Hard-nosed, touchy-feely realism

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

Merely 30 years ago I thought my worth as a man would be roughly proportional to the number of near death experiences I survived combined with being able to hold my own in whatever imaginary pissing contest I might encounter. In fourth grade, having read nearly every Louis L'Amour western novel at that time printed, I envisioned myself as "the strong, silent type."

Now I consider myself a hard-nosed, touchy-feely realist, happy to have survived my share of near death experiences with contaminated food.

I've learned that winning a pissing contest is more likely to depend on timing and finesse than brawn.

This seems true to me even more so when the goal is to "win" for the long term.

A law school professor once told my wife and me that "feelings are the first facts in every case." Since the early 1990s, we've mediated several hundred conflicts probably averaging three to four sessions per case and sometimes twice that. I think that professor was right.

It is possible for people to choose mediation before emotional obstacles arise, but, unfortunately for the parties involved, that rarely happens. Instead, what the professor said is true. They are often unspoken, but the first, most important driving facts in almost every dispute are feelings.

Dagnabbit, those feelings are insidious. When the limbic system kicks in, the rational frontal lobes like to check out. This is what I mean by hard-nosed, touchy-feely realism. Touchy feelings happen.

When I hear tough guys and women react emotionally to talking things through by denigrating the prospect as "touchy-feely," my sense of humor kicks in, and I want to say "Don't be a wuss. Listen to me. Get over it."

I'm even more tempted to react this way when politicians and professionals in suits adapt the anti-touchy-feely, tough-guy shtick. Of course, I don't because I realize that by doing so, I would be parading my own emotional shortcomings to no constructive effect.

We all have limbic systems. The challenge is to keep the rational frontal lobes active, too.

We find in mediation, in most cases we encounter, we can adapt to touchy feelings constructively. We often can help our clients do so as well, and help them minimize associated harm to elements of the situation like the children, the business, or ongoing relationships.

But guess what. In order to address difficult issues constructively, at some level people first have to be willing to try listening even if they aren't ready to talk.

It has been partly with the following understanding that I have volunteered considerable time with the Kenai Peninsula's start-up called the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue. It is a common refrain among us, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

As our world becomes ever more complex, crowded, and interdependent, emotional intelligence and constructive communication will become increasingly necessary to maintain civil society and avoid festering, escalating problems, litigation, polarized community and violence and destruction of the sort we see around the world.

That's just hard-nosed, touchy-feely realism.

Dan Chay is a professional mediator, Open Space facilitator and conflict resolution educator who has practiced on the Kenai Peninsula with his wife, Heidi, since 1996. The Chays are board members of the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to "strengthening community by providing safe forums, learning opportunities and skills for the constructive expression of differences and resolving conflict."

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