A Tribute to My Favorite Co-Mediator, My Dog

Today’s blog isn’t about conflict.  It’s a tribute to my favorite co-mediator, my dog.

My dog and I had a solid relationship.  We spent a lot of time together and enjoyed each other’s company.  She was a bossy thing, but my husband says that I am a bossy thing, too.

On Monday, just four days ago, my dog died. 

For the first eight years of her life, I sheltered my dog from my work and my clients from her.  She was only in the office on days that I didn’t have private mediations.

However, in the fall of 2015, I started bringing her to the office for private mediations as well.

I wonder what she thought at that first mediation session.  It wasn’t as if I could prep her for it in advance.  “I know that you’ve been coming to the office with me for eight quiet years, but now, when you come to the office, people are going to yell and scream and you and I have to maintain calm and keep the peace.”  That’s what I would have said, if I could have said it and had her understand.  Instead, she just had to figure that all out on her own.

It worked out better than I could have hoped, as she practiced her own instinctive form of mediation.  She always greeted people enthusiastically, doing her part to make them feel at home.  If someone didn’t like dogs or didn’t want her attention, she would generally leave that person alone after the initial greeting.  Sometimes, she positioned herself between the two individuals.  Sometimes, she stayed with the person she thought needed her most.  Occasionally, she went back and forth between them.  And sometimes, she felt like I had it under control and she curled up near me and went to sleep. 

Clients looked forward to seeing her, asking after her if she wasn’t at the office when they came.

While she was being petted by a client, she would give me a look that said, “You see this?  This is how you treat a dog at the office. You should do more of this.”  I got a lot of those looks.  I thought the office was for working, not just petting the dog.

One day, my dog had gone to sleep when the clients were having civil discussions, only to be woken by their loud arguing.  She groaned loudly.  We humans laughed.  The tension was diffused and the argument softened to a disagreement.  She went back to sleep, confident that I had it under control again.

She was a good dog.

I knew she had a health issue and she had been struggling with it.  I had taken her to every vet appointment, trying to find some way to make things better for her, while watching things get slowly, inexorably worse.  I had occasionally cried to the vets and to family members, asking, “Is she going to die from this?”

At the same time, it just didn’t seem that bad.  She could still play with the dog next door or cop an attitude with a dog she didn’t like.  For the most part, she was healthy.  And most of the time, it just didn’t seem possible that she could die from this.  It’s like when someone you know dies from the flu or pneumonia.  You know intellectually that it is possible to die from the flu or pneumonia because people do die of it every year.  However, the vast majority of people survive the flu and pneumonia, so when someone you love dies from it, it takes you by surprise.

We like to believe that our loved ones will be there for us forever.  However, we all only have a finite number of days on this planet and we never know when someone’s time will be up.

Tonight, when you go home, please give your loved ones a little extra love, and let them know how much you appreciate them.  Let’s put as much love out there as we can while we are here.

How to Get Rid of 80% of Your Unhappiness in Relationships

APPLYING THE 80/20 RULE TO RELATIONSHIPS

Have you heard of the 80/20 Rule?  The theory is that 80% of consequences are a direct result of 20% of causes.

Have you ever applied it to your relationships?

When you think of your friends and family members, which 20% create 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness?

These are your peeps.  These are the people with whom you want to spend your time and, if it’s a healthy relationship, these are the people with whom you should spend your time. 

Take a moment after you’ve finished reading this and make time to get together with them.

Now, think of your friends and family members again.  Which 20% create 80% of your problems and unhappiness?

Here is the harder question.  Why are you sacrificing so much of your happiness to them?

Here are some of the answers I have heard:

“She’s my mother.”

“It’s not his fault.”

“I have nowhere else to go.”

“I’m married.  I made a commitment.”

“My (adult) son needs me.”

“I’m a rescuer at heart.”

“I’m Superman.”

“Who will take care of her if I don’t?”

“I’m too old to change now.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I weren’t there for him.”

“He’s my brother.”

“I can’t afford to leave.”

Here are things that people often think but don’t say:

“I’m afraid no one else will love me.”

“I don’t think I deserve to be treated any better than this.”

“I’m so ashamed that it has gotten to this point.”

“I need to be needed.”

“I don’t know how to have a relationship where my needs are met, too.”

“I’m afraid of what will happen if I stick up for myself.”

“I’m afraid of change.”

Here is the part that can be too scary to even think:

“I don’t know how to put my needs first (in this instance or maybe in life).”

Here’s the reality:

First, let’s talk about the extent of problems and unhappiness you suffer as a result of the person.  Not all unhappiness is equal. 

When you have contact with this person, how do you feel on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being minor irritation and 10 being high level anxiety or anger, often resulting in a need to medicate yourself with food, alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances? 

How often do you currently have contact with this person?  How often do you really need to have contact with this person?  Could you decrease your time with this person?

Is the person causing you unhappiness because the person is emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive to you?  Has anyone told you the person has been abusive toward you, even if you would not describe the person as abusive?

Can you take a step back from the person to better evaluate the relationship?  Often, we don’t even know the reactions our bodies are having until we step away from the relationship.

There is a difference between someone creating 80% of your unhappiness intentionally versus unintentionally.  There is also a difference between someone creating 80% of your problems on a temporary basis versus on a permanent basis.

For example, if a loved one has cancer, you are likely to feel a great deal of unhappiness as a result.  You may be worried, angry that this person is suffering, sad, anxious, and more.  If you are married and there are medical bills piling up as a result, you may also feel anxious, worried, distressed, angry, and more.  Still, it is perfectly healthy to be there for the person as much as possible, to love the person and to also feel great pain.  You may experience caregiver fatigue and look to find ways to support yourself emotionally as a result.  You may experience caregiver fatigue and decide that you cannot do anymore.

In the alternative, if you love someone who rejects you, puts you down, always has to ensure that his needs are met (and yours are not), then it could be time to take stock of the relationship.  You know that it is not working for you – that is why you have listed it in with the relationships causing 80% of your unhappiness.

Can the relationship be fixed? Is the person willing to work on the relationship to meet your needs, too?  Is the person willing and able to talk with you, to meet in counseling or mediation to discuss it and put together a plan to get things back on track?

If it can’t be fixed, and you still want to maintain the relationship, then can it be contained?  Can you limit the amount of time that you spend with the person, spend less hours together, have a buffer present, opt for telephone contact, email, text, or Facebook instead of in person contact?

If it can’t be fixed, you know it’s not healthy, and it’s causing you a great deal of distress, it’s time to really look at why you are investing so much of your time in this person.  We have a finite amount of time on this earth.  Think of what you could do with all of that time that you currently spend unhappy.  Why is it more important to be there for that person than to be there for yourself?

What Does the 2017 Tax Law Mean for Divorcing Couples?

I sat down with Jill Boynton of Cornerstone Financial Planning to find out.

Alimony

Currently, the person receiving alimony pays income tax on the alimony received.  The alimony payer is able to deduct alimony payments from his/her income, reducing the payer’s tax burden.

Jill indicated that beginning January 1, 2019, for any alimony orders issued from that date forward, the tax burden for alimony will no longer shift from the payer to the recipient.  Instead, it will remain with the payer, who is often in a higher tax bracket than the recipient.  The new law could mean that the payer can’t afford to pay as much alimony because there is no tax break, and the recipient will receive less alimony.

Say, for example, under the current law, a person making $100,000 per year agreed to pay $20,000 per year in alimony to another person.  The cost of alimony to the payer is $20,000 before tax dollars.  The payer will pay income tax on $80,000, not $100,000.  The payer will not be taxed on that $20,000 – it is as if the income were simply transferred from the payer to the payee.  In addition, the payment might drop the payer into a lower tax bracket, in this instance from 24% to 22%.  So the payer would pay $17,600 in income tax, rather than $24,000.

The person receiving the alimony under the current law will pay income tax on the $20,000 received (plus any other income that person may have).  Thus, the recipient is not receiving the full $20,000 – it is $20,000 minus the income tax the recipient must pay on it.  Depending on the recipient’s tax bracket, the recipient could be taxed on this at a rate of 12% or more costing the recipient $2,400 or more in taxes.

Here is a simplified example of how the new law affects the payor: under the new law if a person making $100,000 per year agrees to pay $20,000 per year in alimony to another person, the cost of alimony to the payer will be $20,000 in after tax dollars.  This means that the payer will still pay income tax on $100,000.  The payer’s tax bracket will remain the same – 24%, rather than dropping to 22%.  The cost of alimony to the payer is thus significantly higher, both because alimony represents after tax dollars and because the payer remains in the same tax bracket.  The payer will pay around $4,800 more in income tax than if alimony could have been deducted.  In this scenario, the recipient will receive the full amount - $20,000 – and will not pay income tax on any of it.

In situations like this where a payer’s tax bracket is no longer reduced, as more money is going to the federal government for taxes, there is less available for the payer to give to the recipient.  This means that the recipient may receive less than the recipient would have received under the current law.

If you have a final alimony order currently in effect, Jill believes that the current law will continue to apply.  The new law will not have a retroactive effect.

However, if you have a temporary alimony order in effect, Jill recommends that you speak with your accountant and attorney before agreeing to have that temporary order become a permanent order. Things will get particularly tricky for those with temporary orders on alimony before January 1, 2019, and final orders on alimony after January 1, 2019.  

Jill also indicated that as of January 1, 2019, you can no longer deduct legal fees associated with negotiating and litigating alimony.

Personal Exemptions Are Gone

Jill indicated that this tax bill has done away with personal exemptions.  You can no longer claim $4,050 for yourself, your spouse, and any dependents you may have.  There will no longer be an issue as to claiming children as dependents, as children may no longer be claimed as dependents. 

The Child Tax Credit Has Doubled

The law has been that if you claimed a child as a dependent, you could claim the child tax credit for that child.  Now, you can no longer claim a child as a dependent, but you can claim a child tax credit.  Jill recommends that you talk to your accountant or attorney about how to handle the child tax credit in your divorce.

The Standard Deduction Has Nearly Doubled

Single filers will have a standard deduction of $12,000. Those filing as Head of Household will have a standard deduction of $18,000.

If You Itemize

There is a new cap on deductions for mortgage interest, sales tax, property tax and income tax paid. These deductions together are capped at $10,000.  Many homeowners in Maine and NH will be impacted by this cap. 

You can still deduct up to $2,500 per year in student loan interest.

Health Insurance Mandate Repealed

When people are married, they often have health insurance coverage together through one person’s employer.  When people divorce in Maine and NH, it is often impossible for a divorced spouse to continue to receive health insurance coverage through the other divorced spouse.  If a divorced spouse does not have a job which provided health insurance coverage, that person may turn to the Affordable Care Act for health insurance coverage.

Jill indicated that while a person may turn to the Affordable Care Act for health insurance coverage going forward, there is no longer a mandate in place.  There will be no fine to pay if a person chooses instead to go without health insurance coverage.

How Long Will These Changes Last?

A lot of the provisions expire in 8 years.  Jill recommends that you talk to your accountant and your attorney about the long-term effect of these changes.

About Jill Boynton

Jill Boynton is a Certified Financial Planner with Cornerstone Financial Planning.  She offers financial coaching services to divorcing couples and individuals.  She provides financial information, not legal advice or tax advice.  Cornerstone Financial Planning has offices in Newington, NH, and Portland, Maine.

Disclaimer

This article does not constitute legal advice or tax advice.  Please contact your attorney and/or accountant with specific questions about how the new tax law will affect you.

Have you tried Dynamic Facilitation?

You've probably been in at least one meeting with a facilitator who used one white board to capture ideas.

I use 3!

Dynamic Facilitation provides the framework to have a difficult conversation successfully. 

In Dynamic Facilitation, the facilitator uses three charts at once:  Perspectives, Solutions, and Concerns.  Each person who speaks provides his/her Perspective on or data about the problem.  The person is also asked to provide a potential Solution to the problem.  If a person has a Concern about a potential Solution, that is included as well.  Then the person is asked, given that Concern, what the potential Solution could be.

Dynamic Facilitation is solution-focused, but not in a way that is stifling.  Dynamic Facilitation moves people from focusing on the problem, which can cause feelings of helplessness, frustration, powerlessness, to focusing on the solution, which motivates action-oriented, powerful change. 

1.       Dynamic Facilitation is useful in coaching, as it moves a person from stuck into action.

2.       Dynamic Facilitation is useful for having a difficult conversation between two or more people.  It gets the issues out onto the table to be dealt with and it provides the participants with concrete solutions for those issues.

3.       Dynamic Facilitation is useful for a team working on a tough problem.  It provides the necessary framework to gather data, generate potential solutions, and highlight concerns that may come up.

If you are struggling with a tough decision, if your team is stuck and unable to move forward, contact me.  Let's see if Dynamic Facilitation can help you to move from stuck to solution.

Are you trying to defy the laws of gravity in your conflict?

In their book, "Designing Your Life," authors Burnett and Evans talk about "gravity problems," things like gravity that you cannot change no matter how hard you try.  If you trip and fall, you fall down, not up.  That is just the way it is.  You can waste a lot of time and energy railing against gravity or you can simply accept it for what it is and figure out how to work within its parameters.

I often see people in conflict railing against what I would see as "gravity problems" in others.  They want the other person to change.  It may be in the other person's best interest to change.  However, the other person has no ability and/or no interest in changing.  That is a gravity problem, my friend.

When you see it as a gravity problem, then you can start to make better choices about how to deal with it. 

Sarah is always running late.  She has always run late.  She will always run late.  She pays lip service to wanting to be on time, usually under pressure from John who prides himself on being punctual. 

John grew up in a military family, where being 15 minutes early was on time and being on time was late.  Being late is horrible!  Sarah's tardiness drives John crazy.

When Sarah and John divorce, John wants to meet at a half-way point to exchange the children.  It should work beautifully, John thinks.  However, every time they meet, John is stuck waiting in the car for at least fifteen minutes for Sarah.  It is bad enough when he is stuck in the car by himself, but it is worse when he has two impatient children in the car with him. 

John wants Sarah to just be on time.

John has a gravity problem.  He can want Sarah to be on time all he wants, but that is not going to get Sarah to be on time.  Sarah is who she is.  If he couldn't get her to be timely when they were together, he certainly won't be able to get her to do it when they are apart.

If John doesn't like waiting for Sarah in the car, then he can ask to change the way that transportation is handled so that they each pick up the children from each other at the parent's home.  That way, the children are always waiting at a home, never in a car, for the other parent.

He can ask to change transportation so that they each drop off to each other.  That still might result in occasionally waiting in the car with the kids for Sarah to get home, like if she had plans right before.  However, most of the time, she will likely be home.

If John really does not want to stop meeting at a half-way point, he can intentionally arrive at the half-way point fifteen minutes later than the designated time.  That will make him more likely to arrive about the same time that Sarah does.

Look at a conflict that you have with someone.  Do you have a gravity problem?  Are you trying to defy the laws of gravity?  What is the best that you can do with the situation, recognizing that you do not have control over gravity?

Post-Election Conflict

We have been through the most divisive election I have seen in my lifetime.  I am still trying to make sense of all of it -- the lead up, election night, and the country as it stands now, still sharply divided.

I have seen posts from people across the nation whose families are sharply divided as a result of this election.  There are marriages on the rocks as a result of this election.  There are families whose members celebrated Thanksgiving apart as a result of this election and will likely celebrate Christmas separately as well. 

People are moving as a result of this election.  Hate crimes are up.  Anonymous threatening letters are left at residences, at mosques.  Children chant, "Build that wall," at other children in school. 

People are protesting as a result of this election.  They have taken to the streets, and what was supposed to be a peaceful protest has turned violent in many instances.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Riots are the voices of the unheard."  This election has brought forth a lot of voices of the unheard on both sides.  The Alt-Right and KKK are celebrating, seeing Trump's victory as a victory for them, for their unheard voices.  Clinton supporters are protesting, seeing Trump's victory as a quashing of their voices.

Many of us feel unsafe in our own country, more unsafe than we did before the election.

At work, things are no better.  Hate speech has increased.  While some workplaces have been quick to crack down on hate speech, I would imagine that others are more inclined to let it slide.

Trust has been eroded on both sides.  Clinton supporters are shaken by Trump's rhetoric and his Cabinet postings.  Clinton supporters are horrified that all of Trump's negative qualities were so easily ignored by his supporters.  Trump supporters are shaken by Clinton supporters' protests.  Trump supporters want to move on as we have in the past after other elections, want Clinton supporters to just recognize that Trump won and let it go.

There is a quote from "The Way We Were," that keeps running through my head:

Hubbell Gardner: People are more important than their principles.

Katie Morosky Gardner: But Hubbell, people ARE their principles.

There have been calls for people to reach out to those with whom they disagree.  This would be the Hubbell view of the world -- people are more important than their principles.  See the good in them, despite the parts with which you disagree.  After all, we are all people.

There have also been calls for opposition against those with whom they disagree.  This would be the Katie view of the world -- people ARE their principles.  See people for all that they are and judge accordingly.  Don't give them the benefit of the doubt just for being people.

I am wondering if there is a way to hold both Hubbell's view of the world and Katie's view of the world at the same time.  People ARE their principles.  At the same time, PEOPLE are more important than their principles.

We have learned a lot about each other this election season.  We may not like what we have learned, but we do have the opportunity to grow from it if we learn from it.

We need to have discussions with people with whom we disagree.  At the same time, we have to expect that during those discussions, we will disagree.  We need to find a way to be open to hearing what is being said by the other person, while also ensuring that we are heard as well.

Martin Luther King, Sr., said, "Don't hate.  It's too big a burden to bear."  It's true.  Hate eats away at you over time.  It can be easy in the immediate, but it's hard to maintain.  We cannot move forward together if we hate each other at the same time.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."  We are in a time of challenge and controversy.  We have been tested by this election.  We will be tested by this election.  We all have a choice to make -- where do we stand?  Can we hold both Hubbell and Katie in our hearts at the same time?  People ARE their principles.  At the same time, PEOPLE are more important than their principles.

 

The Value of An Experienced Mediator

Yesterday, I spoke with someone who was interested in receiving mediation services from me until he learned that I charge $200 per hour.  Suddenly, he wasn't so interested in me anymore.  In fact, he wanted to know if I could refer him to a cheaper mediator.

Look, I understand the value of a dollar. 

I also know from having been a litigator before I was a mediator that people are more likely to pay an attorney to advocate for them and fight against another (and pay a lot of money to said attorney) than to pay a mediator for assistance in having a difficult conversation.

We like to think that we can solve our own problems.  We like to think that we can navigate conflict on our own.  We can a lot of the time.  Then, there are the times that we wait too long, that the conflict gets too big, and suddenly (although it wasn't sudden at all, if you look back on it) there is a lawsuit and everyone needs lawyers.

You can certainly hire me to mediate at that point.  However, it may be cost-effective to hire me proactively, long before it gets to that point.

I charge $200 per hour for mediation services.  What do you get for your money? 

You get someone who has mediated over 1,000 times since she trained as a mediator in 2004 and 2005.  That means that I have sat with over 2,000 people in conflict and have helped them to have a difficult conversation.  Not many people can say that.

I have seen conflict of almost all shapes and sizes.  There is little that happens in mediation that surprises me anymore.  You have to do something really big, really outrageous (and please, don't).

I am comfortable sitting in conflict.  I can help you to be comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable, moving through your conflict.

Is it helpful that I know the law in two states?  Yes.  However, what is more helpful is that I know people.  I listen to not just what you are saying, but who you are.  I listen and learn from you, getting to know you on a deeper level so that I can best help you to navigate the conflict successfully.

Other people may offer you their standard, cookie-cutter advice.  "You just need to do this." And whatever "this" is, it is what they would do in that scenario and it is the same advice that they give to everyone because they do it themselves and it feels comfortable to them.

I support you in your figuring out what is best for you to do in your situation.  You are the one who is going to have to live it, long after I am gone.

In life, as in mediation with me, you get to decide what works best for you.  Do you want an experienced mediator who looks to meet you where you are?  Do you want to feel supported and empowered during the conflict?  If so, then let's talk.  I could be the right mediator for you.

Mediation Mutt

MY CO-MEDIATOR

MY CO-MEDIATOR

My dog has become a regular in my mediation practice.

When I first introduced her to the practice, I thought that she would be a pretty passive participant.  She has been coming to work with me for years, though it used to be only on days without clients.  In those days, "going to work" meant that I worked and she slept.

Well, now that she has entered the mediation world, it turns out that she wants to have a much more active role in "going to work."

1.  She thinks that her job is to bark when people knock and then greet them enthusiastically when they enter.  I could do without the barking.

2. She knows that if she wins the clients over, then they will pat her during the mediation.  Ideally, they will let her sit somewhere between the two of them and perhaps they will both pat her at the same time.  That is perfect, as far as she is concerned.

3. She also will perform her own interventions during the mediation if she thinks that it will help.

  • If someone is crying, she may go to that person to comfort that person.
  • I had a mediation where the couple had argued heatedly, had settled down, and were ramping up for another heated argument.  My dog groaned loudly.  We all looked over at her and laughed.  The tension was dissipated by a dog groan.

We see service dogs in hospitals and in nursing homes, helping people through some of their most difficult times.  Many therapists in my office building bring their dogs with them to work.

My dog has decided that she can provide some comfort to people in the midst of conflict as well.  And she is right!

I watch people reach out to her or call her over as the conversation gets tough.

When we pet a dog, our brain releases oxytocin, a hormone which makes us more likely to trust and less likely to respond negatively to external stressors.  Oxytocin is a very helpful hormone to have present in the midst of a difficult mediation. 

Petting a dog has a calming effect, helping to lower your heart rate and blood pressure.  This helps to counteract the fact that your heart rate and blood pressure are rising in the midst of a difficult conversation.

So, make an appointment to mediate and get two mediators for the price of one -- me plus my dog.