From Trauma, to Transformation and then Peace.

Over the past thirty plus years my career has focused on all aspects of dispute resolution – it began with a specialty in family law and it continues that way today. Over the past years I felt a need to step into leadership. I learned that at this time in history, this work has become a deep calling and one that I feel privileged to take on. Let me clarify, throughout my career I have balanced a commercial and family law practice; now my work is 100% focused on leaving the family in better position than before they engaged my services.

An important aspect in the law, conflict resolution and peace-making is understanding the role trauma plays in resolving deep seated conflict.  As an attorney and probably for most lawyers we did not get trained in understanding the role trauma plays in personal, family and civic disputes. Over the past years I have had the privilege teaching attorneys and staff at the 911 Victim Compensation Fund about the principles of mindfulness. The Fund provides financial compensation to the Victims of 9/11 and in doing so are hearing first-hand what citizens and responders experienced at the time of this national disaster. The experience has deepened my empathy and understanding for the impact trauma plays on our physical health and well-being. Now when you combine this with the impacts from Covid, trauma gets exacerbated.

Much if not all conflict originates with personal trauma:  when you pause and examine a conflict’s pathology we recognize it began with an incident that is shaping the present-day concerns. When we deepen our understanding and experience, trauma becomes our best teacher in developing successful outcomes in our lives. Every individual is special, whether you are divorcing, in the middle of losing a loved one, or seeing your identity stripped away in a family business, everyone has parts frozen from prior trauma that holds aspects of our greatness.  Through practices of mindfulness, therapy  and working with a skilled mediator in this area we can begin to melt away this grip and loosen its reigns. When we experience this  shift we find that the fears, anxieties, critical non-stop judgments, and anger that has been gripping us somehow is better understood and dissipates.

My own story is that I was born when my 7 – year old sister died from a concussion.  They describe me as a replacement baby – which there really is no such thing. As a baby and as a child I had no cognitive way to empathize with my mom, dad and living sister regarding their grieving and loss– nor can I understand how negative behaviors could show up after an immense loss of a child.  What’s the trauma you might ask, I did not suffer the loss myself, I was not mature enough to appreciate the loss . .  maybe it was vicarious trauma.  Now I am seeing how being present and open to this event in my life helps inform my work with clients who are in the middle of a deep and troubling situation. When I am able to direct my own awareness to a trauma be it my own or client, just the identification and awareness of which creates space for the parties in dispute to step back from the immediate conflict.  This separation between some earlier trauma and the conflict at hand has power – I often use the metaphor “going to the balcony”.  It is also helpful to realize that there are many forms of trauma that can be impacting the current conflict. I realized how impactful and lasting grief and shame  can be on the human psyche.  It is amazing how we can become successful in life, go to the best of universities, make an excellent living and still have this one  hanging out in our minds with this unknown shadow. Conflict situations such as family, ancestral, communal, organizational or historical traumas shape our lives and instruct us around opportunities for healing and growth in relationship.

Through conversation, mindfulness, and understanding, parties begin to see the interrelationship with the current conflict.  When we shift from an adversarial posture in the family system to a collaborative model, we find real healing is possible.  When I realized that my family did their best with what they knew at the time, it allowed a broader sense of compassion for the contribution they made to me.  I am learning how this experience at birth and in my early years informs each and every conflict I am involved with.  I believe in the collaborative spirit that all people in conflict are being supported, healed, and move towards peace.  This is what starting over is about.  When we drag our past beliefs into our next relationship, without resolving prior conflict we repeat old patterns of behavior that do not support us. Now is the time to fully start anew.

Taming the Provocateur

In every conflict, we are all listening to voices in our head. No, I am not suggesting we are all crazy, only that our inner dialogue can determine the outcome in every matter. How can you and I be sure of this? Well, this is as sure as putting a person on the moon. This effort takes vision and action.  This inner conversation determines whether the disputing parties, spouses, family members, are able to maintain a workable and constructive dialogue that leads to a settlement.  The inner conversation also determines how you move through the post-dispute.  If you are bitter and angry throughout the dispute, you are likely to be afterwards. Now is the opportunity for the change, not necessarily easy, but one that is in essence inevitable if you are reading this blog.

What is the self-talk needed to guide us through a conflict? A skilled mediator and attorney ought to be steeped in this area of practice, though all too often, people in conflict adopt an adversarial or combative posture. Unfortunately, when we confront conflict with more conflict/confrontation, we exacerbate the original trauma that might have been the source of the problem. There is a choice we have at the outset: do we seek understanding, or do we seek confrontation?

Self-talk starts with a vision for your success in the negotiation. When you can see the conflict as a catalyst for positive change in your life, the context of the dispute takes on a whole new shape. When you examine what you need to be happy right now, understanding that no one or no external force is going to make you happy, then you begin to develop a sense of personal responsibility for where you are in your life. Examples of this is when one spouse who was not as involved in the family finances, realizes that it is time to learn the math, learn the budget, and learn what income is needed to make my life operate, there is personal growth; or when one spouse who may have been working too many hours not spending time at home with their children, there is an opportunity for personal growth.

The next step involves building a bridge designed for this particular conflict between you and the individual(s) you are in conflict with. This bridge is built over a conflict that might be so severe or traumatic that you cannot imagine why you would even consider building such a bridge. The pillars for this bridge are that your life got intertwined with this other entity for a reason. You may not like it, but what if this conflict might be the treatment you were looking for in your life? The bridge that you are building is an effort at understanding the other’s interests and concerns surrounding the conflict. It is also essential for your children and family as you model resilience and wisdom as you move through this difficult period!

Sometimes a skilled mediator who has dedicated their career to sharpening/fine-tuning their listening skills can assist in this endeavor. But unless you are pointed towards the bridge and enter into a conversation about understanding the other’s interests, it will be challenging to collaboratively resolve this conflict.

Okay, you hear all this but do not see how you can consider crossing this metaphoric bridge. Remember, it is okay to keep working on yourself and figuring out what your true interests are so you can work through this episode in your life. I encourage you to find an earlier and related trauma that might inform you about why you are holding this conflict the way you are. There may be nothing wrong here, but if a series of past traumas are keeping you stuck, then finding a way to be with the trauma(s), identify it, hold it, feel it in your body, and just let it be might free you up to gain an aware state of presence and wisdom. Generally, when we are holding onto prior trauma, we are blaming the other about what might have caused the trauma. When we can let that earlier situation just be, without attributing any of your pain to the other, you can own it more for yourself and resolve the internal conflict. When the internal conflict is resolved, you suddenly have more space to move onto the bridge, begin really listening to the other’s interests and work towards resolution.

What is a Mindful Divorce?

What is mindfulness?
Merriam-Webster defines: “[Mindfulness is] the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines: “Mindfulness [as] paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Thich Nhat Hanh defines: “Mindfulness [as] what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.” This paper discusses how mindfulness can be used to assist parties separating and divorcing in ways that show a degree of care and concern for the other, that are otherwise values not usually experienced through traditional divorce.

What does a mindful divorce look like?
As professionals who interact with people during difficult periods in their lives, we are often looking for new approaches that will resolve difficult legal issues while minimizing emotional impact on those involved.

Over the course of my 35 years of legal practice, I have developed a methodology that can reliably bring positive results in emotionally challenging situations. I call this “mindful law.” Here’s how it applies in case of a couple facing divorce.

A mindful divorce establishes a framework for communication and listening. It provides an opportunity for mutual understanding by focusing on each person’s concerns and interests. Mindful divorces resolve conflicts that are in the way of settlement in ways that respect each spouses’ right to self-determination. Mindful divorce addresses the following questions:

Can your clients work out a kitchen-table agreement?
If the clients have a modicum of civility and resourcefulness, they can work out some of the essential agreements on their own. This should be encouraged; it demonstrates self determination and a capacity to work through conflict on their own. Kitchen table negotiations become a mindful process when the parties can apply key listening skills that help transcend
disagreements. However, at this stage of mediation, a legal/conflict divorce coach is often still required to support and finalize technical aspects of an agreement.

What is a mindful mediation?
In a mindful mediation a third-party neutral carefully sets up a structure of communication that encourages the spouses to learn basic listening skill sets and to pay attention to the charges they are experiencing in the moment. A mindful mediation stops the action as appropriate to
inquire into the source of the charge and reflect in a quiet way on that matter. A mindful mediation encourages each party to reflect back what they understand being stated and provides give and take to further understanding of the other’s interests. This becomes a joint effort where recognition and empowerment of the speaker is honored. A mindful mediator embodies this practice and encourages this behavioral change for life.

A mindful mediation also benefits from the party’s resources within their family and community. This may be direct by working with therapists, financial planners, children’s teachers and coaches, and concerned family members. A mindful conversation for third party support presents a crucial distinction as the spouses can avoid feeling alone or ashamed about
their situation. The professional and communal team is coached to provide this support. The mediator is not the only neutral entity involved in resolving the marital separation because other professionals in the community collectively hold the field for a peaceful and practical

How is a Collaborative Divorce mindful?
The collaborative divorce includes individuals with multiple disciplinary skill sets so the divorcing couple is served by experts such as: legal, parental coaching by a licensed therapist, a child coach by a licensed therapist, a financial planner/analyst and a real estate expert. All professionals are trained in the collaborative law model and as mediators. The participation
collaborative agreement entered into at the start of the process, commits to an out of court settlement meeting the key needs of the divorcing spouses while eliminating many of the usual games that might go on between attorneys, such as protracted discovery and divisive/adversarial tactics.

Parties in the collaborative process are empowered to take responsibility for the settlement. The process goes as slowly or quickly as they need, while clearly understanding key provisions of the agreement. It is mindful because all interests and concerns get addressed – to the spouse’s mutual satisfaction.

Can a negotiated settlement, out of court, be a mindful process?
There are occasions when a spouse is up against a difficult situation, in which case a mindful divorce involves me working closely with one individual who is grounded and clear in wanting to escape this conflict while keeping the family core healthy. If there are no children, then just
wanting to keep him or herself safe and protected becomes a priority. A mindful divorce is key in preserving parenting for the best interests of the children, while having the strategic and tactical skills to negotiate or litigate the best possible outcome for the client.

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As an attorney who has been settling litigated matters for the past 35 years and who has been meditating for 40, I understand the import of being in the balcony, encouraging deep seated listening, and creating a space of respectfulness and dignity. This is not easy work and sometimes it gets messy. A mindfulness approach to divorce provides the client with an
opportunity to reduce the karmic impact of the divorce and move into a field of future cooperation.

I am available and welcoming new cases at this time. If you have any questions or would be interested in having a talk on the above subjects by me and one of my therapist/coaching colleagues, please let me know.

Best Regards,
Steve Shapiro

BIO: Steve Shapiro has an established family law practice and has extensive experience in settling disputes concerning civil litigation, business law, civil rights, employment, contract matters, wills and probate. He also served as a federal mediator for the Department of Justice settling September 11, 2001 claims and settling complex energy related matters. He is a member of both the Maryland and District of Columbia Bars. He has a Bachelors’ Degree in
Organizational Science and received his law degree from Antioch University School of Law in 1983. He served as Chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section and was Chairman of the American Bar Association’s task force on confidentiality in federal dispute resolution. He is on the board of directors for the Conflict Resolution Center for Montgomery County, is a member of the DC Academy of Collaborative Professionals, the Collaborative Dispute Resolution Professionals, and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

American Hero or Mental Incapacity?

This past summer Buzz Aldrin’s children sued him in order to gain guardianship and decision -making authority over their father’s health, safety and welfare.  The children acted and moved for guardianship because of their father’s increased memory loss and confusion.  Mr. Aldrin counter-sued his children seeking to keep his independence.  Litigation had a devastating impact on the family.  The court ordered medical testing, and in the end declared that Mr. Aldrin had all his faculties and powers in place and can act on his behalf.

Do you have to have walked on the moon to have a court declare your independence? Do you need a court involved at all in making decisions that are at the core of a family’s well-being? If a family is in dispute what can they do as an alternative to a litigated solution.  Elder mediators provide families an option.

An elder mediator develops a collaborative approach to resolving the dispute. The mediator following the interests of each family member defines the key concerns and interests expressed by all parties. If the Aldrin family had requested services of an elder mediator, could an independent medical evaluation still have been conducted.

The difficult conversation in this hypothetical is what if the medical evaluation determined that Mr. Aldrin was not fit to manage his estate, business and key decision making?  What if Mr. Aldrin refused to adhere to the recommendations from the evaluation?

In establishing the process, the mediator will develop an agreement outlining the process.  Presuming Mr. Aldrin signed the agreement, was advised by his personal attorney that it was a fair procedure and one that would track to any court procedure, would be less costly, less adversarial and maintain some degree of peace within the family – why not give elder mediation a try in such a circumstance?