated and they're not really talking, so they never figure out that their little angel is setting them up.
I can't tell you how many times I see this scene play out. For every parent, those of us in the Trenches tell them that they can divorce their spouse as a spouse, but never as a parent. They have to continue to work together as parents until their children are raised, or they risk having their children run roughshod over them, or worse, getting into trouble because they have been raised with fluid limits. Even if they didn't communicate well while married, they need to communicate as parents. If they didn't know how while together, they need to learn; the consequences of not doing so will last a lifetime - their children's.
I have been making the rounds of doctors. Nothing wrong, just check up time. During these visits, I've noticed something that really bothers me. I love my doctors - I have really good service providers. Most of them, however, manage to find front office staff that are either completely lacking in personality, rude, nasty, or all of the above. I have now been to two offices in a row where the person at the front desk did not greet me, did not wish me a good morning and did not make eye contact. The first words out of their mouths were "Insurance card." Then, they demanded my drivers license and shoved a clipboard containing the same questionaire I fill out every single year, even though none of the information has changed. Still, no eye contact, no small talk, no nothing. The only other words I hear from them are "How much is your co-pay?" (and why don't they know that?) I don't know about you, but going to the doctor is somewhat stressful for me. You never know if they're going to find something. I don't want to be there. I'm a little apprehensive. Well, by the time I'm done with the person at the front desk, I want to kill someone or cry, I'm never sure which; I just know I'm tense. Puts me in a great frame of mind to see the doctor (Yes, I'm being sarcastic).
Three of my doctor's offices are different. I love going to them. It's not because the particular doctor visit is less stressful, and in fact, for these particular providers, the chance that something could be wrong is even greater than the others. The reasons I love going there are:
1) They greet me when I walk in the door. Nothing big, just "Hello."
2) They make eye contact.
3) I still give them the same cards and information, but they ask for it in a conversational way.
4) They are kind and caring, yet still professional.
5) They let me know they understand that being there can be stressful.
You're probably thinking that they're just acting like people. You'd be right. The question is, why are they so unusual in the medical field?
It brings us around to the Trenches, doesn't it? Our clients are scared, nervous, emotional, angry, and just plain stressed out. Most of them have never been to a lawyer before, and may never use one again. The law and the judicial system are foreign to them. How do we treat them when they call our offices? When they walk in the door? Do we just demand information, shove paperwork in front of them? Or, do we greet them by name, ask how they are, welcome them to our offices and ask them for the information we need to help them. Do we have smiles in our voices? It's the little things that make the difference. I would rather my office is one people want to call and come into rather than dread. Wouldn't you?
Here in the Trenches we are suffering mixed emotions. Cases for three of our favorite clients have ended for one reason or another. For two of them, their cases are over and they can move on with their lives; for one, their collaborative case fell out and litigation is starting. We are going to miss them all. The interesting thing about attorneys and their clients, as I've said before, is that they are like dogs and their owners - they resemble each other. Our favorite clients have a lot of things in common, and those things are what make them like us here in the Trenches (at least we hope so), and are why we love them:
1) They are good people.
2) They want to do the right thing by their families.
3) They are practical and reasonable.
4) They have a good sense of humor and of the absurd.
5) They are intelligent.
We love all three of them. We love hearing from them and talking to them. Working with them is a pleasure - it's a partnership of give and take, discussing the issues and reaching solutions. We'll miss their presence in the daily life of the Trenches, but wish them the best.
I will confess, we have been having a difficult couple of weeks here in the Trenches. Nothing big, just a lot of little things that have gone wrong: typos in pleadings, wrong case numbers. It seems like every time we turn around, something else was done wrong. It's not just one person, it's all of us. The funny thing is that all of these really minor errors do more to drag down our moods than one really big blooper. It's kind of like a slow drip versus a flood: each is bad in a different way, but a slow drip can do more damage in the long run.
Then, today, we got some really good news on behalf of a client. It was a little victory in the scheme of things, but a victory nevertheless. All of a sudden, all those little things stopped dragging us down, and the mood really picked up. Almost like when our Office Testosterone comes around.
Isn't this how our clients feel? Divorce isn't just one really big thing. It's a bunch of little things. The decision is the big thing, and most clients think that's the hardest part. It's not. All the little decisions, the negotiations and the process continue, sometimes for years. It's constant, and it wears you down. That's why it's important to keep perspective and remember that the little things are little, and to savor each and every positive that comes around. One positive counteracts so many negatives - here in the Trenches.
As you saw from my Friday post, last week I attended a training to improve my speaking skills so I can go out to groups and talk to them about collaborative practice. What we did was work into our presentations what the public thinks are the most important advantages of the collaborative practice. What is that, you ask? Less pain and more support through the process. In a lot of ways, the two advantages go hand in hand. When you feel supported, when you know you're not alone, you feel less pain. Less pain also means none of what the public perceives as "divorce as usual": no Kramer vs. Kramer, no War of the Roses, no Mrs. Doubtfire (although I really like the last movie because it shows a family evolve from having one good parent, to having two). It means more of getting on with the business of living and putting your life back together, and less of pulling it apart. Professionals like to think of Collaborative Practice as more constructive, providing our clients with tools to improve their lives and relationships moving forward. If we were really honest with ourselves, however, we would say that at its root we love Collaborative Practice because our clients suffer less, and in that regard, we are in harmony with our clients' goal: Collaborative Practice = Less Pain.