The Season’s Unexpected Gifts

By Laura Melton Tucker, December 18th, 2013

Listen to this entry.

As we navigate the potentially treacherous, conflict-rich holiday season, I offer a personal story and a recent mediation moment that felt like a gift to all in the room.  Both carry the same lesson, but the mediation story, the sweeter tale, I’ll save for the end.  My first Christmas with my boyfriend, (to whom I have been married for 37 years, so you know things worked out fine) didn’t go well. I came from a family that believed gifts were the same as love.  The more you got and gave, the more love there was.  But my boyfriend and I were students and we vowed to keep our first Christmas small.  My UCLA food service job paid meager wages, so I had to plan and save to buy and wrap (exquisitely) the perfect sweater.  It was well received.  My gift was an oddly shaped, untidy package.  (Oh well.  Boyfriend was perfect in every other way.)  And then it happened, a moment that has lived in family history infamy ever since.  My gift was a toothbrush, toothpaste, and, the clincher, deodorant.  I was stunned. Seeing my face, Boyfriend started explaining fast…”well, it’s a useful gift, one I knew you needed…I thought it would be fun to wrap it up…my intention wasn’t to make you cry!”  Of course I cried.  Later, when we deconstructed the scene the same word kept coming up, the cause of all my trouble: expectation.

In the words of yogi Amrit Desai, “There is no conflict without expectation.”  My older, wiser self hears the word intention and can hold it separate from expectation. Expectations are the desires that we grip concerning outer experiences.  Intentions are the desires that we hold lightly concerning inner states of being.  Expectations are focused on scarcity.  Intentions are focused on abundance.  Expectations are about fear, intentions are about love.  In short, expectations are pre-meditated resentments.  Have you ever felt conflict with someone for whom you felt no expectations?

The difference between expectation and intention has particular relevance to parties approaching mediation.  If resentments based on expectations have brought people to mediation, then how can intentions mitigate the conflict?  One divorcing couple modeled what this looks like during a recent session. To picture the scene, I meet with people in a private den that closes off to the rest of my house.  The furniture is configured in a circle.  A sofa lines the wall with a large square table in the center. Beside the sofa are two identical chairs facing each other; opposite the sofa are two smaller side chairs.  When clients enter, paperwork sits on the square table in front of the two larger chairs and clients choose between one providing a view to the outside or one facing the fireplace, always lit in the winter. The furniture configuration encourages a fair balance of power. Usually people stay in their seats.

In this mediation, information was being shared and negotiations were going smoothly until the husband said something that stirred conflict.  When additional words were exchanged, things headed off in a strained direction.  The wife became quiet, and dabbing tears, sat forward saying she didn’t think she could do this.  As mediator, my job is not to fix moments like this, but I can slow things down.  I summarized the conversation that occurred around the moment of breakdown, and hoped that clarity would come to both parties if they had a moment to reconsider what occurred.  And then the husband moved.  He stood up, signaling to me that he too might be done, except that instead of leaving the room, he walked over to the smaller chair beside his wife and sat down.  He dropped his voice, spoke softly, and when she turned toward him to listen, tentatively took her hand in his saying, “I’m sorry.  It wasn’t my intention….” His gesture dispelled the negativity.  His wife accepted the gesture and his restated intention and they continued on…working through the rest of their disputes in order to move forward.

Whether I’m wearing my mediator hat or girlfriend/wife hat, I have come to understand the difference between expectations and intentions.  Our expectations are the walls we put up that dictate what needs to happen in order for us to be happy. Expectations never deliver. Intentions, on the other hand, are the energy that we send forward into the very next moment to open the space for what flows out and, serendipitously, back in. They always deliver.  The takeaway is that releasing our expectations and focusing our intentions may be all it takes to remove separation and invite connection. With soft humor, I invite you to prepare for dashed expectations this gift-giving season. But take heart, for conflict delivers insights that help us to expand our awareness: In the words of author Richard Bach, “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.”

May the gifts of the season not be wasted on any of us. Cheers, and Happy Holidays, everyone!

3 Responses

  • Brilliant, Laura. I will try to hold on to this and think on it frequently. Sending you a package and note today!

  • Wendi Goen says:

    Aunt Laura,

    This is beautiful. I hope you don’t mind, but I have shared this with some of my friends.

    Love you bunches!

  • Greta and Wendi – thank you for leaving such nice notes:) I don’t know if you saw my comment on Facebook that Nithya Shanti, whom I follow on fb, gets the credit for developing this idea on the difference between expectations and intentions. I’ve been thinking about expectations and conflict since I watched a wonderful Ken Bok youtube interview with Amrit Desai, the founder of Kripalu yoga – about relationships. The video is excellent and worth the time. Love you both.

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