Orlando Dispute Resolution: Who is Ringing Your Bell?
“Waiting for the dinner bell to do the bell thing, dinner bell, dinner bell ding ding
ding!” They Might Be Giants – Dinner Bell
One of my favorite bands is They Might Be Giants. They are nerds and aren’t afraid to
show it off. Some of my favorite TMBG songs are about historical figures. At the top of
my list is the track entitled “Dinner Bell” about Ivan Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t
provide a ready cure for your insomnia by discussing the finer points of Dr. Pavlov’s life
and experiments. However, to move forward I must give you a little background on the
subject. In one of his experiments, Dr. Pavlov rang a bell when he gave food to his dogs.1
He repeated this procedure a number of times.2 And then he tried ringing the bell on
its own without the accompaniment of food.3 With this stimuli, the dogs salivated.4
Have you ever felt like one of those dogs? I know I have. It’s in those certain
situations where a certain someone says a certain something or does a certain action and
then I have a certain response. With time that stimuli repeated over and over again
elicits a very certain response even if it doesn’t make sense – even if my response is out
of line with what actually happened.
Now, it made sense for the dogs to salivate when the food was presented to them, but why
the bell? Well, it’s because the dog learned an association between the bell and the
food.5 Salivating when the bell rang became a “conditioned response.”6
I have a conditioned response when my parents say my given name, “Kristin.” They don’t
remember this as well as I do, but when I was a kid they only used my given name when I
was in trouble or it was time for a serious talk. Other times they would call me adorable
nicknames like Krissy or Kiki. Now, when one of them calls me Kristin, even if it’s just
to call my name to dinner or to ask a benign question, I get a knot in my stomach. It’s
my Pavlovian knot. It’s annoying and unnecessary. It is a response that depletes me of
energy and is completely out-of-line with reality.
Is this sounding more familiar? Perhaps our spouses or our siblings or our parents
interacted with us in predictable ways that pushed our buttons. Maybe it was an odd tilt
of their head before they said something hurtful or a clearing of the throat before they
became angry or distant. These seemingly benign actions now elicit a conditioned response
in us even if the particular instance we find ourselves in is miles apart from those
situations in which the response was originally conditioned. Our minds run down that
habitual rabbit hole and we are left feeling confused because our reaction is incongruent
to what is actually occurring.
This can and does happen in situations where couples are in conflict. All of those old
behaviors, absent the original context in which the conditioned response was originally
formed, still serve as a trigger for the other party. The spouses develop a conditioned
response to certain behaviors in each other and that tape just keeps playing over and over
and over again. Ad nauseam.
Realizing what is happening is part of the battle. The mindfulness that we bring with us
into our chosen dispute resolution model, be it the collaborative divorce process,
mediation or litigation (yes, litigation is a form of dispute resolution) can make all the
difference in what we do with our initial reaction. Since we have these conditioned
responses, chances are your brain is going to fire so fast you won’t have control over
that initial response – that Pavlovian knot, if you will. It’s what we do with our
“knots” that can make or break a resolution.
When I realize this is happening to me, I turn to my breath. I allow my belly to soften
and expand. My shoulder then magically soften. As I enjoy a physical softening, I can
begin to soften around my feelings. As we hold a distressed baby softly and with
compassion, so too should we hold our emotional distress. Instead of lashing out at the
seeming perpetrator of our discomfort, thus threatening to short-circuit the resolution of
our conflict, try turning softly inward and to the breath.
When your “conditioned response knot” is triggered, please remember my blessing to you:
You have the wisdom and grace within you to know what is happening. You have the strength
within you to take the high road, to proceed forward feeling taller and more powerful
because you are in control of your reaction. You realize the resolution of your dispute
is your most important goal. And you breathe and you soften and you smile.
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1 Mcleod, S. A. (2007). Simply Psychology; Pavlov. Retrieved 19 January 2012, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html.
Kiki Grossman is a family law attorney with the Winter Garden Florida law firm of Grossman & Grossman P.A. She holds a Master of Laws degree from the #1 ranked dispute resolution program in the United States, The Straus Institute at Pepperdine University School of Law. You can learn more about Kiki by visiting the Grossman & Grossman P.A. website