Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Mediation’

The Unifying Power of Happiness Dinners


There’s a reason a picture of my granddaughter illustrates what is essentially an extended invitation to you — yes, you, the person reading this right now — to celebrate the 5th annual International Day of Happiness (IDOH) by hosting a Happiness Dinner.  The photo’s relevance will soon be clear. First, though, I want you to know that hosting these dinners is a wonderful, deeply meaningful experience. I was a host myself for two years in a row.  Both evenings filled me with love, gratitude, and joy.

The Happiness Dinners are even younger than IDOH; Gross National Happiness USA started this new tradition just three years ago. Since I’ll be traveling home from the World Happiness Summit, I might miss the chance to host this year. You, however, can offer your friends whatever kind of feast suits your fancy (take out, pot luck,  gourmet, you name it!) — along with the healing power of a serious conversation about happiness. Together, you and your guests can experience the unifying capacity of happiness — at least for one highlight reel evening.

We certainly need something to bring us together.

Lately I’ve been thinking, this country needs one great big mediation.  Or, possibly, millions of small ones. My Masters in Mediation training taught me that most of the bluster that rages within conflicts is merely positioning.  To get to a mutually agreeable solution, it helps to strip away the surface arguments and uncover what really matters, what the interests are that fuel the disputes.

I suspect, if we could sit down and listen with open minds and hearts to one another’s interests, we’d recognize that we’re not that far apart.  We all want economic security, a sense of safety, good health (mental and physical), a government that works on our collective behalf, and vital communities.  We want to give and receive love.  We want peace.  In other words, we want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

We have different ideas about how to meet these needs, of course.  Sometimes, our views are diametrically opposite. Still. If we could meet on the playing field of our common humanity and our shared interest in happiness and well-being, we’d be much more likely to find solutions that most of us could endorse.

Since neither the one large nor the millions of small mediations are going to happen, I suggest instead, let’s listen to one another. Forget the ranting, raving futile attempts to convince each other of the rightness of our own positions.  Move beyond that to speak our own truths and, even more importantly, hear the genuine interests of others.  Essentially, that’s what the the Happiness Dinners are about — giving and receiving the gift of listening to what matters most in life. These dinners work, in part, because sharing a good meal makes us more comfortable with one another, and in part because Gross National Happiness USA provides guidelines for keeping the conversation focused. Perhaps the most crucial ingredient, though, is good listening.

Listening can be magical, for both the listener and the one being heard.

I experienced this magic quite unexpectedly on Christmas vacation with my family. I was with my granddaughter, right after an all-you-can-eat sausage and pancakes breakfast on the beach.  We had strolled over to the playground, where she could do her four year-old thing on the play structure, and I could do my grandmother thing, watching her from a distance, and drinking in every moment.

I thought I was in a politics-free zone with other happy grandparents, one of whom asked jokingly if I had had vodka in my orange juice cup. Our chat started out friendly enough, but began edging closer and closer to possibly volatile political territory when he began complaining about government spending priorities.  Guessing that he and I likely had very different views, I became wary.  We were at the beach, for heaven’s sake. Rather than plunge into a useless debate, I endeavored to keep this encounter superficial.

Fortunately, I didn’t succeed.  I say fortunately, because he turned out to be a man in pain who really wanted to be heard.  At some point, thanks to my mediation training and my experience on the Happiness Walk, I decided it was best to just listen.  I didn’t have to agree, argue or judge. I could just hear the man.

I disagreed with him on at least one major issue, but kept my mouth shut. Surprisingly, we found common ground in agreeing that money is not the root of happiness, and that consumerism and greed have gotten way out of hand.  Mostly, though, I had the privilege of listening to this grandfather’s heartbroken story about his heroin addict son, the father of the two young grandchildren playing with my granddaughter.  “My son’s never bought so much as a diaper for them,” the grandfather sadly said.

Before you know it, we were hugging. I have to say, I felt so much love for that man — and his wife, who moved in and out of the conversation.  Politics and religion were 100% irrelevant. We were all just frail humans with our joys and sorrows, at the beach with our grandchildren on Christmas Eve morning.  Their stories reminded me, again, we all want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

The stories you’ll hear at a Happiness Dinner will hopefully not be quite so sad — though they might be, as times of sorrow and pain can also lead to a deeper appreciation of happiness.  In any case, I’ll wager that almost all the stories will be moving. In the safe space of a Happiness Dinner, you and your guests will likely be speaking from your hearts — and that, my friend, is a very special place.




Conflict Makes Us Unhappy … Right?? Part 1.

In 2005, when I was in my early 50’s and weary of the full time craft show life, I decided to study mediation at Woodbury College.  With no mediation experience or knowledge, I failed to appreciate the irony when I told Admissions Director Kathleen Moore (now a dear friend) that I hated conflict while I simultaneously professed my enthusiasm for enrolling.  Mediators, it turns out, work in the heart of conflict.  My remark convinced Kathleen that I was not going to apply.

But I did, earning an M.S. in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies in 2007.  I loved the program and the “magic” of mediation.  Indeed, I’ve never really left.  Even before I graduated, I began working for the program — now owned by Champlain College — as a coach for new mediation students.  Several times a year, I head to campus to support fledgling mediators as they practice their new tools in emotional role play after emotional role play.  It’s an exhausting but satisfying gig, and I’m grateful for it.  I also created Home Share Now‘s position of staff mediator, and have been  a conflict coach and conflict skills workshop facilitator.

And, I still dislike conflict.  It makes me sick to my stomach, and I want to avoid it.  It’s just that now I know that avoiding conflict is rarely the best choice.  So when I’m in the midst of an upsetting situation, I grit my teeth and plunge in.  In those moments, I am decidedly unhappy.  Ugh.  I just hope that facing the hurt and anger with skill, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness — toward the other person and toward myself — will ultimately lead to greater understanding, healthier relationships, and more happiness.

Since conflict is inevitable in relationships, and strong relationships rank in the top five of almost any happiness list, learning how to engage in productive conflict is a key happiness strategy.  Poorly managed conflict can undermine or destroy relationships; conflict done well strengthens relationships.

I remember the “aha” moment when this truth struck home.

Just a couple of kids in love

It was during a break from a probing class on Interpersonal Conflict, taught by the redoubtable Tammy Lenski, author of The Conflict Zen blog.  As I recall, Tammy had just pegged me as a conflict avoider, one of five universal conflict styles*.   Headed toward the bathroom, I thought, “I do NOT avoid all conflict.  I always engage in conflict with Bob!”  And then I thought, and who, out of everyone I know, do I have the best relationship with?  Hands-down, with my husband Bob, with whom I am very happy.

Hmmm.  Coincidence?  Of course not.

Apparently, conflict actually — ultimately — makes us happy.

Still in love, 40+ years later

Of course, that’s conflict done well — and that isn’t an easy standard, even for conflict professionals.  We humans are complex,  messy, and obliviously self-serving — especially when we’re pissed off.

The good news is, no one needs a master’s degree to get a lot better working through arguments, differences of opinion, hurt, etc.  Once again, Bob is “Exhibit A” for me; he learned with and from me as I earned my degree, and his own conflict skills have improved significantly.

Over and over in my happiness research, the tremendous value of mindfulness rises to the surface.  Conflict is no exception.  You have to be mindful as you ask, what is really going on here?  What did I do?  Why?  What do I want?  Why?  Ditto for the other person. Because the answers can be painful, compassion also comes in quite handy.

One way to make it easier to answer these questions is, to use mediator jargon, figure out what each person’s positions and interests are.  Once you know what each person really wants, you’ll have a much better shot at coming up with a solution that leaves everyone at least moderately satisfied.

I’ll illustrate by sharing a situation when I was not exactly at my best.  Bob had done the grocery shopping, and, as per request, had bought me shampoo.  But it was, sin of sins, the wrong shampoo!!  I love the scent of vanilla, and through the years had told him repeatedly to please get the vanilla shampoo.  He hadn’t done so, and I got mad.  I made some ungrateful and ungracious remarks, and he got mad, too.  We retreated to our corners, both of us steaming.

Since life in my house is much happier when we are not angry at each other, and, I had this shiny new mediator degree in my back pocket, I sat in my corner and tried to figure out why we were so upset.  “You bought the wrong shampoo!” was a positional accusation.  I needed to understand why it mattered so much — then I would know what my interest was in this conflict.  I realized that I did not feel heard, or validated, by my husband.  In other words, my feelings were hurt.

I also knew my own behavior left something to be desired (as one friend put it, “my halo had slipped”).  Acknowledging our own contribution to conflict is another helpful tool in working together toward a solution.

So I went back to Bob, and asked him to please work with me on understanding what had happened.  After he reluctantly agreed, I apologized for my reaction and my hurtful words.  He knew all about positions and interests, so I told him what I thought my interests were and asked him what he thought.  He then told me that when he realized the store was out of vanilla shampoo, he had tried hard to figure out what other scent was mostly likely to please me.  He thought it was better to get the best possible shampoo, rather than no shampoo at all.  Naturally, my pissiness at seeing his choice had stung.

From that point on, we could not only work through this incident but even learn from it: I now buy all my own shampoo.  Conflict successfully resolved!

Okay, a little marital spat about incorrectly scented shampoo is of no great importance — on the surface.  But in this incident, as in most incidences, the real important concerns (interests) were below the surface (position).

Positions and interests were also on my mind this morning while I took care of my three-month-old grandbaby.  When she cries — well, that’s positional.  The reasons she cries — hey, that’s her only way of expressing her interests.  Hungry, bored, tired … When I correctly understand her interest and respond accordingly, one of the things that’s happening is a deepening of the relationship between us — and that makes me immeasurably happy.

Paradoxically, using positions and interests in conflict situations is both elegantly simple and frustratingly challenging.  In addition to mindfulness and compassion, it can take persistence, courage, hope, and lots of open-hearted questioning and listening.  You may even have to be the grown-up in the situation, which is challenging in and of itself when you feel wronged.  But hang in there.  You might just end up happier.


* The other styles are competing, accommodating, compromising, and problem-solving.  I’ll discuss these and various other helpful conflict tools, in later posts.