I like lawyers. Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers. It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skills to law students. Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life. This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy. Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict. Take mediation, for example. The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other. The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness. It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard. This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion. Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in dispute. This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.
One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument. Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right. So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments? When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point. It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection. I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict. The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one. How’s that for a conundrum? The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership. If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place. Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.