Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown Tragedy: Actions Speak Louder

These are the victims of the school shooting that occurred on the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012 at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

We have purposefully not included a link to a news story in this post because the news is concentrating on the details of the gunman's life.  We believe that is a mistake.  Here is the information that we believe is important and undisputed:

  • All of these victims deserved a longer life, and a better ending to their story.
  • This tragedy was preventable, and future tragedies like this are preventable.
  • Everyone of us has the ability to contribute in some way towards making our country a better place where violence like this is a history lesson instead of a headline.
  • The only way that we can take away the power of one bad man to write the ending for these victims, is to change that ending by recognizing our ability to contribute, and taking action.

We have all had three days now to voice our pain and outrage.  As a country we must experience this grief and we must find a way to deal with it.  Whether we individually grieve publicly or privately, we must accept that everyone will grieve these victims in their own way.  If you have been on facebook or twitter this weekend, it is clear that many of us are experiencing anger or depression in reaction to these events.  And while anger is a natural part of the grieving process, the direction of anger is not always rationally linked to the cause, which is why the anger of this weekend must give way eventually to acceptance.

But what does acceptance mean?  Does it mean we should forget what happened?  Does it mean we are powerless to prevent future tragedies?


Acceptance means that we must accept that we cannot change the past.

 We cannot save the victims of Newtown.  
But we can remember them.  

We remember them by letting go our anger and depression, and by taking positive action for the future.  Whether small or large, every action has a reaction.  Here are just some of the ways that you can make a difference:

Remember the Heroes:

Numerous stories have emerged regarding teachers who protected their students on Friday morning, including at least one who gave her life doing so, Victoria Soto.  These teachers were not trained to deal with gunfire.  Their job description does not include saving lives by giving theirs.  But they became heroes anyway.  They stood up to violence and fear, and saved lives with their courage.  Remember that sacrifice.  Talk about it.

Make sure our children know that 
everyday people can be Heroes. 

Remember the Helpers:

Fred Rogers taught us that in any tragedy there is hope because you can always see the people who react and respond:  the Helpers.  Police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, paramedics, and more all put aside their personal fears and grief to help the victims and their families.  Remember the importance of those people that choose to do those jobs, and who handled themselves professionally in a time of crisis.  Nobody can change the past and these helpers couldn't save the victims, but they modeled for us the way in which we heal from tragedy.  By helping the victims and their families they reduced the trauma those people experienced as much as was possible in the given situation.  Remember the helpers, and strive to help where help is needed.

Be a Helper:

You can help the Newtown Victims by donating to a local non-profit.

Or you can help people in your community who are the victims of violence.  The Mass.gov website has a list of resources for violence prevention and specifically for domestic violence prevention.  These include both government resources that you can educate yourself about, and non-profit organizations that you can volunteer with or donate to.

Of course, these are just some of the ways that you can be a helper in Newton or your community to help protect others from violence.

Promote Gun Safety and Meaningful Debate:

Guns were a part of the Newtown tragedy and they must be a part of the discussion.  But it is impossible to already know the solution before you completely understand the problem.  Preventing future tragedies like Newtown requires more than signing a petition, or posting on social media that there are more gun deaths in the U.S. than in other countries.  Supporters and opponents of private firearms ownership need to engage in meaningful communication to discuss solutions that protect both lives and liberties.

Like too many debates in this country, many would rather be polarizing in their statements and beliefs than learn from each other.

In Collaborative Divorces, we take two people who have every reason to distrust each other and we force them to talk about how they can work together to resolve their disputes.  This requires effective communication about how each person feels and what their goals are.  It is often uncomfortable, sad, angry, or frustrating.  But the result is usually solutions that both people can rebuild their life from.

If divorcing spouses can having a meaningful conversation about solutions by using effective communication, then why can't people on opposite sides of the gun control debate?

Can we use 10 Tips for Better Collaborative Communication to have a meaningful discussion about gun control?

Calling someone a gun-nut violates #3.  Assuming that gun control means they want to take away all your guns and institute a police state violates #10.

Prevention requires that we all grow up and learn how to communicate effectively.  If you truly care that our country becomes a safer place, then take meaningful steps to make that happen:

Non gun owners need to recognize that they have something to learn from gun owners.  Read the 10 tips, print them out, and then ask a gun owner to have lunch with you and have a conversation that abides by those tips.  Ask them about their interest in firearms.  Ask them how they think we can practically prevent gun violence.   Ask them about the difference between a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun, and about the difference between a semi-automatic and an automatic weapon.  Ask them why there are different types of firearms and different types of ammunition.  Ask them about the proper way to store guns, and how to prevent unauthorized access.  Ask them about regulations or restrictions that they would support vs. those they wouldn't, and why.

Listen to the answers.

Owners of firearms need to recognize that civilized society requires proper safety precautions to be respected or implemented around the ownership and use of potentially hazardous items.  Read the 10 tips, print them out, and then ask a non gun owner to have lunch with you and have a conversation that abides by those tips. Ask them about why they don't have an interest in firearms.  Ask them what, if anything, scares them about firearms.  Ask them about what types of information would reduce their fears.  Ask them how they think guns are similar or dissimilar to other potentially dangerous items or tools.  Ask them about what types of regulations or restrictions could make them feel more safe.

Listen to the answers.

After having this conversation and actually listening to each other, try to agree on two things that either you individually or your government (whether municipal, state or federal) could do to help prevent future gun violence in any form.  Write down those two agreements and then take action to make them happen.  If your agreements involve something that the government can do, then contact the appropriate level of government and request that your representative take that action: Contact your Elected Officials

At the very least you can help yourself and your community by learning about the risk factors for gun violence, and gun safety at the following links:

Studies and articles regarding Gun Violence and Children.

Firearms Responsibility in the Home

Obtain a Safety Kit Cable Style Gun Lock

Take a course in Home Firearm Safety

Never stop learning, never stop asking questions, and never stop looking for solutions that honor the memories of the fallen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Tree Grows in your Office: A Metaphor for Divorce

We all know that to have a successful marriage, the relationship has to be nurtured and fed.  Spouses who do not pay attention to the needs of their relationship are doomed to grow apart instead of growing together.  But just because a marriage withers on the vine, doesn't mean that a divorce has to result in sour grapes.

Many of the problems that prevent people from having a successful divorce stem from the false assumption that divorce is an endpoint.

Divorce, like marriage, is a relationship.  Anyone who has been through a divorce can dispel the notion that a divorce is just an event, begun one day and over the next.  Divorce is a process, that takes time, requires patience, and still involves a relationship between spouses.  And when spouses have children together, that relationship doesn't end when the divorce becomes final, it continues for graduations, weddings, grandchildren and more.

Divorce, like marriage, is a relationship. 

Both at my firm and in many of the professional organizations I belong to, we are often searching for better ways to explain divorce to our clients.  If you begin by asking questions, you learn a lot about the potential client, but they don't learn much about you.  If you begin by trying to explain "processes" clients learn how they can get divorced, but not how to get divorced well.  Maybe we need a new model, a story that explains how a potential client can get from the end of their marriage to the beginning of the next stage of their life.

That story, like many stories, starts with a seed.

Now you might think that a bitter pill would be a better metaphor for the end of a marriage, but trust me, a seed is better.  Seeds have both a before and after, but you can't necessarily tell much about either of those places just by looking at the seed itself.

Many divorcing clients appear the same at the moment they enter my office, determined but a bit confused, having goals but also needing direction.  Like a seed, their current state is the result of a relationship that came before.   That relationship determines what kind of seed it is, but what the seed will grow into is not only controlled by its history.  It also matters where that seed landed, and how it is nurtured.

The organic process of how divorce cases proceed from start to finish, is similar in many ways to the growth of a tree from a seed.  Our goal is to develop a strong tree, able to withstand future storms.  But growth and strength don't happen overnight.  In fact, usually the process is too slow to be seen by the naked eye, but just because the process is slow doesn't mean the tree is standing still.

As one of my mentors used to say, settlement only happens when the case is ripe.  Just like the organic growth of a tree, settlement requires the addition of necessary ingredients to blossom.  A major component of settlement is time, but that's not enough.  You may also have to shine light on parts of a client's life and marriage that they'd rather leave dark.  But, in the end, the only way to wash away the dirt and create strength from vulnerability is to combine all of these elements to feed the next stages of life in a way that is balanced and leaves room for further growth.

And just as proper nurturing, light and time can lead to a healthy and strong future, ignoring any of these key elements leads to stunted growth.  Proper counsel for divorce clients requires paying attention to these needs for our clients, and as corny as it sounds helping them choose what kind of tree they want to be, and where they want to grow.

Mediation is often represented as a single tree, or leaf.  I'm not sure how so many mediators came to choose this as their symbol, but I think it fits.  Mediation doesn't take place among the forest of other divorces, or in the public eye of court.  Instead it takes place in the mediators office, away from other divorcing spouses and their situations.

A hallmark of mediation is about letting each set of clients come to a solution that they agree works best for their unique family.  Though comparisons may happen when they leave the mediators office, mediation doesn't require a comparison to how other people grew their seed, it's only about those two people and how they want to resolve their problems.

When two spouses are both independent and have the ability to grow their strength from within, then they only need the gentle nurturing of a mediator to reach a successful divorce.

But sometimes, clients need more:

Collaborative Divorce is about seeing the forest through the trees.  Similar to mediation, it takes place outside the public court forum.  But it is different than mediation, in that each client is provided with more support to help them grow within the protection of a professional forest.

Collaborative divorce is often referred to as a team approach to divorce, but team implies everyone working together all of the time (and billing the clients for all that time).  In reality, collaborative divorce is more like a set of gardening tools.  Each tool or person has a role that helps the spouses grow the strength needed to support their own forest after divorce.  Attorneys have different skills and training than coaches and financial planners.  Each team members provides different nurturing, or strengthening skills to allow both spouses to grow together and coexist, even if they didn't start out in equal soil.

Collaborative divorce lends itself well to complicated issues, or imbalances that might prevent successful mediation because the interdisciplinary nature of the different professionals allows them to fulfill the needs of clients who wouldn't have been able to grow to the same heights on their own in a mediation.  And since it also takes place far from the court house, the reflection of other groves doesn't block sunlight from this forest, allowing each tree to grow with only the restrictions they place on themselves.

But what if mediation and collaborative divorce are not options.  Is all hope lost?  Will my tree be cut down before it reaches it's full potential?  I'm not going to lie; it's harder to find common ground in the court process.  But that doesn't mean it's impossible:

Litigation takes place inside and outside of the courthouse.  While litigation requires that you always track the shadow of the law, you don't have to let it block out all the light.

Court is not an organic process.  It feels as unnatural as the sound-proofed walls that lined the courtrooms.  The litigation process is designed to collect and reflect enough of the natural light of your family, to allow you to survive, but not necessarily thrive.  Like a plant that's kept inside, it's not your natural environment, but with the right help it won't kill you.  Your growth will be restricted based on the rules of the court, and still might result in settlement but you will have to work harder to make that happen.

In some ways this means that the attorney you choose to help you in court is even more important than who you might choose for mediation or collaborative divorce.  If you choose a litigator who only knows the path to trial, then you will most certainly be firmly rooted in that path, and will have to take your chances with the Judge.  But if you choose a lawyer with the experience and drive to settle cases, they then will help you see the many paths that exist, even when you're limited to a particular landscape.  It might be harder to get settlement to ripen in the harsh unnatural light of court, but if the case is nurtured and prepared properly it is still possible.

Sustainable Growth

If you'll allow me one final stretch of the metaphor, remember that personal growth does not end at the end of a marriage, nor does it end when a client receives their Judgment of Divorce absolute. Proper care of a case requires consideration of how future growth will be supported, whether it can be made self-sustaining and whether the path you've provided will allow for sustainable growth for both the clients and their seeds.

Divorce is not an easy or happy subject, but like any transition in life it can be viewed as an end or a beginning.  Ending cases shouldn't be the goal.  The goal should be helping clients understand how to stretch their branches towards the light of better days.

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