When Making Space Is Enough

By Laura Melton Tucker, January 27th, 2013

Listen to this entry.

In my blogs I sometimes compare mediation to other things – like the time I compared it to washing spots off the wall, or improvisation, or its similarity (in more ways than spelling) to meditation.  Today, I succumb to the same rhetorical device.  Mediation, I proffer, is similar to what a chiropractor does.

At the chiropractor yesterday my husband received treatment for an old back injury. When his vertebrae get out of alignment, his entire back tightens.  He can’t move without spasms.   He feels like his skeleton is going to collapse in pieces around him.  Watching the chiropractor work his magic, I asked about the process he goes through to restore alignment.  Most of what he does, he said, is to loosen up the muscles around the injury so that the body puts itself back in place.  “I trust the body to do the work – I just get things unstuck so they can move back into place on their own.”   I may do the same kind of work, I thought to myself.

When clients come to mediation, they’re sometimes in the grip of a tight spot.  They’re in transition – divorcing, ending a business partnership, or at a crossroad in a relationship.  Conflict feels like tightness, too.  It’s a constriction around unresolved emotions, uncertainty, and differences of opinion. The mediation doesn’t always deliver an agreement or a resolution to a problem. Things don’t fall into place immediately.  Sometimes, mediation relaxes people’s grip around their problems.  The mediation conversation, what mediators call “conflict engagement,” can lead to enough softening around a problem that a shift happens on its own.  Something moves, space is created, a new understanding falls into place.

The power of conflict engagement is observable in real ways.  In his wonderful Book of Secrets, Dr. Deepak Chopra describes a medical study where the power of talk is greater than the power of drugs.  In the study, patients who talk about difficult emotions literally extend their lives:

“A now famous study by David Siegel at Stanford took a group of women who had late-stage breast cancer and divided them into two groups.  One group was given the best medical care, which by that point was very little.  The other group sat down once a week and shared their feelings about having the disease.  This alone produced a remarkable result.  After two years, all the long-term survivors belonged to the second group and the overall survival in that group was half again as long as in the group that didn’t discuss their feelings.  In essence, the women who confronted their emotions were able to shift [the course of the disease] (p. 230). ”

The remarkable result that Chopra references – women living longer because they find solace in sharing feelings about their cancer – can also happen with mediation. I never know if clients are going to come to agreement, but every time they talk and listen, they have the power to shift their perspectives and feel better. I have received feedback from clients that this shift leads to better interaction as they co-parent. After mediation, clients don’t agree, necessarily. They don’t fix things always.  Instead, they have the possibility of finding a new way to see things, softening around old injuries, finding movement and going forward.

This concept of tight emotions around old injuries reminds me of clients* who came to mediation to discuss how to share their children.  Their situation was particularly difficult because the mother wanted the children to follow her career so that she could take a job in another state and secure a tenure track position. Before the husband agreed to this, he needed his wife to understand hurts he’d internalized the last 10 years of their lives.  Their conversation focused on the value of the father’s role to the children, whether or not he’d lived up to his wife’s expectations of what a stay-at-home parent does, and whether he’d done right by the family.  They spoke of disappointments and frustrations, but also of shared successes and appreciation for what each had contributed to the childrens’ welfare.  Their final compromise, that the children would attend school while living with their mother, and vacation while living with their father, came almost as an after thought.  A softening toward one another came from sharing – over the course of  several sessions – their feelings around the sacrifice they’d each made.  Those conversations, storytelling sessions, really, allowed the couple to lay down their stories and find a compromise.

The takeaway is that conflict engagement is not only a means to an end, but an end in itself. It allows for people to engage in difficult talk as a way to bring emotions, beliefs, and thoughts to the surface for airing. Loosening things up can be the best way to let healing happen naturally.  Letting things move into place doesn’t always require force.  Making space can be enough.

*Names and circumstances are changed to protect privacy.

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