Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thinking Within the Box: Facilitated Dialogue without the need for Conflict

My parents, 82 years young, are beginning to recognize that they want the input of their adult children in managing their lives: business investments, tax and estate planning, cooking, driving, traveling. This morning we took advantage of the holiday week to all gather together for breakfast and a business-type meeting. Before going, I gave some thought to structuring the discussion in a mediation like way, but without the conflict. It was tricky: my brother and my husband clearly anticipated that I would unwittingly create or highlight conflict when there wasn't any. Instead, it worked this way: We began with my Dad, the patriarch, expressing some of his concerns and interests. I took notes and then invited the others sitting round the table to chime in. In the end, I set an agenda with 14 items (and we addressed only 7) ranging from "ground rules" including privacy from the next generation to a framework for regular commuication (Semi-annual meetings with our generations only--which my brother will "convene" via email in May and beginning of December). Because there were no real interpersonal disputes, it was more a useful tool for setting up a basis for future communications and accountability. (Who will check in to make sure they are eating well and are protected from financial predators, for example?) Mom promised never to drive to a family event in an evening without first checking with my nearby daughter. Dad promised that if they travel home at night they will arrange for someone to pick them up at the airport and not wait for a cab who may not be willing to drive them since they only live a short distance from the airport. My husband agreed to discuss some real estate issues with their accountant before they decide how best to characterize a taxable event that occurred in the past year and affects some family property. I submit that for my mediator friends, this was a useful way to engage our skills and expertise outside the world of conflict--but in a way that I am proud to say was highly appreciated by my brother and sister and their spouses and my terrific parents. It started as a difficult conversation, but once we put it in a familiar (to me) framework, it worked smoothly and paved the way for whatever more difficult conversations will inevitably follow.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Civility or Benevolent Dictatorship?

Today is my son, Zach's birthday. He is a man of many facets: a musician, a sharp business mind, a bon vivant, athletic, handsome, sweet, creative, tough, ambitious, and all around great guy. And so he brings me to consider my own multi-faceted business practices. I have been struggling this week with the objectives of both litigators and mediators in settling challenging commercial cases. On Monday, I lectured at a lawfirm on "Civility" and was struck by the ease with which litigators could rationalize less civil conduct than the State Bar's Civility Guidelines dictate could be ignored in the context of litigation. Then this morning's New York Times included an essay called "The Bipartisanship Racket" by Frank Rich Rich talked about the shortcomings of a new movement of "No Labels" and contrasts it with the much needed "leadership" virtues. At a holiday party last week for the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA) my own trainer, Therese White asked me whether I employed an "Evaluative" style in mediation. I had to think for a few minutes. And then, in another article in the New York Times this morning, there was a profile of Bruce Flatt, of Brookfield Asset Management, who is known for his excellent skills in negotiation and has been called a "Benevolent dictator". My synthesis of this is that the two strains: civility and "heavy metal" evaluative mediation can be effectively combined. With civility as the overarching framework (ie: true benevolence) a form of dictatorship, although anathema to true mediation, may be the only way that challenging litigated cases can be effectively resolved. If the parties or the lawyers knew how to settle their claims without a benevolent third party dictator, they wouldn't need a private mediation! Something to consider...