She had to have read a book on conflict resolution or taken a class or something. She sure knew how to use Conflict as Catalyst© for resolution. As a neutral mediator, I am often playing referee, reminding people of basic communication principles and rules. “We need to commit to not interrupting one another. You will have your turn but right now it’s your turn to listen. I’d like to ask that name-calling not be a part of our dialogue.” You get the picture. And it’s understandable. I don’t think anyone should be judged by his or her behavior in the middle of a divorce. It’s just too huge and raw and scary. No one is at his or her best.
Well maybe this woman. Her husband did not want the divorce but he was beginning to move beyond feeling broadsided and hurt, straight into angry and engaged. “If you think I’m going to settle for seeing my kids every other weekend, you got another thing coming” he blurted in our second session. He went on, talking about how important his kids were to him and that while he had worked a lot of hours before, things were different now that she was divorcing him and he wasn’t going to keep putting in those kinds of hours anymore.
I watched his wife. She was listening intently and without expression. No sighs of irritation or interruptions or change in body language. He took a breath and stopped for a moment and I was at the ready with a couple of mediator tools, but before I could intervene, his wife said, “Can I think about what you’ve said for just a moment?” He shrugged and we all waited. (Sometimes the best mediator tool is to be quiet!) She took a breath and said, “I understand how important the kids are to you. If I’m hearing you correctly, it’s also important to you to be involved in their lives when we separate and an every-other-weekend sort of schedule would not allow for that. Do I have that right?” He affirmed and then she said, “I’m feeling a little scared right now because you sound angry. Are you afraid that I don’t want you to be involved?” When he responded, yes, he was concerned about that, she went on, “I want you to know that I need us to co-parent our children into adulthood and I want for the children’s sake, and yours, for you to be very involved. I’m hoping that we can continue to use this mediation process to work together so that we don’t face years of being at odds.”
Her husband looked at her and when he next responded it was with a completely different demeanor and tone. He told his wife that he was serious about being involved but he didn’t want his anger to spill over into doing what was best for their children. They moved ahead, discussing parenting options with some care and understanding toward the other and developed a creative parenting plan.
So what just happened here? I watched this client work through the steps necessary to use Conflict as Catalyst© for resolution. I’ve talked about a couple of those steps in prior posts: building in a pause, stating objectively what you observe, without evaluation. But let me introduce you to an acronym which I find helpful when my heart starts beating faster because I’m feeling under attack and in conflict. Think of using a LENS to help remember the steps.
L First she paused, looked and listened carefully to what was being said to her. She even asked for a moment to think about it. That pause allowed her to communicate that she wanted to listen and understand so she could objectively state what she understood. “It’s important to you to be involved in the children’s lives when we separate and an every-other-weekend sort of schedule would not allow for that.” And in service of looking and listening objectively, she checked in and inquired to make sure she’d gotten it right.
E She recognized and stated her own emotions around the conflict. “I’m feeling a little scared right now because you sound angry.” And she used genuine curiosity when she asked about her husband’s emotions: “Are you afraid that I don’t want you to be involved?”
N She stated her needs. “I need us to work together and co-parent our children into adulthood.”
S Finally, she offered a possible solution. “I’m hoping that we can continue to use this mediation process to work together so that we don’t face years of being at odds.”
Unless we are intentional about our responses, most of us in conflict instantly engage in defensiveness. This wife could have as quickly said, “I’ve never kept you from the kids. You were always just too busy for them. And now you threaten me that you’re going to work less? Well, I’ve always been the parent with them before this divorce and I intend to be in the future too.” I can just tell you that the dialogue which flows after a defensive response like that is never as satisfying as this couple experienced. It just takes remembering to put on the LENS in order to see clearly.
Wishing you wisdom,
Ms. Berecz, Great article! I love the LENS acronym and how it is applicable and helpful in conflicts in the legal and non-legal arenas. Great job ! I plan to use this in my law school ADR class and maybe beyond. Thanks for the permission.
Thanks Toni. It’s been helpful to me and I’m pleased you think it might help your law school students. They are lucky to have a professor of your caliber!
One can’t help but wonder: If they can learn to dialogue this well, why couldn’t they be helped to do it within marriage?
Ahhh….64,000 dollar question! And every so often, people do pick up sufficient skills to convince them that they want to give it one more try. But it happens rarely and I always have an antennae up for that possibility. It’s also the case that sometimes, once people experience the relief of knowing their long marriage struggle is not interminable, they are able to access some kindness and charity toward one another. Again, not always the case but sometimes people just need an environment in which to tap into that. Rarely does the litigation process allow that opportunity.
Thanks for commenting!
I tend to agree with Madeline. It seems to me that it would be much more helpful for the couples to learn to talk to each other this way while they are still married and before their relationship completely breaks down. Still, getting them to talk amicably to each other following divorce is a masterful approach that certainly benefits the children. I remember one little girl in my Kindergarten class. Her father had custody, but her mother had snatched her and brought her to our area. The little girl made comments like, “I don’t know why my daddy doesn’t want me any more”, and “Mommy said Daddy doesn’t love us any more.” It wasn’t true, and all the while the father was looking for his little girl. Eventually he caught up with them and resnatched her off the playground one day. What a traumatic experience for any child to go through.
Oh how sad Jessie. It’s precisely this sort of game playing that we hope to avoid by assisting people through the collaborative process or mediation. The hope is that some level of healing can be achieved if the divorce itself is more humane and less threatening. Having divorce coaches on the team is so very valuable in being able to achieve that goal.
Regarding learning the skills during marriage, in an earlier blog [http://familyresolutions.us/2012/10/i-can-see-clearly-now-the-conflicts-gone/] I wrote, “‘If your spouse suggests that your marriage is in trouble and s/he wants to meet with a marriage counselor, GO. Do not say, “You can go if you have a problem.’” I’m hopeful that if more couples availed themselves of counseling, they’d learn these type of skills and avoid divorce altogether.
Thanks for writing.
You are all right that it doesn’t make sense that people can sometimes communicate better in the midst of a divorce than during a marriage, but being in the middle of it, it is true. And, I will be honest, it drives me CRAZY and kinda hurts. At least for us, I think communication has depended on the issue. Most of our increased communication revolves around the kids and their needs. While still difficult, it is easier because we have a mutual and vested interest in trying to do what is best for them in the middle of a trying time. In coming to this point, though, we had more than a few conversations about the issues in our marriage, and these were incredibly painful and not as accommodating to one another. I think this is largely because it involved our hurts, feelings, and fears, and it is difficult to not be defensive and self-protective. When I have had difficulty in meetings even in the collaborative process, it is largely the result of fear or uncertainty. Thankfully, there is more support for the participants in this process.
Counseling. Yes, everyone should probably go that route first, BUT it only works if the other party will attend & really work on things. Even if you ask, sometimes the answer is no. Unfortunately in Michigan, one party can get a divorce without the cooperation of the other. While I am sure that there is reasoning behind it, it does mean that some individuals end up here even if they don’t want to be. The decision then comes down to making things horribly hard out of hurt and anger or attempting to look at the broader picture. With kids involved, it really wasn’t a difficult choice even if the selfish part of me still, at points, wants to act like a brat.
Thanks for commenting “from the trenches” Sara. You are able to speak from experience and that’s powerful. I appreciate your candor and admire your commitment to your kids. It’s a pleasure working with you.
[…] in a pause when you find yourself confronted by conflict, review the LENS metaphor described at http://familyresolutions.us/2012/10/i-can-see-clearly-now-the-conflicts-gone. Commit to engaging and not simply avoiding conflict, so that your voice can be conditioned and you […]