How we speak is as important as what we say

Oct 22, 2020

As an experienced mediator, in divorce mediation I aim to promote constructive communication between the participants, in an effort to help them move toward resolution.

Effective communication can often be difficult for a divorcing couple.  It’s ironic—two people, whose marriage may be ending because they couldn’t communicate well, are now faced with the challenge of talking through the details of their divorce.

I’ve benefited over the years from hundreds of hours of continuing education. Much of that time has focused on how we, as divorce and family mediators, can help our clients to have the best possible conversations in light of the hard circumstances in which they find themselves. I’ve added many tools, and my experience in working on hundreds of cases has provided me with personal insights into what can work best to promote positive dialogue.

Here are a few suggestions to foster a more productive approach to reaching agreement:

  1. Focus not on what you want, but why.
    It’s common for a couple to take opposing positions on a topic. I describe your position as being what you want.  But there is another way of thinking, which is asking why you want this.  In addressing the “why,” you focus on the need you are trying to fill.

    For example, if Mom comes into the kitchen and sees her two daughters, Jane and Wendy, fighting over an orange, they may both tell her that they each want the orange. (This is the position or “what I want.”) If Mom asks them (like a good mediator), “Why do you want the orange?”, perhaps she will learn that Jane wants to make orange juice (Jane’s “why”) and Wendy wants the orange peel for a baking recipe (Wendy’s “why”).  When Jane and Wendy each understand the other’s needs, only then can they begin to find a way to meet both of their needs and both get what they want.

    Many marriages end because the person who feels less powerful grows tired of feeling controlled and seeks independence by leaving the marriage.

  2. Make proposals instead of demands.
    In many relationships, especially marriages, a dynamic of power evolves where one spouse exerts or seems to exert power, influence or control over the other. Many marriages end because the person who feels less powerful grows tired of feeling controlled and seeks independence by leaving the marriage.

    So imagine that you are discussing a topic that is important to both of you, and you want to share an idea. You open by saying, “I think we should…” or “I want….”  Your genuinely good idea may be heard as a demand you are making, an effort to force the other person to agree. What if, instead, you rephrase by beginning with, “I propose that ….” By shaping your statement into a proposal instead of a demand, you are inviting the other person to engage, and then she/he is less apt to feel pressured or controlled, and hopefully more open to working with you toward a solution.

  3. Transform complaints about the past and present into a constructive vision for the future.
    We all understand there are reasons why a marriage ends, and either spouse could talk at length about past incidents that have contributed to the failure of the relationship.

    When you are thinking about the future, it’s easy to reflect on the past, remembering and being affected by behaviors or actions taken by your partner that were hurtful or otherwise negative. But in planning for what your personal relationship or parenting partnership may look like in the future, it is more productive to speak about future expectations instead of past disappointments.

    For example, instead of saying, “I’m really upset because you have always discounted my opinion about the children’s extracurricular activities,” you could say, “It’s important to me that, as we parent our children in separate households, we both have an equal role in making decisions about what activities they participate in.”  Instead of your co-parent receiving accusations about past behavior (likely to cause a defensive and negative reaction), she/he will hear a genuine request about future behavior that is more likely to receive an open response.

  4. Respect boundaries by speaking only for yourself.
    In any conversation, each participant holds opinions, observations and thoughts that can be shared. For each person, that is a personal “truth.” It may not be “true” for all, but it is “true” for that person.

    In mediation, I encourage participants to see their truth as their back yard and to see the other person’s truth as that person’s back yard. I ask you to visualize a low fence between the back yards, high enough to be a boundary, low enough to allow the neighbors in their back yards to see each other and talk.

    ​When we speak for ourselves, we are speaking our truth, which is what we think and what we believe. We do this from our back yard, where we live and from a place that belongs to us. When the other person speaks, the same is true for her/him. And so it’s very important in any conversation that we avoid the urge to speak for the other person. “I know that he/she would like…”, or “she/he wants….” Once we speak for the other person, we have in essence crossed the boundary from our backyard into theirs without their permission. Crossing boundaries is a likely way to derail positive dialogue.

When you choose divorce and family mediation, you are opting into a process where a professionally trained neutral mediator will be there to help you follow suggestions like these for constructive dialogue. And you can certainly apply these to any difficult conversation on your own.