I had been a communications adviser and trainer for 16 years before I decided to dramatically shift the purpose of my work and become a family and divorce mediator. You see, there’s no other place that communication acumen is as important as it is for two people who have decided, at one point in their lives, to start a family.
Communication provides tools and solutions to man-made problems that have nothing to do with IQ levels, GPAs or any other metric we have concocted to be able to assess our success on an artificial scale. Communication can resolve “incompatibility”, or differences of opinion and behavior that seem insurmountable to a couple.
Throughout the marital mediation process, the mediator is working with a couple who came very close to getting a divorce, and provides them with communication tools that teach them to relate differently to one another, changing their focus from what is lacking in their marriage, to what they can build together, by supporting each other without judgment.
Could couples change their mind about getting a divorce after being given a set of great tools which, implemented by both partners, can not only save their marriage, but also help them create a harmonious and loving relationship? Of course they can.
The marital and divorce mediator is perfectly positioned to provide those tools to the couple, as, by definition, divorce mediation is a non-adversarial process where both spouses come to sessions together, in order to reach agreement about the details of their separation, without hiring separate attorneys and go for the win-lose divorce scenario.
Teaching couples how to communicate has nothing to do with couples therapy. Communication tools are ready-to-use solutions that deal with what’s happening right now in the life of the couple, with how they behave, verbally and non-verbally, towards each other, exonerating their children, parents, parents-in-law, bosses etc. from any responsibility and placing all the power into their own hands, ready to use through the magic of the spoken word in conjunction with non-judgmental listening.
In a multiple-article series, I am writing about 11 communication tools that could help any struggling couple that is currently considering getting separated.
TOOL ONE – Put on the unbiased listening ears
We don’t probably judge anyone else as much as we judge our spouse. He or she is the person closest to us, so he or she should know who we are, how great we are and exactly what we need to be happy.
Years into a marriage, spouses wonder how come their conversations with their spouse have become logistic reports, where sporadic passion only stems at the end of a game their child’s team won that day.
So many couples get on the edge of separation because they think they “grew apart”, and that that distance cannot be abridged or totally eliminated, because it’s “too late”.
Just using THIS ONE TOOL will restore confidence in the mind of that spouse who felt her or his partner is no longer paying any attention to his or her needs. This is, in my opinion, the very first tool to always use to navigate even what seems to be a small difference of opinion over organic v supermarket-bought veggies.
This tool is not meant to get you to AGREE with your spouse, or she/he with you EVERY TIME. On the contrary, it is meant to help you find the value in your disagreements.
How do you put on your unbiased listening ears?
Imagine that your spouse opens up any subject with you, and you may already be in a bad mood from work, or feel you’d like to cut the conversation short. You see, before your spouse even opened his or her mouth to talk to you about the kids, the bills, the garage that’s cluttered, the vacation, the groceries, you have ALREADY made up your mind that you simply WON’T agree to anything he or she says, because you have your BIASED NON-LISTENING EARS on. Your biases drive you to a non-listening, judgmental state, that could never lead to creating solutions together and having harmonious, constructive conversations. Biases come from our brain anticipating situations that haven’t happened yet based on previous experiences.
In other words, you pull up your driveway after a long day’s work, and your spouse is in the garage putting things (YOUR THINGS) in trash bags. Your mind pulls up the file on last week’s exchange of not-so-nice words about the clutter in the garage, where you said you don’t have time to deal with this because you’re too busy at work, and your spouse said he or she wants to free up the garage because your son and his friends need it for band practice. So, even before your spouse opens her or his mouth in this moment’s reality, you have already decided not to listen, and just react to what was said last week.
LISTENING without biases, without immediately pulling up memories of what appears to be a similar circumstance, is key to communication. Otherwise communication would be reduced to blurting out words in constant reaction to something or someone, without EVER creating new possibilities for you or your family.
How would a marital mediator teach this tool to a couple who is considering getting a divorce?
He or she would have them play out a role where each will put on the unbiased listening ears.
To exemplify, take a look at this short script where characters Jack and Zoe switch their non-listening, judgmental mindset and put on the “magic” listening ears. The situation is very likely to happen in a divorce mediation session, as well as in the privacy of your own home:
Jack: “Once we get divorced, I am not paying any extra money on Ava’s (the teenage daughter’s) clothes, shoes, make up, bags and whatever you buy her every month! Last month it’s been $500 on the AmEx just from that store she shops from!! Let’s see how you’ll pay for that! Tell her to get a job and we’ll see how she likes to spend all HER money on that stupid stuff. And let’s just see how much she’ll like YOU when you tell her you can’t sponsor her spending indefinitely!”
Zoe: “I don’t blame her at all for deciding not to talk to you anymore. You don’t care about anything she does, you never come to her shows, you always put her down. Once we get divorced, it’s totally fine with me if you see her twice a month and pretend to care about her. She told me she can’t take the tension you’re constantly causing in the house anymore. That’s why she’s always at her friend’s house!”
Jack: “You have encouraged her to hate me. You’ve given in to everything she ever asked for, and she’s controlling you and you don’t even see it. If you think I’ll just stand by and watch how you let her ruin her life, you’re crazy. I will let you keep the house until she graduates from high-school on the condition that she spends one week with me at my mom’s house, and one week with you. I want 50%-50% custody, otherwise I am selling the house. It’s my parents’ house anyway and you would have nowhere to go.
Zoe: “Ava would never want to spend so much time with you and your mother. Imagine her trapped in that house that smells like a huge antique store, with your deaf mother who hates me and always talks about me behind my back! You can’t force her to live with you half the time and you can’t leave us homeless either. You are legally obligated to provide for both of us!”
At this point, a divorce mediator would stop the spouses from venting for too long, and remind them that the purpose of the mediation sessions is to help them navigate the process of their separation as smoothly and possible, while making the agreements acceptable for all parties involved, including teenager daughter Ava.
If they were negotiating custody, the mediator would provide the couple with possible parenting schedules, while guiding them to factor in what is best for their daughter, as well as what is financially possible.
In a marital mediation session, Jack and Zoe would agree that they want to save and heal their relationship before they definitely started the divorce process. The mediator would tell them that they would need to learn how to talk to and listen to each other, in a different way than how they had gotten used to communicating.
Zoe would learn not to immediately react to Jack’s words in the first paragraph of our role play, even though her immediate reaction, coming from all the past arguments on the same subject, would have been so easy to use. Zoe feels that Jack’s words are threatening their daughter, threatening herself, in an effort to make her feel guilty. Instead of reacting, Zoe would put on her unbiased listening ears, and acknowledge how Jack feels, after which the mediator would ask strategic questions, and then Zoe and Jack would listen to each other’s answers.
An acknowledgement is not an excuse or an explanation. Such an acknowledgement would be:
” I am very sorry you feel that Ava doesn’t like you or that she does things to hurt you. I know, despite our many arguments, that she loves us both and she is hurt by our separation. “
The marital mediator could ask a strategic question at this point, having each spouse answer and carefully listen to each other:
“What is it about Ava’s well-being that concerns you the most right now?”
By asking this question after Jack’s remarks that were meant to make Zoe feel guilty, the mediator gives each spouse the opportunity to explain their own point of view about their daughter’s behavior and needs. The spouses will have to take turns and listen to each other, while being respectful of each other’s opinion and not interrupting.
The answer to the mediator’s question could show Jack and Zoe that, in fact, they both have Ava’s best interest at heart, and, while Zoe is focusing more on helping Ava maintain a healthy and happy social life, navigating the emotional issues of the teen years, Jack is focusing more on empowering Ava to be a self-sufficient young woman.
With these two positive intentions identified as a result of non-biased, active listening, Jack and Zoe can see that they are not conflicting, but complementary, and that their different strengths, when combined, can work for the benefit of their daughter.